II Peter 1:2-3 Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue.
There’s a line in the movie What About Bob? that always makes me laugh: “There are two types of people in this world: Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t.” Since I was in the second group when I first heard that (I’ve since mellowed), it struck me as delightfully odd to have the movie’s main character view the world in some ways like I did.
It was shortly after I saw the movie that I began to study and give serious thought to the role of the local church in the life of the Christian. In reading and speaking to other believers, I came to a similar perspective: There are two kinds of Christians in this world: Those who “get” the local church, and those who don’t. Happily, a preference for or against Mr. Diamond isn’t going to affect our spiritual maturity or my place in the kingdom of God. But our thoughts on the local church will.
Relatively few Christians give the kind of serious thought they should to the place of the local church in their lives. They rightly give thought to their walk with God, their relationship to His Word, their relationship with others. Some are focused on developing their “ministry”—but more on that later. Yet few believers realize how important the local church is in their spiritual lives, and what God’s perspective is on the issue.
Some people go because they “inherited” their church from their parents. Some follow family traditions in terms of denominations. Knowing why God has given us the local church, and knowing our place in God’s chosen church for us—these are two of the most important spiritual issues a believer can face. Our spiritual futures are, if not dependent, then at least completely intertwined with the issue.
Some of us need to be convinced, and some of us just need reminding: the local church is God’s idea. More than that, it’s God precious possession: “…the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). He loves the church. The “joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2) was His people! Yes, the local church can be infuriating, frustrating, and occasionally unspiritual. That’s because it’s filled with people. And these people can be so distracting in their attitude or actions (or we can be so easily distracted by those things) that we can take our eyes off the Lord who created the church in the first place. Happily, its greatest strength is the presence of our Lord in her midst.
When Jesus said, “It is finished” on the cross, He meant more than that the sacrifice for sins had been completed. The whole system of sacrifice and worship had been fulfilled as well, and was about to be transformed into something new. That something new was the kingdom of God and the local church.
Some think the birth of the church at Pentecost was simply the start of the body of Christ—the universal church. But keep reading. Once the disciples tarried in Jerusalem and power came upon them (Acts 2), they went out and did something. They established local churches. Yes, they shared the good news and performed miracles and healings, but they also set up local churches and appointed people to various positions of leadership and service.
The Old Testament system of worship before Christ was centered in one place—Jerusalem—and consisted of animal sacrifices and worship. And all of it was run by a narrowly chosen group of priests. This was how God’s people received forgiveness, how they worshipped, and how they fellowshipped. In some ways, the new system of local churches is the opposite: it’s decentralized, and, happily, forgiveness has already been taken care of at the cross. But some things are the same; the local church is where believers worship corporately, are taught the Scriptures, and where they fellowship.
It’s easy to love the worldwide body of Christ. It’s universal, and has one faultless and invisible Head. We can conceive of it as mystically as we like, and it cannot be counted or measured. Our membership is automatic, and its direction is sure but unseen. There’s no specific correction coming to us from it, and it cannot be destroyed. There’s no accountability in the body of Christ, and its demands on us as individuals are either limited or nonexistent. It’s a huge blessing to be a part of it, of course. We experience that especially when we meet believers in some strange place and we are reminded of the joy of our spiritual unity in Christ. But being a part of it isn’t enough to make us grow.
The local church, on the other hand, is to the body of Christ what the specific is to the general. It’s located in one place, has a visible leader or leadership team (made of fallible people!), and can be seen and touched and counted. Involvement is voluntary, and direction, training and correction is strained through people we can see. Internal (and perhaps external) organizations are present, and yes, sadly, it can be destroyed.
The whole issue is like the person who says he loves humanity—it’s just people he can’t stand. God just doesn’t love people in general, or even the body of Christ in particular. He loves his church universal, and He loves YOU, and He loves the broken group of people that get together regularly to love Him and listen to Him.
The local church, whether meeting in a central building or not, is where there is the greatest expression of our Lord’s body in a given area. It’s where people SEE the love of God in action, and where God is blessed by corporate (as compared to individual) worship.
Of course it’s the duty and pleasure of a local church to spread the gospel. But the church is also our personal gift from God for our life and godliness. It’s where we grow by relating to others and where what we learn from His word and Spirit gets put into effect. It’s where the spiritual rubber meets the road.
Specifically, the local church helps us with three issues:
- It brings us fully in the family of God, which is essential to spiritual growth
- It’s where we are healed of a devastating spiritual disease that’s so bad that we often don’t know we have it, and
- It’s where we learn to serve, which is the starting point of all ministry.
