As with all my blog posts, this subject really matters. And this post title is pure awesomeness. To my new readers, yes, I am really that arrogant. To my old readers, do you really exist? My blog traffic has been less this summer, and coming into the fall, maybe that will change, maybe that won't. Either way, I'm not convinced that anyone has noticed. You should prove me wrong with a comment. :) On an unrelated note, I joined Twitter recently, and I can guarantee that if and when I ever "tweet", it will be sarcastic and probably won't matter. Per the commercial:
"I'm sitting on the patio."
"Dad, I know you're sitting on the patio!"
Not really. In all seriousness, as Tim Tebow says, God has already tweeted everything he needed to (its called the Bible), so why do you care what I would say at any random point in the day? On the other hand, the purpose of this blog is to try to articulate what God has already said in a way that is helpful and meaningful given the complexity of our culture and the complexity of what you might be tweeting about right now. So that is why it matters. But, knowing my initial hesitation and now affection for facebook, I will also probably make the same transition with twitter, and will probably tell you about how comfortable my couch is on a Sunday afternoon, hope you care, and also follow how comfortable your couch is, and definitely care. And I will probably try to tweet the Gospel in less than 140 characters, if that is indeed possible. So I'm not hatin' on twitter, just making sure our priorities are straight. Are we cool? My favorite "tweet" so far is by John Piper: "In Christ, the best is always yet to come. Always. No exceptions. Forever."
So, fellowship. What the heck does this word mean, and why does it matter? To bring you up to speed, for most of the year, my posts have been working through and dancing around two main questions:
1. What is church, how should it work, and why does it matter?
2. What does it mean to be a Christian, and why does it matter?
I went to a pivotal conference in April called Entrusted with the Gospel, which was a exposition of 2 Timothy put on by The Gospel Coalition. I then began the journey of leading a "Life Church", or a unique version of a small group bible study that is meant to de-compartmentalize our lives so that all of our worlds can collide into a glorious mixture of Christ-like living that is both natural and transforming. And I was, and am still, committed to keep the balance of gospel word and gospel community in this journey, trusting that the transforming power comes from the gospel; not just any word and not just any community.
Four months in, I'm excited and challenged. We have not yet answered the question about how exactly to "do church" and we haven't yet found the passage in the New Testament that outlines it perfectly for us (a combination of Acts and 1 John is a great start). We have not yet walked and lived a perfect balance of biblical and relational communion. Some would like to have more fun and some would like to have less (that was partly facetious). We have not yet served with our hands and our lives the less fortunate in our community to the degree we need to. And we have not yet seen hundreds of people come to saving faith in Jesus.
But! We have been faithful to the Bible, and we have been patient with and sensitive to the Holy Spirit. We have offered a community to Christians and non-Christians alike where they can be welcomed, loved, convicted, and presented with the most precious and important message in the world. While prayer is being taken out of the schools, it is being brought in to the bars in Indianapolis. "Pub Theology" is opening the door for biblical and spiritual conversations to those who would never set foot in our churches. If you like beer, but not church, come hang out. We want to party with you. Christians are working out their salvation together across the city in authentic, consistent communities, and people are mutually encouraging each other's faith. God's word is speaking actual grace into people's lives. I am excited about what God is doing, and challenged about what more he could do with our faithful proclamation and demonstration of the gospel, and our gracious engagement into our culture.
But still I think that we should fully understand and practice the biblical concept of fellowship so that we don't miss out on what God desires for us. We could miss it, and I don't want that for anyone. At a recent "Life Church", the conversation in our group led me to ask the following questions (which of course, led to several other questions):
1. Are Christians generally more comfortable going to a bible study where they don't know anyone else, or to a social event (i.e. a cookout) where they don't know anyone else? What about non-Christians? Why?
2. Can a community of people who have nothing in common physically, emotionally, socially, professionally, financially, or culturally, but share a passion and unbreakable faith for Jesus Christ, experience fellowship?
3. If so, can a person who does not share a passion and unbreakable faith for Jesus Christ experience fellowship? If not, how should they fit into a Christian community?
Consider those questions. I won't answer them directly because I don't really know, and the answers no doubt vary. But I will follow them with some truths that I have been convicted of and that I think can be foundational in our experiment with and experience of fellowship.
