Several weeks ago, I was asked how to find “ekklesia” (the Greek word in the New Testament often translated as “church”).
Many today are frustrated because they can’t seem to find authentic fellowship, or feel stuck in the “wilderness” after leaving the institutional church.
As I’ve thought about this, it’s been hard for me to know how to respond. The last thing anyone needs is another “program”, “method” or “three easy steps” to find something that God designed to be authentically birthed, and sustained, organically.
You see, God intends that life reproduce life. That principle is built into the very fabric of creation. Like all things that impart life, real ekklesia is organic, through and through.
And by “organic”, I mean simply this: The authentic and diverse life of Christ in me, which is then expressed among us and through us as we become the wonderful, dynamic, multi-gifted and participatory Body of Christ.
The key to finding this, I think, is found in those two words: authentic and diverse.
So here’s my response on how to find ekklesia, rooted in my own experience of finding, and then helping others find, real life and real fellowship – not as one who’s arrived, but simply as one who has been on the path maybe a little longer.
The Authentic Life of Christ
I think the greatest challenge facing Christians today is the prevailing tendency to create Jesus in our own image – based on our own hurts, sensibilities or whatever.
Without an authentic Jesus, you will not find authentic fellowship.
That’s because the foundation for true “ekklesia” must be this, and this alone: (i) the authentic life Christ in us, which is then authentically expressed among us and through us; (ii) as confirmed by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit which is concurrently subject at all times to His authoritative external witness of Scripture.
That’s just my complicated way of saying what Jesus said much more simply: If two or three of us gather in His name (i.e., in the authenticity of who He really is and has authoritatively revealed Himself to be), He is there, alive among us. (Matt. 18:20)
Apart from the authentic life of Jesus – where we continually are being created in His image through a dynamic, transforming relationship with the Living Word which conforms to the authority of His written word – entering into true Christian community simply is not possible.
Otherwise, you are reduced to seeking “fellowship” around the need to affirm your own hurts, biases, attitudes, ideals, aspirations or even your own “better selves” – and that simply doesn’t work.
Oh, it will feel validating, comforting and even liberating at first, but eventually, at best, you will end up being just another anemic, insular “meet up” of cookie-cutter look-alikes trapped in your own shared sensibilities.
I have heard from too many Christians who can’t seem to ever find healthy fellowship. Unless they are in legitimate transition (and I’m not talking ten years, folks), more often than not they share the same characteristic – they only want or know a Jesus of their own creation.
I also have visited too many “organic” or similarly-described fellowships that are anemic and insular. More often than not, they too share the same characteristic – they only want or know a Jesus of their own creation.
So you want life and real fellowship? Good. Let the dynamic, authentic life of Christ be birthed in you – and then seek out opportunities to share and express that life among others who share your excitement. True ekklesia will then just naturally happen, because life reproduces life.
Trust me. It really isn’t that hard. I have helped spark real fellowship time and again in different communities based on just that simple approach.
If that means letting go of the hurts that have defined you, then forgive and begin pursuing health.
If it means letting go of the sensibilities that have limited you, then let the washing of your mind through the power of His word begin to transform you.
If it means getting out of your lifeless funk, then maybe it’s time to get off your knees and start doing the things that bring you joy in the Lord – even if it is not “spiritual” – and then start expressing His resulting joy to others, because joy is life, and life is contagious.
But understand this: Seeking ekklesia to sooth your self-defining hurts or to affirm your self-limiting sensibilities simply won’t work. Never has, never will.
It’s OK to seek ekklesia as you break out of your hurts, your sensibilities or your funk – but it’s not OK to seek fellowship in order to wallow in or affirm them.
Real ekklesia, then? Simply this: The authentic life of Christ in me, which is then collectively expressed among us and through us.
Alive and dynamic…
Relational and transforming…
Yet also invigorated as we let the external standards of Scripture continually stretch our expectations, shatter our comfort zones, and confirm that we truly are conforming more and more to His image – and not Him to our image.
So the dynamic life of Christ is now bubbling up within you, and you want to share that life in community. How do you find community?
