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MESSAGE FOR JULY 15, 2007

“A Strategy for Encouraging Community”

This morning, we conclude the second element in our treatment of a vision for our church worked out by our church leadership several months ago.  As we have seen over six messages, God places a very high priority in his word on his people living in what we have called authentic Christian community.  As we have said before, community is so essential to God’s plan and design for us, we should not primarily think about it in terms of things that we do, community is who we are.  We were intrinsically created for life in community and as we have repeatedly seen from the Scripture, that community is intended to powerfully reflect the love of Christ.  This week, we seek to “give legs” to the Biblical truths we have discussed.  In light of all that we have learned about community, we will at least partially answer the question, “What does this mean to me?”  First John 3:16, which more or less summarizes what we have been saying, says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”  It is a sobering thing to say that we ought to love each other with the same kind of self-sacrificing love that Jesus showed for us on Calvary. We seldom hear of this radical commitment we are called to have toward one another.  This morning, having unpacked that truth over the past several weeks, we want to spend some time applying it as we suggest some concrete expressions of this self-sacrificing love John commands.

I want to qualify what I am going to say by clarifying that the title of the message is “A Strategy for Encouraging Community.”  It’s not a strategy for establishing community or implementing community because Biblical community is not something that can be implemented in the same way you can implement a church budget.  The radical heart commitment required for community is not something you can simply switch on in a person, much less in a church.  If we by God’s grace know a greater measure of community here, it will be because people have made some hard, God honoring decisions--decisions to eliminate the life-complicating, time-consuming, community-robbing idols in their lives.  This will require a renewed and vigorous commitment to seek first the kingdom of God (which includes near the center Biblical community) and trusting Christ to provide everything else we need for his glory and our joy.

The good news is--as we as church do this, we will know greater joy as we more and more live in the midst of authentic Biblical community.  The joy will come, because as we have seen, living in Biblical community is consistent with who God made us in creation and in Christ.  Also, our joy will be fulfilled because as we live in community, we will be brought to new levels of maturity in Christ because, as we have been reminded, certain areas of maturity are reached only as we live and minister in Biblical community with one another.  With that as introduction, here are four elements of the strategy that we pray will provide powerful encouragement for us to increasingly fulfill God’s design for us to live in authentic Christian community.  The first element is:  We must partner with God to create a community of peace at Mount of Olives.  If our relationships are not defined by genuine, Biblically defined peace—if there is unresolved conflict in the body of Christ, that will eat away at the foundation of any real community. 

Conflict is a part of life and church life as well and can be powerful means of grace God uses to build up his saints and bring glory to himself.  But unresolved conflict smothers community.  As some of you learned in the Peacemaker Sunday school class several months ago, unresolved conflict occurs when people deny or pretend there are no interpersonal problems with a person or group when there are indeed significant unresolved hurts. These relationships are often marked by avoidance and awkwardness.  It can also actively manifest itself through gossip and slander and 100 other means of attacking others in sometimes very “Minnesota nice” ways.  A requirement for all Biblical community is hearts filled with agape love as Paul teaches in First Corinthians 13.  Unresolved conflict chokes off love.  It’s a cancerous growth on Christian community. 

Unresolved conflict takes the patience of agape and mutates into impatience, which can give birth to feelings of disgust for others.  It chills down the kindness of agape into coldness and even harshness.  It fuels the fires of our envy and pride—it can bring out our fleshly arrogance toward others and it can stimulate our fallen tendency to be rude or cutting with our words.  Unresolved conflict causes irritableness and is a magnet for feelings of resentment.  It replaces our heartfelt smiles with manipulative pouting and our laughter is displaced by despair and depression.  Instead of believing all things as agape does, unresolved conflict is a breeding ground for distrust and bad feelings—instead of bearing all things as love does, it undermines and can even destroy relationships and families and churches.

If these godless qualities are present in your heart, ask God to remind you of those people in the body with whom you have unresolved conflict—people who have either intentionally or unintentionally hurt you in ways that you have not been able to get over.  Perhaps you have tried, but have been unable to overlook their offense and as a result bitterness has begun to spread like a malignancy throughout your soul and perhaps even spill over to others.  We must all work on these areas of unresolved conflict.  It takes courage to bring these painful things to light in loving confrontation with others and sometimes it takes help from outside parties.  We have pastors and a few people who have received some training in resolving conflict and we can help if that is necessary. 

If you are experiencing unresolved conflict in your relationships—either through denying it exists, or actively and sinfully nursing your wounds, you have no other Biblical option other than to seek reconciliation with the other person(s).  A new emphasis on community in our church will not release us from our responsibility to live in Biblical peace with each other.  One thing our church is doing to encourage us in this area is our sponsorship of the Peacemaker Conference to be held here on October 20.  More information on that will be forthcoming, but I strongly recommend that you set aside that date because conflict is something we all need to deal with in a Christ-exalting way not only in the church but in all of life. 

