The Community of the Redeemed

Devoted to Fellowship

It seems everyone has their own ideas about church – what it is and what it should be – whether one needs to be part of a local congregation, or not. No matter the view, we all intuitively know that:

We are created and hardwired for community.

The book of Acts in the New Testament of the Bible presents Christian community as the primary means of becoming spiritually formed (Acts 2:42-47). And that community dynamic revolves around Jesus Christ. From a biblical perspective, Christians are not just any old community and not just some random benevolent organization. Christians together are the Church. They are the Community of the Redeemed, purchased from the slave market of sin with the blood of Christ, and devoted to knowing Jesus and making him known.

The early church possessed a group dynamic second to none. To be sure, they had their issues (e.g. antagonisms between Jews and Greeks, and bogus converts attracted by the power). Yet, problems are to be expected because the Light is always going to attract some bugs.

The early church consisted of new converts, having responded to the Apostle Peter’s preaching about Jesus. The transformation of these early followers of Jesus is nothing less than amazing. Many of these very same people had applauded the murder of Jesus. However, after Christ’s ascension, the people realized they were complicit in the death of Jesus and were cut to the heart and changed their minds. In a mass conversion, thousands embraced the grace of God in Christ. They quickly became a group of Christians:

Committed to learning more and more about Jesus; sharing their burdens and blessings together; enjoying communion and eating together; praying with and for each other, confessing sin and seeing new life and fresh spiritual health come in amazing ways.

Two major commitments of the new believers were the basis of the church: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship. Within that close fellowship were firm undertakings to eat and pray together. It is no wonder this curious bunch of people became noticed. After all, sharing food and providing prayer are compassionate activities. In a world starved for basic human kindness, the believers’ attention to the feelings and needs of others must have been a respite to the people around them.

Devoted to One Another

The Christians were hungry for instruction. They craved teaching and fellowship so much that they met every day. They gathered in the Jewish temple, and in homes. That reality of the church so long ago is a clue for the modern church that both large group meetings and small group gatherings are paramount for healthy spiritual growth and development. The gatherings of the early Christians were characterized by a deep engagement of Scripture with one another and of heartfelt participation in fellowship.

Mutual learning and sharing are for everyone – not just for a select few, or for extroverts.

That is why throughout the New Testament the metaphors used to describe the Church emphasize its communal nature. Church as the Body of Christ (biological metaphor), the Temple of God (building metaphor), and as the army of the Lord (battle metaphor) are all images that emphasize the redeemed community’s vital need to work, worship, and have a wide reach together. Indeed, true discipleship happens because of life together.

Metaphors are important; they pack meaning to ideas. So, it is important to be aware of church metaphors which emphasize only the individual and ignore the community. For example, imagining the church as a gas station where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low neglects the community. Get a good sermon and some energizing worship and hopefully you will make it through the week to another service without running out of gas. For other folks, the church is imagined as a movie theatre – which disregards our contribution to community. The emphasis is on a place that offers an hour of escape, and leaving your problems at the door, with the goal of coming out of church feeling better than when you came in. Or some might imagine the church as a pharmacy – a place where you can fill a prescription which will deal with your pain in a slip-in and slip-out sort of way. Others might opt for imagining the church as a big box retailer – a place that “offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family,” along with a marketing model of evangelism: “Come to our church; we offer great service and great programs at a great low price.”

Please, don’t hear what I’m not saying. The church, without question, ought to serve and meet individual needs. And there are times and seasons of life when all an individual can do is consider their own spiritual and emotional health. The problem arises when we only ever function as independent persons who have no intention of being interdependent with others through living the Christian life together. The early church was faithful to learning the Word of God together. They committed themselves to fellowship with one another. They practiced hospitality. The new Christians prayed with each other every day.

The early church’s teachable spirit along with an emphasis on fellowship brought amazing results. Everyone was filled with awe of God. Everyone saw and experienced miraculous events. Everyone looked out for the common good of all. Everyone was glad and content with their simplicity of life. Everyone praised God. Everyone enjoyed the favor of the non-Christians around them. And, all this behavior brought numerous people to faith. This was a group who demonstrated deliverance from empty lives and presented an alternative way to live – a life filled with receiving grace and giving grace to others.