Like so much else, it really isn’t complicated: Hospitality.
Throughout the New Testament, we see how the life of Christ in us is most vibrantly expressed through hospitality. It is what I believe God has designed, more than anything else, to bring us together in community.
Not structured meetings. Not programs. Not heavily-promoted seminars or the attraction of a big-name teacher.
No, just plain old hospitality.
Jesus focused on this when he sent out His disciples to bring the good news of the Kingdom to new towns and communities. The first thing they were to do, He said, was to find a person or household of peace – i.e., hospitality.
In fact, in nearly every New Testament story about how ekklesia started in a particular town, the key was hospitality. It was the catalyst – either to get things going or to kept things going.
For example, the apostles Paul and Peter often started a new fellowship around a household that had invited them in. In Jerusalem, after the influx of thousands on the Day of Pentecost, the church continued to grow as they met from house to house to break bread and fellowship.
So invite those who might be interested in sharing your enthusiasm to come and have a meal together – or maybe even invite yourself over to their house.
The main fellowship I am part of started when a friend said she knew a guy who was interested in the same kind of things I was doing. So I called him out of the blue, introduced myself, and asked if he wanted to meet at the local Panera Bread for coffee. We instantly clicked as our shared enthusiasm over what the Lord was doing in our lives resonated with each other. My wife and I then had dinner with him and his wife, and that eventually became the nucleus for a new fellowship.
Does that mean my wife and I find fellowship with everyone to whom we extend hospitality? No, of course not. But it is true that we almost never find fellowship with new folk unless we start with hospitality, and then continue to make it a key part of our ongoing relationship.
So reach out, invite, share – be hospitable. Plant some seeds and watch what the Lord then does.
(For two good, related blogs on hospitality and some practical suggestions, see Katie Driver on The Practice & Power of Hospitality and Don Davis on Looking for a House Church? It’s Not Easy If You’re New to an Area.)
Sustaining Diverse Fellowship
Those who find fellowship by pursuing Christ’s authentic life, however, often fail to sustain fellowship because they fall into a dangerous trap: They (or others) want ekklesia to reflect their legitimate, but limited, God-given gifts and even understanding of Christ.
Our individual gifts and understanding of Christ are often expressed through our differing personalities, perceptions, motivations and priorities. That’s how God created us – unique in Him!
But my gifts, and your gifts, are limited – no one person can ever have all the things needed for healthy, dynamic and sustainable fellowship.
For example, I often cringe at “church planters” who try to impose their own relationship with Christ – often under a very enticing banner like “Christ is All”, “missional” or some “grand epic” which is more a reflection of their own walk with the Lord than anything else – as normative for all of God’s people.
It’s not that any one of those concepts necessarily are wrong, but rather they are made the end all and be all of everything – including ekklesia.
I’ve been around long enough, and helped birth enough fellowships, to finally understand that Christ in me – if authentic – will look very different than Christ in you. And furthermore, my understanding of Christ, and the fullness of Christ, should naturally differ to varying degrees from yours.
This has nothing to do with me being right and you being wrong. Rather, Jesus has created us each very differently. He gives us different grace, with different gifts, motivations and perspectives – and our spiritual antennas each resonate at different frequencies.
Some relate to the Lord primarily through the heart, some through the will, others through the mind – as well as other ways that match our different God-given motivations and personalities.
I’ve also been around long enough, and helped birth enough fellowships, to know that it is only as our legitimate and essential differences are express in diversity – and not uniformity – that we start to find real community. Only then do we begin seeing the real fulness of Christ – as your unique gifts, grace, motivations and perceptions are joined with my unique gifts, grace, motivations and perceptions.
Our Differing Gifts
Too many ignore the great emphasis of the New Testament on differing grace, motivations and gifts – perhaps because they think Christ in you should look like Christ in them or that their “job” is to reproduce the Jesus in them, rather than equip you to maturely express the uniqueness of Jesus in you.
And so, if their main motivational gift is mercy, they want ekklesia to primarily reflect compassion and tolerance.
Are you willing to impart intimacy and acceptance to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about intimacy and acceptance?
