In college I worked as waiter for the four-star restaurant chain known as Ruby Tuesdays. Our particular restaurant was located in a movie theater, which meant we often had groups of teenagers come in for dinner prior to seeing their movie together. One night I was sat with a large table of teens who proceeded to talk very loudly about their plans for the evening. Each of them began to compare how much money their parents had given them, and they began to evaluate how much money each of them had for food, tickets, and snacks.
It was clear to me as this conversation went along that one very important factor had been left out of the equation: tip. Sure enough when I went over to collect the bill, pennies were left on the table for me. They had used their resources to maximize pleasure for self without giving any thought to others.
Isn’t this how many of us tend to view our time, resources, and energy? In our hyper-individualistic age, we maximize what we have for ourselves, leaving little of behind to give to others. As a result, the communities all around us – even in our churches – are fracturing and collapsing.
If we are going to be those who receive the church community as a gift and properly devote ourselves to its care and growth, then we are also going to need to remember the purposes of the community that God has called us into.
Community Exists for the Good of the Saints
Christians need each other. At minimum, we need each other to be obedient to the Scriptures. There are at least 59 “one another” commands in the New Testament, all of which deal with how we love and care for other Christians.
God has gifted each of us with resources, time, energy, and gifts, and they are not just for us. They are to be given freely and generously to others.
But this goes far beyond an issue of obedience. If you haven’t reached a point where you’ve needed another Christian to help you through a dark time in your life, you will. But even more than that – others need you! In the early church we read of how Christians sold their possessions and belongings so that the needs of others were met (Acts 2:42-47). We’re even told of people who were willing to sell their houses and land to care for the needs of the Christians among them (Acts 4:32-37)!
God has gifted each of us with resources, time, energy, and gifts, and they are not just for us. They are to be given freely and generously to others. When we withhold ourselves from the community of God’s people it is not only a detriment to yourself but also to others.
We could press this point even deeper. You need other Christians (and they need you!) not only for physical needs but also for spiritual growth (Ephesians 4:15-16, Hebrews 10:23-25, etc.).
It’s easy to be a saint in isolation isn’t it?
Have you ever noticed how patient you are – as long as no one else is around? Or how loving you are – as long as you’re around easy people who are like you? Or how humble you are – as long as you’re only with people who respect you? It’s easy to be a saint in isolation isn’t it? It is in community where our sins and flaws are exposed, and this is what makes community most essential for us! If we are going to become like Christ, it has to happen in community.
Community Exists for the Good of All
We are often instructed in the Bible to be well-thought of by outsiders (Colossians 4:5-6, 1 Peter 2:11-12). In Acts 2:47, we see an example of this actually happening! We know that Christians in the early church were often persecuted or targeted for their faith. But what we discover in Acts is that those who were impacted by local churches – likely those who lived in the neighborhoods where churches gathered – thought highly of Christians. As they felt the immediate effects of neighborliness from the churches, their affection for the Christian community grew.
We must disciple one another to grow while at the same time instilling in one another a relentless drive to move the gospel outward into the surrounding local community.
The Bible does not present us with the option of building community that is either just for discipling Christians or just for outreach. 20th Century American Evangelicalism has produced churches that greatly emphasize one over the other. Today we often find discipleship churches with strong teaching that are weak in outreach, or evangelism churches that are “seeker-sensitive” but weak in deepening the faith of existing Christians. Both extremes are wrong.
In his book On the Block, PCA pastor Doug Logan reminds us that a biblical informed and Christ-honoring mission must find a third way to bring these two extremes together. We must disciple one another to grow while at the same time instilling in one another a relentless drive to move the gospel outward into the surrounding local community.
The early Christians would’ve thought it impossible to choose between the two. Their faith would not have allowed it! In his books The Rise of Early Christianity and The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark compiles very compelling research to show how and why people converted to Christianity in the first few centuries of the church. It primarily happened through the church expanding their social networks with non-Christians. In other words, non-Christians came into contact with the Christian community, made relationships with Christians, saw Christianity lived out in front of them, and then embraced the message of the gospel. This is the only way it would’ve been plausible for people to leave behind their existing pagan social networks for a new Christian one.
This social networking happened in at least two primary ways. First, through the care of women. Christianity was very good for women. Greco-Roman culture treated women like second-class citizens. Infants were often left to die, and it was female infants were much more likely to be discarded than male infants. Girls were often married before puberty, husbands saw no moral issue with having affairs, and widows were often left uncared for.
In contrast, Christians forbid infanticide, adopted unwanted infants, were much more likely to forbid marriage until after the age of 18, and cared for widows in the hundreds. We know that by the year 250 the church in Rome – which was roughly 30,000 people – was caring for as many as 1,500 displaced widows. As a result, it was the network and care of Christian women who drew other women to the faith, which eventually led to the conversions of husbands and households. This is also likely how Christianity penetrated the elite tiers of society.
The second way pagans came into contact with the Christian community was through their works of mercy and relief. There were at least two major plagues that swept through the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries. When they hit, pagan physicians and priests abandoned their people and fled to the countryside. Records from that time indicate it was no use to go to the pagan temples for prayer or relief because there were no priests to be found to offer prayers.
Are our neighborhoods better because we live in them? Are the neighborhoods where our church groups meet better because we gather there?
But do you know who stayed behind and nursed their pagan neighbors back to health? The Christians! Toward the end of the second plague, the bishop of Alexandria wrote, “Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.” The response of these early Christians had everything to do with their faith. Pagan religion had no concept of a god who cares for the affairs of people, nor any promise of a meaningful life in eternity. Christianity taught that there is a God who cares about our lives, who cares about how we treat one another, and it is possible to receive the gift of eternal life to live with him.
Their faith transformed the way they treated their neighbor, Christians and non-Christian alike. Has ours? Are our neighborhoods better because we live in them? Are the neighborhoods where our church groups meet better because we gather there?
The evangelistic plan for the local church is their life together and love for each other being put on display for the world to see (John 13:31-35). There’s nothing wrong with outreach and evangelistic programs. But if a church relies on a program first before they mobilize the life of their people on mission together, it would be like your company outsourcing its most important work to consultants.
Our task is to build community that is good for the saints and good for all people at the same time.
Community Exists for the Glory of God
The ultimate goal of our life together is for the glory of God. We are sent out into the world to display God’s glory throughout our neighborhoods and our cities. The world will know we belong to Jesus by how we love one another (John 13:35), they’ll see our life together and glorify God when he returns (1 Peter 2:12).
In a world where loneliness and hopelessness are epidemics, where neighborhoods and relationships are collapsing, where hatred and bitterness toward “the other” seems to be normal – what greater purpose could we have?
What a gift.