A discussion of early church community

On July 11th, Tyler preached a sermon on community in the early church and how it applies to the way we do community today. In the first part of the sermon (which you can listen to here), he gave seven observations on early church community based on Acts 2:42-47.

In our last BASE group meetings, we had some great discussion around these points. I have listed the points below as well as some discussion questions for exploration.

I of course encourage you to explore these questions prayerfully on your own, but I am convinced that they would be best considered and discussed in the company of others in the church, particularly those in your BASE group.

Characteristics of Early Church Community

Devoted to study

  • Why is it necessary for us to study Scripture within the context of community? What benefits do we gain from doing that?

Spent time together

  • What keeps us from spending time together like we should?
  • What do we gain from time together?
  • How do we balance this with the demands of work and our family?

Devoted to prayer

  • Why should we pray within the context of community?
  • How can prayer become more organic in our lives together rather than something we program or schedule?

Met physical needs

  • What “needs” do people in a middle class suburban context have that we can meet?
  • How do we identify those needs?

Met in large and small groups

  • How do we do this more organically?
  • Why does it seem that time together always needs to be programmed for us before we will actually do it?

They were joyful

  • In what ways does community produce joy?
  • Why don’t we find more joy in community? In other words, why does community sometimes feel like something we have to do, rather than something we look forward to doing?
  • How do we find greater joy in doing life together?

The result was community-fueled mission

  • How can we do better with bringing the lost into our community?
  • What does community-fueled mission look like?

Of course I welcome discussion and questions in the comments section as well.

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Community vs Affinity (part 2)

The following is a guest post from Tyler Recker.

In my last post, I began a discussion on how diversity within community is a better testimony of the Gospel than affinity (where everyone is alike).

With this post, I want to clarify a few things and refine what I am trying to say, and then in my next post, I would like to put some practical feet to this point.

The Problem.

The problem is that on a local church level churches are far too segregated by age, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Furthemore, on the small group level, the church usually has structures and systems in place designed to make sure things stay segregated accordingly. (So, we divide people up into life stage classes, etc.)

Last week, I began making the point that we need to cultivate deep relationships across the spectrum of life stages so we can all mutually benefit from one another and so the full gifts of the body are leveraged in the small group context.

Allow me to clarify these points further.

1.  We need to intentionally seek after diverse community, because affinity will happen naturally.

In all my talk about being in deep relationships with people different than us, I am not at all denying that sometimes we need to be around people who are at a similar place as us. When you are young and married it is helpful to be around other young married couples and hear their stories, so you are comforted that you are not alone in all the difficulties of that life stage. When your kids hit the teen years, you need other parents of teenagers that you can just share stories with and no you are not alone. When you hit the empty nest period, you need relationships with other folks who are walking through that as you navigate this new life stage.

However, all of these relationships will happen quite naturally.

The young marrieds will find each other. The parents of teens will find each other. The empty nesters, the singles, the seniors, the new parents, the homeschool parents, the single parents, etc will find each other out and will find time to hang out. On the other hand, because of our cultural conditioning (or other factors), diversity simply does not happen quite so naturally.

2.  We need diverse community because it deepens regard for Jesus.

When we are in groups based on affinities, it’s very easy for the group to become about the affinity, rather than about Jesus. In fact, I would go as far as to say that when the group is organized around affinity, it is very difficult to keep Jesus as the center of it.

Ever been in that Bible Study on Romans but somehow you knew that it was always going to come back around to parenting, or football, or another topic unrelated to the biblical text? Why? Maybe because everyone is gathered around that affinity, rather than around Jesus…

When I’m surrounded by people who aren’t like me and aren’t in the same life stage as me, then I am reminded that the power of the Gospel transcends these silly categories to work powerfully in the lives of all His people. And I leave with a greater sense of how great Jesus is.

Bruce Milne articulates this far better:

“Just as in the matter of our being justified before God we had to learn that all our human works had to give place to Christ’s work for us at the Cross, so in our fellowship together we have to learn that Christ is the exclusive basis of it (Gal. 3:28). This means that we need to take as our brother every one within the church or local Christian group whom Christ himself has received and not simply those to whom we feel attacted on other grounds.

