friendsThe Gathering Of God’s People

I hear people say, “I love God. I read His Word. But I don’t see any good reason to go to church. I can be a good person without going to church. Besides, so many of those people are hypocrites!” What reasons do you hear from those who don’t attend church? Do you think their reasons are legitimate?

Let’s look to the New Testament to discover God’s plan for the church, and how church could make a difference in our lives.

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

During His time on earth, Jesus trained his disciples (later called apostles) to carry on His ministry and establish His church (Mark 3:14; Matthew 16:18). After Jesus’ death, the apostles led the first church in Jerusalem, but eventually went out establishing churches everywhere, turning the leadership over to qualified believers (Acts 6:1-7; I Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).

SO, WHAT’S A CHURCH?

The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means “gathering.” It’s a gathering of believers who are committed to following God, ministering to one another and taking the message of God’s love to the world.

In one sense, it’s an organization, structured with regular meetings (Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:2) and official leaders (I Timothy 3:1-13). In another sense, it’s an organism. Believers are members of God’s family (Ephesians 2:19), so that we are spiritual brothers and sisters (Luke 8:21). Through this gathering, we draw closer to both God and other believers.

For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20) 

From Him (Christ) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:16) 

Once you establish a set of solid relationships, you’ve found a sweet fellowship that can change your life.

Some might object, “But can’t we draw closer to God simply through walking in the woods and draw strength from other believers by visiting at a coffee shop?” Sure. But for some reason the church gathering makes this happen in special ways that other methods can’t. Perhaps that’s why Hebrews challenges us:

God wired us to function best in the context of significant relationships. We need each other.

Since we don’t know people’s hearts or their private lives, it’s often hard to tell the sincere from the insincere. So don’t get turned off when you meet hypocrites at church. We should expect them! Even one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples was a hypocrite: Judas. But once you establish a set of solid relationships, you’ve found a sweet fellowship that can change your life.

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…. (Hebrews 10:25) 

WHAT THE CHURCH IS NOT:
A GATHERING OF PERFECT PEOPLE

At a typical church service you’ll find some dedicated believers who came to worship, others who came to please a spouse or parent, others who came to make business contacts, and still others who came to find someone to date. Even the committed believers aren’t perfect (I John 1:8). Some are more mature than others. Some have better people skills than others. Some are downright obnoxious.

Here are a few of the reasons that God wants us to get involved with a local church.

1. For Fellowship 

God wired us to function best in the context of significant relationships. We need each other. Successful individuals have often discovered the value of regularly hanging out with those who have similar interests and goals.

Twenty-two-year-old Albert Einstein and likeminded friends met frequently in each other’s homes and talked on hikes, sometimes all the way through the night. These conversations had an enormous impact on his future work. They called themselves “The Olympia Academy.”

Fifteen-year-old Bill Gates met regularly with other computer enthusiasts who called themselves “The Lakeside Programmers Group.”

Benjamin Franklin met every Friday for decades with a diverse group of civic- minded thinkers called “Junto.” Many of his great accomplishments were a result of cross-pollination from this group.

Writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met with a group called “The Inklings,” on a weekday morning and Thursday evenings at Lewis’ house, often reading their manuscripts aloud to get input. I think it’s significant that the groups were organized enough to have names: “The Inklings,” “Junto,” “The Lakeside Programmers Group,” “The Olympia Academy.”

If the synergy of such gatherings can make people vocationally successful, doesn’t it make sense that regular gatherings with committed believers could make us spiritually successful? So what is it about fellowship that helps us spiritually thrive?

WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?

First, fellowship stimulates us through the sharing of ideas (Hebrews 10:24,25). These extremely successful people found that the collaboration of several minds produces more wisdom than the sum of their thoughts working separately. It’s the same in our spiritual lives. When I read the Bible on my own, I come up with a few applications to life. But when I study it with others, I discover a whole array of life applications that I would have never come up with on my own.

Our spiritual fire will diminish if we forsake meeting with motivated believers.