The next three elements in our strategy to encourage community involve implementing three new ministry initiatives.  Please hear these not as laws to be followed, but as opportunities we are seeking to create for the encouragement of community.  The second element is to create opportunities to celebrate the Lord’s Day together.  Whatever your view of the Lord’s Day from a theological perspective, I think we would all agree that it provides a wonderful opportunity to spend time together beyond the worship services and Sunday school.  The truth is—the formation of truth telling relationships where we can sharpen each other by Biblically encouraging and admonishing one another will not occur among people who meet together once a week for two hours.  We must spend time together, building trusting relationships.  This probably happens best informally.  We have no plans to sponsor weekly, church-wide potlucks.  What we DO want to encourage is what a few people have already been doing the past few weeks.  That is—spending more time here are church on Sunday after the services are concluded.  This may involve bringing some lunch that can be easily made ready and served here at church and breaking bread with others who do the same. 

Whenever we use the building, we must be careful to work out security issues with those responsible and clean up our messes to show Christ’s love to those who oversee the facilities of our church.  But we must also admit that a church building where community is taking place on Sunday afternoon and evening is probably going to be messier at times than a church building where it is not. We must keep our priorities Biblical in these matters involving implementation.  To paraphrase the words of Jesus, “God did not provide ministry for a church building, he provides the church building for ministry.”  We have beautiful grounds and facilities and to use them only a few hours a week is not the best stewardship.  The goal in this is to keep this informal and as non-structured as possible.  The aim is to use the Lord’s Day to build relationships, not to create new levels of bureaucracy in the church.  That will require all of us to work together to see this happen.

Just as importantly, we also want to encourage you to invite one another into each other’s homes for a simple meal and an afternoon of fellowship.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate feast requiring a ton of work—sloppy joes on paper plates is fine.  The idea is not to cater an impressive feast, but to create a context where we can build redemptive relationships within the body.  This is intended not only for people who regularly attend our church, but also for visitors.  Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  The love of Christ is not only seen when we fellowship with people we know, but perhaps even more clearly when we step out of our comfort zones and reach out to new people, making them feel welcome and loved. 

Related to this is a third element of our strategy.  That is—creating a monthly Sunday evening worship service to encourage community within a larger setting.  As we saw in the Spirit controlled season of church history captured in Acts 2:42-47, the people daily gathered for corporate worship together.  Soon we will institute a Sunday evening worship service on the first Sunday of the month.  It will run from about 6-8pm with the first hour being devoted to a less formal worship service than the one in the morning.  There will be singing, testimonies and prayer in addition to a message preached from one of the Pastor-elders or Pastor-elder candidates.  After the service, if people want to, we could share in some simple refreshments and sit around tables in the banquet hall for fellowship and ministry time. 

Many of you remember the weekly Sunday night service.  There were probably many reasons for its demise-some more valid than others.  One of those was that most of God’s people who claimed to love corporate worship and hearing the word preached and fellowshipping with the saints of God, did not seem to love it enough to do it for more than an hour or two on the Lord’s Day.  It’s a reflection on the luke-warmness of the church that so many of God’s people spend more time on the Lord’s Day watching baseball or football or golf than they spend worshipping the Lord and being with the Lord’s people.  Spending one Sunday evening a month together for an additional time of corporate worship presents some exciting ministry opportunities for us as a church.

A fourth element of this strategy is creating a new small group ministry that will encourage the development of community at Mount of Olives.  We are calling these “cell groups.”  We almost called them “community groups” but we ended up deciding on a title that would communicate that these groups are about more than simply building community.  These are in some senses mini-churches where much of the life of the church should be reproduced—worship, evangelism, time in the word and prayer and mutual encouragement of one another.  Like living cells, these groups are intended to divide into other cells as time goes by.  At the heart of these cell groups is the Cell group covenant found in your bulletin in the insert.  That document describes what these groups are about and you will be given some time to read through that in a few moments.  The covenant lays out the theological basis for the groups and defines their purpose.  Let’s take a few minutes to outline some of the nuts and bolts issues that you will want to know about. 

The major points (as seen behind me on the screen) are as follows:  Cell groups will meet (ideally) on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.  Some can meet more, none less—except in special circumstances.  This is no change from what has been the case, though the leadership will try to more carefully guard these dates than we sometimes have done in the past. Second, Cell groups will involve a three hour commitment to meet.  The point here is not to scare anyone.  The more vibrant groups currently meeting go about this long.  Building relationships takes time.  There is no use meeting just to say we have met. The groups will meet in homes—not necessarily hosted by the leaders.  If childcare issues prohibit this, some groups can meet at the church.   Homes simply provide the best environment for community building.  However, if a group has 16 kids in it, the church may end up being a better choice.  Each group can work this out for themselves. 