Other common factors such as shared outlook, a compatible temperament, common experiences, a shared social background, a common level of intelligience, our belonging to the same sex or age group, are all secondary to the common share we have in Christ. One of the reasons why fellowship in many churches and Christian groups fails to attain to New Testament levels lies precisely here…that we permit these other bases of relationship to usurp the place which ought to be reserved for Christ alone.”

Bruce Milne, We Belong Together, p. 27 (in my 1978 copy).

Next week, I’ll go over some practical steps that we can take to move in a more diverse direction within our small groups so that by doing so we can better glorify King Jesus.

Community vs. Affinity (part 1)

The following is a guest post by Tyler Recker.

[26] for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. [27] For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. [28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
(Galatians 3:26-28 ESV)

The context of Galatians 3 is the correction of the Judaizers who would seek to make the Greeks become Jews in order to become Christians. Paul then turns to these verses to discuss our unity as those who have been saved by faith in Jesus, have been baptized into Jesus, and have put on Jesus. Jews, Greeks, slaves, free, males, females that are in Jesus are all united IN JESUS.

We are chiefly united in Jesus. Not lesser things that we may potentially hold in common. Further, since we are united in Jesus and He is our greatest treasure then lesser things should not prevent us from fellowship.

Our vision for NewBranch is to reflect the racial, socioeconomic, generational and ethnic diversity of our community so that someone could look at our body and say “What brings that crowd together?” and the answer is simply “Jesus.”

Is there any question that we’re not exactly there? It would be tempting to say that we don’t live in a very diverse community. But have you seen the diversity of Mill Creek High School or Dacula High School? Surely, you can tell that your neighborhood is a lot more diverse racially and ethnically than our church is.

I think Jesus gets greater glory from diversity. People can look at the diverse church and say “Look, there’s rich and poor brought together by Jesus.” or “Look there’s all different races and nationalities brought together by Jesus, and worshipping Him together.”

Jesus gets greater glory when the world’s categories of seperating people are broken down because this defines with greater clarity that the rallying point for our community is Christ Jesus.

Furthermore, we want to reflect that diversity in our BASE groups because we want our BASE groups to be united in Jesus and not some other affinity. We’re striving for community over affinity, because Jesus gets greater glory and because the body is better served when we all come together.

Our BASE groups are not and will not be pulled together based on life stage, marital status, affinity group, schooling choice, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. We will not have groups segregated by Prime Timers (a common euphemism for “Senior Citizens”), Young Marrieds, Old Marrieds, Singles, homeschooling, public schooling, private schooling, no schooling, and so on. Furthermore, when our fallen nature seeks to make the Christian community about something other than Christ we will be militant to fight this subtle sin and disperse groups as necessary.

Think about it. Isn’t it silly to take all the newlyweds who don’t know anything about marriage and put them together in a pool of marital ignorance? Isn’t that kind of like Rehoboam asking his dumb buddies for advice on how to run the nation of Israel (1 Kings 12)? Isn’t it much better for a young married couple to be in a group with a couple who has been married for 20-30 years so they can gleam priceless wisdom?

And when you have a 19 year old guy entering the workforce isn’t it better for him to have relationships with older, wiser men who can help him navigate it?

Further, isn’t it true that older, wiser believers benefit from the passion and energy of younger, dumber believers (like myself)? Isn’t it true that sometimes we fall into cynical thought patterns from everything we’ve seen in life? Wouldn’t we are blessed from a relationship with some idealistic young person who challenges us to biblical faithfulness regardless of how tough it is? I’m only 23, but there’s areas I’ve developed cynicism from just 5 years in ministry (and 10 years in church life) that are challenged on a heart level when I get to interact with new believers and new ministers…

Next week, I’ll delve deeper into issues of affinity and diverse community…(the subtle affinities we may be tempted towards, the fact that there’s a time and place for affinity (but not BASE groups), the truth that diversity can be tough, etc.)

Read this book: Life Together

The following is a guest post by Tyler Recker.

[This is a re-post from 5/11.  It is appropriate in light of my sermon from Sunday and my recommending this book yesterday.]

I do not read books twice. Futher, there are so many good books, that I’m not big on “everyone needs to read this!”. However, I must tell you that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 122 page Life Together is one that I will read again, and one that I think everyone would do well to read.