The Family of God
When God looked at Adam, he also looked down the road and saw the human family. When God saw Abraham, He saw the nation of Israel. When God saw His Son on the cross, He also saw a Bride—the church. God sees us, speaks to us, and works with us individually, but also on the basis of our being a part of a larger group. Becoming a working part of larger groups—family, small groups, teams, classes, our local churches—is all part of our process of sanctification. It’s a huge part of how we become more Christ-like. God already has the Perfect Man. He’s working now on His Bride.
Let God use the local church to get you to join up with others. Let Him draw you into the joys and power of worshiping with others, becoming lost in a corporate wave of worship and love toward the Lord. Embrace whatever style of worship is there. If people love the Lord, it doesn’t matter what style of worship is prevalent. I grew up spiritually with what most would call contemporary worship. But I love the old hymns, too. A heart eager to worship sees music as only the vehicle for worship. What’s important is opening your heart to the Lord and to the family of God in the room. Let yourself join in heart and mind and voice; repent of any stubborn independence and individually that keeps you from loving and joining others. Worshiping in one accord gives God great glory and it’s part of His plan to transform you.
Aside from worship, God wants us to develop a corporate ear and mind as part of our growth in Him. Learning His word together is a different experience from learning on our own. There is a magnification that takes place in our hearts when we sit together at the feet of Jesus. Whether hearing as a group or being blessed by His Spirit together in a meeting, the corporate experience is something that simply can’t be duplicated on our own.
My particular local church believes that the gifts of the Spirit described in I Corinthians 12 and 14 are for today. Prophetic words given to others in church often minister greatly to me, even if they don’t seem immediately applicable to my life. I’m always encouraged by the encouragement others receive. Yet even if you don’t believe as we do, we can all admit that testimonies are encouraging to us, that a song, dance or skit can be a great blessing, and that prayers or sermons—especially powerful ones— can bind us together as nothing else can. Preaching may hit us where we live individually, but preaching is never for just one person.
The local church is also where the sacraments and ordinances and celebrations are held that only assemblies can enjoy. Of course you and your family can take communion and baptize yourselves at home. You can get married with a justice of the peace or a minister all by yourselves in the woods. But communion is clearly meant to be shared at gatherings, and baptisms were never intended to be self-conducted! Weddings lose an essential part of the experience for the couple being married if they are not witnessed—and many an individual and couple have been blessed by simply attending and witnessing a wedding.
We live in an age of strong individual identity. There are many positives to that, of course. But especially in America and the West, there’s a dark side. We can lose the sense of Emmanuel—not “God with me,” but “God with us.”
Go to a bookstore or check out the self-help books online. You probably won’t see any of them that talk about joys of learning, growing, and giving and receiving as part of a group. Most tell us how we can individually do this, believe that, receive this blessing, etc. But how can I obey Gal. 6:1 by myself?: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one….” There’s a great growth in maturity between the believer that asks, “What’s in it for me?” and the one that asks, “What’s in it for us?” We will ask the first question on and off the rest of our lives. Some have never even thought of asking the second question.
Being a part of a local church allows us the regular opportunity to “esteem others better than ourselves” and “look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2). I can’t “be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love” (Romans 12) by myself. I Corinthians 10 talks about limiting my freedom for the sake of others—a profoundly anti-cultural impulse these days. The world encourages us to claim our rights; the local church is our primary area to exercise our Lord’s call to deny ourselves and bless and encourage others.
Look up all the “one another” scriptures (e.g., love one another, prefer one another, etc.). One website has 59 of them from the New Testament alone. We can’t do any of these on our own. Really—how can we “love one another” and “bear one another’s burdens” if we’re not part of a group larger than ourselves?
For the spiritual Lone Rangers among us, let me remind you that the Scriptures know nothing of a spiritual hermit. Every book in the New Testament from Acts to Revelation is addressed to people living in community, learning and growing in relationship with others. How often do we see the word “brethren”—plural?
One of the greatest ways in which the local church helps us grow is by putting us with people we wouldn’t ordinarily come into contact with. We’re forced to fellowship with those who are weaker, those who are stronger, and with those with whom we disagree. It’s easy to work our lives so we can avoid those who make us uncomfortable in any way. We can’t do that in a local church. What a fantastic training ground! There may be no better place to learn the blessings of how to handle offenses (Matt. 18—note specifically the context of local church) and to learn ourselves how not to offend.
