In my post A Church-less Gospel? I lamented “gospel” presentations that have little-to-no emphasis on church, the gospel community. Part of the problem we face is our cultural focus on individualism that mars a greater sense of community. We do not build biblical community because we do not truly understand and practice the ideas of community living.
The culture in which the Bible was written was a much different culture than ours. Then, others more strongly identified you with your community and your family. And it makes sense—transportation at the time was much slower and more difficult, it was harder to break out of the confines of your social class—if you were a man you most likely followed in your father’s footsteps and started learning the trade at an early age, and several generations of one family would live near each other if not with each other. In the Bible many churches are described as city-churches, likely because there was only one church per city or town.
Today our culture is much more mobile and fluid. It is no strange thing to live in one town, work in another, and go to church in a third. I once lived in a town of 100 people—we had 2 churches in town and several more nearby, there were options in even such a small community. It is not unusual to find a person who lives in a completely different state than their parents and siblings, let alone cousins and grandparents. We work long hours and when we come home, we retreat behind our walls and picket fences so much so that many might only know the names of their neighbors—if that—let alone anything about them. Church is no different. We may be familiar with a small number of people in a Sunday School or small group but by and large the corporate gathering of our so-called bodies are filled with strangers, though we might recognize their faces.
It’s funny but it’s sad…I’m a pastor and, granted on Sundays I’m dressed a little nicer and always wear my contacts, there are times I’m out in town in shorts, a hat, and wearing glasses and I will pass one of my fellow church members on the street. I’ll say “hi” and they’ll stop, look surprised, and say, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t recognize you!” Okay—but how many other 6’5 guys do you know walking around this town? But it’s sad—I can stand up, preach, shake hands, etc. and not be recognized and part of it is we don’t look long enough at a person we’re passing on the street to even know if we know them!
For us, community will be more difficult to build and by necessity take more intentionality. So what steps can we take to recapture biblical community in our churches?
First, we must reemphasize the central focus of the Lord’s Supper in our worship. We Southern Baptists tend to have a bad habit when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. Aside from our own dogmatic liturgy involving deacons and the folding of white sheets, we seem to treat the Lord’s Supper as a side note. Many of our churches only practice it once a quarter and then we tack it on to the service. We might give a quick speech about reverence and properly partaking, but then we hand out thimbles of juice and tiny bits of pre-broken bread that halfway seems designed to speed up the process. After all, we have to do this but we also still have to beat the Methodists to dinner. Okay, I’m somewhat exaggerating here, but with the way many of us typically partake, it’s a miracle that God hasn’t struck some of us dead like he did the Corinthians.
The Bible paints the Lord’s Supper as both a centerpiece of Gospel proclamation (Luke 22:14-20), and of Christian fellowship (1 Corinthians 10:14-17). In the early church the Supper was referred to as the “breaking of bread” because that was a part of the ceremony as they told the gospel story with the elements, it often accompanied a larger meal (Acts 2:46), and seems to have been practiced at least once a week—on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). So important was the fellowship of the Supper, Paul chastised the Corinthians and told them to discern the body and wait for each other when gathering to partake of it (1 Corinthians 11:27-34).
Perhaps it will help us build the fellowship of community if we bring the Supper back into the communal spirit—emphasizing the participation in the body, partaking more often, ditching the bread bits and juice shots for a loaf we actually break and a cup we actually divide, and possibly even including it as part of a larger fellowship meal.
Second, we must make time on days other than Sundays (and for some: Wednesdays) to meet with our fellow church members. Time is valuable and we’re all busy. We know the drill. We’re all like Martha (Luke 10:38-42). We’re running around doing this, that, and the other thing, and when we see our sister Mary sitting around with the other disciples and listening to Jesus, well it just makes us so frustrated! “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me!” Or maybe if that was today, “Why don’t you people get out of my way so I can get that couch clean!” Or even, “Look, I’d like to spend time with you but I got to take little Simeon to soccer practice and Sarah to ballet!”
And the Lord will answer, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Oh. So in other words, Jesus, you’re saying that many of the things we busy ourselves with and wear ourselves out doing are not as important as we think they are. Exactly.
Little Johnny getting that traveling team trophy and a scholarship to Oklahoma (the best university in the world—I’m biased) and potentially becoming one of the 0.0001% (not an actual figure, but I’d wager it’s close) who make millions each year playing professional ball—all of that is not anywhere near as important as the fellowship of the body of Christ. Working those extra hours at the office so we can impress our bosses, move up the ladder, and buy a nicer car is not anywhere near as important as spending time with Jesus.
Mary had it right: the feet of Jesus. The church is called the body of Christ—it is how Jesus still works, moves, and speaks in the world. Spending time with our fellow church members, especially as we spend time in the fellowship of the Word and prayer is spending time with Jesus. Joining together to serve others for the sake of the Gospel is spending time with Jesus and spending time acting as his body.
That’s not to say that we can’t ever work any overtime, our kids can’t play any sports, and we can’t have an evening all to ourselves but we must be in control of those things with moderation. Maybe we sacrifice a few hours of work and our kids only play fall sports instead of spring and summer sports in order that we can intentionally plan a night or two each week to get together with other church members. More than that, we mix it up and even spend time with people we don’t know as well or whose personalities are out of our comfort zone.
Finally (not really, but this is getting long, so finally for here), we find various ways to connect with other people in our church and show them we care. As part of what I do as a pastor, I divide the family units of my congregation across a 28-day calendar to pray for them, and then every other month I send a card letting them know I prayed for them and include a prayer request slip they can return to me. I do it because I love my flock and want to lift them up in prayer. But there’s no rule that says I am the only one who can do this. Any church member/family can take the most recent pictorial directory (do we still have those?) or membership list and pray through it. Then once a quarter or whatever send a card in the mail saying, “Hey, I’m so-and-so from church, just wanted to let you know that as your brother/sister in Christ I love you and am praying for you.” Yes it will cost a little money for cards and stamps, but it’s worth it!
It doesn’t even have to be a card—you can make a phone call, send a text message, or write an email of encouragement just trying to lift others up in their day. Growing up, there was an older man in my church who would call every church member (young or old) on their birthday and wish them a happy birthday—and in 31 years of life he was the only person I have ever known to do that. Why can’t more?
Check with the local policies first, but you can take your family to the nursing home and go visit the members there. If they’re able to eat them, you can even take goodie baskets along. Even the crazy talking ladies with dementia smile (and sometimes cry) when someone stops and says “hi” and asks how they’re doing. And isn’t that pure and undefiled religion—to visit orphans and widows in their affliction (James 1:27)?
Invite a widow or a family with young children over to dinner once a month. Offer babysitting services to a single parent. Take your teenage boys and go rake the leaves and clean the gutters at Old Man Wilson’s house. Do it all in the name of Jesus.
And here’s the trick: be the one to step out and do something. Serve. Don’t sit back and wait for others to serve you or for your deacons to start something. Intentionally connect with other church members as a part of what you do.