- Do your gatherings facilitate the kind of community God desires for the Church?
- How can a Church experience deep community with only two gatherings a week?
- Use this article for discussion with your leadership team.
Exhibit A – Millersville Bible Church
Like many churches, our weekly meetings are on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. The primary purpose of these gatherings is teaching. Corporate worship on Sunday mornings involves worship in singing, praying, giving, and about 40 minutes in the Word. Proclamation of the truth of Scripture through preaching has always been a hallmark of our ministry. God has used it in powerful ways to change many lives. Many people who would never have participated in a small group have found an opportunity to connect with God in a larger and less threatening gathering. Many of these people join groups after experiencing spiritual transformation in the larger gathering.
During our Sunday school hour, we encourage teachers to allow 15 minutes for fellowship before starting with their structured time. Due to the size of our adult classes and facility limitations, these times are also mainly instructional. This affords an opportunity for those with teaching gifts to serve the Church family but does not allow for much interaction among those gathered.
Our Wednesday evening gatherings provide ministry for the whole family with children and youth gatherings, and small groups for adults. We ask those who lead Wednesday groups to use the time for relationship building centered in biblical truth. Recently we added a Wednesday group we call “Merge.” This is a place for new people to begin to build relationships. The study focus for this group is discussion of the sermon from the previous Sunday. The group immediately grew beyond most definitions of a small group. We desire to expand this concept but realize that the key to effective groups is leadership. Without good leadership, you run the risk of a serendipitous approach of collective ignorance with the hope of arriving at truth! We cannot compromise on choosing leaders.
So our Church structure allows for approximately 3-4 hours of contact each week. Of that time, only about 1-½ hours allows for meaningful interaction (and this is often limited based on group size). The question raised by this is how we could build true biblical fellowship (of the kind depicted in the New Testament) with such limited time together.
Recently our leadership team concluded that we have about 600 people attending our Church. Two years ago, we started a Sunday School class for newly married couples with about 8 couples. We were just informed that the class now has 50 couples on its roster. This kind of growth makes it even more challenging to experience community.
The nagging question is whether our formal structure is adequate for living out the biblical purposes of the Church? If we hope to follow the pattern that emerges consistently from the New Testament, two meeting times (with our current purposes) will not be adequate. So what should we do?
Before answering this question, consider the pattern for Christian community God desires for local Churches.
A helpful indicator of the nature of community for the early Church is found in what we call the “one-anothers.” These are direct exhortations about how Christians in community should relate to each other. As you look over the list below, ask yourself what they imply about the expected nature of relationships in the Church:
- Accept one another (Rom 15:7)
- Carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)
- Have equal concern for each other (1 Cor. 12:25)
- Watch out for one another (Heb. 3:12-13)
- Encourage one another (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:25)
- Live in harmony with one another (1 Pet. 3:8)
- Confess your sins to each other (Jas. 5:16)
- Be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10)
- Edify one another (Rom. 14:19; 1 Thess. 5:11)
- Consider others better than yourselves (Phil. 2:3)
- Bear with one another (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13)
- Forgive each other (Eph. 4:32)
- Honor one another (Rom. 12:10)
- Offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet. 4:9)
- Be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph. 4:32)
- Live in harmony toward one another (Rom. 12:16; 15:5)
- Love one another (John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17; Rom. 13:8)
- Be members of one body (Rom. 12:5; Eph. 4:25)
- Be at peace with each other (Mark 9:50; Eph. 4:3)
- Pray for each other (Jas. 5:16)
- Serve one another (Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 4:10)
- Spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24)
- Submit to one another (Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5)
- Teach one another (Col. 3:16)
Based on this list, believers were/are intended to have deeply meaningful interaction of life with one another. This is not a picture of superficial or casual engagement. It depicts life-together in mutual love, honor, unity, service and accountability (see also: 37 ways to Love One another).
The New Testament vision for local Church community is significant interdependence and loving inter-accountability among a group of Christ-followers who are under the pastoral oversight of elders.
- How can a group experience this kind of community with the limited structures of most Churches?