In short, my main concern is mistaking fellowship as the casual, comfortable, perhaps shallow, social interaction that references the Bible instead of feeds on the Bible; or mistaking fellowship as starting with our relationships with other people instead of our relationship with God; or mistakenly excluding non-Christians because of their lack of experience, belief, or comfort level with the Person and Work of Jesus Christ or "churchy" things; or mistakenly welcoming non-Christians into community without ever making any mention of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the foundational and transforming power that makes fellowship authentic; or mistakenly never going deep and being real with our Christian communities and likewise missing out on the experience of on-the-spot grace from the Word of God; or mistakenly serving each other only (which we must do!) without ever serving the outside world. Basically, my main concern is getting fellowship wrong and in turn, doing a disservice to Christians and non-Christians alike, and bringing dishonor to God.
WHAT'S SO AMAZING ABOUT GRACE?
So, simply put, I have been convinced that authentic, biblical fellowship is the experience, proclamation, and demonstration of saving grace, not just common grace. Without getting too theological (that would be terrible!), what I mean is this: our fellowship should start as fellowship with God (this is what 1 John is about). Our fellowship then should be based on, and exist through, our love for people. Our love for people should be based on, and exist through, the love of God for us. And the love of God for us is amazing. God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son. God's love for us is seen most fundamentally in the cross. God also loves the world so much that He allowed the sun to rise this morning; He gives us mouths to breath and eyes to see and ears to hear the wonders of His creation. He certainly didn't have to do any of that. The latter is common grace, and the former is saving grace. If we base fellowship on common grace only - that God loves you because He created you and created the world for you to enjoy and steward - and not base fellowship on saving grace - that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us - than we will not be basing it on the complete love of God, and people will likely not be transformed, and God will likely not be glorified.
Do you agree? I think it's going to be hard for Christians to love each other in fellowship the way God desires unless we understand His love first. And His love is not touchy feely; it is bloody. I've been convicted that anything but cross-centered love (and fellowship) is going to ultimately be self-seeking, temporary, and lacking. Because anything not centered on the cross leaves room for boasting because it is about what you are doing, and not what Christ did. In no other context but cross-centered ministry can you love others and do good deeds out of complete selflessness, knowing that you don't deserve ANYTHING; but God loved you anyway and died for you, which makes you want to love others the same, not necessarily so that you can die for them and so glorify yourself, but so that they can better see Christ who died for them and so glorify Him and save their souls.
IS THIS PRACTICAL?
Is this kind of cross-centered love practical? Yes! Of course. I posted on The Cross and Swine Flu a little while ago that took some ideas from Mark Driscoll's book Death By Love, and elaborated on them. Some of these were extreme cases. In more everyday life, what does it look like? Well, I've never liked the phrase "doing life together", and I'm starting to embrace the phrase "working out our salvation together" in its place for this Life Church model. The reason I don't like this first phrase is that I always wonder, what is it we are doing?
Life! you say. Well then, what is life? Is it your job? Is it watching football? Is it having people over for a cookout? Is it having conversations with friends? Is it having a family? Well yes, in your life you do all these things. But is life not most fundamentally sanctification, or growing closer to Christ's likeness, by seeking His Spirit through His word for guidance, and by leaning on other people for encouragement? Is it possible that practicing fellowship as "doing life together" could fall short of what God desires for us? Is it possible that "doing life together" gives an insufficient read on the eternal life that John was so passionate about describing? I think it is possible. Unless, of course, we are more specific about what "life" means, which is why I think a more helpful, biblical phrase is "working out our salvation together". This also allows fellowship to be practical without everyone in a certain group or church spending every waking moment together.
I still struggle a little with what it looks like for a non-Christian to easily transition into this type of fellowship. I think though, that if they see and understand our love for them that is based on the cross, where there can be no boasting, and where God offered his most precious treasure (Jesus) for the likes of our undeserving souls, and where they realize that they are undeserving also but that we (and God) love them anyway, than that love will not only be appealing, but also transforming (because it will not just be common grace; it will be saving grace). In this way, our bible studies should be such that anyone off the street should be at least as comfortable coming in to a group of people they don't know, as they would coming to a cookout of the same. Because they will see both love through us (that is common) and love through the Bible (that is saving). Love that is based on anything else but the cross (Jesus's life only, good works, spirituality, social togetherness, etc.) will not stack up. At least that is my conviction.
So stay tuned as I continue to wrestle with and experience this type of fellowship, that is first and foremost about, and with, the King. Please help me wrestle if you'd like, just try not to be like Gollum. That guy is messed up.