Food will be provided, but hosts should not feel any pressure to be elaborate.  The meal should not be the focal point of the meeting.  As we said before, the goal is not to scale new heights of culinary splendor—it’s to share in a simple meal. There will be a high emphasis on reproduction of groups.  Empty chair(s) will be put out at every meeting with prayers for God to fill that chair with an unbeliever(s).  The new people in the group (with rare exceptions) will be unbelievers people have invited to join the group.  This is a crucial distinction from what many groups have experienced in the past.  As we saw from Acts 2:42-47, genuine community is a context for powerful evangelism and people being added to the Lord.  We do not want to divorce community from outreach because God never does.  An important part of the prayer and sharing times will be to encouraging others in the group to invite their unsaved friends.  This will keep a kingdom focus in the groups and keep some groups from growing too large through the addition of more church people.

          Groups will do a study approved by the elders but the group will not be defined by the study.  Although we do not want to diminish the power of the word of God, small groups can become so academic that they more resemble an in-home Bible seminar, than a place to build community.  The word should be central to all we do, but in the cell group—the Bible study will not define the identity of the group.  Leadership training with regard to the vision and facilitation of the groups will be stressed.  This is to keep groups from losing focus and/or vitality.  It’s important to have leaders who know the focus of the group and have been trained to keep the focus.  This helps them to know what to do and keeps us from moving in directions that will not build community or help reach the lost.  Groups will be made up of 8-12 adults.  As a group reaches 12 members, it will make plans to divide.   Like churches, healthy groups reproduce themselves.  Groups shouldn’t become so large that close relationships cannot easily form.  As many of the groups will have several kids, in addition to the adults, we don’t want anyone who is hosting the groups to feel overwhelmed by too many people.  You should be able to host a cell group in an average sized home.

          Each group will have a leader-in-training who will know from the outset that he will form a new cell group in the future.  These new leaders will be mentored in their new roles by their former group leader.  Again, we want to be intentional about the growth of the groups.  We also want to incarnate Second Timothy 2:2.  “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”   The cell groups should be a training and proving ground for new leaders in the church.  As the groups grow with new converts, we want to be able to facilitate that as seamlessly as possible—the new leader will already have been chosen and trained by the existing leader.

          Teens and kids will be included.  A suggested level of inclusion would be to include them for the group prayer time and for the meal.  Then they could be released to spend time together.  Part of Biblical community is providing intergenerational experiences.  We try to provide cross generational learning experiences in church— our current Sunday school and Wednesday night offerings, for instance.  The cell group Bible study will be targeted for the adults.  At some point during their time together, the men and women will separate and have time for transparent, authentic sharing time and prayer.  This is where people can take what they have learned in the word and apply it with love and grace to others as people ask for prayer, confess their sin and share their hurts.  This is a healing time and also a time to lovingly hold each other accountable.  The groups will begin in the fall—on 9/9/07, Lord willing.  We hope to have all the groups formed and leaders trained by then.  Groups that are currently meeting can continue to do so and the cell group covenants will be integrated into your groups.

Each member of the cell group (with the exception of unbelievers) will sign a cell group covenant.  When you enter a group, you will be given this covenant and you will sign it then.  The purpose of this is not to place anyone in bondage.  It is intended to be a part of healthy, Biblical accountability.  Our commitment also serves to remind us how important this ministry is within our church.  In a moment, we want you to take a few minutes to read over the covenant and for those of you who already know you want to be in a cell group, please fill out the cell group commitment card and place it in the box on the Welcome Center.  For those of you who need more time, please seek God about this issue.  Although being in a cell group is not mandated for spiritual growth, Biblical community is.  Making the sacrifices to covenant with others to be in a cell group can be a powerful way of expressing your desire to grow in Christ in community.  Very few people can commit to three hours every two weeks without that commitment impacting other areas in their life.  If you are a person who is not in Biblical community as we have described that over the last six weeks, do you want this?  Are you willing to make the sacrifices for the life-changing power of God that can occur in community?  Please pray over your schedule and see if this is what God has for you.  If you are not ready to fill out a commitment card this morning, we ask that you turn it in within two weeks. 

Also, think hard about spending your Lord’s Day with the Lord’s people outside your family of origin.  Today, we can do this at Camp Greenhill at our church picnic.  In the weeks to come, think about inviting others into your home, or just coming to church and joining with others in spending time here on the Lord’s Day.  The Bible calls us to a level of community we have not approached in my tenure here at Mount of Olives.  Our church values good teaching and learning opportunities within the classroom.  As we have repeatedly seen, there are things we simply cannot learn in a sermon or Bible study.  They are learned and internalized only as we learn to love other sinners saved by grace within the context of Biblical community.  May God move by his Spirit upon our church so that we by his grace can more and more resemble a loving family in Christ for his glory.

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