Jesus very famously said in Matt. 25:40b: “…inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” His brethren were those who knew Him, those in relationship with Him—not everyone in the world. John says in I John 4:20-21: “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.”
Paul’s well-known encouragement in Gal. 6:9 (“And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”) is followed by a lesser-known verse: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” “Especially?” Yes, especially! We have special responsibilities towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the local church provides that special opportunity to express His love to those we can see and talk to.
What does this mean, bottom-line? It means there is no practical difference between how we relate to God and how we relate to local church. How we relate to one another reveals our hearts and our love (or lack of love) toward God. How we relate to the leadership of the church reveals a great deal about our love and submission to God, and how we understand the heart of God and putting His priorities before our own. How we love and serve the local church reveals how much we understand His ways, and how He intends to build His church and spread the gospel throughout the world.
Getting Healed from a Disease
There is a serious, infectious disease we carry that is usually so deceptive that we don’t know we have it—mostly because we don’t see the symptoms in ourselves. It’s worse spiritually than carbon monoxide poisoning. The local church is probably God’s strongest avenue of healing and change for this problem. The problem, the disease, is self-centeredness.
Of course, the process of becoming God-centered and other-centered is life-long. It takes a constant work from the Holy Spirit to overcome this problem. Of all God’s gifts to us, the local church is generally the most powerful agent God has to remove this disease. If you’re married, and depending on whom you’re married to, marriage might be that most powerful agent. I used to believe that marriage was always God’s most powerful agent in that arena. But over the years, I’ve witnessed many couples come to subtle unspoken agreements and arrangements to indulge the self-centeredness of each other.
We choose our spouses and our friends (relatives are another matter!). We don’t choose the people who go to our church, and yet we are called to love them. We are called to consider them part of our spiritual family, and we are to keep them in mind. For example, Paul talked about not eating meat offered to idols if he knew that it would offend his Christian brothers and sisters (I Cor. 10). “For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience?” he asks. His answers: “Let now one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being.” “Give no offense….” “…not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” Could he have said anything more contrary to the self-centeredness of the age? The “wisdom” of our age is about grabbing rights, looking out for number one (even if that sentiment is phrased more delicately), and loving ourselves first so we can love others at some indefinite time later.
We are all justly appalled when we see self-centeredness displayed in others. God so loves us that he gave us the local church so we can receive healing of that same disease.
Ministry is Service is Ministry
Finally, the local church is where our calls usually come to life. Of course I’m not saying that everyone is called to some kind of paid, or fulltime, ministry position. But every Christian is a minister, and everyone is called. According to Ephesians 4, the folks we call church leaders are called to equip the rest of us “for the work of ministry.” There are seminaries, Bible schools, Christian colleges and training centers. Many of them offer training for certain kinds of ministry. But the local church is where most of them are going to apply what they’ve learned (and to be honest, far too many come out of those training centers woefully under-prepared for the realities of fulltime ministry with actual people.) For the rest of us, God has provided the local church to help train us in service.
Matthew 20:28 is usually translated one of two ways: Jesus says that He didn’t come to be ministered to, but to minister, or…He didn’t come to be served, but to serve. The fact that those two words are interchangeable here is telling. Ministry is service, and service is often first learned within the context of a local church. Real ministry/service is self-sacrificial; it’s other-centered; it’s motivated by love. It’s not self-expression in the spiritual context—it’s service.
All ministry in the Kingdom of God is rooted in service—in spirit and in action. Take a look at what Paul says about the spiritual gifts in I Cor. 12-14. These gifts he describes are powerful, no matter which one you choose to look at. Paul says simply that they have been give to us to bless others! Peter says in I Pet. 4: “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” If you want to develop your ministry, start serving where there is a need. God can and will guide you from there. The Lord pays attention to service, since it what Jesus came to do, and what His followers are called to.
Some people want a ministry. But we’ve each already got one—so start serving. Watch what God will do with it. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Get in there. Serving where you are is how you get your own ministry going. In fact, some day you might be so caught up in ministering that you actually forget about your ministry altogether.
One of the great ironies of the Kingdom of God is that to find out who are in Christ individually, we have to be a living part of a local group expression of His body. We need local church like we need water and air. Let’s embrace His call to do all the “one anothers.” Let’s let go of our fears and self-centeredness and make our lives about Him and others. Let’s look at local church as God sees it—as a local expression of His love, grace and power, and as one of the greatest personal gifts He could bestow!