December 2016 /January 2017 - Vol. 89
communities have something
Orientation to Essays on Christian
every case, when the word “church” is used, it is
intended to mean the wider body of Christ, and not a
specific parish, congregation or denomination. I
believe that our community history has developed
into a certain kind of prophetic modeling that can
make a contribution to the wider body of Christ. Due
to the potential range of readers, some further
introductory comments are needed. We need to
examine how our community expressions got started;
how they have developed; and where we are today.
the Lord to the Broader Church
All three of these words challenge the nature of the church and call it to new realities and new expressions that could further equip it to be effective in the modern world.
Sword of the
The Sword of the Spirit has grown out of several renewal movements that preceded it. We have a growing number of some 75 plus lay Christian communities located in 23 countries that are in various stages of commitment, and many others exploring a relationship with us. We have several community initiatives in formerly communist countries and the Middle East. We are ecumenical in nature and our members are from many different denominations. This ecumenical heart is one of the key works of the Lord in our midst, and it is also one of the richest fruits of our life together.
Each community has its own name and is autonomous. It is represented on the regional council by its senior coordinator. The benefits of regional and international participation are numerous, but a few should be mentioned here.
First, we seek and develop together a common way of life. We benefit from elements developed in other regions and communities.
Second, building community in a healthy way often exceeds the resources present locally, especially in smaller groups. We can get help at the regional level when we need it.
Third, each community benefits from a “visitation” every five years. A team of experienced community leaders is assembled and they visit a local community for a 3-4 day stay. They provide the local members and leadership with an outside, objective view of how things are going. They give a report that recommends areas that could be improved with suggestions for implementation. Fourth, and finally, we benefit greatly from the regional youth program where youth from all of the communities have conferences, mission trips, and summer internships together.
With all of this said,
we see ourselves as a small part
of what the Lord is doing today.
Well, I certainly feel like a lightweight defending a heavyweight title! I am not a church structure expert (ecclesiologist), nor am I an ordained pastor or priest. My professional training has been in engineering, but I do have 40 plus years of community-building experience which includes my membership in the People of God community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.
Over the years, I have received a lot of training in support of this work. That experience and training notwithstanding, I believe that every layman has some credible right to comment on the state of things based on his church membership and on the full responsibility of that membership. As study after study shows a decline of the influence of the church in people’s lives and decisions, it is clear that we need more than just a small set of experts to give input into the nature and expressions of church.
I find it at least mildly encouraging that Jesus chose his apostles from among those who were least qualified to be built into the foundation of his church, which is now in its third millennium. In light of scripture, we all need to question; we all need to contribute; we all need to take a concern for the life of the church. Hopefully, this effort will be a useful contribution.
Testament “Growth Plates”
One such scriptural growth plate is John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”In such a short statement, we can learn a number of key things: 1) God loves the world; 2) He sent His Son Jesus; 3) we need to believe in Jesus to have life; 4) life is everlasting (not confined to this earth); and 5) He saves us from perishing, death, and hell. This verse is seen as seminal for Christianity.
Another such growth plate is John 3:3:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”These two scriptures could be said to be the wellspring of the evangelical movement. Indeed, they could be said to be the wellspring of Christianity.
“But when the Pharisees heard that he (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22:34-40
Again, there is much to be learned from these verses: 1) the Lord is after your heart; 2) the Lord is after your mind; 3) the Lord is after your soul; 4) He can be loved by us at all three of those levels; 5) the second is “like it”, which could mean that you could love your neighbor with your heart, mind, and/or soul; 6) these are commandments and therefore demand a response; and 7) “on these two depend all the law and the prophets.” (Not to be taken lightly; much of the Old Testament is summarized here).
Finally, these two are summaries of the two tables of the Ten Commandments. The first table (Commandments 1-3 in the Catholic tradition) has to do with how we love God; the second table (Commandments 7-10) has to do with how we love our brothers and sisters.
at its Core
Christianity is doctrinal, institutional, ceremonial, etc., but at its core it is relational: the Lord and his bride.
gets to move Heather?
This is not meant to be a criticism or observation about a particular local church as much as it is meant to be a call to the broader Christian church: we don’t know how to love each other within the church. We leave to families the needs which are increasingly unmet at the family level. Churches usually are not organized into small groupings that promote relationships; and in some churches that do have small group structures, they tend to be “study” groups rather than “life” groups where we care for each other, grow in social relationships, and seek a common way of life together.
did we get here?
We see in this “snapshot” of the early church from Acts 2:42-47, that real community was put in place after Pentecost. They “spent time” together (v. 42) learning, praying, having fellowship, and having meals together. They spent time together “in their homes” (v. 46). They had committed fellowship (v. 44) and cared for one another’s physical needs (v. 45). “Day by day” (v. 46) they met as a group. It wasn’t just a Sunday worship community; their pattern was a life together, a life of community.
So, how did we get to where we are today, where so many Christians are looking for a minimal answer to the nature of the church? I believe the answers to that are very, very complex and have components at every level of humanity: spiritual, psychological, sociological, economic, etc. I’d like to propose a few for us to consider.
A few centuries ago, there was a certain natural community in place; many lived in villages, and towns were small. Making a living necessitated certain relational realities. People needed each other and looked out for each other. Families worked together in the family business or trade. Many villages and towns had a marketplace where people met and the church was central to community. When the Industrial Revolution took place, it set off a migration by which more and more people left rural regions to come into the bigger towns and cities. This was one beginning of a pattern that was destructive to natural community at the local level and at the family level. It was less and less the case that families worked together, or that fathers worked with their sons. Today it is common for a father to go to his job, a mother to go to her job, and the children to go off to school. These were all done together or in close proximity in earlier times.
With the growth of large cities, and the divisions and isolation of family members, we are less relational or less tied to one another. Today, it is often considered a virtue if you need no one. In past times it was a given that you needed others; life was corporate.
There are many other factors that contribute at many different levels: the isolating effects of TV, video games and modern entertainment, etc. Suffice it to say that we are very, very isolated and very, very different from the New Testament church. (Another snapshot is seen in Acts 4:32-35.)
For Christian renewal and reform, we should first understand that Christianity is relational. It is not emphasizing independent isolation, but inter-dependent relationships. I would say churches and large Christian groups should reorganize into small groups, after identifying and training a small set of leaders who are truly converted and dedicated to Christ. Again, the small groups are “life groups” not just study groups: life is shared; some accountability is in place; a contribution to the mission is made.
Additionally, I would say, “Get help.” Wading into these waters unprepared will cause unnecessary casualties. Remember this: different people have different capacities for failure. One strikeout can cause some young boys to never pick up a bat again. Others will not leave the plate until they hit the ball. Wise approaches on the part of leadership can reduce the number of casualties as we grow into a Christian family.
The rest of this book will present some elements of Christian community in an attempt to make some contributions to our understanding of the nature of church and our experience of the models of church. These elements and approaches have been developed in our life together and are, hopefully, part of the solution. But first, let’s begin to close this chapter remembering these verses...
This article is excerpted from Essays on Christian Community, (c) copyright 2010 Bob Tedesco. The book can be purchased at Tabor House.
top photo: Bread of Life Community Weekend Retreat - October 2016