The book is on the subject of living in community with other believers. I think Bonhoeffer hits on just about every issue that could arise in our BASE group setting. If you are into highlighting books, as I am, then you will find yourself highlighting sentence after sentence on just about every page. Simply put, Bonhoeffer grasps the need for Christian community, he understands the issues that arise with it, and then he confronts the pride that is at the heart of those issues in a pointed way.
Rather than attempt to lay out a full book review. Let me just leave you with some more quotations from the last few chapters of the book that I read yesterday:

On lending a hand to our brothers/sister in simple tasks:

“The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. p. 99

On the when others act according to their personality (“freedom”):

“The freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person’s nature, individuality, endowment. It also includes his weaknesses and oddities, whish are such a trial to our patience, everything that produces frictions, conflicts, and collisions among us. To bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.” p. 101

On why we cannot judge the sins of our brother:

“We may suffer the sins of our brother; we do not need to judge. This is a mercy for the Christian; for when does sin ever occur in the community that he must not examine and blame himself for his own unfaithfulness in prayer and intercession, his lack of brotherly service, of fraternal reproof and encouragement, indeed, for his own personal sin and spiritual laxity, by which he has done injury to himself, the fellowship, and the brethren?

On correcting one another in love:

“The more we learn to allow others to speak the Word to us, to accept humbly and gratefully even severe reproaches and admonitions, the more free and objective will we be in speaking ourselves. The person whose touchiness and vanity make him spurn a brother’s earnest censure cannot speak the truth in humility to others; he is afraid of being rebuffed and of feeling that he has been aggrieved. The touchy person will always become a flatterer and very soon he will come to despise and slander his brother. But the humble will stick both to truth and to love. p. 106

“He has put His Word in our mouth. He wants it to be spoken through us. If we hinder His Word, the blood of the sinning brother will be upon us.” p. 108

On the need for confession to God and to men:

“The final break-through to fellowship does not occuer, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is we are sinners!” p. 110

“You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner.” p. 111

Resources on Community

It goes without saying that the primary source on living in Christian community is the Bible. Do a search of the phrase “one another” and see all the things that the Bible tells us to do for one another.

In all the letters, a certain amount of community is assumed by the mere fact that the letters are written to communities. 1 Corinthians is a great letter dealing with a troubled Christian community.

Books:

Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This short book is the best book on Christian community that I have read. If you follow the blog, you have seen me quote it numerous times.

Total Church by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester. (This book can be bought at the church resource table for $10 or whatever you can pay.) This book is an excellent resource on how to think in a community-centered way in all of life. You will likely find things you disagree with, but you will surely think deeply about the value of community.

Church Planting Manual- Tim Keller I used portions of Redeemer’s church planting manual in my study of Acts 2.

We Belong Together- Bruce Milne This book comes highly recommended, and will be the next book I read on community when I find my copy.

Speaking the Truth in Love- David Powlison Another one on my “to read” list.  This author I love, however I haven’t read this title yet.

Online Resources:

Soma Communities– I have gotten many ideas from Soma’s site, especially the practices that accompany their core values (“rhythms”).

Austin City Life–  Check out the stories from this inner city Austin, TX church’s small group ministry.  I’ve been encouraged by these guys.  Also, this is where we get the fight club booklet from.  Check this site out to begin starting Gospel-centered accountability with “How to Start a Fight Club.”

The purposes of a Christian counter-cultural community

God’s people are to live out their lives as a counter-cultural community whose citizenship is ultimately God’s Kingdom. (Mark Driscoll)

In their excellent book Vintage Church, authors Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears create a compelling picture of what a Christian counter-cultural community looks like and what it’s primary purposes should be.

They impart a three-fold purpose that gives us a snapshot of what we should look like as followers of Christ in the world and time in which we live. They are indeed counter-cultural in that they are the opposite of what our culture believes and teaches.

As you read these three purposes, try and picture how they will be played out in the context of your family, your BASE group, and in our church.

There are a few questions listed below each one to get you thinking along these lines. I would encourage you to discuss them at your next family meal, or BASE Group meeting, or even to take time to record them and pray over them in your spiritual journal.

Purpose 1: To worship God by obeying Scripture.