Stained Glass Window

To have that kind of group dynamic, the path the church took was a dedication to Holy Scripture and Christian community every day! Indeed, for healthy churches everywhere, and in all times, congregations continually exhibited courage and vulnerability. The word “fellowship” in Scripture (κοινωνία – pronounced “coin-o-nee-a”) literally means to be “yoked together.” Just as two oxen in a yoke must work together and plod forward being mindful of each other’s steps, so Christians have the invitation to yoke with Jesus and learn from him. Gentleness and humility are sorely needed in this polarized and often petty world we live in. So, the loving participation of fellowship is more than important and influential – it is vital and urgent.

The earliest Christians are portrayed as a group of people who intensely desired the apostles’ teaching and could not get enough of sharing life together as followers of Jesus. They were such curious learners and had such a depth of love and concern for one another that the poor among them knew no shame, and the rich knew no pride. It was a community where the uneducated felt open and free to discover more about Jesus, and the leadership graciously and humbly gave instruction that they had gained from being with Christ.

The type of community life which the early church had might seem to be an ideal which is not possible today. I wholeheartedly disagree. Because I myself have experienced such a group dynamic in my own life. In my college days there were dozens of us who became Christians in a short period of time, much like in the book of Acts. We were a rag-tag group of new believers who deeply hungered for spiritual food and craved the fellowship of one another. We met every day in dorm rooms and cafeterias, at the student union and in the library, and even sometimes in off-campus bars.

Everything we had we shared with each other – both our possessions as well as our hearts and lives.

And there was a solid two year stretch in which the Lord added to our numbers daily those who were being saved. We were attached to our Bibles as if they were a fifth appendage on our bodies. There was no separating us from each other. We needed one another’s Christian fellowship and spiritual support every day. In fact, we needed one another so much that we all ended up marrying each other so that the fellowship did not end.

Oh, my friends, how much we need one another! How much this old fallen world needs a yoke that is gentle, kind, gracious, and loving! Christian disciples are formed and shaped in the context of community. The collective conversations of our experiences and insights; the use of our hands and feet to work together; and, the sharing of our resources and of our time are all necessary for becoming spiritually mature in Christ and blessing the world. Confidence is gained through practice, and the spiritual practice of community is what’s needed.

May the group dynamic and the results of those earliest believers so long ago be our communal experience, as well, as we devote ourselves to the teaching and to the fellowship.

The Theological Thespian

 
           Every one of us has experienced the awkward times of sitting through a boring preacher, a monotone teacher, and/or a pasty looking person leading a ministry with about as much life in him as a bowling ball.  Yes, God’s Word is always relevant no matter how it is presented.  But that doesn’t mean it has to always feel like eating rice cakes and brussel sprouts.  The Word of God ought to be presented in the life and power of the Holy Spirit and with a great deal of flavor!  Ministry done with some attention to the ministered will have a winsome and gracious tone about it that is attractive. 
 
This is where we could take a lesson or two from the world of actors.  The ability to connect well with an audience; showing emotion and empathy; and, exhibiting confidence are just a few ways where church leaders and ministers can take the sacred Scripture text and communicate it with all the gusto of an actor – to be a kind of theological thespian who is concerned not just to know the Bible, but to communicate it in a riveting manner that displays all of its timeless message.  For the Word of God is really a divine drama, an unfolding production of redemption.  And we are to be the divine dramatists who proclaim the creation, fall, redemption, and new creation of God’s tremendous work in the world.
 
We are, therefore, to be mindful and present both to the text of Scripture and the congregation who we serve.  The ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others in order to demonstrate a resonance with God’s Word and Christ’s ways needs to be established so that parishioners can walk away taught and inspired toward a more biblical path to live their daily lives.  But sometimes fear can get in the way, keeping us from being confident in what we are doing – fear of failure; fear of what others might think; fear of being hurt emotionally; fear of not being good enough.  Yet, if we focus more on our identity and security in Christ and less on our abilities or lack thereof, then we can step boldly into ministry to others using various means at our disposal to express ourselves dynamically as we present God’s Word.
 
