Everyone is seeking community. The nature of humanity is to seek and thrive in a social community with other people. Years ago, a popular sitcom by the name of Cheers illustrated that well by their community. The show began with a theme song that told a story. The words to the theme song are:
Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
Although this is a 1980s sitcom theme song, it tells a story about the human heart. We need community. Life is hard and often discouraging. Everyone needs a safe haven from the world. For the characters of Cheers it was a bar. For the Christian, it’s the church of Jesus Christ. We need more than community, we need the church.
Recently, Donald Miller the author of Blue Like Jazz has come under heavy scrutiny because of an article he wrote on his blog where he basically admitted that he rarely attends church because he doesn’t like to sing “church” songs with a group of people. What Donald Miller was admitting was that he doesn’t need the church. He went on to talk about how he doesn’t like to listen to preaching either. Although Donald Miller received much critique for his opinions, it’s a tell-tale sign of our present culture. Everyone is seeking to reinvent church.
Following the wave of negative response that Donald Miller received (read Jonathan Leeman’s article) for his original article, he responded to the criticism with another article (“Why I Don’t Go to Church Often – a Follow Up Blog“) that reinforced his positions. Much of his positions sound like postmodern thinking that views boundaries through a negative lens. However, Mr. Miller recognizes the need for community. In response to the idea that one must be part of the church to have community, he writes:
These comments also surprised me. It was as though people thought because I hadn’t been to church in years, I had no community, that I lived in isolation. This is untrue. My community is rich, deep, spiritually sound, gracious, sacrificial and at times (because I’m an introvert) exhausting.
What I hadn’t realized before I read those comments, though, was that I had worked to create my community.Community is everywhere, and every church you’ve attended was a community that somebody sat down and created. I happen to think a lot of them look exactly the same and have no problem making mine look different, but it’s still a community. Millions of people who do not attend church have rich, meaningful communities that they created or have joined. You could create your own community out of your home in a matter of months.
The issues that Donald Miller raise in his article are not new ideas, positions, or philosophies. In fact, many people started to forsake the “assembly” or gathering of the church in the early church times. As a direct result of that new way of doing church (or not doing it at all) in the days of the early church, Hebrews 10:25 was breathed out by the Holy Spirit. As we consider the necessity of community within the boundaries of the local church, several key elements are brought to the surface that we must evaluate and take seriously.
We Need the Church – We Need Biblical Community
Donald Miller is right about the fact that it’s possible to have community outside of the local church. In fact, one can have a thriving community outside the assembly of the local church. It happens each week at the local ball field, bar, and nursing home. However, as we start to think of our need for biblical community as believers, we start to see that Donald Miller is not playing with a full deck of cards. Christians need other Christians. No, that doesn’t mean that Christians should only have Christian friends. That would build a stagnant group of people who never invite others into their lives and reach-out to the culture in general with the gospel. In the end – there is no denying the fact that Christians need other Christians for support in doctrine, life, and worship.
We Need the Church – We Need the Word
The church of Jesus Christ is a community of people who have been called out of darkness and brought together in the light of Jesus Christ. While Donald Miller is right, the book of Acts is not completely prescriptive in nature, we can learn about the building blocks of a biblical community by examining the practices of the early church. The early church didn’t come together for drama presentations or comedy sessions. The early church wasn’t assembled for psychology talks in order to meet the felt needs of their culture. They assembled for the teaching and preaching of God’s Word (Acts 2). If we truly desire to grow in faith (Romans 10:17) and have a renewed mind (Romans 12:1-2), we must have a steady intake of God’s Word from the pastor-teachers (see Paul’s word to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-5). If you remove the Word you don’t have a church.
We Need the Church – We Need to Sing
I’m not much of a concert goer, but I did venture out to a few concerts in my teenage years. I recall the scene in mid-town Atlanta with crowds of people gathered together for music. I recall the singing. Most of it was really bad due to the amount of alcohol consumption in the crowd. I think back to times when I have been gathered in a crowd and singing erupted. It happens during the seventh inning stretch when I go to watch the Braves play baseball here in Atlanta. It happened once when I was at Disney World and found myself in the midst of a flash mob. There is nothing like the church gathered together in song. It doesn’t matter if the quality of song is not show production (see Tim Challies’ article regarding churches that sing badly), it’s about what the gathered church is singing. Our doxology is informed and shaped by our theology. There is nothing that compares to a church joined together in the words:
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
We Need the Church – We Need Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
It was John Calvin who insisted on the right preaching and administration of the sacraments in order to have a true church. Calvin was not alone in his position. The Reformers, the Puritans, and many others throughout church history pointed to this same basic necessity. While it’s possible to have community without preaching and the ordinances of the church, we must be clear – you can’t have true biblical church without the preached Word, the observance of the Lord’s Supper and baptism.
Some of the most deeply moving and self-examination moments have occurred during a gathered service for worship and the observance of the ordinances of the church. Likewise, some of the most encouraging times have been during those occasions of worship. To look around to a gathered room of people who have been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ as you eat and drink the elements of the Lord’s Supper is a truly moving experience that can’t be duplicated at a wrestling meet or camp-out with a group of friends. Christians need this type of community.
We Need the Church – We Need Encouragement and Discipleship
As Paul instructed Timothy to preach the Word in order to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort” the church at Ephesus, we must sit under biblical preaching too. Not only to hear the Word, but also to go out and live in this community of believers. As we live in a constant state of biblical community, Jesus instructed us to practice church discipline (Matthew 18). Granted, there may be confrontation at the ball field, but it’s not the same kind of confrontation that Jesus was teaching in Matthew’s gospel record. This should be part of the fabric of our biblical community. We are called to be a confessing people, and we should be doing this often. As we observe the Lord’s Supper we are reminded of the need for repentance of sin and confession. Confrontation of sin and genuine church discipline doesn’t happen at a Brave’s game. Biblical community shapes us in God’s Truth.
Last of all, as we engage in our church community we do so in order to encourage one another. The writer to the Hebrews stated it this way, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). Notice the phrase, “encouraging one another” in this verse. It should be our desire as believers to assemble for worship under God’s preached Word, sing together, pray together, fellowship together, and observe the Lord’s Supper and baptism together for the purpose of encouraging one another. Let’s be honest – “You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same.” The Christian needs more than a hiking trip through the woods with a group of friends. Biblical community is more than a family or two gathered around a fire in the living room on a cold winter’s night. Genuine biblical community, although not perfect and at times exhausting, it is God’s will for our lives as children of God. You can’t have Jesus without His church. The theme song for Cheers was on to something back in the 80s. It said:
You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
Only in the church can we be truly honest about the fact that we have all fallen short of God’s glory and become engulfed in a tidal wave of sin. Only in the church can we admit that we are indeed all the same. Only in the church can we worship together out of a response that we are the same – merely sinners saved by the grace of God. Only in the church can we gather together in a bond that is greater than any tribe, club, or community on planet earth. We gather, assemble, worship, and serve together through the work of Jesus Christ as He died in our place, crushed under the wrath of the Father, and resurrected in victory on the third day. All Christians need the church. Donald Miller needs the church. I need the church. Thank God for His church!