The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Shrinking Congregations, Part 4 (Community)

cooperation.jpgAlan Rouse noted in an earlier comment that congregations won’t lose members if the congregation is a genuine community. I agree. Community is a critically important part of the Kingdom. I’d just want to emphasize that the way we do community matters — a lot. And we often do it wrong. Let me explain.

Let’s go back to 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. had just led a march in Birmingham, Alabama calling for racial equality, only to find himself arrested and in jail. He was severely disappointed that the Birmingham churches had largely refused to assist him, despite the clear teachings of scripture in support of the equality of men regardless of race.

He wrote

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?

Powerful stuff. King’s writing speaks us today with remarkable freshness.

Now notice the warning. If we aren’t willing to sacrifice to end evil, we are merely an “irrelevant social club.” Community is Biblical and necessary. But how do we keep our fellowship from being nothing but a social club?

There was a time when I thought the church avoided social club status by practicing 5 acts of worship and sound congregational organization. But God’s mission is far bigger than 10:00 on Sunday morning. Indeed, it’s exactly that kind of thinking that makes the church inauthentic and irrelevant — defining ourselves in terms of sound doctrine (orthodoxy) rather than sound practice (orthopraxy).

I have this crazy theory. I think we build community by doing God’s work together. I’m all for fellowships, especially fellowships with food. We need them. We even need fellowships that are just for the sake of fellowship, to help our members make friends and connect. But fellowships don’t create fellowship. Working together creates fellowship.

In the Greek, “fellowship” is koinonia, which doesn’t mean “party” or “covered-dish meal,” but rather partnership, sharing, having things in common, and community. And so for you and me to form a “fellowship” we need to have more in common than we met at a party or even than we worship in the same building together at the same time.

(Eph 4:11-13)  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Notice the language: “God’s people” (“saints” or “holy ones” would be more literal), “body of Christ,” “all reach unity.” The theme of the passage is unity as a single body. This of course shortly follows the 7 ones listed earlier in the chapter: faith and hope, Father, Son, and Spirit, body and baptism. It’s all about unity.

The path to unity — oneness — is for the church’s leaders to prepare Christians for “works of service.” And doing this will somehow build up the body and allow all Christians to attain “unity in the faith,” knowledge of Jesus, maturity, and the “fullness of Christ.”

We normally try to produce unity and maturity through doctrinal instruction and lessons on individual spiritual formation. And I wouldn’t disparage these good and necessary things. But Paul sees works of service as the key. Unity, maturity, and even knowledge of Jesus comes from works of service.

This language harkens back to the great passage on grace —

(Eph 2:8-10)  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

“Prepared in advance” refers back to the discussion of chapter 1 of God’s cosmic plan being worked out through Jesus. The plan made before the creation of time was for God’s people, redeemed by the death of Jesus, to do good works.

The culmination of chapter 4 is —

(Eph 4:16)  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

What makes us grow? Love. To what purpose? To do work — which is, of course, the “good works” of 2:10 and the “works of service” of 4:12.

Now go back to 4:11-12. The logical flow is: equipping for works => body built up => unity and maturity. We tend to see works as the product of great spiritual maturity, but here we see maturity as the product of works. And it makes sense. Christian works don’t require 7 years of higher education and 50 years of Sunday school class. I mean, who can’t cut grass for a homebound paraplegic? Or pray with a homeless man?

As we — together — get involved in the lives of those in need, we make real friends — friends who share our values and experiences — and true unity results. We aren’t united because we agree on how to run church. We become united because we are working side by side to accomplish the same thing. And this is how the deepest, longest lasting friendships are made.

Now, I don’t doubt that we can build relationships without serving others together. We can and we do. It’s just that we’d build even better relationships through sharing a task too big for any one of us. And this is the kind of relationship that helps us truly know Jesus and enjoy his fullness.

4:13 promises us “knowledge of the Son of God.” This doesn’t mean “knowledge from the Son of God.” Rather, as we walk as Jesus walked and show compassion as Jesus did, we begin to understand him far beyond book knowledge. I mean, if you want to know a blind man, live without eyesight. If you want to know someone who emptied himself so he could serve people who don’t deserve it, do the same.

Now … imagine a congregation filled with people like that! What unity there’d be! What community! I mean, imagine a congregation that has “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” And that is how it’s supposed to be.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Shrinking Congregations, Part 4 (Community)

  1. Joe Baggett says:

    This is true to certain point, however good community cannot make up for poor theology. True community like the scripture speaks of and was inherent to early Christians is very rare in the average American church of Christ. They are demographically disproportionate to the surrounding demographics. Token integration has come to pass in a few of our congregations. Just because two different people sit in the pews together does not mean there is community. A good way to tell with whom you have community is who you are willing to have over to your house for dinner.

  2. Alan says:

    Jay, like Joe, I agree to a point. I'm not convinced that the primary "works" Paul had in mind were cutting grass and helping homeless people. Immediately after the passage you quoted, he says "So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do." He admonished them to put off the old self, corrupted by deceitful desires, and put on the new self, characterized by righteousness and holiness. He called them to tell the truth, not to steal, to control their speech, to get rid of bitterness, anger, rage… He goes on in chapters 5 and 6 teaching them how to live holy and godly lives. In the parallel section of Colossians, he tells them to " Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom…" I think that is a big part of what he meant in Ephesians when he said that the body would build itself up in love, as each part does its work. A primary part of that work is admonishing one another to live holy and godly lives.

    I absolutely agree that we should be demonstrating love toward outsiders, and that we can do that together, and that doing so has positive effects on our spiritual growth. I just don't think that is primarily what Paul was talking about in both Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4. Our first responsibility is toward the believers. We should do good to all people, but especially to the household of believers (Gal 6:10). And the good that we are to do includes meeting spiritual needs. The church will not grow up into the image of Christ without that.

  3. We learn by doing.

    We learn about Jesus by doing what He did. We also teach others about Jesus by doing what He did.

    I have no quibble with your "crazy idea," Jay. In fact, I share it!

  4. Another way of seeing this issue is to note that we often may community, or "church", a goal in and of itself. When it is more effectively the natural result of people who are devoted to living and loving as Jesus did.

    We have put the proverbial cart, before the horse.

  5. You mean its not about doctrine, and greek tenses and such like? Amazing…..

  6. Jim K. says:

    Seems to me that we spend too much time talking about it, and not nearly enough time doin it. We tend to stand around and argue among ourselves about theology, this, that, and the whole world continues downward in a death spiral. We seem to be happy just to be included on that trip……

    ML King was right in what he said about the churches. It was true then and it is true now. Today we still stand around and talk about how the Govt. has taken prayer out of schools, curriculum that is bad for our kids, how we cant talk about God in the church building because were "afraid" of our tax exemption!!! God have mercy on all of us for our complacent attitudes and lack of activity. Talking the talk and NOT walking the walk.

    now while were all standing on the sidelines and watching the game take place in the arena, let me ask, "what are we going to do about it?"

    Social activist, community involved, voicing our bible based opinions, reaching out and touching others for Christ, teaching others, working side by side with those in the community – all in the spirit of love for our brothers and sisters…… Wouldnt that be Christ? Wouldnt that be Community? Working to bring as many as we can to Christ? Working to change our community, city, state, and country to be more Christlike? Wouldnt that be the correct "theology"?

    What are we going to do about this? My mother is 83 and unfortunately cannot do much these days, she can talk, but can't do a lot. What about us?

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