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Some people seem to think that house churches or missional communities are the purest expression of the church. As a result, they downplay weekend gatherings that require a lot of energy or attention. The logic goes something like: you can’t be the church for just two hours a Sunday.
Are Small Gatherings Purer that Big Gatherings?
I’ve used this very logic; there’s a lot of truth to it. But surely it is possible to cultivate gospel-centered community in larger gatherings. I think it depends on how the Sunday gathering is structured, what forms the primary focus, and how we interact with one another. I, for one, don’t think that missional communities are the purer expression of the church. We see both private and public, small and large gatherings of the church in Scripture, from house churches to city churches, bands of martyrs to billions of people from every tribe and tongue bowed low in white-hot worship. Instead of writing off big gatherings, what would happen if we rewrote the script? What if the community participated in big gatherings beyond acts of service like children’s ministry, setup, security, and hospitality?
Let the Community Speak on Sundays
Every other Sunday someone from one of our missional communities gets up and shares something that God is doing in their life, in their community. We simply ask that it relate to one of our three core values—Gospel, Community, and Mission. Very often they touch on all three.
This Sunday Sam shared how a recent missional experience in the projects provoked confusion and some deep soul-searching. He began asking questions like “Do I really believe the gospel?” Should I sell all my clothes and give the money away? Tearing through the clothing in his closet, his wife arrested him by asking: Sam are you trying to impress God?” Mission as idolatry, as identity, subverts Jesus’ rightful and satisfying place in our lives. Sam went on to share how ashamed he was, but ended up realizing that Jesus was sufficient for his failure to believe, to treasure Christ. Then he charged us with something like: “If you feel ashamed, if you feel like you don’t measure up to God, if you feel like you aren’t good enough, don’t believe it. Jesus is big enough to handle your sin. Come to him.“
Gospel-centered Community on Sundays (and for sermons)
Sam’s exhortation lodged grace in my soul. As it turned out, I had been battling indifference towards Christ all morning. My sermon rehearsal had felt flat. My religious affections were a flickering flame, shifting from blue to white, at times even invisible. God strengthened me on the spot with Sam’s exhortation that Jesus is sufficient for my indifference. I repented for my lack of affection for our infinitely desirable God, received His forgiveness which jolted me into worship. This story from the community reminded me what kind of Savior we serve. I emerged from my sinful indifference into hopeful expectation, prepared to preach from a place of deeper gospel conviction.
Sunday after Sunday my church preaches to me before I preach to them. Sometimes through songs, other times through stories, but they serve as a constant reminder that God has not called me to professionalism but to Jesus-centered missional community. I hear them telling me the very same things I tell them: “Jesus is sufficient for our failures and strong for our successes.” “We are an imperfect people clinging to a perfect Christ.”
Sometimes I slowly mound up pressure on myself for a stunning homiletic performance. When I do, I displace the power of the gospel and replace it with the weakness of words. To be sure, our words can carry gospel power, but they can also carry death and deceit. We all need the “holiness of truth”—to hear the words that are right and true, which produce a holy happiness in the face of false and fleeting promises like: “If I exegete the culture well, if I provide a unique theological insight, then the sermon will impress, will impact, will change people.” God’s faithfulness to his Word, the sanctifying power of simple truth, and the presence of a gracious people who point me through sermons, away from performances, and to our Savior all underscore that the Christ alone is our hope, that God in Christ through the Spirit is faithfully working in us according to his good pleasure.
What better way to finish off a Sunday than by spending time in community?. Tonight we dropped by a friend’s house where folks showed up to have an impromptu breakfast-for-dinner and just hang out. Conversation after conversation reminded me of the faith-strengthening power of an imperfect, gospel-centered community, one that happens in a steady state, including Sundays. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
What do we do if people in our church don’t want to be the church? How do we encourage people to enter into Christian community?
1. Preach, teach, disciple, and counsel a strong gospel of grace that is community focused. Demonstrate the centrality of one anothering, hospitality, and fellowship from the Bible, while also consistently deconstructing defective notions of church. Constantly expose sub/un-biblical notions of church. You can do this in any kind of church gathering.
2. Show them what they are missing by integrating a testimony time into your public gatherings. We have a City Group spotlight every other Sunday during which people share something from their experience of Gospel, Community, or Mission in their City Group.
3. Make it an issue of obedience and an issue of grace. Demonstrate from the Scriptures that community is something commanded by Christ. Explain what community is and what it isn’t. Illustrate community of grace stories and community of legalism and convenience stories.
Extend grace to people who have been terribly discipled into thinking that church is optional. Re-disciple them in the gospel by uncovering heart issues/idolatries of “fear of man”, selfishness, hidden sins, and so on.
