The notion of following Jesus outside of a community of believers is on the rise across the United States. Increasingly, believers are opting for digital downloads of Sunday services as opposed to gathering together with brothers and sisters in Christ to hear the Word preached and to worship Him together.
Let’s face it, fellowship can be inconvenient and messy. It’s easier to choose a podcast over face-to-face encounters with people who actually know us. The temptation to avoid relationships, both in and outside of our churches, is not only real, it’s not going away soon.
The modern world might be making faith a private endeavor, but the picture of faith in scripture couldn’t be more different. The early church, in Acts 2:42-47, could not get enough of studying, breaking bread, praying, meeting needs, worshiping, celebrating, visiting, hosting and being on mission together. They were enthusiastic for both the preaching of the Word and fellowship in the body of Christ to the point, in fact, that it could be said that the New Testament knows nothing of Christianity without community.
In his Word, God not only encourages fellowship but calls it an authentic mark of following Him. Ironically, the very thing that God has called a necessity – fellowship in a local body – is something that too many are viewing as merely an option.
When I think about how critical fellowship is in the life of a healthy church, my mind turns to thinking strategically. I wonder how we encourage biblical fellowship in our churches. It may be possible that we do a great job of teaching how much the local church needs its members but are slack in our teaching about the important ways in which the Bible says believers need their own spiritual family. Consider three realities that I think require us to both live and teach the necessity of following Jesus in fellowship with other believers as we join in His mission:
We need others to help us grow in intimacy with God.
The New Testament makes clear that Christian community is an indispensable part of biblical discipleship. That truth can be difficult to hear, however. Western culture (and in particular, American culture) has been heavily influenced by individualism and consumerism – baggage that, if we’re not careful, we can bring into our churches.
While it may be common to show up on Sunday searching for information or programs that we think will help us grow in our walk with Jesus, it’s important to remember that God says the most significant part of our growth in intimacy with Him happens in relationship with others. As Proverbs remind us, “Iron sharpens iron and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, ESV).
There are things about God that we will never learn apart from relationships with other believers. Living our lives together exposes our faults and allows others to speak truth into our lives. It can be messy, confusing and painful at times, but the blessing we experience as we obey this command of God’s far outweighs any of those obstacles.
We need others to help us walk through life’s ups and downs.
In Paul’s description of the marks of a true Christian found in Romans 12:9-21, he urges us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15, ESV). We cannot obey this command without being in community. If believers are commanded to rejoice and weep with one another, the implication is that there will be times when our joys need amplification and our sorrows need distribution. True humility involves a willingness to say both “God, I need You” and “God, I need others.”
We need others to help us accomplish the mission.
The mission of God has always existed in the context of community. This fact is displayed in the most basic element of the gospel: God the Father sent God the Son to be “Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14, ESV). When Jesus ascended from the earth, He charged His followers to take the gospel to the entire world. What’s more, He didn’t just say it once – He said it five times, and each time His commission was in the context of a group of believers. The New Testament pattern for community assumes mission, and the New Testament pattern for mission assumes community.
Nowadays, the word fellowship has expanded to mean any of a number of ways of connecting with people – some real and some that we euphemistically call “virtual.” In an era when virtual commutes and relational distance are real-life concepts, it’s important to remember that face-to-face fellowship in the local church is not merely an option for Jesus’ followers, but rather an imperative.
Because we have a relationship with Jesus, we now have a relationship with His family. And, just as our relationship with Jesus is central to our lives, so should be our relationship with His family. Our position in Christ has never been up for debate. Why should our place in His body be? Not only does my church need me but, if I’m a follower of the living Christ, I need my church as well. If we are going to accomplish the work into which we’ve been sent, we must do it together.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Vance Pitman is senior pastor of Hope Church in Las Vegas. This column first appeared at the International Mission Board’s imb.org website.)