Second, fellowship keeps us balanced in our thinking and our lifestyle (Ephesians 4:11-16). On our own, we gravitate toward certain teachings while ignoring others. I suppose that’s why the New Testament authors had to spend so much time warning believers that they’d gotten off course with their understanding of grace or legalism or spiritual gifts or the second coming. Each believer offers wonderfully unique insights into Scripture and life that keep us out of spiritual ruts and guard us from extremes.

Third, we build relationships that motivate us spiritually. Close together, the sticks in your campfire burn brightly. Spread them out and the fire quickly goes out. In the same way, our spiritual fire will diminish if we forsake meeting with motivated believers.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24,25) 

Fourth, we find support and encouragement for difficult times (I Thessalonians 5:11-15; II Corinthians 1:3,4). When my wife was ill with cancer, church folks brought meals and offered other practical help. Raising four boys, working, and caring for my wife overwhelmed me. I needed help. The church came through. But those relationships don’t generally come from just having your name on a church role and showing up at Easter. It comes from developing solid relationships through participating in small groups, learning and serving together.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR OTHERS?

Fellowship isn’t all about me. It’s also about helping others. God’s equipped each of us in special ways to build up, encourage and instruct others. You may not think you have much to offer. But God’s Word says that each of us has been given gifts that are critical for the health of the church.

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others….(I Peter 4:10) 

“But I don’t know what my gift is. How can I serve?” you might ask. I’d suggest, “Start serving wherever you see needs.” Spend time with the lonely, encourage the discouraged, give advice to those needing counsel, keep the nursery, assist in a small group, help with clean-up, build wheelchair ramps for the needy…well, you get the idea.

There are many gifts and ministries (Romans 12:3-8; I Corinthians 12:1-31; Ephesians 4:11-16; I Peter 4:7-11), so start trying them out! The more I serve, the more I discover what ministries I enjoy, what people say I’m good at, what I’m most motivated and equipped to do. Ask the leaders of the church you attend to help you find areas of service that are appropriate for you.

And don’t get infatuated with the gifts that get the most attention, like preaching and singing. The Apostle Paul likens the church to a body (I Corinthians 12:12ff.), with each part doing its part to make the body work. Toes and thumbs may not be glamorous, but if you wake up one morning to find them not working, you’ll realize pretty quickly how important they are!

In other words, there are no small gifts. So take what you’ve got and begin serving.

2. For Learning the Word of God 

We’ve just seen how the church is a family that nurtures us. But it’s also a school that teaches us. Sure, I can read the Bible on my own. And I should (I Peter 2:2,3). As the Psalmist said,

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (Psalm 119:97) 

But I also learn from gifted teachers and preachers (Ephesians 4:11-13) who’ve spent years studying the Bible. While a young believer can read a chapter and glean some truth, a mature, gifted teacher can bring in many other related passages to bring balance and depth to that truth.

But just because teachers are gifted doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. That’s why Luke praises the noble character of the Bereans. When Paul taught them, they didn’t blindly follow. Instead, they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11) Over time, the nurture and teaching of the church helps us to grow up in our faith, so that we may one day find ourselves teaching others (II Timothy 2:2).

3. For Worship 

What is Worship? 

Worship is declaring God’s worth—that He is above all else, number one in our lives, the One most worthy of our worship (I Peter 2:9). Someone has defined worship as “setting our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on God, praising Him for who He is and what He has done.”

Worship is declaring God’s worth—that He is above all else, number one in our lives, the One most worthy of our worship.

If that’s true, then it’s entirely possible to attend a worship service, but never truly worship! If we’re more excited about our things and our friends than our God; if we sing songs about God while our thoughts are elsewhere, we’re not really worshipping.

Why Worship? 

First, God is worthy of our worship. He created this vast universe and breathed life into each of us. He sculpted the mountains, filled the oceans with waterand created exquisite beauty with His masterful artistry. He provides rain and sunshine to grow our crops, His Word to light our path, intelligence and wisdom to navigate life.

And even after we failed Him horribly, rebelling and going our own way, He sent His Son to pay our penalty, so that we could experience true life and look forward to an eternity in heaven. Truly, God is worthy of our worship!