Maybe this all sounds a bit contrived.  But consider the Old Testament prophets.  They were filled with pathos.  They did anything but simply say God’s message – they proclaimed with incredible passion and sometimes even with arresting object lessons and shocking word pictures.  Whether it was Ezekiel lying on his side for 390 days to symbolize the upcoming siege of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4); Jeremiah putting a linen belt around his waist to communicate the worthless pride of the people (Jeremiah 13:1-11); or, Elijah on Mount Carmel taking on the prophets of Baal with physical altars and speeches of sarcasm (1 Kings 18:16-39); God’s messengers have always communicated their given message with the same tools used by actors in order to bring that vital Word to people in the power and pathos of the Holy Spirit so that it is believed and obeyed.
 
There are a few simple ways we can develop this ability to communicate a bit further.  If you have children or grandchildren, read to them.  Take on a unique voice for each character.  Read the story with emotion and enthusiasm – even if it does not feel natural to you.  Picture immersing yourself in the characters of the book as if you were them, and let the words flow through that grid.  If there are no kids around your house, volunteer to read in a church Sunday School class, or even at the local elementary school (which, I guarantee, are always on the lookout for those who will come to a class and read).
 
Another way, similar to reading to kids, is to begin always reading Scripture aloud with the same attention to character, voice, and situation.  Read a particular text over several times in different translations, playing with different tones of voice and various emphases on words.  After a few weeks of doing this, it will begin to become part of you.
 

 

Other suggestions are:  taking an improvisation class; reading a biography or, better, an autobiography of a favorite actor; and/or actually re-creating some of the object lessons in the prophetic books of the Bible for your ministry.  Whatever it is you choose to do, be intentional about the development of connecting the biblical text to people.  It is an endeavor you will be glad you invested in, with eternal results.

Teaching and the Tongue

 
 
            The most important tool any teacher, preacher, or church member has in their box is the tongue.  It is the chief implement for speaking encouragement, catechizing students, preaching the Word, as well as in informal conversations when giving advice or counsel.  The tongue is powerful.  Since it carries so much might, the tongue is a tool which is to be holy and set apart for God’s use. 
 
            Untruthful, unproductive, negative, and sinful words are not meant for the Christian’s tongue any more than an electric razor is meant to shave one’s tongue.  Our words and our speech are meant to be used in such a way as to build up the Body of Christ and bless the world.  Therefore we need to be quite careful about what and why words come out of our mouths.
 
            In the Greek and Roman society of which the church was founded within, philosophers and persons adept at rhetoric and speech were the celebrities and mega-stars of the ancient world.  People didn’t watch TV, listen to talk radio, or go to movies.  For entertainment as well as education they went to the town square and listened to those trained to speak talk about the latest ideas and often debate with one another. 
 
            What is more, the early church grew out of a synagogue tradition in which rabbis (the Hebrew word for “teacher”) were highly respected figures.  In addition, the way early believers did church gatherings was an open discussion forum where people gave a word of encouragement, exposition, or exhortation.
 
            In our world, ambitious young people move to LA or New York and wait tables in order to work on getting their dream job in the theater or in the move business.  In the ancient world, young people dreamed of moving to cities like Athens or Rome in order to try and become a student of a great teacher and be a famous philosopher and rhetorician.  This is why the Apostle James gave a warning about not rushing into the role of becoming a teacher (James 3:1-2).  Teachers were highly respected individuals, wielding much power, and made the most money in the ancient world.
 
            The role of teacher tended to attract people with the desire to become wealthy and influential.  Pride and ambition were the twin sins always crouching at the door of the church teacher.  The danger with talking, no matter if it is in a formal setting or informal gathering, as fallen people we have a tendency to be slow to listen, and quick to give advice and counsel.  In other words, we too often run into a teaching role without considering what we are really doing.  A fool in the role of teacher is both dangerous and damaging because they delight in airing their own opinions and disdain listening to others.  The more that we listen to ourselves talk, the less we are able to be taught from someone else.
 
            A teacher who does not have a teachable-spirit has no business being a teacher and they must keep their mouths shut (at least for a while) and take a humble position of listening and learning.  Teachers need to teach for the right reasons – to provide sound instruction, offer wise counsel, and build up others.
 
