I learned at a young age that church attendance was a moral issue. If you missed Sunday morning for any reason, you weren’t that serious about God. Miss two Sundays in a row, you were lost, the eternal kind.
This message was so pervasive that it became my primary metric for righteousness, going to church, that is. Especially in my high school and college years, my behavior Monday through Saturday was excused as long as my rear found a pew Sunday morning. And, most Sundays, it did.
In my experience, a disproportionate amount of time and energy is given to a few hours a week. Corporate worship matters. But my most transformative spiritual experiences occurred in the context of community.
I’m not into indicting the culture of corporate worship. I want to open your eyes to the transformative power of community, doing life with other believers. For sure I’ve witnessed lives changed on Sunday morning. I’ve seen people respond to the gospel in ways that border on miraculous. I still remember one Sunday morning, my 8th-grade year, when my entire church went forward. The presence of God was tangible that morning. I felt it, even as a spiritually apathetic 8th grader.
So, yet, corporate worship matters. But without Christ-centered community, we’re left to ride the spiritual waves from weekend to the next. Many Christians do this. None do it well. They can’t.
Even the highest of tides inevitably recede, often long before the week is over. Christian community sustains you through the low tides, when your marriage is drowning, when depression or anxiety threaten your last reserves of joy, when you lose your job or your spouse is diagnosed with cancer.
Can you show up for worship every weekend, head back to the house afterwards and be done with it? Of course. Will God condemn you? I don’t think so. God’s not in the condemning business. I do, believe, however, you will merely scrape the edges of what it means to know God and find true life. It’s easy to become cynical on the margins. That’s where cynicism flourishes, just outside of the inside (“cynicism” begs for some flesh and bones, but space won’t allow…very simply, cynicism is unredeemed negativity, not negativity itself). And I’m just talking about the church here. This applies to anything.
I’ve been around Christian stuff my entire life. But I never understood what it meant to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Not until I started studying the Bible with five other friends. We gathered in each other’s homes once a week for months. What happened to me over that time is what happens to us in Christ-centered community. I was transformed.
I began as an engineer who loved God but also loved his career. I mostly loved the by-products, financial stability, and state retirement. Within six months, I began entertaining vocational ministry, a miracle of epic proportions, I promise you.
I’m not saying everyone makes such a shift. But in Christian community, we encounter Christ, who calls us deeper, into more meaningful experiences of life.
Finally, after twenty-plus years of sitting in church, I knew what it meant to follow Jesus and not just worship him. Worshipping Jesus can become a clever disguise to prevent actual cruciform living. Maybe that’s why Jesus never told anyone to worship him. He did, however, tell a lot of people to follow him.
I played church for years with the best of ‘em. Christian community doesn’t allow this. When you gather with other believers who share a common mission, it’s hard to play games. It’s hard to do church. A few more thoughts about community.
Christian community sustains you through hard times.
Several years ago, I was a pastor at a church in Tennessee. During my time there, I endured one of the most difficult seasons of my life. Overwhelmed by verbal attacks, unsure how to move forward, Tiffani called our community group leaders – mentors of ours – to come over and pray with us. They did. And I felt peace for the first time in weeks. This is what Christian community offers. When – not if – life’s circumstances weigh heavily on our heart and mind, others come alongside us, offer us support and prayer. They keep us from losing hope.
Christian community also offers an alternative to the hurried pace that is life for most of us.
When John Ortberg, one of the most influential pastors and authors in Christian culture today, needed spiritual direction, he called the late Dallas Willard. He was in a busy, fast-paced season, and asked Willard what he should do, in light of this, to be spiritually healthy.
“You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life,” Willard said.
Ortberg quickly jotted Willard’s point down and prepared to receive the next.
After a long pause, Ortberg said, “That’s a good one. Now, what else is there?”
Another long pause.
“There is nothing else,” Willard said. “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”
The great danger for us is not that we will cheat on our spouse or become addicted to porn or any other moral failure. Our greatest threat is the sin of hurriedness, the toxic preoccupation with accomplishing more with greater efficiency. And in doing so, we will spend our days distracted by hamster wheel living. Satan doesn’t need to tempt us with anything else if he can keep us busy.
Satan doesn’t need to tempt us with anything else if he can keep us busy.
“Hurry is not of the devil. Hurry is the devil,” as Carl Jung says.
Christian community is an invitation to slow down, to enjoy meaningful conversations that aren’t dominated by the next thing on the schedule. It’s here, in this space, that life is found. All healthy relationships need “carefree timelessness,” to borrow from Matthew Kelly.
Christian community is an antidote to superficiality.
And “Superficiality,” according to Richard Branson, “is the curse of our age.”
If the narrative of Scripture reveals anything, it reveals that faith takes time. You won’t find God on the surface of anything. He’s found in the depth of things. This requires a stilling of life, a focused inspection of the heart and mind.
Christian community, when healthy, offers this. Sometimes you gather and if none of the kids end up at the hospital, that’s a win. Even so, when you follow Jesus in community, the invitation to talk about your heart is always there. It’s not always surface level stuff, how the 49ers are going to fare this year (as if you don’t already know) or commentary on Lavar Ball’s latest outlandish comment.
The spiritual benefits of Christ-centered community are too numerous to mention.
Now, engagement in this community can be messy. We all suck, sometimes, after all. We say and do stuff we shouldn’t. We let people down, unbeknownst to us at times, other times, intentionally.
Getting plugged into a Christian community also requires a lot of us. It asks us to be intentional – we must take the initiative to reach out and build relationships. It asks us to be vulnerable – any time you form a new relationship, you risk being hurt or let down.
The church does all it can to provide a launching pad to community. Some call it small groups or life groups. It’s all the same, life in communion with other believers. We must be proactive to experience it. Let’s not pretend building relationships is more difficult than it used to be. It’s always required people to sacrifice time and energy.
I think that’s why so many Christians settle for an hour or two on the weekend. Plugging into Christian community is hard work.
But, if we’re honest, we would admit that corporate worship requires very little of us. We need to gather on the weekend. Christians for centuries have gathered to proclaim and celebrate our Savior and Creator. Even Jesus, a faithful Jew, attended the festivals, the corporate gatherings in Jerusalem (Luke 2; John 7, 10). But he spent most of his time in community with his twelve apostles and a few others. Most of his teachings and miracles flowed from this community.
Jesus undoubtedly wanted to slap an apostle or two. But he persisted with them, and the fruit of his persistence continues today. The church began with the twelve and spread across nations and generations as a result of their deep conviction and faith.
If you’re already walking through life with others in community, I pray the Lord blesses your steps together. If you’re not plugged into one, can I ask you to prayerfully consider finding one?
If you worship at Bayside, check out Growth Track. If not, find out if your church has a launching point to join a community. Whether they do or not, I want to challenge you to find some faithful followers to walk with. It will transform your life.
Grace and peace, friends.
Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.