The biblical concept of fellowship is important to understand and live out. In the early church there was a relationship between the warmth of heart toward God and generosity toward each other. So close were these relationships the early Christians did not see themselves as isolated individuals but as “members one of another,” in “communities” where individuals grew to spiritual maturity and cooperated with each other in advancing God’s kingdom. Within these communities they gained strength, support, and protection from the corroding influences of the world. Thus they were well prepared to face anything the devil might throw at them when they went out into the world. This quality of relationship contrasts sharply with many modern Christians’ faith, which narrow their relationship with God to individualistic concerns like repentance and conversion, prayer and Scripture study, personal righteousness and evangelism. But God has called us to grow to maturity in the body of Christ. We are called to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,” growing up “in every way into him who is the head, into God, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Eph. 4:13, 15-16). John Wimber
Our Theme: ON COMMUNITY.
There’s a problem in Americanized Christianity that continues to haunt me as a pastoral shepherd. I think the problem haunted John Wimber as well.
That problem, as I see it, is the fierce independent spirit of most Americans and how that drive for independence fights against God’s desire to see his people walk out their Christian faith in the context of long-term, loving, nurturing relationships. Now, don’t get me wrong. Independence, or our freedom to be ourselves, is, at its very core, a gift from God. Quite honestly, our freedom to make choices independent from outside influence is a gift most people in the world would die for. In fact, countless Americans have given their very lives, over the years, defending that freedom we have to be independent people.
But every gift from God is like a sharp razor. In the hands of a skilled barber, the sharp edge can give us a great shave. But, put that same razor in the hands of an immature, inexperienced man, and the consequences can literally take your life.
So it is with the gift of independence.
Over the last thirty years of pastoral ministry, overseeing church life in four different churches in three different cities, I’m guessing that I’ve had the privilege to meet literally hundreds and hundreds (if not thousands) of Christians who have come through the doors of the churches I’ve pastored. Sadly, the great majority of these committed followers of Christ that I’ve met over my thirty years in ministry have rarely stayed at our church for much longer than a few months to a few years. In fact, a running joke amongst pastors is the one about the new visitor who comes up after a Sunday morning service and proudly proclaims, “Pastor, this is great! God has told me that your church is the place where I really belong!” Sadly, it’s been most pastor’s experiences that folks who say nice things like that, usually leave the church within a few weeks!
Now, some would say that church life is not about keeping people. And, in premise, I agree. But here’s the sad fact. Most American Christians rarely put down any long-term, relational roots. Our independent spirit so very often pushes us to move on, believing that the next church we attend will meet all of our needs, or the next pastor we listen to will speak to us as we want him or her to, or the next small group will be the one where we’ll settle down.
Let’s face it folks. The New Testament concept of community, as Wimber spells it out here, is foreign to most American churches. The idea of relationships as being “members one of another, in communities where individuals grow to spiritual maturity and cooperate with each other in God’s kingdom” is about as hard to find in our churches today as a one-hundred dollar bill in a collection plate!
Now before you write off my thoughts here as just another old pastor who’s been hurt badly by people leaving his church over the years, let me give you a few statistics pulled from recent church growth studies:
- Every year more than 4,000 churches close their doors compared to just over 1,000 new church starts.
- Every year 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity.
- Over the last decade, the combined membership of all Protestant denominations in the USA declined by almost 5 million members (9.5 percent), while the US population increased by 24 million (11 percent).
- At the beginning of the twentieth century (1900), there was a ratio of twenty-seven churches per 10,000 people, as compared to the close of twentieth century (2000) where there were only eleven churches per 10,000 people in America.
Half of all churches in the US did not add any new members to their ranks in the last two years.
Sadly, our independent spirit here in America, when combined with our fierce drive for self-entitlement, has brought us, as westernized Christians, to a place where “church as usual” is just not cutting it anymore. Statistics show that more and more people, after “trying out” a few churches in their area, finally just decide to stay at home and follow Jesus by themselves. All the while, church growth experts sell “how to” books to pastors, encouraging church leaders to work both smarter and harder at developing more creative programming to keep the masses from leaving our pews. When will the madness stop? Sadly, I’m not a predictor of the future, but I am a reader of the New Testament. In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 24: 10-14), we find Jesus saying these very hard truths:
At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Are we at such a time as this? Only God knows.
From my perspective, it just might be time for God’s appointed leaders to stop playing games, trying our very best to excite and entertain the crowds, and morph ourselves back into being New Testament pastors and shepherds whose job is to call God’s people back into true community, where we all lay down our fleshly, self-centered wills of independence so that God might give us his gift of koinonia (long-term, loving, nurturing community) for the rough times ahead.
Father God, cutting edge Christianity has always been, at its very core, all about relationships, long-term, loving, nurturing relationship with you and long-term, loving, nurturing relationship with fellow believers. Spirit, bring your church back again to these simple things. For your name’s sake. Amen!
QUESTIONS FOR YOU TO PONDER
- What must I do to step away from the typical way we Americans look at church life and our commitment to such things?
- What might it look like for a handful of committed followers of Christ to lay down our fleshly, self-consumed independence while picking up Christ’s servant-hood attitude toward others?
- Is it possible in our current society to step into a counter-culture of long-term, loving, nurturing relationships?
- And if so, what might it look like for me to participate with such things?
So, what is God speaking to you today as you ponder the Wisdom of Wimber?
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