The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen
The Naked Church – Chapter – 16. The New Testament Community
In him you too are being built together to become a dwelling
in which God lives by his Spirit.
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – Recapturing the personal aspect of Jesus’ ministry will not be easy in an age that regards a computer-addressed form letter to be a personal touch.
“I love each of you so much,” the pastor says with a smile to the Sunday morning crowd, and we’ve come to believe him even though he doesn’t know our name or one detail about our lives. Before we’ve even left our seats he has slipped out the building by the back door and is already on his way home.
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – We’re so used to mass-produced ministry that we actually think it can carry the same love and compassion to 10,000 people at once that Jesus took individually to the Samaritan woman at the well, to Simon Peter in his boat, or to Nicodemus with his questions. It cannot. Large-group ministry can be valuable to encourage, instruct, and challenge people, but it alone will not transform them.
How do we expect people to learn about life in Christ without a hand to hold and someone to ask questions of who will love them through their deepest doubts, disappointments and dreams? The reason so many believers live unfulfilled in their relationship with God is not because they don’t know what he wants of them, but because no one has taken to time to show them how to get there.
How many people do you know who live in the frustration of unconquered sin, a suffering loved one, or the inability to walk in the peace or joy they know Christ offers? How many more mask their feelings well enough so you’ll never know? They either blame themselves and are swallowed up in guilt or else they blame God, thinking him unfair. All they really needed was someone to take the time to make the life of Jesus real for them. Jesus demonstrated the fact that practical change comes out of personal contact. Though he preached to crowds on occasion, his ministry demonstrated its greatest effectiveness in one-on-one and small-group encounters. Here people could be treated as individuals and lives could be shaped in the reality of their own questions and needs.
“There’s no way the church can take the time to touch people that personally” is the oft-heard excuse. And it’s a true one, too, if we’re talking of structures, programs, and leadership doing all the personal ministry. The Word, however, challenges us to a church life where everyone is involved, giving and receiving from one another as friends and partners in the gospel. Only through this kind of community will the church recapture the personal touch essential to help people grow in intimacy with God and to demonstrate his love to the world.
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – That’s what inspired David Watson, who continually called the church back to her first-century roots:
[Jesus] called the Twelve to share their lives, with him and with each other. They were to live every day in a rich and diverse fellowship, losing independence, learning interdependence, gaining from each other new riches and strength. They were to share everything—joys, sorrows, pains and possessions—to become the community of Christ the King.
The infections love of God in their hearts demonstrated itself in their relationships to each other. Ministry happened not through programs or professionals, but through their involvement with each other. The “one anothering” passages of the New Testament describe the kind of life the Father has called us to share with other believers.
They were God’s family and regarded each other as true brothers and sisters that would stick with each other through need and abundance, would bear each other’s burdens and would forgive each other’s weaknesses and failures. They learned to walk together, encouraging each other to grow in their ability to trust God’s love.
This is church life: God-centered, honest, nonmanipulative relationships with other followers of his. This is how Jesus taught his disciples to live and provided the foundation for the New Testament community. Eugene Peterson in his work, The Wisdom of Each Other: A Conversation Between Spiritual Friends, speaks of the importance of this dialogue for spiritual growth:
But when Jesus designated his disciples ‘friends’ (John 15:15) in that last extended conversation he had with them, he introduced a term that encouraged the continuing of the conversation. ‘Friend’ sets us in a nonhierarchical, open, informal, spontaneous company of Jesus-friends, who verbally develop relationships of responsibility and intimacy by means of conversation.”
How can this life be institutionalized and survive? It cannot. We participate in it only by the ongoing relationships we allow ourselves to participate in with other believers. This is his community, and the only way to maintain God’s personal touch in the lives of others.
The Challenge of Community
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – The parable of the lost sheep has not always been one of my favorites. The shepherd leaves 99 seemingly perfect sheep to look for the foolish one who wandered away from the flock. I grew up in church and always remember wanting to serve God. I never wandered into blatant sin, yet I saw newly saved addicts, murderers, and immoral celebrities rewarded with book contracts and TV interviews. I felt like one of the neglected 99 because I had never been dumb enough to turn my back on God.
Only later did I realize that Jesus wasn’t saying he would neglect his followers to find sinners. He was demonstrating how singularly God can be involved in each one of our lives. The 99 were not followers of Jesus at all, but were the self-righteous who thought themselves too good for a Savior. They didn’t lack the need—only an awareness of it.
