One of the things I think we all love about zoos it the ability to see animals many of us would never be able to afford to see in the wild. Most of us would never seen a tiger, hippo, or a monkey in real life. Zoos bring the animals to us and allow us to capture the exotic nature of a wild safari without the danger or the cost.
One of the things I think we would all acknowledge about zoos, though, is that the animals we love to see in them are rarely as full of life as they are in wild. On a recent trip to a zoo with my family, we stopped to look at the lions. There were three of them laying on the ground, sunning themselves. My wife leaned over to me and whispered, “I don’t know how many times I’ve been to a zoo and every time they look exactly like this.” Animals that are fed, caged, and have their every need cared for rarely have the spark of life that we think of when we picture an animal in the wild.
My wife’s comment reminded me of a trip to Africa several years ago. In the midst of different wings of our ministry trip, we had a down day for rest and recuperation. Our contact asked what we wanted to do that day. I told him I wanted to see a giraffe or a hippo. He got a delighted look on his face and said, “We can go to the zoo!” I quickly shot back, “Paul, this is Africa. I don’t want to go to the zoo!” I wanted to see what the animals operating like God designed them.
Often, Christians live in cages, too. These are cages of their own making. They are regularly “fed.” They have all their needs met. In these cages, they are safe to do everything Christians do. People from the outside can even come in and look at what Christians are and what they do.
The question is, like the monkey or the lion that has lost his spark in the zoo, have you lost your spark? Have you settled for less than what God has intended for you? Maybe it’s time for Christians to venture out into the wild and learn what it means to feed themselves and function without the cage. You might be surprised what a Christian released into their natural habitat is capable of.
There are churches all over the Earth looking for a way to build community. It seems everywhere I go, people want to be a part of a community, build community, or stay in community, but how to do it escapes us. A big part of the reason for that is we seek community for our own sake, and not the sake of others. This taints the community building process.
In reality, one of the most important but often neglected secrets to building community is to find it in pursuit of God’s mission. Jesus said, “I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution,” (Mark 10:29-30). When we leave what is valuable to us for the sake of Jesus and the Good News, he gives us in return many spiritual brothers, sisters, mothers, and children. Community is the result of mission.
If you’ve ever gone on a short or long term mission trip, you’ll understand this. There is something about leaving everything you have, laying down your regular life, and pursuing something of the Lord together with a group of people that forms community like nothing else. Often those who do will come back longing for the same type of fellowship they had among that group of people, only to be frustrated in not being able to find it.
The secret lies not in going overseas, but finding a group of people who will lay down their lives both for Christ and His mission. I’ve watched house churches engage in mission together here in the United States in specific neighborhoods or people groups, and the same phenomenon happens. What Jesus does when we lay down our earthly lives is He begins to form family among those who have pursued it together.
So you don’t have to leave the country to find community. You find spiritual family as you lay down your life for Christ and the Gospel. As you follow Jesus in the mission He has for you, He will bring alongside you others who are pursuing Him and His mission in a similar way. And in this place, God will confront weaknesses in your life and the lives of others He will reveal places of sin or unbelief. The people with you on mission will help you bring those areas back to God for healing. You will get to do the same with them. This is where spiritual family is built–in the spiritual press of mission.
This is why I always tell prospective church planters that the order is Jesus, Mission, Church. Jesus must become the center of our lives, our source, and our leader. His leadership will eventually spill over into mission with Him and others. This mission creates a church, both in those that pursue it and ultimately as the result of sharing the Gospel. If we keep those priorities in the proper order, we will experience spiritual family.
Do you long for community? Submit yourself to Christ. Find the mission He has for you. As you do, you will find the community you’ve been looking for.
But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.
-Jesus, Matthew 23:8
Unfortunately, many are unfamiliar with what brotherhood looks like. Far fewer know how to achieve brotherhood. Because brotherhood helps level the playing field, I think it’s important to answer this question: how do a group of believers become brothers and sisters?
First, the obvious: Brotherhood starts when you have the same parents. I know this seems elementary, but the church can only achieve brotherhood with other born again believers. There can be no brotherhood where God is not our Father through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s through Christ’s atoning death that we are adopted into the family of God as sons and daughters.
But once adopted, there is a practical reality that must be achieved. It does us no good to be brothers and sisters in name only. There are many churches that exist where everyone is called brother so-and-so and sister so-and-so, but the term is only one of false honor and doesn’t hold up in real life.
