Thoughts for Church Leaders on Understanding and Developing Church Unity
The Church of Jesus Christ can be a rather puzzling group to interpret. At times it is strong and courageous, willing to deny all for the sake of the kingdom. Other times it appears weak, unstable, and prone to inconsistency. Of course, there are a number of reasons for the erratic behavior of Christ's bride, some more relevant than others.
With all these matters to consider, it is essential that leaders understand what the Scriptures teach about the operation of their respective assemblies. This is no easy task, and the obstacles are often changing. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of knowing and thinking through some of the basic biblical principles related to Church life.
What follows is by no means an exhaustive coverage of these principles. Neither is it overly detailed. Furthermore, I would like to state up front that I have not personally learned the best way to apply these guidelines. In other words, I'm no expert! At the same time, however, it has been one of my concerns to see our Church operate in a more effective manner. Therefore, I offer these (hopefully) common sense ideas related to faithfulness, Church attendance, and the like.
Thoughts on Fellowship
1. FELLOWSHIP IS ESSENTIAL.
It is unquestionably true that Christians simply must spend time with one another. Fellowship is one of the chief means by which God edifies and sanctifies His people. Who can tell how many doctrinal errors and moral lapses have been prevented because of a tightly knit friendship among believers? And how many grievous mistakes have occurred from lack of the same?
Because of these and other factors, leaders must be promoters of fellowship, instigators of Christian camaraderie, and examples of just how blessed our union with other believers can be. We must teach of the benefits of fellowship, and warn of the dangers of neglect.
This is no trivial subject. Those whom God has called into fellowship with Himself are called as part of a larger body. We are not only individuals, but individuals who have been made members of Christ's Church.
2. STRICT GUIDELINES CONCERNING WHAT CONSTITUTES "FAITHFULNESS" ARE DIFFICULT IF NOT IMPOSSIBLE TO ASCERTAIN.
In other words, we have no clear biblical instruction on how many meetings we are to have per week, or how long our services should run. Let's face it; there are no hard and fast rules here. In fact, a little reflection reveals that most of us have experienced different "brands" of local Church life. Some may appear more effective than others, but many of them are at least consistent with the Bible's portrait.
What we must end up saying, then, is that fellowship is a divinely stated duty for believers, though the exact way in which we fulfill this biblical injunction is a matter of freedom and wisdom.
3. LOCAL CHURCHES MUST COME UP WITH SOME WAYS OF IMPLEMENTING THE N.T. PRINCIPLES OF FELLOWSHIP.
This is rather obvious. Although we aren't given a detailed agenda, we are clearly told that we must do something to apply what the Bible everywhere urges. This will vary from congregation to congregation, and from generation to generation. As usual, therefore, prayer induced wisdom is needed. Only then will decisions be made which are conducive to the growth of those entrusted to our care.
It should be noted as well, that a group of people (presumably already involved in the workings of the local Church) who agree to such decisions, are by the nature of the case making themselves somewhat accountable to the Church's schedule. This doesn't mean that there are no legitimate reasons for missing a Church function; it does mean that God will hold them accountable for their faithfulness in their present circumstances.
We must not go overboard in trying to determine the degree of spirituality in others. We can take comfort, however, in the reality that God does search the hearts. The frightening side of this is that He searches our hearts too!
4. FELLOWSHIP CANNOT (SHOULD NOT) BE CONFINED TO THE "OFFICIAL" ACTIVITIES OF THE CHURCH.
Our ultimate goal is that God's people should desire (without coercion) to spend time together. The official gatherings of the Church must then be seen not as an end in themselves, but as a means (the primary means perhaps) by which holiness and interpersonal connectedness are advanced.
Again, leaders have a duty to tell others of the need for such fellowship. And, by the way, this should not always take the form of a rebuke (though that may have its place); rather, we must show that God created us for relationships, and that this pathway is a rich and blessed one.
5. OVERLY ZEALOUS COERCION BY PASSES THE MEANS BY WHICH GOD CHANGES HIS PEOPLE.
This doesn't mean, of course, that we refrain from stating the duties of Christian people. We must remind them (and ourselves) that we are in this together, and that we have a God-given responsibility to one another. To that end, it would be profitable to survey the many "one another" passages sprinkled throughout the N.T.
This being said, it is probably a mistake, in most cases, to set up some legalistic criteria by which people measure their Christian lives (or their acceptance in the eyes of other Church members). While we all know that God works through means, and that Church attendance is one way in which we encounter those means, we mustn't get so hung up on our expression of fellowship that we confuse the issues in the minds of already uncommitted people.