A second reason to worship is that it meets one of our deepest needs. Everyone worships something. If we fail to worship God, we’ll find something else to worship, like material things, sex, power or false gods (Romans 1:21-23). But all those objects of worship fail miserably, leaving us feeling shallow and unfulfilled. God is the only object of worship who truly satisfies our deepest longings.

HOW TO WORSHIP

There are many ways to worship God, so don’t get stuck in a rut! In the Bible, we find worshippers speaking, singing, and playing instruments to God. They used a variety of instruments (horns, cymbals, tambourines, stringed instruments) and praised Him in different locations (in a house, in nature, in His sanctuary, in bed, in jail), in different manners (leaping, clapping, dancing, lifting hands), with different content (thanking Him for personal blessings, for His character and attributes, for His creation).

Some people enjoy reading a Psalm to God; others write a letter of thanks to Him. Some sing to Him; others take a walk with Him, thanking Him for the beauty and wonder of their surroundings. Find what works best to keep your mind’s attention and heart’s affection focused on Him.

Often we worship privately, but neglect corporate worship in the gathering of believers (Colossians 3:15,16). “But can’t I worship God just as well in the privacy of my bedroom, or in my car on the way to work? Why commute to worship when I can do it at home?”

Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to compare our relationship with God to our closest human relationships. Are you familiar with the concept of “love languages”? In brief, when I want to express my love for my wife, I don’t express it in the ways that mean the most to me. I express love in the ways that mean the most to her—in her love language.

So if I love cold orange juice in the morning and she prefers hot coffee, what do I bring her in the morning to express my love? Obviously, the hot coffee. I don’t have to like hot coffee. I don’t have to understand why she likes hot coffee. It’s enough that she told me that she likes coffee, likes it hot, likes it with a spoonful of sugar, and likes it in the morning. If I want to express love to my wife and her love language involves hot coffee, I will bring her coffee just as she likes it.

I think of worship in the same way. Some may think, “I don’t like lots of people talking to me at the same time. I prefer intimate, one-on-one settings. God’s probably the same way, preferring my individual worship more than group worship. Therefore I don’t need to go to church to worship.”

But if worship is about showing God our love for Him, we’d best pay attention to His love language more than our own. How does He tell that He prefers to be worshipped? Since we know that He established the church, called it His body, and that we see corporate worship demonstrated throughout the pages of Scripture, we have to assume that corporate worship is an important part of God’s love language.

Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song, His praise in the assembly of the saints. (Psalm 149:1) 

Finally, we worship God by the way we live. He’s not impressed with beautiful voices, lengthy prayers or perfect church attendance on Sunday, if our hearts and actions are far from Him on Monday through Saturday.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (Colossians 3:17) 

WRAPPING IT UP AND APPLYING IT TO LIFE

Church isn’t a place that we passively attend. It’s a living fellowship where we actively interact with fellow believers and with God. All believers should find a church where they can have fellowship through building relationships, learning God’s Word and worshipping Him.

If you’re not currently involved with a church, make plans to visit a church with a friend this week. Perhaps the person who shared this Pocket PrincipleTM can recommend one. If you already attend a church, make sure you’re deepening your relationships, learning His Word and truly worshipping.

To get more involved, consider praying these three things on the way to church,

“God, today at church, help me to:

•Meet other believers and encourage someone who might need help.

•Learn something from You and other believers that I can apply to my life.

•Truly worship You, rather than just say words while my mind is elsewhere.”

If you want to express love to God in His love language, make church a part of your worship experience.

“God, make me good, but not yet.” – St. Augustine

The quote above attributed to one of the early church fathers, while perhaps tongue in cheek, contains a significant element of truth. Our goodness (growth in holiness) depends on God, but it also depends on us. God will not make us good until we are ready and willing to partner with Him in the process. We have focused previously on God’s role in our spiritual growth and meditated on the magnificent resources available to us. Now, we turn our attention to the flip side of the equation and focus on what is expected of us. The truth is that the believer plays a significant role in his own spiritual growth.

