The church as an attractive community
As part of my training for the ministry I became student pastor of a small Baptist church in Kent. Once a fortnight I would spend a weekend visiting the membership and the immediate neighbourhood of our building.
The church’s minute book made me aware of the church’s troubled history. How significant that was became apparent when I visited a home near the church. I was trying to present the gospel to the lady of the house when she suddenly said: ‘Your church, which faction is in control now?’ Our conversation came to an abrupt end for a very simple reason – the church I represented had by its behaviour denied the gospel it professed.
Years later in South Africa at my last service before returning to the United Kingdom I had the joy of baptising a Jewish lady who had gradually come to faith in Jesus Messiah. She lived near to some of our members who invited her to our services. She came and continued to come. What struck her was the marked difference between the church’s community life and the political party to which she belonged. Active in campaigning against apartheid her experience of the party was a sorry one. There was a constant jockeying for position and a great deal of back-biting. She told me that what made her think and started her on her search for God was the marked contrast between her party and the community life of our church. The members loved each other and helped each other. They did not gossip nor do each other down. So she began to search for the Lord Jesus, and by His grace she found Him.
Contrast the two churches. One was a disgrace, a blatant hindrance to the spread of the gospel. The other, though not perfect, was a community in which the love of God in Christ was demonstrated in daily living. And it is vital that all our evangelical churches are vibrant communities that demonstrate that the gospel really does transform lives and unites people in a unity that contrasts so strongly with our fractured society. Sadly far too many churches that go by the book do not live by the book. They are rent by personality clashes, self-seeking, and pride.
The book of Acts
The book of Acts is rightly understood as recording the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome through the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost and subsequently (2:1-4; 8:17; 10:44; 11: 16-17; 19:6). The gospel spreads through the empowering of the Holy Spirit. What is often missed in reading Acts, however, is the work of the Holy Spirit in creating a united community to which people are constantly drawn. From the very beginning the believers were together (2:44) in worship (v.46) and table fellowship. To this community the Lord added new believers daily. Luke, the author of Acts, sees a clear connection between the unity of believers in community and the increase of the church (see also 4:32-33; 5:13-14; 9:31; 11:21). This community lives in awe of God (9:31) and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, growing in numbers.
In Acts the growth of the church comes about in more than one way. Proclamation whether to a crowd (2:40-41), a small group (19:19:1-7) or to an individual (8:30-39). The church also grows through persecution (8:1-8) and under the directing of the Holy Spirit (13:1-3). And as the church grows she crosses religious (8:14-17), racial (11:15-18) and social boundaries (see Gal. 3:28). In Christ there is unity and diversity.
Today we tend to neglect what Acts teaches about the church as an attractive community. We emphasise the church going out but do not look to God to send people in. But He still does as I can testify. Over the last eighteen months or so a number of people have appeared in our congregation without being invited by our members. Their testimony is that they felt impelled to come. Should we not expect this to happen more often than it does? Paul clearly expected it to happen (1 Cor. 14:24-25). Why is this impelling of the Spirit so rare? Could it be that our churches are not the attractive communities they ought to be? Would it not be good if we pondered Psalm 133:1, 3?
How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity!
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
Even life for evermore.
Marks of an attractive community
These emerge from a study of the apostolic letters to churches that are preserved in the New Testament. They together are the marks which identify a church that lives in the Holy Spirit.
This mark is first and foremost. In Christ believers are all one (Gal. 3:28). The church is not a heap of individual bricks but a growing building that ‘is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord’ (Eph. 2:22). Hence the frequent appeals for unity to be demonstrated in the life of the local church, as for example in Philippians 2:2 (ESV), ‘Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.’
There cannot be love for God if we do not love one another. First John makes this abundantly clear (4:20-21):
If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
True love issues in practical care both in the Christian community and beyond it. Again John is to the point in 1 John 3:16-18 (also see Acts 4:32:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
We know from our own experience that there is much to discourage us along our way – our besetting sins, our slowness of spiritual growth and even, on occasion, our fellow believers. So we need encouragement and in the church we ought to find it. Paul’s ministry was one of encouragement. He could write: ‘You know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God’ (1 Thess. 2:11-12; see also 5:11).
This is a beautiful grace, but rarer than it should be. Again Paul is right on target: ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves’ (Phil. 2:3).
Years ago I was taught this jingle, ‘What would my church be, if every member were just like me?’ It still challenges me. Does it challenge you, dear reader?
David Kingdon is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.