Wondering if church matters? Or if your new community is an authentic expression of church? Get your head round an important question—and discover how your community can journey toward being “church.”
Many people find the church off-putting
It often feels formal, hierarchical, and distant from everyday life.
We live in a relational world – people are constantly on their mobile phones! Yet for many people, the church does not seem focused on healthy relationships.
Which is a tragedy.
2. Relationships are the very essence of the church
Many descriptions of the church in the New Testament have relationships at their heart. For example:
- The household of God (1 Timothy 3.15)
- The body of Christ (Romans 12.5)
- The vine and the branches (John 15.5).
Any church, whether a new Christian community or otherwise, has four overlapping sets of relationships, all centered on Jesus:
- With God directly in prayer, worship and study
- With the wider church
- With the outside world, and
- Within the community itself.
The church at Corinth, for example:
- Experienced God directly (1 Corinthians 12.7–11)
- Connected to other Christian communities – members read Paul’s letters and looked up to people in the church at large (1 Corinthians 1.12)
- Engaged with the outside world (1 Corinthians 14.23–25)
- Interacted relationally in worship (1 Corinthians 14.26–31).
3. These four sets of relationships are equally important
That’s because Jesus is central to each of them, and together they make for a balanced and healthy community. Throughout history, these four sets of relationships have always been central to the church. They have been expressed in a multitude of ways, but the one Spirit has worked through this variety.
So if your new Christian community looks rather novel, don’t worry! It can still be an authentic expression of the people of God. Just look for ways to grow these four sets of relationships. Once all four are present, your community will be paddling in the shallow end of the church.
4. Where do Bible, sacraments, and leadership fit in?
Christians have traditionally seen these as being fundamental to the church. You can think about this by distinguishing between the essence of the church and what is essential for the church.
The two need not be the same. A referee is essential for a soccer match, but is not the essence of the game. In the West a knife and fork are essential for eating, but are not the essence of the meal.
The four sets of relationships are the essence of church, while baptism and Holy Communion, the Bible, and recognised leadership are essential for the church. Scripture, sacraments, and leadership originated in the church’s relationships. They arose from interactions within the community that Jesus founded.
And the Holy Spirit works through them to build up the church’s relationships.
Other forms of worship, social events, outreach activities, organizational arrangements, discipline, and so on, all have a similar purpose. They encourage, support, and strengthen the community’s four overlapping sets of relationships – with God directly, the world, the wider church, and within the community itself.
5. So keep moving from the shallow to the deeper end of church
Make sure baptism and Holy Communion, the Bible, and recognized leadership are present in an appropriate form. Surround them with other life-giving rhythms and practices.
Keep asking: “How well do our practices nourish each of the community’s four sets of relationships? Are our worship, Bible study, organization, and other practices deepening these relationships?”
If not, make changes. Prayerfully shape everything you do to best enable each of these relationships to flourish. That way, your community will become – as the animation suggests – a people of God.
6. How do you know when your community has “arrived”?
How can you recognize that it has become a “congregation” (or the equivalent) of a local church, or even a local church in its own right?
One answer is:
- When it begins to grow into the four overlapping sets of relationships that comprise the church, and
- When you are introducing what is essential for these relationships to flourish.
7. When your community looks like God’s people, treat it as such!
New Testament Christian communities were both connected to the wider church and had appropriate autonomy.
So, ask the following questions:
- How far has your community grown healthy relationships of accountability and mutual support with your parent and other churches? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these relationships? What more could you do to strengthen them?
- How far has your community traveled toward being an expression of church? Is it paddling in the shallow end of church or is it wading toward the deeper end? Has the time come for it to receive greater official recognition?
- If you are already linked with a local church, denomination, or network of churches, is your community appropriately represented in their decision-making? If so, how well is this working? Has the time come for more effective representation?
- Does the community have appropriate autonomy? In particular, how much freedom does it have in appointing its leaders, including the overall leader? Is there a shared understanding by all involved, and is this written down somewhere?
- Will the community be protected when the leadership of the parent church/denomination or network changes? For example, could a new minister close you down if they wanted? What say will you have in appointing a new minister?
- Who should you consult about any of this, and when?
8. Do you want support in your journey to becoming church?
If so, get together with others traveling in the same direction.
Meet regularly to share stories, learn (that’s what disciples do), and encourage each other. As you do this, you will be experiencing church in yet another way. You will be engaging:
- With God directly through prayer and study
- With the wider church through Christians drawn from different contexts
- With the world as you learn from stories of how others do mission
- With one another in the learning community itself.
See the story videos for some first-hand experiences of learning in community.
Caroline and Ali describe the benefits of getting together with others travelling in the same direction.
Chris describes how the learning community has given him support in his journey.
If you are doing this unit as a group and the group includes someone who is a bit of a theology/church nerd, ask them to read in advance “A perspective on Acts 11.19–30”.
Prayerfully read Acts 11.19–30.
- Imagine that the Jerusalem Christians were an existing church today and the church in Antioch was a new Christian community. Retell the story as if it happened today.
- What does the story tell us about “blended” church’?
- What one thing will you do differently as a result?
Choose one or more of the following:
- Perhaps with someone wise and prayerful from the wider church, review your new community’s relationships with your parent church and the church beyond. Use the questions in the Guide, Section 7.
- When you personally/as a core team/as a community make important decisions:
- Which set of the church’s relationships do you tend to take most note of?
- Should you pay more attention to the other relationships?
- If so, what would you be doing differently?
3. Evaluate how well your team/core group or your new community is growing in its fundamental relationships.
Select one of the following sets of relationships:
a) With God directly in prayer, study, and worship
b) With the world
c) With the wider church
d) Within the fellowship
- Over the past few months or year, in what specific ways have we seen growth in this set of relationships?
- Over the next few months or year, what further growth would we like to see?
- What are we doing now that helps us to move in this direction?
- What else would move us in that direction?
To discern how the Spirit has led you recently and wants to lead you in the months ahead, might you review each of the four sets of relationships in this way once a year? When would you do this?
4. Download the fresh expressions-stories app (download it from Apple or from Google Play) and post a question, such as: “Any suggestions for strengthening relations between a new Christian community and its parent church?” Discuss any responses.