Community: How it Works

For many years now, the mission statement for Southside Baptist Church has been, “Changing the world through Jesus Christ.” It is on our stationery, on our website, and everywhere our logo is printed. But a mission statement isn’t truly a mission statement unless we take it seriously and do something about it. With that in mind, I have changed slightly the statement I made to you last week. The wording is different, but the meaning is the same. “If we want to be the kind of church that “changes the world through Jesus Christ,” then we need to be a church that makes worship our priority, prayer our focus, and community our goal.

Someone asked me where I got that word community from because in Acts 2:42 it says, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Well, the word for fellowship is the Greek word “koinonia,” and it means fellowship but it also means so much more. I pulled out my copy of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament – abridged version – and found four pages of definition. The words used more than any other in the definition were common and participation, communion and union. So I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to understand what Dr. Luke was getting at. The kind of fellowship that the early church had which is the kind of fellowship that we need is summed up in the word community. Acts 2:1 says it this way, “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.” And in v. 44, “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.” I see in those verses community, and I would like to break that word down into its two component parts: communal unity. Everything they owned was considered to belong to everyone else – that is communal living at its most basic level. And they were together which means they were united. Listen to me, my friends. When we became Christians, we became part of the body of Christ. We were called to belong and not just to believe. God invited us to be members of His family which means that we were meant to live in relationship with each other – in community.

Last week I defined the term community for you as togetherness for the purpose of survival. The early church needed each other because they lived in the midst of intense persecution. But community is also togetherness for the purpose of service. Just as Jesus loved people and met their needs, we are called to love people and meet their needs. The greatest act of service you can perform is to speak love and healing into the lives of hurting people. And then community is togetherness for the purpose of sharing. My friends, it is our responsibility to share our love, wisdom and resources to help others through their trials.

With that in mind, look with me at our Scripture this morning. Acts. 2:42-47. Worship was their priority. Prayer was their focus. Community was their goal. This morning I want you to see what this kind of community looks like. First, we need to understand that Community has a Focused Purpose. Too many times when we think about the purpose of the church, we think in terms of programs and activities. Rick Warren made famous the concept of The Purpose Driven Church in which he listed five purposes: fellowship, discipleship, worship, ministry, and evangelism. And many who would read this passage of Scripture would immediately jump to v. 47 where it says, And the Lord added to the church daily  those who were being saved and say that the early church’s focused purpose was evangelism. But it wasn’t. Others might look at v. 42 and say that it was worship or fellowship. But it wasn’t. Some would say then it had to be ministry. But it wasn’t. Listen to me. All of these things are good, and all of these things are important, and all of these things would be considered as purposes of the church, but I want you to understand this. The focused purpose of the early church was simply to love God, love their fellow Christians, and to love the lost.

Do you see what that looked like? If someone had a need, they met it. That’s what Christian community does. It helps you face life’s problems by providing the support and encouragement of other Christians. Several years ago, I read an article in Leadership magazine by Carl Conner. It was about the dangers of standing alone. He tells the story of a time when a wet, six inch snowfall hit North Carolina. Along I-40, stood several large groves of young, tall pine trees. The branches were bowed down with the heavy snow – so low that branches from one tree were often leaning against the trunk or branches of another tree. But where the trees stood alone, the effect of the heavy snow was different. The branches had become heavier and heavier, and since there was no other trees to lend support, the branches snapped. Listen to me. When the storms of life hit, we need to be standing close to other Christians within the community. The closer we stand, the more we will be able to endure.

But the Christian community also helps you find guidance, direction, and correction through the wise counsel of other Christians. Ephesians 3:10 tells us that God’s intent was that “the manifold wisdom of God should be made know through the church.” God wants to guide us, but He has chosen to do it through His people in the community of faith. He gives us wisdom for the journey as we study His Word and pray together. He helps us make right choices and good decisions through our interactions with each other. And my friends, there has never been a time when this guidance has been more necessary. Our society today is telling us that wrong is right and right is wrong, and without the strength that comes from godly brothers and sisters in Christ, we too often are willing to compromise our principles and join in what the world calls fun. But through the community of faith we are guided into paths of righteousness and are able to resist the sinful and deadly ways of the world. We need each other if we hope to change the world because without each other, the world is going to change us.

