Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and one of the first things He does is to call forth a community.
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:17 – 20, NIV)
This is a fundamental part of God’s plan. We are to follow Christ and serve Christ in community. Our God is a communal God — Father, Son and Spirit. Therefore, it needs a community to truly reflect His image. In Genesis, God’s image is reflected in the first community, Adam and Eve. And it is as a community that they were given the mandate to serve God, to care for the garden. As history unfolded, God would raise up another community, the nation of Israel, to reveal Him and to serve His purposes. We shouldn’t be surprised then that God would once again raise a community to be agents of His purposes.
The early church was highly communal. Most churches in the first three centuries of church history were 20 – 40 people meeting in a home. And their main gathering was a shared meal. When we bear this in mind, we can understand why the New Testament is full of “one another” commands. It serves to remind us that the early church was marked by a high degree of mutuality, made possible because the early church was highly communal.
The church today however, has lost most of the communal dynamism of the early church. For most churches, the Sunday morning worship is the key gathering of the church. This is not relational gathering. People are sitting in rows looking to the front. Such a configuration is good for teaching and for inspirational worship but is not meant for any meaningful “one another” experience.
Most churches try to compensate for this by having small groups. Called by different names, e.g. cell groups, life groups, care groups, etc., such groups provide a context for face-to-face relating. Unfortunately, such small groups are often seen as just another ministry in the church. Folks are encouraged to join but it is not compulsory. Therefore, many do not join and end up following Christ essentially alone.
We can’t turn the clock back and make churches house churches again although this has been tried with varying degrees of success. I am not saying we shouldn’t do it at all and some have been led to do precisely that — to plant churches based on small face-to-face fellowships. But this is not a realistic option for many of our churches. How then can we help our churches especially the established ones, recover some of the relational dynamism of the early church?
First, we must understand the critical place that community holds in God’s plans. The commitment to community is not just a ministry gimmick. It is based on the very nature of God Himself, and the fact that we can only properly reflect His nature and serve His purposes in community.
Next, I suggest we make our small groups an essential part of church life. In other words, small groups are not just one of the ministries in the church. It is another manifestation of the church. The church has two main manifestations, the Sunday morning worship for instruction and inspiration, and the small groups for actually living out our life in Christ.
There has to be clear teaching from the pulpit and from the church’s Christian education programme as to why small groups and face-to-face relationships are essential to our discipleship. Leaders of our small groups must receive proper education and training. They will be the key in helping a church move in this direction.
We live in times of rapid change. More than ever, God’s church must be all she can be so that we can shine for Christ in this dark world. And one of the first things we must do is to ensure that we follow Christ and serve Christ in the context of authentic community.