The ‘one’ represents each person who comes to God, and the personal care and attention he extends to each. Jesus illustrated a fascinating aspect of God’s love. He doesn’t primarily love crowds or groups of people; an infinite God can love in the singular—one at a time. He says he loves all the world because he loves each person in it. He doesn’t love you because he’s committed to love all humans as a group; he loves you as an individual person whom he created for his glory.
When you experience the simplicity and power of God’s love you will instinctively know why it can never be vested in institutions. God is a relational God, inviting people to walk with him and to live in his family. An institution’s need for conformity and its focus on process rather than people runs counter to his purpose. The efforts of institutions are limited at best, for they exist for crowds, not individuals, and appeal to people at the lowest common denominator. Jesus regarded people’s needs as too important and too unique to commit to the rigidity of a program.
Community, on the other hand, is people simply learning to live out the same love with others that they have discovered in Father. Having experienced his concern and generosity, they can’t help but let that love and compassion overflow to others. That alone is all God needs to accomplish his purpose in his church. Its life literally flows from his presence, and in doing so makes that presence visible to believers and unbelievers alike.
Instead of suppressing the individual to conform to the good of the whole, this community recognizes how uniquely God works with people in various circumstances. He alone invites people to share with others what they have received from him without manipulating each other to fulfill their own expectations. If you’ve ever experienced this kind of love between believers you know how life-changing it is.
That’s why it cannot be produced by any kind of coercion. It must he freely chosen and lived out daily, like everything else about our faith. Many, not understanding the need for voluntary participation, have tried to enforce community among believers. Some methods are so stringent that they have shattered the lives of the people they were designed to help. The biblical goal was supplanted by unbiblical methodology. Community can result only from the Spirit of God stirring people to submit their lives to one another. Nothing can short-circuit this, even though it means that the quality of community may often be sporadic.
One of the reasons we cling to “ministry by program” even though it is ineffective is because it is at least easy. Only a few people need to be motivated to make it work, and most of them can be rewarded for their efforts by salaries or leadership status. They make our rules and coordinate an enjoyable program. If someone’s spiritual life does not get better it can be blamed on his lack of participation. That is much easier than making the gospel effective in individual lives.
Programmed ministry also offers a minimum dose of personal responsibility. The reason why our view of church today involves little more than attending a Sunday morning mini-concert and mini-lecture once every couple of weeks, is because it asks so little of us. It also rewards to the same degree. Don’t take that to mean I am hostile to such gatherings. I am not. Meeting to sing, pray and be taught can be incredibly inspiring as well as informative. If you enjoy these gatherings and they help you walk more closely with God and share his life with others, then by all means participate freely.
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – The problem I’m pointing to results from allowing these meetings to define the nature of church life as God sees it. To God, his church includes all those who are growing to know him and walk in his ways. Whether or not they inhabit one of the ‘sanctioned’ meetings at 10:30 on Sunday mornings has absolutely nothing to do with it. Many judge the sincerity of a person’s faith solely by their regular participation at one of these affairs. If they go even sporadically they are counted as part of the church, no matter how else they live the rest of the week. Conversely, if someone doesn’t they are often rejected as backsliders, anarchists or independent believers, even though they may be better connected to God and more involved in the lives of other believers. When the writer of Hebrews spoke of “not forsaking our assembling together” I doubt whether he had Sunday morning religious services in mind. Assembling in homes, offices and street corners throughout the week can be far more effective. Jesus said that whenever two or three gathered in his name, he would be among them.
Of course some will use such thoughts as an excuse to separate themselves from others and justify their own lone-ranger approach to the Christian life, but that would be the abuse of it.If they really knew God as Father, they could not live that way. In him every believer in the world is connected to every other believer, and the joy of that relationship can be shared whenever and however those brothers and sisters discover each other.
But let’s be honest, there is just as much abuse going on in the limitations of our Sunday-morning-service approach to church. Often these meetings are surrounded by a system of behavioral conformity that distracts people from relating to God honestly, and substitutes human leadership for God’s presence and direction. They can breed passivity, except for the few who have leadership responsibilities, and the illusion that giving God an hour or two a week is sufficient. And there’s no way that staring at the back of someone’s head can foster the relationships God prepared us to share with each other.
If these gatherings are so crucial to our faith, why didn’t Jesus even spend one moment meeting this way with his disciples nor teaching them how to do it with others? His walk with them was far more relational—allowing him to model life with his Father and to respond to their questions and struggles. It’s no wonder that most people cite small groups and personal relationship as the most influential factors in helping them grow spiritually, and why parachurch groups have used them effectively.
