If 17 years of ministry and preaching around the world has taught me anything, it is this: the worldwide Church is only as big as its local influence. The idea of the church being a building into which we cram people and keep them safe until the second coming is a romantic notion from a time of over-indulged eschatological nostalgia. The Spirit has brought the growing realisation that the Church is, in fact, a community of people who fill church buildings, cafes, community centres, disused and misused buildings, front rooms and bedrooms—just about anywhere in which they can gather to worship, connect and grow the kingdom of God.
The Church, ekklesia in the original Greek and translated “community” in its simplest meaning, finds itself in a time of identity renewal. With ever growing importance being placed on local communities and their ability to grow local industries—whether it be art, produce, skilled labour, musical talent, literary writers, cottage industries, all locally produced and supported—the need for local, homegrown, worshipping communities of believers has become more urgent than ever.
. . . truth and God are both initially found and validated as much in the life of a person as they are in the Bible itself.
You may read that statement and say, “Hold on mate, we do have churches in local communities.” I would argue that generally what we have in local communities are church buildings. The church—the people—are not based locally. They are weekly commuters who drive in at the weekend for a few hours of worship and drive home again. They have no real roots or personal investment in that local community. Apart from the name of the location we adopt to denote which community we find ourselves in, we fail to define ourselves and our mission based on that given community, because we never truly become totally connected with that community.
The New Testament irony is, in the book of Ephesians (2:13-16) Jesus takes believer and unbeliever (Jew and Gentile), jams both together, then drawing both into Himself, He creates a “new humanity”. In Him this new humanity/church/community receives three indispensable gifts—identity, calling, direction—and these form the basis for everything this new/alternative humanity will subsequently do.
In bringing both believer and non-believer into Himself, Jesus is immediately establishing where both groups, and in whom both groups, find their identity. The calling of the community is to work with the Spirit of Jesus who is bringing people back into a relationship with Him and through Him, back to each other! This gives focus to the direction of the church, which is to press ever toward local communities in which people are able to grow in this new-found identity. Acts 11:19–30 records that it was in Antioch, among the local non-believing Gentiles, that the community of “Christ followers” was first called “Christian”.
This is always the outcome when we find ourselves invested in the local context: they call us Christian and not just we ourselves.
It’s a wonderful time to be thinking about church again and doing church in the communities in which we find ourselves. I believe the Spirit wants us to think about how to radically localise our worshipping communities and in two specific ways:
- Moving into and living in the communities where our churches are based.
- Establishing worshipping communities in areas where there are a large number of believers already living but no church presence.
Whichever way it is done, the emphasis is on truly becoming invested in local communities to the same degree or greater than they are becoming invested in themselves.
It is local appeal that truly inspires global impact.
Why local church community?
- Local church means that we’re invested in the communities and people they represent.
- It means that we care about more than just the soul salvation of people; it means, like Jesus, we’re invested in their total lives.
- In this local context of faith, ministry and church, who we are as believers in Jesus and followers of Jesus makes sense and comes alive!
I believe that the importance of keeping it local is found in understanding the way in which people are now searching for and interpreting truth. The contemporary search for God and truth via spirituality and non-organised religion means that people are no longer listening primarily to what we say. They are now listening with a type of spiritual intuitiveness to “who we are”; they are hearing us “from the inside out”. As such, truth and God are both initially found and validated as much in the life of a person as they are in the Bible itself (1 John 1:1-4).
A non-believing teenager sat through a week of some social development workshops I ran in London when I pastored there. At the end of the week I asked him how he found it, to which he replied, “It was very good.” When I asked him if it made sense, he replied, “No, you made sense!” People believe in the articulated and living truth they see in our daily lived experience and how Jesus’ reality in us comes to bear upon them.
As you ponder new ways in which to impact people both young and old in the community your church finds itself in, keep these seven principles in mind.
- Remember that the church is not a building that a community of people step into; the church is a community of people who seek connection with other people.
- Place the same value on people and yourselves that Jesus places on you both (Ephesians 1:3-14). We tend to care for the things and people we value most.
- Enter your communities via bridges, ie, people, families and organisations already working and known in that community. Be willing to partner with others for the kingdom.
- Nothing about being local is easy but everything about it is glorious. If it sounds like hard work, that’s because it is.
- Being local isn’t primarily about event-driven ministry; it is about process-driven living! Get in there for the long haul or at least lay in place a process for ministry that is.
- The most important truth of God we are bringing to people is: “Christ in us, the hope of glory.” Everything else is a Bible study.
- God isn’t looking for perfection from us; He’s looking for surrendered intentionality! Allow people and yourselves time to grow in the community.
If we truly want to keep church vital, essential and meaningful, let’s remember to keep it local.
Eddie Hypolite is senior pastor of Avondale College church, NSW.