What stands out to me about the very earliest believers in Jesus was their amazing transformation (Acts 2:38-47). Only 53 days earlier these same people had applauded the murder of the Son of God. But they realized their terrible error, changed their mind, and turned from their sin and embraced the grace of God in Christ. They became a group of Christians committed to learning more and more about Jesus; sharing their burdens and blessings together; enjoying communion and eating together; praying with and for each other, confessing sin and seeing new life and fresh spiritual health come right in front of their faces.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship. This is a picture of a group of Christian disciples who were hungry for instruction. They were so hungry for teaching and fellowship that they met every day. They met in the temple (large group), and in homes (small groups). Both large group meetings and small group gatherings are necessary for healthy spiritual growth and development. In other words, this is no superficial once-in-a-while get together; this is a deep devotion and commitment to learning Scripture together, and sharing life together in fellowship.
A simple observation of the text of Acts chapter 2 is that all the pronouns are plural; those pronouns include everyone – not just a select few. This is why throughout the New Testament the images used to describe the church emphasize its communal nature. Church as the Body of Christ, the temple of God (building), and as the army of the Lord are all images that require the community of the redeemed working and worshiping and reaching out together in order to glorify God. True Christian discipleship does not happen apart from life together.
Therefore, we need to be aware of church images that emphasize only the individual and not the community. For example, seeing the church as a gas station where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you're running low ignores the community. Get a good sermon and some energizing worship and hopefully you will make it through the week to another service without running out of gas. For other people, the church may be more like a movie theatre, a place that offers an hour of escape, and leaving your problems at the door, with the goal of coming out of church feeling better than when you went in. Or maybe some might view the church as a kind of drug store – a place where you can fill the prescription that will deal with your pain. Yet others might opt for seeing the church as a big box retailer – a place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. The church should offer great service and programs at a low price.
Certainly, the church ought to serve and meet individual needs. The problem arises when we only function as autonomous persons who don’t really need others in order to live the Christian life. The early church was committed to learning the Word of God together; they committed themselves to fellowship, to practicing hospitality with each other and praying with each other every day.
The results of those two primary communal commitments of learning and fellowshipping on a daily basis was that: everyone was filled with awe (the fear of the Lord); everyone saw and experienced signs and wonders (miracles); everyone had everything in common (they met one another’s needs – the fact that they sold things implies personal property, not communism); everyone was glad and content with their simplicity of life (“sincere hearts” means they lived simply, and were not encumbered with a lot of stuff and their schedules and calendars overflowing); everyone praised God; everyone enjoyed the favor of the non-Christians around them; and, the result of all this behavior was that people were being saved left and right from their sinful, empty ways of life apart from God.
If any of us today want to have that kind of community dynamic then we must be willing to devote ourselves to biblical teaching and Christian fellowship every day! No church can become or remain healthy apart from Christian community; it requires doggedly embracing the commitments of learning Scripture, and eating and praying together through being yoked in fellowship. Being part of a small group that meets once a week, for the purpose of learning more about the Bible and developing community is not really optional equipment for the follower of Jesus. It is a small thing when you put it in the perspective of the early church meeting every day.
That early community had such a curiously learning and deeply loving dynamic that the poor among them knew no shame, and the rich knew no pride. It was a community where the uneducated felt free to drink in knowing more about Jesus, and the leadership graciously gave instruction that they had gained from being with Christ.
In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott shares a story she once heard from her minister that illustrates the necessary presence of others in our journey of faith: “When my pastor was about seven, her best friend got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn't find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, ‘You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.’” Lamott further writes: “And that is why I have stayed so close to my church—because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their voices, I can always find my way home.”
The church, the Body of Christ, needs you. The community of the redeemed needs your gifts and abilities, your presence and wisdom. Disciples are made, formed, and forged in the context of community. The sharing of your experiences and insights, as well as your hands and feet, are necessary for being spiritually developed in Christ. Confidence is only gained through practice, and the spiritual practice of community is what is needed. May the results of that early congregation be our collective experience, as well, as we devote ourselves to the teaching and to the fellowship.