Not only does community exist because of a focused purpose but also because there is a Fixed Plan. Look at this. V. 42 – they worshipped, they fellowshipped, they prayed. V. 44 – they took care of each other. V. 46 – they worshipped, they fellowshipped, and they worshipped some more. And here is the fixed plan – the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. Listen to me. I believe that this has been God’s plan for His church from the beginning. George Barna did a study a few years back asking the question, “What draws you to a church?” The first answer was that someone invited them. The number 2 answer was this: how much people seem to care for one another. When God’s people have a focused purpose to love God, love each other, and love the lost, people are drawn to become a part of the community.

I will never forget what one of my professors told a class of preacher boys at Seminary. He said, “If the sheep are healthy and happy, they will naturally reproduce.” He was talking about the church. When the church is healthy and happy, lost people are going to get saved. So if the fixed plan is to reach lost people, how do we get there? First, we need to become a healthy, happy church. We need to be the church God intends us to be.

I want you to see something I mentioned to you last year: the structure of how Luke is writing the book of Acts. It seems as if he is flipping back and forth between two perspectives. One perspective is that he looks at the church from the inside. The other perspective is the church in its relation with those on the outside. On the inside he reveals to us continually the praying, the unity, and the generosity of those within the church. Concerning the church’s relationship with those on the outside he stresses their sharing the message of Jesus, their opposition, and their persecution.

In Acts 1 we see the apostles and the early believers alone with Jesus, being taught by Him and being told to go and wait for the Holy Spirit to come. Then Luke records how they were together praying, and how they chose someone to replace Judas. Chapter one is an inside look.

In Acts 2 we see the church out in the world. On the day of Pentecost the Spirit came and filled the waiting believers. Peter stood up and preached to the multitudes and 3000 people became followers of Christ.

At the end of chapter 2, Luke shifts the focus back to the church and we see the wonderful fellowship, friendship, and unity they enjoyed.

Beginning in Acts three all the way to chapter 4 verse 22, we see the church out in the world again. Peter and John heal a man lame from birth then use that as an opportunity to preach to a huge crowd. As they are preaching they are arrested by a group called the Sadducees. They are thrown in jail and then warned and threatened to keep their mouths shut concerning Jesus.

In 4:23-5:11 we go back to the church. We see them pray for God to empower them to continue sharing the gospel despite the warnings not to. We see their generosity and the willingness to help those in need. And we see the sin of Ananias and Sapphira dealt with.

You see, Luke has a reason for presenting his account this way. He is trying to fix our attention on two aspects of church life. The first is the gathering of the church. This is that “inside look” I was talking about. And this is part of the Fixed Plan of the church. If we are going to change the world through Jesus Christ, then The church must be committed to developing and caring for its members. There has to be an effort to encourage one another, while at the same time exhorting and challenging each other. There has to be times of worship and prayer. This is why we are to gather together. We need each other. That is what Luke is presenting.

That’s one aspect. The other aspect of church life that Luke is showing us is what I want to call the “going” of the church. He shows the church at work sharing the good news of Jesus and the great numbers of people being saved. And my friends, these are the two aspects of church life, and every healthy church knows how to balance of the two. The church must be committed to reaching those beyond its walls. Our love must not stay focused solely on those within the church. Our love must be focused outwardly. Churches are dying because they are unwilling to embrace newcomers. Fellowship becomes so tight that no one can break in. Healthy churches don’t do that. Instead, they develop an atmosphere of acceptance and love. Listen to me. If we want to change the world through Jesus Christ, we need to be nice to people when they show up.

You say, Preacher, we know that. But I’m telling you this morning that we must make a conscious decision to stop looking inwardly and begin to reach outwardly. We must shift the focus of our ministries from meeting our needs to meeting the needs of others. How do we do that? We need to open our arms and our hearts to everyone in this city. No one is too far away. No one is too different. No one is too evil.

