We are family
In Matthew 12 Jesus makes a remarkable statement about those who would soon be called His church. When His mother and brothers come to see Him, Jesus looks at His disciples and says: ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matt. 12:49-50).
We rejoice in this astounding truth (see 1 John 3:1). But with great privilege comes great responsibility. Jesus prays that our unity will reflect the beauty of the Trinity (John 17:20-23). Paul and other New Testament writers build on this with all the ‘one another’ commands: we’re to love, care for, forgive, bear with, encourage, exhort, teach, and admonish one another. Church must be more than a meeting or event once or twice a week, church is a community, a family to be part of.
What’s more, Jesus says that the way we love each other will be a sign of the gospel to a watching world (John 13:35). Since the Fall, not only has our relationship with God been broken, human community has been fractured too. We see the evidence all around us, from the international right down to the neighbourhood and family level. The church is to show the power of the gospel to restore relationships and create genuine community – something many people in our broken world long for.
We’ve been trying to think through some of these things in our church family recently. Many churches will be much further along the road in thinking these things through than us, but here’s some thoughts on becoming more like the church family the New Testament envisages we will be.
We’re putting an increasing emphasis on small (home) groups. This may seem counter intuitive as small groups divide up the congregation, but we’re convinced that we cannot really be church as the New Testament describes by just turning up for a couple of hours on a Sunday, and chatting over coffee afterwards. We’d love to see everyone who comes on a Sunday morning connected to a small group in their neighbourhood. After all, the early church met together both as a big group and in smaller groups in homes. These groups include meeting around the word and praying together, but they’re more than Bible study groups; they’re places where we work out those ‘one another’ commands, supporting each other, eating together, seeking to live as a church family.
These groups are also intended to be a basis for reaching out to our neighbourhoods. For instance, we had an inter-home group fun afternoon recently on a school field, partly to get us together and develop relationships, but partly to invite friends and family who aren’t believers along. There was no ‘gospel message’ but we hope we were a sign of the gospel, and that out of that, conversations and opportunities to invite people along to other more directly evangelistic events may arise.
Diverse family members
We want to be a church made up of people from a variety of backgrounds, and so reflect the beautiful diversity of the universal church in Revelation 7. Mold isn’t particularly multi-cultural but we do have a range of social strata in the town. Unfortunately our church, I suspect like many other conservative evangelical churches, doesn’t fully reflect the social strata of the community we’re part of. We have a middle-class bulge!
We’re trying to think about whether the way we do things creates unnecessary barriers to people coming in from a more working-class background. For example, while we still run the excellent Christianity Explored course, we’ve also tried out other evangelistic courses which are less ‘study-guide-ish’. We’ve started a home group on one particular estate in the town where we just chat through a series of twenty-one Bible stories that take you through the big story of the Bible. We do this informally over lunch every other Sunday.
A warm welcome
We particularly want the church to be welcoming and accessible to those who may be on the fringes of society. We have a deaf church that meets in our building each week and we encourage those folk to come along, at least occasionally, and join the rest of the church family on a Sunday. That means adjusting our service: speaking more slowly and simply, including visual material, keeping our heads up instead of bowed when praying, and obviously having a signer. A couple of ladies in the church have learned British Sign Language so they can support this ministry.
Making our Sunday services more like a family gathering is more difficult. Occasionally on a Sunday evening we rearrange the main room so that we all sit round tables, maybe with drinks and nibbles served before the service. After all that’s what families do when they meet together, and there’s probably more biblical basis for meeting over food that there is for meeting over a four-hymn sandwich!
For some these changes have been huge, for others they haven’t gone far enough! We try to take account of the different ages and traditions within the congregation – respecting all but asking all to be willing to forgo some of their preferences. Living in any family can be hard at times, we often make mistakes, but it’s thrilling to grow together and by God’s grace see others join His family.
John Richards is a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mold.