  • To what extent is Scripture the primary influence of your life?
  • How is the primacy of Scripture displayed in your family (BASE Group, church, etc.)?
  • How is God worshiped and glorified by our obedience to His Word?
  • How do those who do not know Christ in our lives respond when we obey Scripture instead of peer pressure, or personal desires?

Purpose 2: To train younger generations in misisonal living so that there is a legacy of faith.

  • What are you doing right now to train up younger generations in misisonal living?
  • What is our church doing?
  • What is your BASE Group doing?
  • How you can be more involved in what is already being done? How can you get something new started?
  • In what ways do we train up younger generations for missional living?

Purpose 3: To provide lost people with an alternative and attractive way of life with Jesus and His people.

  • How does your life attract other people to Christ?
  • Do you think people are attracted to Christ when they come to our church or to your BASE Group? Why or why not?
  • In what ways do we provide lost people with an alternative and attractive way of life with Jesus and His people?

Would anyone care to venture some answers to some of these questions in the comments section? Or does anyone else have questions or comments to add that will help us unpack the meaning of this three-fold purpose even more?

Running on empty

When was the last time you let your gas gauge get down so low you were worried that you might not make it to the gas station to get it filled up? It is nerve wracking isn’t it? It can also be dangerous depending on where you run out of gas–a busy expressway for example!

I’m guilty far too often of running my spiritual life that way. Here’s what I’ve noticed about my own life when I’m running on empty spiritually:

  • I get discouraged more easily
  • Sin is harder to resist
  • Depression creeps up on me
  • I get angry over little things that shouldn’t bother me
  • I have nothing to give to people who are hurting

In Exodus 16 we read the story of God feeding His people in the desert with bread from heaven, which the people called “manna.” Six days a week, the people were instructed to go out and gather what they needed for that day. It was a discipline for them. Each morning they went out and received what they needed from the Lord to live for that day. Some of them tried to collect extra to carry over to the next day but when they went to prepare it, they found it was rotten, stinking, and full of maggots.

The daily gathering of manna was a demonstration and a reminder of their utter dependence upon God to provide for them. They had to have faith that the manna would be there everyday. They knew that if God didn’t come through for them they would starve. God did indeed provide, but they still had to gather it. The manna didn’t just fall into their cooking pots.

Many of us are starving spiritually. We come to church on Sunday morning and then try to coast on that hour and a half of worship and preaching for the rest of the week. We spend all week getting beaten down by the world, the flesh and the devil and then we drag ourselves into church the next Sunday hoping to fill our spiritual tanks to get us through the next week.

That’s a sad and terrible way to live on our journey with Christ and when we do it that way, we miss the joy and delight of daily time spent in Christ’s presence. Christ is the true bread from heaven (John 6:32-33) and we desperately need Him every single day.

There are some things we can do if we want to keep from running on empty spiritually. The items listed below are disciplines that have been practiced by Christians throughout the centuries. There is nothing magical about them, and we certainly don’t need to try and make them a list of rules we need to follow. All they do is help put us in God’s presence and He will do a work in our hearts. Think of them as gathering manna.

Read Scripture

Each day, we should be reading large portions of Scripture. Not a verse or two, but multiple chapters–even whole books–in a single setting. We must learn to love and appreciate the scope and breadth of God’s Word.

Engage in personal worship

Throughout the day we can set aside moments for personal worship. We can periodically take time to thank God for His goodness and love and we can take some time to read a Psalm as a prayer to God.

As we commute for work we can listen to great worship music and sing and make music in our hearts to our great and glorious God.

Pray

There is something to be said for concentrated times of prayer. We should regularly take time to shut out the world and focus all our attention on God and cry out to Him in prayer. But prayer is something we can also engage in no matter what we’re doing. We can make every act of our day an act of prayer.

Live in community with other Christ-followers

We need one another. That’s the way God has designed this life. We need to be “doing life together” as brothers and sisters in Christ. As I spend time with you, you minister Christ to me and I can become more like Him.

Serve others

Serving others is unique in that even though we are pouring out ourselves into the lives of others, we are being filled simultaneously with God’s love and presence. It’s a delightful paradox and one that those who regularly serve can give testimony about.

Are you running on empty? Remember, that’s no way to travel.