In recent years I have thought, read, prayed, preached, and talked a lot about the nature of the Gospel – its content and implications for life and ministry.
One connection that is particularly moving and challenging to me is that between the Gospel and community. My experience in church is that God-glorifying, soul-shaping community is very elusive. We simply do not see much of it. That is my experience at least. We know what it is to have friendly acquaintances. We know what it is to spend time with people we like. But does our experience within the body of Christ resemble that which is described in the church of Jerusalem in Acts two or that which seemed to exist in the church of Thessalonica? Are we connected to a community of Christ-followers who love God and His Word, pray and worship together regularly, eat together frequently, take care to watch over each other’s needs, and experience the fruit of conversion?
Titus 2:14 tells us that Jesus Christ gave himself for us “to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Commenting on those words, Sinclair Ferguson writes that “Christ wants to create ‘a people’, not merely isolated individuals who believe in him.” The church is not a club or support group that Christians join. Rather, when God saves us by His grace He also adds us to the church, His people, the body of Christ.
In their book Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis write:
“By becoming a Christian, I belong to God and I belong to my brothers and sisters. It is not that I belong to God and then make a decision to join a local church. My being in Christ means being in Christ with those others who are in Christ. This is my identity. This is our identity. To fail to live out our corporate identity in Christ is analogous to the act of adultery: we can be Christians and do it, but it’s not what Christians should do. The loyalties of the new community supersede even the loyalties of biology (Matt. 10:34-37; Mk 3:31-35; Lk 11:27-28). If the church is the body of Christ then we should not live as disembodied Christians!”
We talk a good game about community but our priorities often betray us. The fact is, community is costly. People hurt us. We get disillusioned when our brothers and sisters disappoint us. It is even worse when a pastor disappoints us. But being in community always involves sacrifice. It involves a kind of death whereby we lay down our rights for the good of others. It means we serve without demanding to be served. It means we lovingly absorb many of the hits we take along the way. Timmis and Chester write, “In our experience, people are often enthusiastic about community until it impinges on their decision-making. For all their rhetoric, they still expect to make decisions by themselves for themselves. We assume we are masters of our own lives.”
What is more, community is an essential part of our proclamation of the Gospel. Community and mission go hand-in-hand. Again, from Total Church:
“God is a missionary God and God’s primary missionary method is His covenant people…God made us as persons-in-community to be the vehicle through which He would reveal His glory…Israel’s priests represented God to the people by expounding the Law, and represented the people to God through sacrifice and intercession, so the nation as a whole has a priestly role of making God known to the nations and bringing them to the means of atonement…
“The center is no longer geographic Jerusalem. Now it is the community itself
among whom Christ promises to be present to be present (Matt 28:20). The community moves out across the globe, all the time drawing people to its Lord through its common life…
“The church, then is not something additional or optional. It is at the very heart of God’s purposes. Jesus came to create a people who would model what it means to live under His rule. It would be a glorious outpost of the kingdom of God: an embassy of heaven. This is where the world can see what it means to be truly human.
“Our identity as human beings is found in community. Our identity as Christians is found in Christ’s new community. And our mission takes place through communities of light.”