In a conversation almost twenty years ago, someone asked me how I thought the church should function. At the time I was still enjoying how much the Father’s love was reshaping my relationship with him and with others. I remember responding, “The church? Honestly that’s not my priority right now. I’m still exploring what it means to live loved and may not even get back to the church for another ten years.”
Well, it took me a bit longer than that. At the time, I thought everything had to do with the church. I had been in leadership positions in various institutions for twenty years, convinced that if we could just get church right, people would have the relationship with God they wanted. But that didn’t happen, especially because all of my experience with church had to do with conformity-based environments. Someone had a vision or a program and community only rose out commitment to that task. But as I was soon to find out, when you’re no longer on that task the “church” relationships evaporate.
That’s not to say I didn’t have numerous fruitful and endearing relationships within this groups, but they were still influenced by our need to believe the same things. That’s what’s wrong with conformity-based environments, people try to fit in often by trying to say and do the right things, rather than being open, honest, and real about their spiritual lives. And a conformity-based environment has to be controlled by some kind of leadership structure that has unquestioned authority. What has amazed me is how many of those relationships reconnected years later and with the corporate structure was no longer between us how freely and quickly the friendships deepened in our passion for Jesus.
For the last fifteen years, I’ve been able to taste of community with other believers all over the world who, when they are deeply related to God as Father can share community without conformity and collaboration without control. Of course, that only works where Jesus stays at the center of each heart and where people are not going to bully others to get what they need. That sometimes happens when weaker brothers and sister seek to exploit the community or collaboration for their own agenda. So maybe true community can seem transient at times, particularly with the failures of people, but I’ve also known community friendships that have transcended decades and their is nothing richer and more engaging than that.
So now I find myself contemplating community again. How can we share vibrant, growing friendships and share the life of Jesus together without someone having to impose their plan, vision, or program? And I’m excited at how subversive love-based relationships can be in revealing Jesus to the world. We cannot create real community by human effort, but we can cultivate the environment around us in which real relationships can connect and grow as we follow Jesus. We can watch him knit friendships together in larger networks freely and joyfully and watch what kind of amazing collaborations can unfold from that. It’s what he’s about in the world, “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10) His church is not expressed in the man-made institutions that have co-opted the terminology, but in the lives of those who have been drawn into relationship with him, and the growing conversation and unity of heart and spirit that comes from walking alongside others who are also growing in that relationship.
Can you imagine a growing network of people who simply love and care about others enough to walk together without demand and expectation? There’s nothing more incredible than warm friendships sharing a relationship with God and for the next season I’m want to explore that more, especially with seasoned saints around the world who are tired of man-made illusions of community and want to have a conversation about how we cooperate with what God is doing to break down the dividing walls of that shatter relationships, and learn to truly live in love. The current podcast at The God Journey, A Greater Gathering, unpacks this desire to help people participate in that greater gathering Jesus is calling out of the world, beyond the limitations and abuses of our religious institutions into authentic connections and real friendships.
If you only listen to one podcast this year, this is the one you will want to hear. There is a greater gathering going on in the world that transcends whether or not your part of a regular congregations, that’s not based in your attendance at a meeting or your faithful cooperation to someone’s program. Rather, it is based on the deep and engaging friendships of those whose lives are being transformed by Jesus, so they don’t have to live protectively and defensively in the world, but generously and sacrificially because they are at rest in Father’s care for them. The conformity and control won’t be the issue, but growing relationship with him. I want to have that conversation with all kinds of people around the world and see what Father has been seeding in the hearts of those who’ve been learning to live in his love for decades, that may help us see how he is gathering his flock together.
I don’t know of a person whose passionate for God who doesn’t yearn for real and fruitful community. Jesus put the desire for connection in the human heart that only he can fulfill and then we can see it reflected in friendship with others as well. It may have often been disappointed by those who only wanted to use it for their own gain, or those who tried to pressure us to serve their agenda. We’ve confused our church institutions, for the reality of the church itself. But I’ve seen the firstfruits of that real community all over the world and I want to be part of a growing conversation that explores how we can engage these kinds of friendships and help others do so as well. This next week a local group of people are going to begin that conversation here, and I hope the podcast spurs on a wider conversation that will help others see the church Jesus is building and engage it with him, without the need to control people, or prod them toward a conformity that subverts the transforming power of Jesus in the human heart.
It’s not ours to do, but it may be ours to see him more clearly what he is already doing.