Belonging to the Family

By: Brian Marston

I was reading a book titled “Simply Christian” by well know theologian and author, N.T. Wright. Near the end of the book, I found a passage that was perfect for anyone thinking about their relationships in the church or considering being a part of any church. I wanted to share these words from N.T. Wright.

“If God is our father, the church is our mother.” The words are those of Swiss Reformer John Calvin. Several biblical passages speak this way (notably, Galatians 4:26-27, echoing Isaiah 54:1). They underline the fact that it is as impossible, unnecessary, and undesirable to be a Christian all by yourself as it is to be a newborn baby all by yourself.  

The church is first and foremost a community, a collection of people who belong to one another because they belong to God, the God we know in and through Jesus. Though we often use the word “church” to denote a building, the point is that it’s the building where this community meets. True, buildings can and do carry memories, and when people have been praying and worshiping and mourning and celebrating in a particular building for many years, the building itself may come to speak powerfully to God’s welcoming presence. But it is the people who matter.  

The church exists primarily for two closely correlated purposes: to worship God and to work for his kingdom in the world. You can and must worship, and work for God’s kingdom, in private and in ways unique to yourself, but if God’s kingdom is to go forward, rather than around and around in circles, we must work together as well as apart.  

The church also exists for a third purpose, which serves the other two: to encourage one another, to build one another up in faith, to pray with and for one another, to learn from one another and teach one another, and to set one another examples to follow, challenges to take up, and urgent tasks to perform. This is all part of what is known loosely as fellowship. This doesn’t just mean serving one another cups of tea and coffee. It’s all about living within that sense of a joint enterprise, a family business, in which everyone has a proper share and a proper place.

It is within this context that the different “ministries” within the church have grown up. From the very earliest evidence we have, in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul, the church has recognized different callings within its common life. God has given different gifts to different people so that the whole community may flourish and take forward the work with which it has been entrusted.

Worship, fellowship, and the work of reflecting God’s kingdom into the world flow into and out of one another. You can’t reflect God’s image without returning to worship to keep the reflection fresh and authentic. In the same way, worship sustains and nourishes fellowship; without it, fellowship quickly deteriorates into groups of the like-minded, which in turn quickly become exclusive cliques – the very opposite of what Jesus’ people should be aiming at.

It is within the church, even when the church isn’t getting everything quite right, that the Christian faith of which we have spoken is nourished and grows to maturity. As with any family, the members discover who they are in relationships with one another. Churches vary enormously in size, from scattered handfuls of people in isolated villages to enormous congregations of many thousands in some parts of the world. But ideally every Christian should belong to a group that is small enough for individuals to get to know and care for each other, and particularly to pray in meaningful depth for one another, and also to a fellowship large enough to contain a wide variety in its membership, styles of worship, and kingdom activity. The smaller the local community, the more important it is to be powerfully linked to a larger unit. The larger the regular gathering (I think of those church where several hundred, or even several thousand, meet together every week), the more important it is for each member to belong also to a small group. Ideally, groups of a dozen or so will meet to pray, study scripture, and build one another up in faith.

N.T. Wright has an amazing gift of laying out some complicated thoughts in a simplified manner. For those of us who call Shepherd Church our church home and family, we know that we are part of a very large weekend congregation. My wife and I have been attending this church faithfully since October 1995. We know there are a lot of people here, but because we are close to our small groups of people, this church does not feel too big. We have made the relationships a huge part of our involvement, and we feel loved, cared for, supported, and encouraged. Without the people of this church that God has put in our lives, we would struggle through life in many different ways. Our Life Groups over the years have been invaluable in that process. I truly pray that all who attend might find people as we have with whom God can share his love, care, support, and encouragement. That is what Life Groups are all about.