In his book, “Call to Conversion”, Jim Wallis asked a number of provocative questions.
“What is the most important social reality of your life? What place, what group of people do you feel most dependent on for your survival? ….. If in fact most Christians are more rooted in the principalities and powers of this world than they are in the local community of faith, it is no wonder that the church is in trouble. Clearly the social reality in which we feel most rooted will be the one which will most determine our values, our priorities and the way we live. It is not enough to talk of Christian fellowship while our security is based elsewhere.”
This evening I want us to think about church as community. As a church are we really a community – or just a Christian Club? North Springfield Baptist Church – or North Springfield Baptist Club? Some people treat churches just like clubs. But the Early Church we read about in the Book of Acts was MUCH MORE than just a Christian Club!
We read what it meant for those first Christians to “be church” in Acts 2:42-47. One preacher said they were saved (41) steadfast (42) sacrificial (44-45) serving (46) and spirit-filled (47). And we read what they did when they were being church together:
Acts 2: 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
So tonight we are looking at what it means to be “devoted to the fellowship”. The word for “fellowship” is koinonia which simply means “sharing something together”, “participation” in something or “holding things in common”.
Jim Wallis wrote: “The greatest need of our time is for koinonia, the call simply to be the church, to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of the world … the creation of living, breathing, loving communities of faith at the local church level.”
In the Book of Acts, Luke gives us a snapshot of what fellowship meant in the Early Church.
Acts 2: 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.
This is the NT picture of church – much more than just a Christian Club. Jim Wallis wrote: “The arrival of the Spirit at Pentecost identifies the church as the community beloved of God and created by the Holy Spirit for the purposes of Christ in the world. Such a life means that believers are bound together as never before. They are brothers and sisters in the family of God. …. Different from an institution or an organisation, the church would have the style and the feel of a family, an extended family created not by blood but by the Spirit.”
“They were like family to each other.” Acts 2:42 Contemporary English Version
Not a Christian club – but a community! “The purpose of God in Christ is neither simply to redeem individuals nor merely to teach the world some new thoughts. God’s purpose in Christ is to establish a new community that points to the plan of God for the world. Forming community has been the social strategy of the Spirit since Pentecost. Community is the basis of all Christian living. It is both the lifestyle and the vocation of the church. … The community of faith incarnates a whole new order, offers a visible and concrete alternative, and issues a basic challenge to the world as it is.”
What would such Christian Community involve?
Those first Christians experienced a unity in God which is an example and a challenge to us all!
Acts 2: 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.
There is a word there which is lost in newer translations where just appears as “together”. But the good old KJV emphasised the word, “with one accord”.
Acts 2:46 And they continued daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house.
Acts 4:24 They lifted up their voices with one accord.
Acts 5:12 They were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch
“With one accord” is more than merely an adverb of space and time, `together’. It demonstrates the `inner unanimity of the community.’
Acts 4:43 “All the believers were one in heart and mind” !
Community brings us to the point where God’s love can break in. Caring for each other brings us closer to each other. Christian caring both expresses and releases God’s love into our lives and our church.
Jim Wallis: “At a minimum the church should be known as the kind of community that makes it more possible, not less possible, to follow Jesus.”
Not just caring but also SHARING
They shared a common life – and they shared their material possessions.
Another preacher has pointed out that in this short passage in Acts 4 we find that the prayers of the first Christians led to:
A new enduement of power from God (4:31) the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
But this also led on to
A new enjoyment of unity (4:32) All the believers were one in heart and mind – complete agreement of heart and soul (J.B. Phillips)
A new enabling (4:33) And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all
The necessary background to these times of rich blessing was the generosity of the first Christians towards each other.
Acts 4:32 No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 34 there was no needy person among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
And we have the generous example of Barnabas, the son of encouragement , who 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
No one said, “That’s mine; you can’t have it.” They shared everything. (Message).
They shared in worship. They shared common meals. They shared through the practice of hospitality. And they shared material possessions. Jim Wallis observes: “No barriers existed to the Christians’ fellowship. … There was no compulsion or obligation, but the spontaneous generosity was such as to cause it to be remembered.”
Wallis goes on to comment, “This principle of generous and sacrificial sharing, expressed in holding ourselves and our goods available for people in need, is an indispensable characteristic of every Spirit-filled church.” I think he is right.
Caring, sharing and BEARING one another’s burdens
Gal 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the Law of Christ (NIV1984)
“Offering each other a helping hand” (CEV) “Helping each other with your troubles” (ERV)
Acts 2:45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.
Acts 4:34 There were no needy persons among them.
They all met each other’s needs. Of course, not all burdens are material or financial. Sometimes our needs are emotional or spiritual or social – grief, fear, loneliness. But in God’s plan for his church all these needs will be met by our brothers and sisters in our Christian community.