In my experience, once we’ve established the common ground of the cross of Jesus Christ as the rallying point for our family, the next step is to open up to one another about our weakness. But someone has to go first. In every case, whenever I’ve had a group of believers around me and I haven’t been afraid to show the very ugliest parts of my life to them, it’s allowed them to see me as human. They help me. They lift me up. They are given courage to to show their weakness as well.
And this, friends, is the most basic form of communitas we can achieve as the church. We go from being people competing against each other for superiority into being people who love and support each other in our journey out of brokenness. When we admit we are all messed up–all more ugly than we want to admit–and we all equally need a savior, this is fertile ground for true brotherhood to emerge.
And it’s this true brotherhood, this love that finds one another at the foot of the cross that protects us from believing you or I are higher than the other. And it sustains brotherhood through the glories and successes because we know where we came from and we know we helped each other get there.
So, brothers and sisters, I know I sound like a broken record, but if you don’t have people like this in your life, please find some. Please gather together with broken people who have found Jesus and admit your brokenness. Bring it out into the light. This is what John is saying when he says this:
…[I]f we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another…
-1 John 1:8
Hierarchy ends when brotherhood begins. Brotherhood begins when we gather as broken saints around a saving cross. And this is the birthing of true fellowship.
But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.
-Jesus, Matthew 23:8
One of the things I think we miss in our crusade against hierarchy is the simple way Jesus taught us to avoid it. Simply put, brotherhood is the antidote to hierarchy.
Quickly: Hierarchy is a word that means there are some people or things higher than others. It was first a word used to distinguish orders of angels, then to distinguish rank among ministers in the church, and then came to be used in society and business management. Why is it bad? Jesus had this revolutionary idea that there shouldn’t be hierarchy within the movement He started. I believe He saw the danger it caused when people thought some of God’s people were better than others.
Jesus not only warned us about hierarchy, though. He gave us the solution to it. The solution isn’t limiting our uniqueness or hiding our giftedness. The solution to the problem of hierarchy is becoming brothers*. If you’ve ever had brothers (or been fortunate enough to have friends that are like brothers) you’ll know why. Brotherhood growing up is one of the first forms of communitas that we come to understand. Healthy brotherhood gives everyone a place without elevating men or women above one another.
I had the unique privilege growing up of watching my dad interact with his father and three brothers. My dad was the youngest of five children, younger by about ten years than his next oldest brother. And yet, when my dad and his brothers got together there was no struggle for superiority. When my grandfather passed away, no one tried to become the new leader of the family. There was no struggle for grandpa’s status. It was just the brothers (and my aunt of course) still being family. They knew who they were (sons and the daughter of Albert Kolder) and they knew each other well enough to respect but not glorify any of the others.
Imagine a church like that. A church where every person who was following Jesus didn’t strive for position. No one tried to become the father of the family. Everyone was confident in their place in the spiritual family. They knew their identity and their value. In fact, they were so healthy as brothers and sisters, they eventually matured to the place where they were healthy enough to start families of their own.
Yet even among churches that hate hierarchy the most (which I would argue comes with its own set of problems), there is little expression of brotherhood. And so suspicion, animosity, and a lack of love often result. It’s a little like a country who hates an evil ruler of another country. So they depose the the ruler of that country and install another, only to find out that the new ruler is just as bad or worse than the one they installed. The fear of hierarchy becomes as bad of a ruler for a church as any hierarchy ever would.
But Jesus taught us a better way. If we would learn to be brothers and sisters, hierarchy would whither as a result. How do we learn to be brothers and sisters? More on that tomorrow…
*If you’re reading this and you’re a lady, know that brotherhood is merely a the best word that I can use. God calls us all sons regardless of our gender. I get to be part of the bride of Christ some day. We all have…ahem…gender terms…in the Bible that don’t make us comfortable. Know you’re included.
Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared’ (Luther).
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community
Each of the phrases in the title of this blog could be a whole series of blogs that I continually blog about. However, tonight, it’s late and I just have one thing to say about all three subjects: They are all deeply related.
Having said that, this was the subject of a message I just shared with our house church here in Cedar Rapids. I believe we’re beginning to cross into some areas we’ve never been in before. I had something else on my heart to share, but the Lord wouldn’t let me share about it until I took the time to lay a foundation for a real culture of repentance in our church. I’m finding that one thing that is sorely missing in our churches is a true, non-religious culture of repentance.
All of that has to start with a thorough understanding of God, His nature, His thoughts about us as we live our lives as sinful human beings, and how all of those traits of God need to be reflected in the church. If I’ve piqued your interest (or you’re one of the three people that read this blog to keep tabs on our house church–yeah I know about you guys) you can check out some of the stuff we talked about by clicking here.