Instead of being critical of our friends and family that don’t worship God, do we realize why they don’t come to church? Sometimes its because we keep the Good News to ourselves. We may not realize we’re doing it and we certainly don’t want people to stay on the outside without finding a way in. That haunts me because I know that God wants everyone to experience and enjoy His love and His grace and His peace. WE DON’T WANT ANYONE TO THINK THE CHURCH IS JUST FOR INSIDERS!

So what can we do to face these misconceptions? What can we do to dispel this haunting image? How do we effectively get the message across that the church is for everyone? Well we can be sure to be warm and welcoming to our guests. Of course we need to balance our efforts and not try “too hard.” Back when you were dating, did you ever go out on a date with someone that tried too hard? We’ve all probably made that mistake – we wanted to impress this girl or you wanted to impress this guy. Instead you came across like a stalker. And so, when you tried to get them to go out with you again they said, “I’m sorry, I think I’m going to be busy for the next twenty years.”

We don’t want to scare people away from church but we do want them to know. AS FAR AS THE CHURCH THAT BELONGS TO JESUS – THERE ARE NO OUTSIDERS! So when they are our guests we give them a warm welcome. Besides being warm and welcoming when guests arrive, there’s another often-overlooked plan to let people know they’re not outsiders. The church has to go OUT into the world because most of the unchurched are not going to come into the church. The church is going to have to leave the building if we are going to change the world! If the unchurched are going to know that church is relevant, and that there are no outsiders, then the church must leave the building! If we are going to change the world, then we must be a church where salvation is proclaimed to all people. Look at how Peter puts it in vs. 21. Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Later, Peter finished his message by saying, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It is crucial now more than ever before that the church be faithful to preaching the gospel message. One reason that we have lost our influence in society is that the church, as a whole, has gotten away from this message of salvation. Some preach against sin, but that isn’t the same as preaching God’s message of salvation. The message of salvation is the message that the early church proclaimed, and it is the message I proclaim to you today: Jesus Christ is Lord and has the power to change lives. It is this dynamic message and no other that makes believers out of non-believers.

So understand that true Christian Community is known by its focused purpose and its fixed plan but even more so by the Finished Product. I can’t help but notice when I read about this first church and compare it with the life of Jesus found in the gospels, that these church members were living and ministering just like Jesus. They were healing just like Jesus. They were loving people just like Jesus. They were preaching and teaching in the temple just like Jesus. In fact, they were so much like Jesus that the world looked at the finished product and called them Christians. Little images of Jesus. They were a “Jesus Church.” The only difference is that there was only one Jesus, but there were a lot of these “Jesus look a likes.” And as a matter of fact, Paul described in 1Corinthians 12:27 that the church was the Body of Christ. We are to act, work, and minister just like Jesus. His hands. His feet. His heart.

Hear me this morning.  The secret to the growth and power of the early church was not the presence of a strong pastor. It had nothing to do with the music ministry. It was not even about the deacons or the Youth Ministry or the Sunday School. The secret to the growth and power of the early church was its living together in love and unity.  The most important fact was not what they saw and heard but that they were all together, in one accord, and God met them in that place. Community. And a lost and hurting world was drawn to that love and unity.

I believe it’s what the church needs today. For God’s people to be focused on the true purpose of the church: loving God, loving each other, and loving the lost. Fixed in our plan: to develop and care for our members while reaching beyond our walls. And by demonstrating the finished product: the very image of Jesus Christ. But its only going to happen if we can come together in love and unity.

Arthur Schopenhauer, an 18th century philosopher, used the illustration of a group of porcupines to describe our plight. A group of porcupines was marooned one bitterly cold night in the middle of a large frozen field. There was no way to escape the biting wind. They could not burrow into the frozen ground, but as they huddled closer together to keep warm, their sharp quills began to pinch and hurt. The closer they moved together, the more the pain increased. Some of the animals couldn’t bear the pain and drew apart to sleep alone. In the morning, those animals had frozen to death. In our humanness, there are times when we hurt each other and the tendency is to pull away and go it alone. We must resist that tendency because we were created for community. We need each other, and those outside of the body of Christ need to see us need each other.

Ben Hayes
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