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – Certainly these kind of relationships can exist in the context of the institutions we call church today, leading some to suggest that more church may be happening in our parking lots and lobbies than in our sanctuaries. That might be true. Our relationship with God equips us for healthy relationships with other believers that express his glory, and help in transforming our lives and encouraging our faith.
Unfortunately, too few believers have experienced the power and freedom of such relationships. More commonly, contests of power in our institutions have brutalized its own constituents by political infighting, well-placed gossip, and conflicting egos that dominate much of church life today. The church is notorious for shooting its wounded and putting its rookies on the front line (saving the fluff jobs for those who by seniority have “earned” it). We do more damage to ourselves than we have ever done to the gates of hell.
In these environments the humility and honest confession of sin and struggle so essential to vital relationships is lost because confessions are used more to judge than to forgive and encourage. Expressed needs are regarded as evidence of immaturity rather than as opportunities to share the load.
Our own disgust at the loss of personal love in the church is evidence that Father has planted a better hope within us. Let’s discover how he wants to fulfill that hope. We have little choice; the world is no longer impressed by our buildings and programs. They are looking for exactly what Jesus said they would—genuine love expressed between those who claim to know God.
The Context for Community
No one told the early church to form a community. I can’t imagine the disciples gathering on Pentecost evening trying to figure out what to do with 3120 people. Can you see Peter suggesting an idea like this?
Let’s have everyone meet together on Sunday mornings and we’ll organize home groups for midweek. Andrew and Nathanael, find us the natural leaders out of this group and take them on a retreat this weekend. They’ll lead groups for us. Thomas, draw up some guidelines for participation and we’ll have people sign them. We’ll require attendance and the rich to sell their property to help the poor….
Absurd, isn’t it? Without anyone even thinking of organizing, the church became a caring community that was worshiping and growing together. The people shared resources so well that there were no needy among them. Even secular historians of the time marveled at the love they had for each other.
Though the models of such community may be few today, what institutional priorities have destroyed can be regained by hungry people:
If the church is to become a community of God’s people… it means much more than singing the same hymns praying the same prayers, taking the same sacraments and joining in the same services. It will involve the full commitment of our lives, and of all that we have, to one another. It is only as we lose our lives that we find them, so bringing the life of Jesus to others.
Why is it so hard for the church today to recapture what came so naturally to the early church? Simply because they knew they needed it and we don’t think we do. Community rises out of the convergence of two different streams. Identifying them in the early church can help us rediscover them today.
1. Their love for God. The church started with 3000 people, all of whom were overwhelmed by a fresh experience of the reality and love of God. I’ve often thought of how different body life would be if we could all capture that first love on the same day. The joy would be infectious, and so would the hunger to learn the ways of God.
That joy and hunger are the foundation of community. Without it everything else is merely an exercise in human relations and will not ultimately rise to the splendor of biblical community. Jesus prayed that all his followers would find unity together, but even his prayer makes it clear that there is only one road to unity: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:22)
The unity that marks Christian community cannot rise out of charity, compromise, or concession. It rises only out of people who are seeking to be changed into God’s image. As God is changing me, I find tremendous compatibility with others he is also changing. Without even trying, I’m suddenly aware of their needs and how I can help, and I’m also conscious of the insight they can add to my life.
Thus community is both the result of intimacy and the environment in which it grows. Scripture links our spiritual health to community involvement with other believers. Only believers who can speak the truth in love with each other “will in all things grow up into him who is the Head” (Ephesians 4:15); and only by being “encouraged in heart and united in love” can we “have the full riches of complete understanding” (Colossians 2:2).
For people hungering after God, opening their lives to others is not a cumbersome obedience but a valuable resource of encouragement, strength, and confirmation.
2. The reality of their struggle. Imagine yourself awakening on a
forest floor, your head racked with pain. For a moment you can’t remember where you are or why you hurt so badly. Looking
around in the increasing light of early dawn, you note the wispy
columns of smoke rising from the twisted wreckage. You see the
clearing carved out by the plane’s descent and crash. Then you
remember the exploding antiaircraft shells in the pitch-black
sky around you, a violent jolt, a sharp left descending turn. The
plane’s pitch was too steep to bail out until that final flare-out
over the trees.
Moans of pain call you back to the present. There are other survivors—ten, to be exact, from your mission team—but you’re far from your objective, with injuries and without supplies. Since you are 200 miles inside enemy lines, the only rescue party you can expect will make you prisoners of war.
