John Wesley was the founder of what became the Methodist denomination. Initially, this group was called the ‘Holy Club’. People, like Wesley, who formed this club had became frustrated with aspects of the Church of England and wanted to reform parts of it. This ‘Holy Club’ soon developed the nickname “Methodists” because they were very intentional and methodical about their passion for, and the way they did, evangelism and discipleship.
The key to Methodism’s early success in sharing the gospel effectively and winning people to Christ was small group community. Wesley discovered through trial and error that the most efficient way to see unbelievers and new believers become effective Christians was to have them meet together weekly in a small group of fellow believers with whom they would real-life accountability.
“Christianity is not a religion for solitude and solitary. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion,” (The Journal of John Wesley)*.
Unfortunately, we live in a British culture that in someways champions individualism and this has to a degree infected the Church too. Some of our Christian brothers and sisters have an emphasised personal relationship with God to the point some think that community, walking together in life-to-life accountability and encouragement, is optional. But intentional Christian community, I believe, is a non-negotiable part of being a healthy and productive believer.
If we look at church as a place to just show up on a Sunday morning, to make an appearance and check off a box on church attendance, then we’re actually missing real church. The Christian faith life requires connecting to others in authentic community, not a come-and-go weekly practice.
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:19-25)
In the previous verses of chapter 10, the writer of Hebrews has explained why the sacrifice Jesus made is enough for us to be cleansed and forgiven. Because Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, no other offering now needs to be made. God has declared our “sins and lawless acts” He will “remember no more” it says in verse 17. From verse 19, the writer is saying, we have a new-found confidence to draw near to God without fear.
For the first time in human history, humans can approach God’s presence without fear of death, which is the natural response of someone unholy being in the presence of the Holy One. We are now made holy, and we’re able to be in God’s presence; all of this is because we have been forgiven through Christ’s death on the cross. From that moment we now get to have unhindered community with God, being fully known by Him and fully forgiven.
Not only can we “draw near” to God it says, but we draw near to God together, in relationship with each other as “brothers and sisters” because of this new way of being in God’s family through Jesus’s sacrifice. We are created to reflect the heavenly community of God, which is family, expressed in His Church and a vehicle for Kingdom advance.
Talking of vehicles, let me illustrate something by using the analogy of drive-in cinemas or drive-in theatres as they call them in the States. Now I’ve only ever seen these, ironically, in movies and I’ve never seen one the UK, so I’m really guessing at what they’re like.
I bet they feel like a completely different experience than watching a movie in a traditional cinema. At the drive-in, it seems, you bring your own snacks, stay in your own car, and enjoy the film without even having to say “excuse me” to another person in order to get to your seat. You could probably show up to the movie in your pyjamas, and no one would have to know. You’ve got the comfort and convenience of a little privacy.
So what’s my point?
Maybe some Christians would love a drive-in option for church (or in fact TV or an online ‘Church’) – don’t touch anyone, don’t talk to anyone, just watch the show in your pyjamas. I know that for some people, this is better than nothing and getting up and getting out is hard – and we need to find ways of staying connected. But that scenario isn’t typical and for most of us, we can make it to a church service or a small group.
Some people avoid community because they just don’t realise how beneficial it is. And some people avoid church for the same reason. Many of us at some point will have been hurt by other people, probably, unfortunately, and disappointingly, even by people in the Church.
Maybe we don’t want to risk that disappointment, that rejection, that pain again. It’s easier to remain distant, aloof, unknown. There’s a false sense of safety in obscurity. Even if we connect with Church, if we’re that way inclined, we want to just slip in and slip out on a Sunday morning, keep to ourselves.
Maybe it’s not hurt caused by other people, but we’ve got a sense of shame that we forget we don’t need to keep hold of when we have a relationship with Jesus. Despite the ‘shame’, we keep up a ‘good’ appearance; nobody has to find out about our rubbish, and thinking from that perspective we don’t have to find out anyone else’s, either.
Real relationships can be messy because they are made up of real people, genuinely connecting. It’s tempting to avoid real relationships and be satisfied with the fake ones – just saying a casual hello during the welcome at a Sunday service once a week.
But that’s not community, that’s not Church, and so that’s not family.
Authentic relationships require knowing one another on a genuine level, and that includes, in the Christian context at least, having relationships with some trustworthy believers who know our personal issues and struggles (and vice versa). Encouraging each other to become more like Jesus in real-life situations, and choosing to see one another as God sees us: through the finished work of Jesus.