- Should we add more meetings to the weekly program of the Church?
- How many people in Western cultures like the idea of adding more meetings to their crowded lives?
- Is it possible that we are approaching the subject as consumers rather than participants?
Perhaps our tendency to look to structure for cultivating biblical community is an outgrowth of a consumer mentality. When we approach Church as a place that offers a product for us to enjoy, we’ll be less likely to see it as our individual responsibility to live out biblical community. But is an apparent inadequacy of Church structure an adequate excuse for living independent, self-sufficient lives of superficial connection with other followers of Christ? We are wise to confront our tendency to accept excuses and to find blame outside of ourselves. Be careful not to whine about “not experiencing community” as if it’s someone else’s fault. God called each of us to live in community and we don’t have to wait for someone else to make it possible. You don’t always need a structure to experience community.
Structure vs. spontaneous
The Church is an organism not just an organization. This truth should caution against overly structuring the life of a body of believers. As an organism, the spiritual life or life generated by the Holy Spirit should lead to spontaneous ministries of the Spirit among Christians. The Church is the habitation of the Spirit of God as he gives life, indwells, baptizes, seals, fills and gifts each individual member of the Church (Rom. 8:9; I Cor. 6:19-20; II Cor. 1:21-22 I Cor. 12:3; Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 5:18-21). Experience of the ministry of the Spirit is both a structured and spontaneous reality. I am continuously learning about connections people are making with each other and ministries occurring that were not organized and structured by the Church. (Is it possible to stifle the ministry of the Spirit with too much structure? Is it possible to hinder the ministry of the Spirit by lack of organization and structure? (see: I Co. 14:26-33) Is it possible to overly depend on structures to accomplish the ministry of the Spirit?)
Connecting points for deeper community
Perhaps the formal gatherings should be understood as important times of corporate worship and instruction where believers connect with each other and carry those connections into the rest of life. Instead of placing the burden for the fullness of life together on formal gatherings, the rest of church life (as depicted in the New Testament) should be taught as the call of Christ for people to obey. Mutual caring and accountability does not necessitate being in Church buildings. Nor does it necessitate structured contact through programs.
Shepherds, sheep and community
Why does the New Testament speak of leadership as the work of shepherds? A pastor is a shepherd. He is one of the elders of the Church but each elder must be committed to shepherd the flock (local Church). This implies that like sheep, the people need, among other things, direction, guidance and protection. They need leadership.
- What is the role of leadership in building and maintaining strong biblical community in the Church?
- What does the shepherd/sheep analogy say about cultivating biblical community? (see: Acts 20:17, 28-32; I Peter 5:1-4)
- When we compare Hebrews 3:12-13 with 13:17, what does it teach us about community?
- How have the following three realities affected community among believers? Affluence, Mobility and Technology
Various groups within the Church
The apostle Paul gave specific instructions to various groups within churches (see list below). What was the context for living out those instructions? Since they didn’t have Church buildings at the time, the context had to be based in homes and communities. Although we are culturally removed, how should this reality influence our thinking about Church life?
- Women (I Tim 2:9-15)
- widows (I Timothy 5:3-13)
- Children of widows (I Tim 5:16)
- Young women (I Ti 5:14;Ti. 2:4-5)
- Older women (Titus 2:3-5)
- Young men (Titus 2:6-8 )
- Older men (Titus 2:2)
- The rich (I Timothy 6:17-19)
- The poor (James 1:9-11)
Two final considerations: Culture and Family
- Culture –To what extent is culture a consideration for Church structure and ministry? Did the culture of the people in the first century better facilitate community? Western culture with its emphasis on individualism, privacy, self-indulgent capitalism and entitlement presents unique challenges for building biblical community. How can the Church be counter-cultural to these community-destroying tendencies?
- Family –To what extent does the pervasive breakdown of family affect expectations for community from the Church? How can the local Church fill the gap and meet the needs that God intended to be supplied through family structures? Do we need more older people with a vision for being spiritual fathers and mothers? What doe the following passage contribute to this concern?
“But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. …If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.” (I Timothy 5:4,16)