As history has unfolded, the church has changed and developed. Local churches have been born, lived a life cycle that many would call vibrant, and then have died. Other congregations struggle along with a limp while trying to redefine who they are and why they exist. Still others are shells of their former existence and are content to exist in the faithless, sin-induced coma that has encapsulated them for some time now.
With so many different groups wearing the same label, many Christ followers find it difficult to find a biblical community of devoted disciples on mission for Christ. Many have discovered that the best we can do in our culture is to recognize that there are actually three different groups of people that we could call church. First, Jesus' words about the Church can never be ignored. There is a fellowship of called out ones who are part of the Kingdom of God, and the gates of hell can never prevail against them. Then, there are the Christian based organizations that form, split, reestablish, and meander on through life sporting the latest terminology for the church of America. Third, there is the local expression of the greater Church. This local expression is often found somewhere deeper within the Christian based organizations. These devoted Christ followers serve and worship alongside others who may be there for other reasons. They often work on projects and committees, teach in classes, participate in discussions, and go on trips with the expanded group of census recorded Christians. For some, the distinction is difficult to identify, and for others the difference is clear.
As a child, we had a small group of people who gathered together after worship on Sunday nights. Sometimes we ended up at my dad's restaurant, Don's Drive In. (His name was Don in case you have somehow become distracted in the reading). Other times we ended up at the home of James and Patsy Sugg. Either way, the result was the same. A small group of Christ followers fellowshipping around a meal and sharing life together. Our families were friends who supported, cared for and encouraged one another.
Karen and I had the same experience in Panama City. After church on Sunday nights, several folks would gather at the local Mexican restaurant for a meal and fellowship. We laughed together and talked about life. The experience was a time of bonding. Other times we gathered at the lake for special occasions or maybe at someone's house for a youth ministry Christmas party. Sometimes the meal was just a casual encounter in someone's den with plates of burgers or pizza on our laps as we got to know one another better.
We had a similar group in the local church I served in Wauchula. By this time, everyone's family was growing and going out to eat became a little costly. From time to time, we would just gather together at someone's house after Sunday night worship (I detect a common theme here) to relax and enjoy one another's company. We tried as best we could to avoid "church" discussions because they always seemed to disrupt the laughter and the peace that came from just being together.
I suppose that this type of group is what meant the most to us in Ocala. Church life in Ocala was tough (and that is putting it nicely). One church painfully birthed several others over the years as "good Baptists" fought and decided that it must be God's will to plant a new church a few blocks away. Eventually all of our friends ended up in different churches, but we all stayed connected spiritually. In a strange way, God started something in October 1999 that has remained throughout the years. After attending one of the Christian organizations that didn't seem real keen on new faces, we visited another congregation hoping to find a place to connect. We walked in the door and saw another couple we had seen the week before. We talked and realized that we were all visiting that morning. Later we connected over lunch, and the Lord formed a friendship between two families that still exists today. The truth is that our kids have more lasting friendships from this community of believers than from anywhere else we have lived. Soon after this first encounter, the Lord put together a small group of several couples. Here was the local expression of the body of Christ within a larger Christian organization. As we gathered together, we studied what God's word teaches about marriage, parenting, and spiritual growth. We laughed together, cried together, and cemented relationships that would stand the test of time.
This smaller expression of the body of Christ was not just limited to adults. Our kids formed these relationships too. Oddly enough, within this group two of the couples we have remained close to have 6 girls between them and no boys. One of the families has twins and the other one has children who span the ages of our three kids. What a blessing it is to watch kids of the opposite sex interact together in friendly, brother/sister kinds of ways with no insecurities getting in the way. Early on, our oldest son found a friend at school that he connected with. Only God could introduce two boys and two sets of parents at different times, only later revealing that the kids and parents had been drawn to the same families in Christ. Last week that young man turned 18, and in a few months our oldest will turn 18 as well. Both young men have navigated the journey with grace. Another boy soon appeared on the scene, and as faith would have it (notice I said faith, not fate), this boy's parents were also Christ followers who became very significant in our lives. As time went on, we connected with a family of four boys whose parents loved the Lord boldly. Then, the Lord brought a couple together - one person from our past and another from our present - both now part of our present and our future. The couple married and continue to challenge us in our journey of grace.
What sets these smaller groups apart, and how can people be so connected when they don't travel to the same building at the same time every Sunday morning? Paul tells us that the Spirit of God connects us in a way that is a mystery. Christ followers are unified beyond walls and city limits. Many gather together weekly, yet fewer are connected in the biblical expression of the church. Luke's writing in Acts describes for us what the true church looks like. Followers of Christ living life on mission and glorifying Christ by the fruit of their lives. The bride of Christ.
Maybe I'm the only one, but perhaps I am part of a much larger group of folks who need more than a large group gathering of disconnected people. Who is your church? It's not simply about where you attend or where your "membership" lies. Certainly local connections are important, yet maybe it is more about who the Lord has connected you with to spur you on toward love and good deeds. Be thankful if God has provided you with people who are close in proximity who make up your church. Be mindful of the truth that sometimes the church develops over years and miles. Find a way to keep those connections for the glory of Christ, for upon that foundation we stand. God's people joined together by the Spirit of God covered by the blood of Christ - upon that foundation He promised to build His church and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.