For many, the word "church" evokes negative images. As an institution it is seen to be cumbersome rather than nimble. After all the sex scandals in the news, church is perceived as harbouring potentially dangerous people. Many would say, church (Sunday worship) is boring and mundane. Of course these are not the only images: others think of particular people who embrace them with love, a sense of home, or a deep sense of comfort. The word "church" is layered with our experience for good and ill. Interestingly, the first thought doesn’t turn to the guidance that Christ provides.
Yet Christ has chosen to continue the work out salvation in this world in and through the community called church. When Jesus guides us, we can be fairly certain that the body of Christ will be part of the plan. His guidance seldom leads us to isolate ourselves, except perhaps for a time of prayer. More often Christ calls us to serve in the context of community. The church is not a place where I get a service, it is a community in which I live with Christ, worship our God, and serve our Lord.
Does God need church? Apparently, the answer is yes. Perhaps this is rooted in God’s nature and ours. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three in one. And we are created in the divine image. Our best identity is not found in exploration of self independent from others, but self in relationship to others. Christ’s guidance inevitably will force us to face our relationships with others in the church.
When Scripture speaks about the church it says at least these things:
- We are body of Christ, knit together by Christ in one faith, one baptism, one Lord,
- We should not neglect the togetherness of the church,
- We need to love each other, and
- We need to use our gifts for the building of the body and the mission of the church.
There is something about being a community of faith together, that our Lord thought was essential. God did not design us to be autonomous. We are biologically designed to be in family, in community so that what we do and say with each other impacts our health and spiritual well-being.
We know that communities and families can be very dysfunctional destroying what God intended for good. So when we listen to the voice of God, you can be sure that God will speak to us about our way of living together. We are the body of Christ. Christ will want to direct and guide his own body. Here are at least four ways in which Jesus guidance will lead to us to live more deeply as and with community.
- Shared faith: there is one faith, one Lord, one Baptism. This is our confession. I recognize that churches have divided over confessions. But surely, when Jesus prays that they may be one as we are one, we need to hear a deep desire of God for the unity of the church in Christ. While God does not want us to lie about him (ie be heretical), a genuine understanding of the heart of God will draw us into unity with one another. We can expect that God will not be fond of our consumerist approach to church life. Belonging is not a choice, it is a gift of God’s grace in Christ. Belonging is not a detached shopping experience to get what we need, but a life with others lived in deep gratitude and commitment. One faith, one baptism, one Lord is not just a declaration of faith. When Christ guides, we can expect Christ to lead us to a deeper sense of a shared life with others.
- Love: love is lived with others, not at a distance. When Jesus guides us to live in love, it is in the context of a community with particular people of whom some will not share our vision, psychological health or spiritual maturity. To love others means that we need to face the reality of our own hearts – at times selfish, at times unwilling, and at times perplexed. One response to difficulties in community would be to flee. Another would be to try to dominate and get our way. But only in the commitments of community in which we work through the challenges of each other do we grow in loving in a deeper way.
- Giftedness: God designed the church so that no one person has all they need to serve Christ well. Undergoing the regular staff evaluation at the church, I am deeply conscious of my dependence on others in ministry. Not only do I not have the time to do all that is needful, I don’t have the gifts. So I need other people with other gifts so that I serve Christ well. You can expect Jesus to guide us into such relationships and call upon us to use our gifts so that others flourish and the mission of the kingdom is accomplished.
- Discernment: listening to God together. So often our vision is clouded by the dynamics of our own heart. We are hard-hearted and do not hear what we need to hear. We have blind-spots and do not see dangers even when they are close to us. We have a hard time discerning the difference between our wills and God’s will. Community can help. We test our sense of God’s leading in the community of faith. Simply by listening together to the text of Scripture, providing differing perspectives, and praying for God’s spirit to guide us along our way in the kingdom we begin to grow in our service of the Lord. We can expect Jesus when he guides to work in the community of faith.
Because of this togetherness that is part of God’s way in the world, we can expect that God will address our common life. In counseling we often talk about the family as a system. Not only are there individuals in a family, but there is a way a family lives together. They react to each other. They count on each other. They support each other. The way each member fulfills varying roles is the system of the family. Healthy ways of being together promote the well being of the family. This is also true of the church. It is not just an institution or a place. It is a community of people who have a way of living together. We can expect Jesus to address our way of being together.
Addressing the way the community relates to each other is an important part of how we are to live as followers of Jesus. I was reminded of this when someone spoke to me about his participation in the small group. He wasn’t getting out of it what he hoped. The bible study was unfocused. The conversations flitted from one thing to another. The people did not seem interested in what he was interested. I told him the small group was not about him. It was a way of being together as God’s people: Sharing gifts and interests with others who do not have them, to enrich their lives, hearing voices tell of what they see and hear –things to which we are blind, loving a person whom is not like us, and sharing our common faith.
Elders have an important role in leading people in their relationships with one another. They set appropriate boundaries that respect and honour people. They show the way of love. They lead people in listening to God together.
In Conversations for Listening Groups, I put together a conversation that helps elders explore this area of our life together. It is designed so that small groups can practice together listening to Christ. Three different conversations are found in this resource: Conformity to Christ, Called in to Service, and Together in Christ. May God bless your service.