As we draw near to God together and give each other the grace God gives us, we’ll be able to experience real community by drawing “near to God with a sincere heart” as it says in verse 22 and that’s the only way life change will happen.
In light of our newfound freedom, through Jesus’s blood, to be fully known, fully loved, and fully forgiven by God, we, as believers, have a responsibility: to help each other do this thing called life.
Because God is faithful to keep His promises to us, we must hold fast to our hope without wavering as it says in verse 23. Because God is faithful to love us, we mustn’t give up in loving each other. Jumping the ship of our relationships at the first sign of trouble, challenge or even a simple difference of opinion.
Not only should we choose to feel affection for one another, which is challenging enough, but we must also “think of ways to motivate one another” the New Living Translation of these verses suggests. We should absolutely, intentionally plot and plan and “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,” write the translators of the New American Standard version of the Bible of the same verse 24! Ultimately doing all this to live our lives faithfully for Christ.
The writer of Hebrews warns believers not to be duped into “giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing”. He’s warning us to not get sucked into that deceptive habit – and missing Church and church groups can become a habit – but to set a pattern instead of “encouraging one another,” as we realise how much we need each other to really walk our lives of faith.
The devil, it tells us in Scripture, is like a lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Check out this clip before reading on: Lions v Zebras!
The voiceover guys in the video said, the “first rule of the safari” is this: “always stay with the group!” The same rule, I think, applies to believers. If we become isolated, we weaken ourselves, and we become more vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy. If we chose to isolate ourselves, not only will we be missing out on the encouragement that comes from doing life together, but we’ll very likely be robbing someone else of the support we could offer them.
We might choose to isolate ourselves for a number of reasons. Perhaps we are tempted to stay away from the church, to avoid accountability and true community because of the mess of real relationships.
Or perhaps our reason or, maybe we can even call it an “excuse”, starts off innocently enough. We might just want to spend a family day at home, to get a few things done. But it can, and here I want to emphasise it’s only a possibility (albeit a strong one) it can quickly landslide into a dangerous “habit.”. Not just of skipping out on a Sunday morning service or small group, but of altogether avoiding that iron-sharpening-iron kind of relationships that bring holiness, change, and victory into our daily lives (see Proverbs 27:17).
My experience over the last 11 years of leading a local church has shown me repeatedly as people step out of the routine of ‘doing church’, their faith walk decreases, and temptation takes over, leading them down a life path they may previously not have chosen. Not everyone admittedly, but enough to make me notice and be concerned when I see patterns develop.
But, there is good news, God is faithful, there is always a way back home. He understands that there’s a perseverance, a certain stick-to-it-ness, that is required to do life with humans. God has had his own barriers to real community with the human race. And yet, the good news tells us that His patient perseverance went to all lengths to annihilate those obstacles, at His high personal cost. Humanity has benefited immeasurably because of His enduring desire to draw near to us. If He had left us on our own, we’d likely have no hope for life on earth and much less for life in eternity.
If we leave one another on our own, if we settle for a superficial come-and-go church, we’ll be missing community and even more importantly, be missing the power of God through it.
Some of us might admit being attracted to the life of a desert monk – a person who just survives in isolation in some remote monastery, being holy all by their lonesome selves. And I’ll admit to you, I am tempted by this at times. I love my man-cave, and I like to 100% switch off from everything and everyone. But I recognise this is not how I should live my life, and I realise how much more vibrant it is when people are walking the same path with me.
Because, it’s relatively easy to be patient, loving, gentle, and kind when there are no other people around. When we’re on our own, or even with a small group that thinks exactly like us, our assessment of our personal holiness would probably skyrocket under such conditions.
But our Christlikeness would probably be quite limited.
Remember, God demonstrates community within Himself, between the Father, Son, and Spirit. How much more should we need community, spiritual family, to thrive? Our desire should always be to bring the culture of Heaven to Earth in a genuine and tangible way.
One of the ways in which we can help each other is by listening to the encouragement of not giving up in meeting together; we need each other! We’ve got to look for ways to encourage each other to keep pursuing righteousness, to keep running after our true inheritance as freed children of God, to spur one another on to live out real life, love, and good deeds.
We are truly better together.
*Wesley, John, and Elisabeth Jay. The journal of John Wesley: a selection. Oxford University Press, 1987