Consider, for example, the building of a garden shed. You may think about what you want the shed to look like, and you may draft plans for the structure. You may even secure all the necessary tools and materials to build the shed. However, at some point you have to actually get to work⎜to saw boards and hammer nails or the shed will never get built. Successful completion doesn’t depend on your grand dreams or your good intentions. It comes about only through hard work. So it is with the Christian life. God has placed everything we need for growth at our disposal but, until we actually start to use what we have been given, we will not make progress.

Paul wrote to his young charge Timothy that he should train himself to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7). Paul uses an athletic analogy to convey to Timothy that effort will be involved. The Olympic athlete dedicates himself to countless hours of rigorous training, all the while refraining from otherwise acceptable enjoyments to maintain discipline, all for the sake of achieving his goal. So, too, the follower of Christ must engage in certain activities and refrain from others in order to achieve the goal of increasing Christlikeness.

A word of caution as we delve into this topic. The Christian life is a marathon rather than a sprint. It takes time to develop the endurance necessary to run a marathon. It doesn’t happen overnight. Some believers hear of great Christian saints who read many chapters of the Bible or pray for several hours each day. Inspired by their example and determined to imitate their dedication, they try to maintain the same habits. Rare is the person who can immediately achieve that level of discipline. Most of us never do. And that’s okay. As we will see below, God does call us to study His Word and to pray. But it is far better to start slowly and develop consistent habits than it is to try to do too much too soon and give up discouraged and disillusioned.

Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy that, “It is much harder [to learn to pray] if we succumb to the temptation to engage in heroic efforts in prayer. This is important. Heroism, generally, is totally out of place in the spiritual life, until we grow to the point at which it would never be thought of as heroism anyway.”

Having said this, the truth remains that the degree to which a believer follows God’s instructions determines the degree to which he grows. Following God’s instructions is not always easy, but the fruit is of great value. As the believer engages in the following activities, he will grow spiritually.

Understanding and Applying the Word of God

Believers grow spiritually as they get to know God⎜His nature, His purposes, and His ways. And the Bible is the primary source God uses to reveal Himself to us. In order to get to know God better, a believer must understand the meaning of Scripture by hearing, reading, studying, memorizing and meditating on the Word. In His second letter to Timothy, Paul writes of the importance and value of Scripture in these words: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right. It is God’s way of preparing us in every way, fully equipped for every good thing God wants us to do.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, New Living Translation)

The author of the first Psalm paints a vivid picture of the person who delights in God’s Word and meditates on it frequently. This person will be “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (Psalm 1:2-3) What a beautiful picture of the outcome God desires to see in our lives!

It is important that our study of the Word never becomes an end in itself. The purpose of study is to learn and to grow, not just to gain more knowledge. There are people who know much about the Bible and have even memorized lengthy passages but who do not believe in the God of the Bible and have no interest in obeying Him.

James warned his readers against being hearers of the word only, saying that in so doing they were deceiving themselves (James 1:22). Jesus closed a lengthy address (commonly known as The Sermon on the Mount) to the crowd gathered on a hillside by giving the parable of the wise man who builds his house on the rock and the foolish man who builds his house on the sand. The wise man is the one who listens and obeys, while the foolish man listens but does not put into practice what he has heard (Matthew 7:24-27).

Praying

God has provided an open line of communication with believers through prayer. Prayer is simply talking to God, knowing that He is always available and expecting Him to respond to us in the way that best suits His purposes and is in our best interests.

However, prayer is not simply an option that we should resort to when we have exhausted our own resources. Rather it should be the natural response to any situation we find ourselves in. We should turn to God first, whether to ask for guidance, protection, provision, or whatever need we might have. Ephesians 6:18 tells us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”

Sometimes we may tend to make prayer harder than it needs to be. We don’t have to learn certain techniques, memorize complicated formulas, use just the right words, or adopt a particular posture. However, Scripture does provide a model for the kinds of things we should pray about.

