What really is “church?” That’s an important question for us to consider in a time when a whole lot of people are tired of it.
I recently had the privilege of going to Chicago for a weekend of linking up with leaders from 6 partnering churches in the greater northeastern North American region. It was cool. Folks attended from Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario and Massachusetts. We felt envisioned, refocused and bolstered by the sense of team and partnership.
But the best, most helpful thing of that weekend? Lunch shared with good friends around a table.
Before our arrival I was processing through some concerns and questions. (If you are ever called to plant a church, as we have been, you will also have these. You know those concerns that are accompanied by knots in your stomach and a subtle sense of dread? That was the kind). Our good, good friends, Steve and Debra Sudworth, who lead Church in the City, the Chicago church who hosted the weekend invited us over for lunch on the last day. We shared delicious food, a lot of laughs, and the sites of their incredible city from their apartment’s classic, Chicago-style deck. After the meal, I shared some of the concerns and questions I had, giving them space to share any wisdom and perspective they might have.
Their response was relatively ordinary. No angels appearing. No voice from heaven. In fact, the main point Steve made was literally spoken in a total of five words.
But, my heart was settled.
It’s not just what Steve and Debs had to say. It’s also the sense of them sharing our journey. It’s the sense of having people in your corner, walking with you, sharing your load. My friends, this is real relationship, real life, real community…real church.
Let me get one thing straight. I fiercely hold to the biblical value of solid preaching and teaching to build the church, and do not subscribe to forms of church that have essentially rejected preaching and ordained leadership in the name of being “organic,” or “community.” However, so too, church that solely operates as a series of “church services” and programs, at the expense of authentic relationship and organic community is a largely unbiblical concept.
In part, I credit the relational culture that Steve & I enjoy together to the international ministry team upon which Steve and I both serve today, which has developed a ministry environment that undergirds ministry function with real friendship and relationship. “Friendship before function” so to speak. Steve and I gratefully live in the fruit of values and church life that have been cultivated for over 35+ years within New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI). NCMI is not the only partnership building by these values. There are other wonderful churches, networks and teams in our time in the earth today that are also building with a core value of authentic relationship...because it is a core value of heaven.
Some thoughts about church community:
God’s purpose for a person does not stop with conversion, but according to Isaiah 61:1-4, includes healing of the heart, liberty from any form of captivity, being appointed into a calling, and becoming an agent of transformation to others. (All an ongoing process).
The above process is essentially a picture of spiritual maturity. Maturity does not happen simply through a program, seminary, bible school or class. It happens in the context of loving community, living on mission.
Jesus revealed Himself as a Son, and God as a Father. These are family terms. In the formation of the Church, the Godhead made a point to use the language of family.
How did it wind up becoming an hour-long monologue, on one morning per week?
I can remember being sincerely asked by a friend over lunch roughly ten years ago, “so how are you doing, Paul?” As that conversation continued, I came to the realization that my life was inundated with ceaseless church activity, most of which put me in rooms with people in an organized church environment. And yet, I felt lonely. Apart from my wife, nobody really shared my life with me in a deep or profound way. I decided then that there has to be a way to do the work of church without forsaking the community of it. We remain as much, actually more committed to that resolve today.
As we embark upon this exciting journey in Detroit we hold in tension the reality that the church is called to be both “family,” and on “mission.” In fact, our very mission is to be family and bring others into a loving family community that reflects what heaven has always been about.