As you think about what your Christian community should be all about, I suggest an experiment: keep your focus on just four key practices. For thriving community over the long haul, keep central things central.
I’ll tell you a secret: That’s the biblical approach.
It is also a good pragmatic approach.
Think of the community like a tree. You don’t need to invent something new for it to grow in. You need soil. You don’t need to invent something new to help it grow. You need water and sunshine.
There are certain priorities and practices that are central. Keep central things central and Christians grow together in ways that are identifiably Christian. They put down deep roots and they send their branches wide to the world.
for the tree is known by its fruit. (Matt. 12:33)
and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:2)
There are, in fact, some basic elements, priorities, practices.
We’ve known them from the beginning. Like from Acts chapter two, the first Christian Pentecost.
You remember: Peter preached to an international crowd gathered for the Jewish feast. Three thousand came to new faith in Jesus. Then two things happened:
First, they took up four central practices:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42, NRSV)
Second, people were drawn to join them.
And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47)
What will your community do?
Everyone seems to be searching for Christian community, or planning to build one — but what is it? Mostly we are left to our own imaginations.
We develop elaborate plans, and programs and mission statements. We use our best insights. We build according to our best visions.
We usually start at the far end of the process: we set out to be more active in mission.
- We do a demographic study. We have a vision for a program or service project.
- Then we wonder why it is so hard to get people to buy in.
- Or we wonder why they burn out.
It is because, instead of tending to roots, we focused on fruits and leaves.
Your Mission: Keep Central things Central.
What if your new worshipping community took up these four practices and made them central to your life together?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this means just doing what you are already doing. Take seriously the possibility that what the average congregation does is a mere shell or shadow of devotion to
the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42, NRSV)
Each of the four practices sets a high bar. Taking even one of them seriously will require restructuring the way a community operates.
What if your dying congregation decided to make a radical change and go deep in all four of these core practices?
Maybe grounding your life together in these central things will build new health.
If you build life on these four practices, I suspect that three things will happen:
First, each member will find faith and devotion to God deepened.
These four community practices help each individual build a deeper relationship of love and trust with God.
When the whole community is doing these things, life together will support each member’s life of prayer, Scripture, the Eucharist — and those, taken seriously, make for a passionate, life-giving relationship to God.
Second, each member will find relationships deepening within the community.
One of the four practices is to take fellowship seriously — not just coffee hour, but relationships that matter. The community will have to help relationships grow.
It may be through small groups, or prayer partnerships, or regular shared meals, but it will have be intentional.
Once you create the opportunities, and make those opportunities part of the general practice, relationships will grow deeper.
But the other practices build relationships too.
- Sharing the Eucharist teaches and expresses our communion as the Body of Christ.
- Exploring Scripture together gives us a shared language of faith, and a shared set of stories through which to understand our lives.
- Praying together not only bares our souls to God but creates intimacy and support between us.
Third, each member, and the community together, will find themselves move involved in God’s mission.
Focusing on life together is a catalyst for participating in God’s mission.
That is the paradoxical one. Usually groups set out on mission and find themselves running on empty.
Consider the possibility that it actually works better the other way around:
- We keep central things central, put down deep roots by focusing on core practices.
- The new life of Christ bubbles up in each of member and in all as a body.
- The Christian community becomes healthy enough and strong enough to participate in God’s mission.
If your community’s life together built faith that was deep, wise, and confident, Christians who were full of life, growing whole and strong, what might they do together?
- They just might be have good news to share with their co-workers and neighbors.
- They must might develop their own ideas of how to serve the world around them.
- They might find their lives, and their life together, bearing witness to new life in Christ.
- They might find that people want to come and be part of that.
Then again they might not. But at least if they keep central things central, they’ll know that what they are building is really Christian community.
The track record.
Time and again in the history of Christianity, followers of Christ have been innovative in creating Christian community.
Time and again, when Christian community is shaped around living the gospel, it deepens members’ connection to God and fires them up to serve God in the world.
I’ve already blogged about a number of examples of this: Benedictine monasticism, John Wesley’s early Methodism, John Calvin’s Geneva. I’ll be exploring more as time goes on.
Now it’s your turn:
Which of these practices have you seen in healthy community?
Which do you most wish you could deepen in your community?
Let me know in the comments below!
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