Many of us are familiar with what is commonly known as The Lord’s Prayer. How often do we look upon this prayer as an actual example for us to follow rather than a fine piece of oratory to be recited or sung? We should remember that our Lord offered this model prayer in response to His disciples’ request for Him to teach them to pray.

This is how you should pray:

Our Father in heaven,

Hallowed be your name,

Your Kingdom come,

Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13)

The prayer begins with recognition of the exalted position of God and ends with recognition of our position of dependence. It is composed of two primary parts. The first section focuses on God as we acknowledge that we are speaking to our loving heavenly Father, worshiping His holy name (which represents His nature and perfect character), and asking that His perfect will be accomplished here on earth. The second section focuses on our needs, as we ask for daily provision, for forgiveness, and for spiritual protection.

Fellowshipping with Believers

One of the greatest needs of our day is for people to develop healthy relationships. God knows this and has provided for this need through fellowship with other believers. The restoration of our vertical relationship with God paves the way for healthy, mutually beneficial horizontal relationships with others. However, these relationships must be nourished through spending time together and celebrating the life we share in Jesus.

This is why Scripture tells us that we should not neglect meeting together with other believers. We need each other. The Christian life was never designed to be an individual pursuit. Regular fellowship with other believers provides comfort, accountability, instruction, encouragement, support, and direction. If a believer is not involved in a local church, he may develop distorted thinking, lack emotional support, feel insecure, and flounder without accountability.

Serving Others

Not only are we to spend time with other believers, we are to serve one another. Again, Jesus is our example. He told His disciples that He came not to be served but rather to serve others. Later He challenged them to serve others as He had served them (Matthew 20:28 and John 13:15).

Serving others is not simply something God thought up to help build character. Rather, service benefits both the giver and the receiver. It benefits the receiver by meeting a need. It benefits the giver by allowing him to experience the joy of seeing a need met and by enabling him to impact others. Along the way, we all have the opportunity to be on the giving end and on the receiving end, and we can find equal joy in each.

Most service to others is nothing heroic but simply involves everyday expressions of love such as offering a kind word of encouragement, giving someone a ride, providing a listening ear, fixing a meal, having a good attitude, or sharing what God is doing in our lives. Scripture emphasizes the “everydayness” of service by saying, “Whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone, especially to our Christian brothers and sisters.” (Galatians 6:10, New Living Translation)

Recognizing The Centrality of Relationships

There is a common theme that runs through the four activities discussed above, and that is the strong cord of relationship. This should not be surprising as relationship is at the heart of the Christian life. We have a new relationship with God and new relationships with His people. Our relationship with God and our worship of God are at the core of everything we do. Without worship, study becomes mechanical and lifeless, prayer becomes self-centered and demanding, fellowship becomes forced and empty, and service becomes an onerous burden.

Conclusion

A believer will grow spiritually as he consistently studies the Word, prays, fellowships with believers, and serves others with genuine humility and a desire to please God. The four topics covered in this lesson by no means exhaust the opportunities for growth; these are simply the primary or foundational means of growth. Other disciplines that may prove helpful to the believer include silence, solitude, fasting, and frugality among others.

However, these foundational activities must be engaged in by anyone who is serious about growth. Although Scripture emphasizes that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), there are no shortcuts to Christian maturity. Scripture and the experience of saints through the centuries prove otherwise. It would be the height of folly for any of us to think that we will be the first to achieve maturity without effort.

The good news is that the ball is in our court. The October 1997 issue of “Today in the Word” relates that the great Scottish Bible teacher Alexander MacLaren once wrote: “We may have as much of God as we will. Christ puts the key of the treasure-chamber into our hand, and bids us take all that we want. If a man is admitted into the bullion vault of a bank and told to help himself, and comes out with one cent, whose fault is it that he is poor?” So we see, then, that the choice is ours. May each of us desire increasing godliness and use the keys we have been given.

Application Suggestions:

• Read Psalm 1. What happens to a believer who becomes isolated from other believers and/or God’s Word? List the benefits of meditating on God’s Word.

• Read Romans 12:9-16. List ways a believer should demonstrate love to others.

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