Jim Wallis wrote, “I would rather have Christian community than a Swiss bank account. I have a group unequivocally committed to my well-being, my survival, my physical health, my spiritual growth and my political faithfulness. Their commitment to me is one that promises sustenance in the face of whatever may happen, including economic suffering, personal failure, sickness, jail and even death.”
Caring, sharing, bearing one another’s burdens. How can WE get to this level of fellowship, this kind of experience of Christian community? Let me give you
10 PRACTICAL STEPS TO COMMUNITY
1. Sunday refreshments – including new people.
Possibly the most important step we ever took towards building community was moving the refreshments after the morning services out of the small hall and into our large hall. Instead of people slipping out of the door, most people now stay and chat. But we need to make sure that we give a proper welcome to new folk on Sunday mornings and don’t just talk to our friends. We mustn’t swamp newcomers but we must make sure we make best use of the opportunities on Sunday mornings by giving new folk every opportunity to get to know us.
2. Building community by involving new folk in ALL our activities,
That means among other things our evening services, Bible studies, Draw Near To God and church meetings
3. We build community by encouraging each other
Hebrews 10 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We all need spurring on sometimes. Everybody needs inspiration and support to keep on going. Living the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. Actually, the Christian life is even more like a relay. It’s a team cooperating together. Spurring each other on. But we need to make sure that we are not just encouraging our old friends but encouraging our new friends too, those who have just become Christians or who are still seeking God. We need to spend time with them as well, perhaps particularly in meeting one-to-one or in small groups to encourage them in their faith.
4. We can build community by suitable events and activities.
I am thinking both of spiritual activities and also social activities. We need choose what we are going to run for the benefit of people who don’t come yet, not just for the benefit of those who do. In that respect, Haven Café gave us so many opportunities to get to know neighbours and strangers, and brought a number of folk to Jesus. As the church goes forward in my judgment it will be very good to start Haven Café again, when that becomes possible. As we think about suitable ways to build community we need to recognise the important part social media plays in the life of very many people. Alongside meeting people face to face, the church needs to continue to build links through our website. Our public North Springfield Baptist Church Group on Facebook now has 106 followers. Our morning service videos get typically 60 to 70 views and the sermon on the baptism of Jesus in September has had 88 views so far.
5. We build community by encouraging participation rather than consumption
In other words, by getting people involved in running activities rather than just providing things for them. By getting people to help each other, rather than just us helping them. Real community is not a few people at the centre of all the relationships caring for everybody else. True community is about networks of relationships where everybody knows lots of other people and everybody is caring for each other. But this is not about giving everybody jobs to do. The comedian Milton Jones is right to say that people stay away from churches for the same reason that they stay away from helicopters – they are afraid of being caught up in the rotas. People will willingly take on jobs when they feel part of the community. Pressing them to do a job before they feel part of the community is likely to be counter-productive. Encouraging participation rather than just consumption
6. Practising hospitality
This is so much harder since Covid. Many folk are much more reluctant to go into each other’s homes. But we can still meet up for coffee or lunch with each other. Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9 and 3 John 8 ALL encourage us to practise hospitality.
7. Caring for those with material needs
As individuals we can each help other people. And as a church we have the Fellowship Fund to help members and contacts of the church who are in financial need. We support Food Bank and the Little Free Pantry at St Augustines but we still need to think what else we can do to help our neighbours who are desperately struggling with the rising costs of food, energy and fuel.
As well as these seven things which build community we need to deal with issues which can damage and destroy community.
8. We repair community by reconciliation
Matthew 5:23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Where you know there is some barrier to fellowship between you and another Christian, you don’t wait for them to make the first move – you have to make the first move towards healing that relationship.
9. No favouritism or discrimination.
Colossians 3 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
We need to be entirely inclusive in the welcome we give to everyone.
James 2:1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
10. NO GOSSIP or unhelpful talk
We need to avoid anything which would damage community.
Ephesians 4 25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body. 26 ‘In your anger do not sin’: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. …. 29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. … 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
So there are 10 very practical steps to community – towards caring, sharing and bearing one another’s burdens. Jim Wallis sets before us the challenge of what it really means to be disciples of Jesus in community together – a true church and not just a club. ““Conversion means a radical re-orientation in terms of personal needs and ideas of personal fulfilment. When we enter community we bring with us an emptiness that seeks filling. … All of us sooner or later have to put aside the primacy of our own needs; we have to relinquish our narrow expectations of self-fulfilment and our agendas for self-assertion. … Our perspective changes from “What can the community do for me?” to “What can I do to best serve the community?”
It all boils down to what we want to be? Community or club?