Now there’s a context for body life! Such men and women aren’t going to fight for position or waste time complaining about their circumstances. All their energies will be channeled into continuing with their mission if possible, and if not, then into creating havoc for the enemy while they try to get back across enemy lines. They’ll mold each person’s gifts and abilities into a team that stands the best possible chance of achieving their goal.
The early church understood the desperate reality of their circumstances, and their cooperation with each other matched that perception. Jesus had warned them how fragile his life was in a world that is hostile toward God and filled with an enemy bent on their destruction. They shared and ministered without the petty political concerns that often drain church life today. They were in occupied country, endeavoring to please God when they knew that so much in them wanted to please themselves.
No one told them they needed each other; they just knew it. Circumstances haven’t changed—only our perception of them has. We are still at war. Casualties line our streets and the enemy encircles us with his forces, but we don’t see it. Church life today is caught in so many organizational headaches and is dragged down by the ambitions of others because it realizes neither the desperateness of its situation nor the fragility of its life. It seems God’s church has always floundered in times of cultural acceptance and flourished in persecution.
Community is a practical response, not a philosophical one. When you need God desperately you’ll find yourself teaming up with others who do too—for the glory of God and the mutual benefit of all.
The Joy of Community
We’ve already highlighted a number of the benefits of community, including personal care, wisdom, and shared resources. But there is one other benefit that stands above the rest—the joy and freshness of the spontaneous work of God among his people. No organizational plan can ever achieve the sheer beauty of people doing what needs to be done by the direction of the Holy Spirit instead of simply filling an institutional role.
The ministry of that first flock was carried by such spontaneity of the Spirit. People’s needs were met, revivals of salvation broke out, and missionaries were sent out—all by his leading. The church thrived without the benefit of computers, bulletins, organization manuals, and committee meetings. Today our structures demand that our leaders spend more than 75 percent of their time entangled in administrative tasks.
I remember when my parents and their friends first discovered God’s reality. People flocked to our home every Friday night to sing, pray, and share what the Lord was doing in them, often going late into the night. Excitement abounded. Eventually those people were forced out of their church and started their own. No more Friday night meetings; now it was services Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and midweek. Boards were elected and programs planned—and the excitement quickly vanished. Community lets us share the joy of God’s spontaneity. In the two churches in which I served a pastoral role I’ve noticed how important that is. The services and activities we planned and executed with the greatest precision never rose to the level of fruitfulness we had anticipated. What’s more, other activities that we had planned with less concern for form, or that we were caught in without warning, were profoundly alive with God’s presence and power. That’s why I’ve finally come to trust God working among his people to lead to greater fruitfulness than our most finely-tuned programs. Most of what the church has done historically has been rooted in fear afraid people will go astray if not controlled; afraid they won’t come back if not properly entertained; afraid they’ll make mistakes if they are given freedom; and afraid they won’t know how to live if the institution doesn’t tell them. What would the church look like if we lived in trust instead of fea —confidence that God can preserve his people, lead them into his life, redeem their mistakes and rescue them from trouble? Nothing expresses better the difference I see between the freedom of the early church community and the rigidity of our institutions.
I realize that some people may misunderstand this as an excuse to be lazy and careless in God’s work, but they shouldn’t. Flowing with God’s Spirit in the spontaneity of the moment requires greater diligence than any institutional program ever requires. The excellence we press for is not in the tasks of planning, administrating, and communicating, but in intimacy, service, and love.
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – There is a price to be paid for the spontaneity that community engenders, but it’s well worth it. There’s nothing more enjoyable than being with people so in love with God that they don’t need programs to entertain or motivate them. Out of the fullness of their own love for God they care for each other and reach out to the lost with great simplicity and effectiveness.
The Cost of Community
I’ve worked around one simple point in this entire chapter: Community can only happen among disciples—people desiring to be changed by Christ into his image. The reason that community is so elusive is because most church program is geared to people who only nominally want to serve God. They desire less to grow in relationship with him than they do to escape the agony of hell.
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – There’s nothing wrong with the church having meetings where this kind of people can be touched, but to pass it off as the life of the church is grossly inaccurate. Such people are too carnal to discover the depth of relationships which Jesus wants to build between believers. In catering to them with our structures we destroy community. Robert Girard, who paid a severe price in trying to change his congregation from an institution to a community (documented in his two books, Brethren, Hang Loose and Brethren, Hang Together), comments:
The institutionalization of the church almost invariably strives to make the inefficient and costly process of building and maintaining open, loving personal relationships with one another “unnecessary.” We seem committed to setting the church’s organizational machinery up in such a way that it will roll on quite nicely without either trust or love.