Your tongue is a precious gift from God to be used with a great amount of discretion.  You have in your mouth the power of life and death – the power to promote life and influence others in a godly direction; to build up others according to their needs; and, to nurture others with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.  No one ought ever to walk away from our fellowships discouraged and beat down from rancorous tongues that lacked mercy.
 

 

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:15-17).  Amen, and amen.

Learning and Teaching God’s Word

Christians often refer to the Bible as God’s Word.  By that reference we mean that God has graciously revealed himself to us through this Book, the Holy Scriptures.  The ancient Hebrews referred to the first five books of the Old Testament as the Law of the Lord or the Torah.  The Jewish people understood God as a great, high and holy Being who graciously accommodated or communicated to us on our level by giving the Law.  Just as a parent coos and babbles and speaks in a very different way to a baby in a crib, so God speaks to us in a manner that we can understand his care and concern and love for us.  Just as an infant can in no way understand an adult conversation taking place, so God is a being well above our comprehension and we have no ability to understand anything he says unless he graciously and lovingly bends down to speak to us on our level.
 
            God’s Law, his Torah, was the curriculum for Israel’s religious instruction.  The law of the Lord is meant to be a behavior pattern, to be embodied in the lives of God’s people through both teachers and parents who learn God’s Word and, in turn, pass it along to children and others outside the faith so as to provide our guide for how to live in God’s world.  God’s law is an extension of God’s grace, and we are to gratefully accept the grace of God expressed in God’s Word.  We are to ingest it, eat it, reflect on it, dwell with it in order to know God and be the people God wants us to be.
 
            There are several other Hebrew words that come from this root word of law, Torah, in the Hebrew language.  A teacher is a “moreh.”  A parent is a “horeh.”  Parents and teachers are to be living guides in the way of God’s Word.  The Hebrew word for teaching is “yarah.”  In other words, the moreh’s and the horeh’s are to yarah the Torah.  Parents and teachers are to point and lead others into the ways of the Lord.  The fifth book of the Law, Deuteronomy, makes it clear how parents, mentors, teachers, and influencers are to pass on God’s Word:
 
Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the LORD is one.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, NIV).
 
 
 
            In other words, God’s Law or God’s Word is to be as familiar to us as our back door and it is to be in front of us all the time.  Let me put this Deuteronomy passage in a modern spin to help us understand a bit better what our privilege is when it comes to God’s Word:
 
Attention, Church!  God, our God! God the one and only!  Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that is in you; love him with all you’ve got!  Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children.  In order to do this, talk about God’s Word at home when you are eating supper together and when you are working or playing with each other.  Start your day with God’s Word when you get up, and end your day with God’s Word when you go to bed at night.  Put God’s Word on your refrigerator and your car’s dashboard; have it on your smartphones and let it be available to you anywhere and anytime.  Use every opportunity you have to incessantly chatter about God’s Holy Word.
 
            Someone may say, “That’s pretty radical – I don’t need to do all that!”  Then I would say you are missing out on living a blessed life because people are blessed when they walk according to God’s Word and keep God’s Law in front of them and seek God through his Word with all their heart. 
 
            Eleanor Turnbull, a veteran missionary to Haiti, collected and translated some simple but powerful prayers of the Christians who live in the Haitian mountains. Here are four prayers that they pray every day.  Take note of their high view of God, and their longing to know God’s Word:  “Our Great Physician, Your word is like alcohol.  When poured on an infected wound, it burns and stings, but only then can it kill germs.  If it doesn’t burn, it doesn’t do any good.”  “Father, we are all hungry baby birds this morning.  Our heart-mouths are gaping wide, waiting for you to fill us.”  “Father, a cold wind seems to have chilled us.  Wrap us in the blanket of your Word and warm us up.”  “Lord, we find your Word like cabbage.  As we pull down the leaves, we get closer to the heart.  And as we get closer to the heart, it is sweeter.”
 

 

            Let’s not be so busy, pre-occupied, or worried that we push God’s Word to the margins of our lives as only a Sunday activity.  Let’s take the time to carefully look at it and let God speak to us through it. Let’s be intentional about connecting with the God who has so graciously given us his guide for grateful living.  Let’s lay solid plans to catechize people into the basics of faith and holy living in the church.  May your efforts both honor God and build up Christ’s church.