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Purpose for Community
Earlier we learned that first century Christians showed their devotion to the fellowship by regularly gathering in public worship at the temple and in their homes.
But why did these first century Christians come together? What was their purpose for gathering in smaller groups in their homes as a community
Let’s look at three major reasons given in Scripture why believers should regularly gather in Christian community.
Spiritual Nurture and Growth
The first reason is for our spiritual nurture and growth.
Since God created us in his interpersonal, Triune image, we can only mature spiritually though significant relationships with others. After God created Adam he declared “It is not good for the man to be alone.” This is the first time in Scripture where God declares his creation “not good” (Gen 2:18).
Because God created Adam in his interpersonal image, it was not good for Adam to only have a personal relationship with God. He also needed to have significant relationships with others.
Likewise, when followers of Jesus are disconnected from ongoing, significant relationships with other believers, it’s not possible for them to mature spiritually as God intends.
The problem today is that many Christians see their relationship with God as mostly private and personal. When they learn from the Scriptures, it’s only through personal study or listening to public preaching. Even when they reach out to serve others in need, that too is often through private acts.
When Edith Schaeffer addresses this concern, she reminds us that “Christianity is Jewish.” Christianity, like Judaism, is a communal religion that stands in contrast to much of the privatized, individualistic forms of Christianity today, especially in the Western world.
In contrast, when we examine how first century Christians grew spiritually, it was mostly in community, in their smaller gatherings with each other in their homes.
So what did they do when they came together? Acts 2 tells us they prayed and praised God (42, 47), they learned the Apostles’ teaching (42), they had all things in common and broke bread and received their food with glad and generous hearts (44, 46), and they sold their possessions and gave generously to those who had need (45).
And what was the result? They had “favor with all the people” and “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (47).
Shepherding and Pastoral Care
These gatherings of Christians were not arbitrary opportunities for spiritual nurture and growth. They were intentional gatherings for believers to receive the shepherding care and teaching they needed from the pastors and teachers God gave them.
In Ephesians 4:7-8, Paul tells us that when Christ ascended to heaven, he gave gifts to his Church. “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore, it says, “When he ascended on high … he gave gifts to men.”
Paul teaches that God gives every believer special abilities, he calls gifts, to serve other members of the body and those in need in their surrounding community (Rom 12, 1 Cor 12).
But Paul continues in Ephesians 4:11 to tell us that God also gives the Church other kinds of gifts. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets,
the evangelists, the shepherds [pastors], and teachers.” These gifts include pastors and teachers.
Why does God give pastors and teachers to his church?
So they will serve believers by equipping them to do works of ministry (Eph 4:12). God calls pastors and teachers to use their gifts to nurture and equip believers to use their gifts in ministry.
The assumption in Scripture is that all believers are under the authority and care of local church pastors and teachers (Phil 1:1). These leaders will one day stand before God and give an account for how well they nourished, cared for, and equipped God’s people (Heb 13:17).
Through regular, small gatherings of believers, church leaders are able to learn the needs of church members so they can better care for these members.
When someone joins a church, that should be seen as a commitment to “the fellowship” that includes not only a commitment to regularly gathering for public worship but also a commitment to regularly gathering with a smaller group of church members under the shepherding care of church leaders.
It’s through the regular gathering of small groups that the church can practice systematic care and encouragement of its members.
This is why fellowship groups should be the primary place for pastoral care. These small groups should not be seen as something a church has, but something a church is.
Ministry in Mission
We should gather regularly and have meaningful relationships for more than our spiritual growth and shepherding. We need spiritual growth and shepherding to be equipped for our service in God’s mission.
The Apostle Paul shows this purpose of fellowship in the way he uses the
Greek word for fellowship, koinonia. To the Christians at Philippi who helped him plant their church, he writes:
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership (fellowship, koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now. (Phil 1:3-5)
Paul links the word fellowship with partnership in the gospel. When people pursue significant relationships with others in the body of Christ mostly for their personal fulfillment, it ends in spiritual stagnation. Why? Because God designs the experience of true Christian fellowship not as an end in itself, but as a byproduct of being mutually devoted to Christian mission.
In Ephesians 4:14-16, Paul continues and concludes his teaching on why God gives pastors and teachers to his Church to equip God’s people for ministry:
[S]o that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
We desire Christ, the Great Shepherd, to nurture us and transform us as individuals and small communities so that through us he will bring transformation to the rest of our church body, our surrounding communities, and the nations.
The community group is the place where people discover and exercise their spiritual gifts within the group itself. Group members should also be serving together within the larger church and the world. Groups are often the place where vision for ministry and service is developed.
Community groups are also a place where people who are seeking truth are welcomed by others and encouraged to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior. They should be a place where unbelievers feel like they belong before they believe, not vice versa.
What’s the normal result of devoted Christian fellowship? When we look back at the end of our passage in Acts 2 we see: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47)
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