No wonder our efforts end in confusion, anger, and lack of participation! You can’t build community out of anythng but disciples; but having them, no one needs to build it at all. Believers who have been to the cross together will walk away from it ready to discover the joy of community:
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – The cross is the heart of all fellowship, and it is only through the cross that fellowship is deepened and matured. This will involve the frequent and painful crucifixion of self in all its forms—self-seeking, self-centeredness, self-righteousness—and the willingness to remain vulnerable in open fellowship with other Christians.
In other words, if we preach the cross in all its power and invite men and women to come and engage the wonders of relationship with the living God, community will spring up all around us. By the same token, we can preach community until our voices whither with age, and create programs to facilitate it until the second coming, yet never see it emerge. Real community cannot happen until self has surrendered at the cross.
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – Challenging the tyranny of self is at the same time the cost of community and one of its greatest gifts. Since self diminishes our ability to perceive God, denying it leads to deeper relationships with God as well as with other people.
As we grow in our walk with God we’ll begin to recognize how important it is for us to connect with other believers. These five statements summarize the heart of Scripture’s teaching about these relationships, and as we affirm them personally we’ll find our lives moving toward greater depths of community.
1. I don’t have all the answers. I can only understand clearly what Jesus is doing in my life when it stands alongside the work he is doing in other members of the body. (1 Corinthians 12).
2. The church can only be effective when each member is contributing his part. Ministry by a few will never bring it to completion (Ephesians 4:16).
3. I will only grow in maturity when other believers are in a place to speak lovingly and honestly into my life (Ephesians 4:15).
4. I cannot make it alone. The real challenges of this age supersede my own exclusive relationship with God. Often my battles need the aid and support of other soldiers in God’s army (Matthew 18:19,20).
5. Other people’s needs are as important as my own (Philippians 2:4), and all my gifts and resources are at God’s disposal, to use as he sees fit to help others (Acts 4:32).
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – When you understand these statements you’ll find relationships that fulfill them. Some find these among people in formalized church settings. Others find it in more relational settings such as small-group Bible studies and house churches. These groups can be as small as three or four or as large as fifty or sixty depending on the relationships involved, but they allow growing believers to seek God wholeheartedly and share openly and freely with others involved.
One of the most significant trends in Christendom in the last fifteen years has been the rise of informal, relational groups. They meet under a variety of formats as they seek an authentic body life where Jesus is the central focus, and where relationships are prized above programs. They often meet in homes without a centralized, paid leader and for that reason are often looked at with suspicion. To be certain, not all such groups are healthy, but many are, and offer an alternative to religious institutions that can be invigorating to personal growth and ministry.
However, they usually labor under three major obstacles: First, many in the institutional church denigrate them for not being under the control of a larger institution. For that reason they are considered more prone to error. Historically, however, far more error in theology and practice has sprung out of centralized institutions than has ever come from believers sharing open fellowship with God.
Secondly, people who do not connect to a recognized institution are often accused of being against the church. Nothing is further from the truth. I’ve found people involved in these relational environments to be more deeply committed to their walk with God and more freely submitted to the insight and assistance of other believers. They just don’t want to waste their energy serving programs that have so little impact.
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – Thirdly, their very nature requires a greater amount of responsibility from each participant and the closeness of relationship makes it impossible to hide. This is no place for those who want to be entertained or those who wish to stay at arm’s length from others. Here the quality of the meetings is not determined by the pre-planning of paid professionals, but by the participation of growing disciples. They can be a bit unpolished, but also far more vital.
In whatever waters we pursue biblical community, their depths are still largely uncharted for most believers. But let me encourage you to sail them nonetheless. The testimony by others of its vitality and life is well documented. It’s time to shake ourselves from the institutional rigidity and personal selfishness that so easily and subtly distracts us from the kind of relationships Jesus created us to enjoy with each other.
Best of all, you need not wait for your institutional church to start a new program. You can begin with some believers you know who are ready to grow in the Lord together. Take care to ensure that these relationships don’t grow exclusive or stale. Through hospitality and outreach, continue to meet new people and extend to them the fellowship of the Spirit, looking for ways you can be a blessing to them.
The Naked Church – Chapter Sixteen – This is the personal touch God seeks to restore in his body. Try it. You’ll find joy so deep that you’ll wonder how you ever thought all the programs could ever replace or simulate such love!
Produced with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.