4. Create “stepping stones” for genuine community through things like intro class, social events, partner’s class, post-gathering lunches, etc. In a culture like ours, churches don’t have instant credibility. We need to create ways for people to know us, evaluate us, and question us.
5. Some people just need an invitation. Some folks would never show up to someone’s home uninvited, but once they are invited community becomes more natural. Invite others into your home and into community.
He works on us in all sorts of ways. But above all, he works on us through each other. Men are mirrors, or carriers of Christ to other men. Ususally it is those who know Him that bring Him to others. That is why the church, the whole body of Christians showing Him to one another, is so important. It is so easy to think that the church has a lot of different objects – education, buildings, missions, holding services … the Church exists for no other purpose but to draw men to Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any
other purpose. – C.S. Lewis
Our church is trying to shake sinful individualism and move into steady state communities. We are having some success and some failure. The success is very life-giving, exciting, church-like. I ran across this quote by Dallas Willard that gets at our aim in cultivating steady state community:
Among those who live as Jesus’ apprentices there are no relationship that omit the presence and action of Jesus. We never go “one on one;” all relationships are mediated through him. I never think simply of what I am going to do with you, to you, or for you. I think of what we, Jesus and I, are going to do with you, to you, and for you. Likewise, I never think of what you are going to do with me, to me, and for me, but of what will be done by you and Jesus with me, to me, and for me. – The Divine Conspiracy, 236
If we would think of ourselves less as individuals and more as persons in community, our decision-making and discipleship would change radically. It has been said there is no pure individual. Its’s true. No man an island to himself. We all possess the seed of community, but supress or substitute it for other things. Solitary experiences and virtual forms of community, no matter how wonderful, do not sum up or satisfy our social identity as persons-in-community. The Triune God saw to that when he made us. If the American church could recover that social identity and harness it to gospel-centered mission, the world would be a very different place.
Fortunately, failure in Christian community points us back to the sufficiency of the Jesus. Our success reminds us that the Spirit of Jesus is powerful and counter-cultural. Jesus is strong for our successes and sufficient for our failure in striving for steady state community and gospel-centered mission.
We are in our first year as Austin City Life. We are City Group driven but have a Sunday service. City Groups and services are intergenerational. Now that we have the Sunday service, people are beginning to look for “ministries,” ministries to singles, ministries to couples, ministries to women, and so on. People are understandably concerned that “they get ministered to” according to their stage of life needs. I am resisting this impulse for several reasons:
1. Ecclesiology Proper: It is our conviction that in order for the church to be the church, to one another and to the world, generations must intentionally cultivate community and practice mission together. We must deprogram the church from ministry shopping and “program” the church to be intergenerational, communal, and missional. How does the Body function properly if the hand says to the foot, “I don’t need you; I just need my generation” (1 Cor 12)?” How does the Temple bring the Cornerstone glory as living stones if the stones don’t live together (1 Pet 2)? The church should not live on generations alone.
2. Functional Ecclesiology: We have pushed our ecclesiology proper into a functional ecclesiology that largely relies on City Groups. City Groups are local, urban missional communities that meet weekly to share life and truth and to redemptively engage peoples and cultures. They are comprised of 6-12 people who commit to living out Four Practices based on Four Principles. They share everything from tacos to tears. City Groups are our foundational ecclesial structure; therefore, they have been programmed as geographical, intergenerational, redemptive communities that hold gospel and mission in common.
- Programming versus Program-driven: Just because we are an organic church, doesn’t mean that we avoid programming. All organisms are biologically programmed with DNA. As that DNA replicates and produces a maturing organism, it naturally takes on a clearly defined structure. Likewise, Austin City Life accepts programming as a natural part of healthy church growth; however our DNA includes an element of anti-program. In order to avoid becoming program-driven, we are striving to keep church simple. We are programming for less programs and more relational connections. Thus, we are against organizing the church around various generational ministries, divvying up the church into life-stage specific ministries, and we are for the generations to sharing life, truth and mission for more than an hour or so on a Sunday.
3. Realistic Expectations: As a church that is less than a year old, we have to guard against doing to many things, against being all things to all people. Why? We don’t have the volunteer power to service every need or want. Instead of spreading ourselves thin across numerous ministries, we have decided to focus on a few things and attempt to do them well in order to be the church. These things have largely been determined by our congregational profile. For instance, although we are a city church, we are not largely a singles or young couples community. In fact, we currently have more families than singles. Therefore, in order to responsibly shepherd the flock we have, we have developed a Children’s Ministry not a Singles ministry. However, if we were largely singles we would not have a Singles ministry; we would be pursuing ways for singles to share community and mission with non-singles, while addressing singles issues from the pulpit, discipleship, and City Groups.