Instead of making people feel guilty for "missing our services," we should emphasize the need for and joys of participation in a sound ministry. Thus, if any guilt (or motivation) does occurs it is grounded in divine mandate (i.e., what God has said), not human form (i.e., the manner in which we conduct our services). This is a greater incentive to Church attendance than, say, harassing people into coming. This way, too, we avoid much frustration, while simultaneously trusting that God can alter people's thinking (and that His way, and in His time).
6. OFTEN IT IS AT LEAST PARTIALLY THE FAULT OF THE CHURCH AND ITS LEADERS THAT PEOPLE ARE NOT COMMITTED TO THE LOCAL ASSEMBLY.
I have often wondered about my own shortcomings, and the effects they have on people. Now, this is not meant as an excuse for the unfaithfulness of others. Surely, men and women are accountable for their lack of commitments. On the other hand, have we ever been guilty of driving them away? Have we made Church a comfortable place to be? A place where sinners are accepted, and faults overlooked in love?
This is not an easy concept to face up to, but sometimes we pastors are part of the problem. Our faults are just as real as those in our congregations. Therefore, we must make sure our eyes are focused on that "mirror" of which James speaks (1:23-24). This not only guards us from personal deception, but keeps us from hindering the very ministry we wish to promote.
7. A CHURCH'S FOCUS SHOULD BE CHRIST NOT ITSELF.
This may sound merely semantical, but I am convinced that we often confuse the "end" with the "means," and that to the detriment of our people. This doesn't mean that we never speak of our Churches. It does imply, however, that there is something more important than our services, our leadership abilities, our Bible studies, our anything.
What is essential is Christ—His Church, His power, His promises, His glory. What I mean to say is this: We won't attract people to Christ unless He is the centerpiece and goal of our various ministries. Our goal then is for people to, above all, see Him. This being done, they will be attracted to those places and people that speak His name.
8. WE MUST UTILIZE THE GIFTS OF AS MANY OF OUR PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE.
I learned a long time ago (unfortunately, others often knew before I found out!) that I don't possess all of the gifts which Christ has dispensed to His Church. That sounds all too obvious, I know! But how often have we failed to even consider the people to whom we minister? Do they have any talents that might be utilized in the weekly meeting of the Church? Have we asked them what their opinions are concerning the way things are done? Are there any particular needs which they have, or which they have noticed that we have?
Recently, I have rethought a lot of these matters. While I don't have any quick answers or inspired guidelines, I have come to the conclusion that we must at least try to get more people involved in the daily affairs of the local Church.
Most people probably don't know that we care what they think (that is, if we do!). On the other hand, others don't care much about anything, and nothing will likely change their current attitudes. But there are some (hopefully) who may welcome the opportunity for more involvement of whatever sort.
One of my intentions is to try and discover what others think about Church matters. Some of this may be risky, of course. Therefore, we must be careful. So, for instance, we mustn't forfeit our genuine authority as Church leaders. Instead, we should be looking for and promoting the legitimate contributions of others. We lead, but not without their assistance. I sincerely believe that one of our priorities is that of making people feel like they're appreciated. In our congregation, we have been blessed in this direction for some time. Still, there is much room for improvement.
9. A CHURCH SHOULD BE BOTH UNMOVABLE AND FLEXIBLE/CREATIVE.
Our basic commitment to the Scriptures must be always maintained. The exposition of divine truth is our chief responsibility. We must relay to our people the Word of Christ, that inspired resource which supplies and nurtures spiritual life in God's people. This cannot be compromised.
But, on the other hand, our expression of divinely mandated principles such as preaching and fellowship are subject to alteration. We must preach, but we aren't told when or precisely how. Fellowship is not optional, but the specific manner in which we promote it is. In other words, we can (should?) do anything which we consider helpful to our Church's ministry, so long as our ideas don't contradict biblical principles.
Often, I think, we feel frustrated because we lack any specific "how to's" concerning the functioning of our Churches. But perhaps we've missed something here. Instead of wondering why God hasn't given us a detailed agenda for promoting fellowship and the furtherance of the gospel, we should be thankful that He has given us the freedom to apply His broad principles in creative ways.
Ministry is not intended to be wooden and inflexible. Rather, God's people should be immersed in (aware of) both His Word and the cultural milieu in which we find ourselves. Within this framework, we can prayerfully and creatively consider new and innovative (or old and traditional) ways of applying the truths of God's Word.
Rather than being a stagnant group, the Church of Jesus Christ should be ever on the move as it seeks to implement eternal, unchanging principles in an often-changing world. This wedding of truth and creativity may be our greatest hope for success, both within our congregations and throughout the communities we hope to reach with the gospel.