If their main motivational gift is prophetic, they want ekklesia to primarily embody vision and transparency.
Are you willing to impart truth and change to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about truth and change?
If their main gift is teaching, they want ekklesia to primarily focus on knowledge and Bible study.
Are you willing to impart understanding and stability to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about understanding and stability?
If their main gift is encouragement and exhortation, they want ekklesia to primarily revolve around unity and relationships.
Are you willing to impart peace and harmony to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about peace and harmony?
If their main gift is administration, they want ekklesia to be all about goals, discipleship and mission.
Are you willing to impart structure and order to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about structure and order?
If their main gift is giving, they want ekklesia to be all about redemption and life.
Are you willing to impart resources and creativity to others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about resources and creativity?
If their main gift is serving, they want ekklesia to be all about tasks and meeting needs.
Are you willing to help and bless others in community, while sacrificially laying aside your need for everything to be about helping and blessing others?
No doubt, there are many other things that also can become our all-consuming, and thus limiting, goal for ekklesia.
It could be a particular attribute that resonates deeply with you – and so you try to make ekklesia all about love, or justice, or a secure haven, or serving the needy. Those hopefully will be among the various attributes shared by any healthy fellowship, but they can not be made THE attribute of a healthy fellowship – because Christ has many facets, and thus so will the Body of Christ.
Any one attribute, no matter how noble, will destroy ekklesia when out of balance.
Or it could be a pet doctrine, like your own views on what the centrality of Christ must look like, or the “grand epic”, or the new covenant, or proper leadership, or even what it means to be an “organic” fellowship – as though every community of believers in all cultural contexts will look, believe and function the same!
Yes, I believe in certain core principles. But I can also tell you from personal experience that it is a tragic mistake to make even your perfectly valid concepts of ekklesia more important that ekklesia – because I once did it and ended up killing a fellowship I helped start when I was still new to all this.
Trust me, you and your gift, motivation, ministry, pet doctrine, vision, understanding of Christ or whatever – no matter how good and legitimate – can never be the basis for ekklesia. At most, all those things may be a part of a local fellowship but nothing more – and even then, they may only find expression among some segment of the overall fellowship, but not all of it.
Who’s The Head?
Jesus is the head, not you or your “stuff” – as good as it may be. Get over it.
It is not about your gift, your motivation, your grace, your pet doctrine or even your grand vision. It is about all of us coming together with our individual gifts, motivations, grace, understandings and callings to edify one another, build up each other, and go forth to all spheres of life as we demonstrate Christ through our various callings to a waiting world.
If I have ever been harsh in my blog, it is to counter those who want to enforce their group-think and out-of-balance imitations – even when it involves something that is otherwise good – on the Body of Christ.
You see, unity is not uniformity. That is a lie by those trying to peddle their own measure of Christ as normative for all.
I have yet to meet another brother or sister in Christ who, no matter what my own strength, did not exceed me in some other aspect of Christ. When we are in fellowship, I must see how I need you often more than you may ever need me – while still sharing what I have to give. That, then, becomes the beginning of healthy fellowship.
Diverse, sustainable fellowship comes only when I realize I am but a part, based on the measure of Christ given to me. Neither I nor my gift, motivation, understanding, ministry or vision can ever be allowed to become the key, the head, the focal point or the unifying attribute. Otherwise, it is not ekklesia, but just another self-perpetuating institution with “church” in its name.
A Final Caution
Finally, a word of caution.
If you want sustainable, healthy ekklesia, be discerning: There are too many bloggers, “church planters”, organic church advocates, detached itinerant “apostles” and other self-proclaimed whatevers who seek to limit the Body of Christ to their own measure of Christ.
There’s nothing wrong with imparting to others the measure of Christ which you have received from Christ, in the context of the diverse Body of Christ. But it is totally wrong to make Christ in you normative for all.
Receive what is good from them, but don’t let them define you.
Looking back, I thank God daily that we avoided the trap of associating with those who peddle their own agendas, theories, doctrines and pet issues in the name of “organic church” and “ekklesia”.
They may talk a good talk, but look for the fruit of real ekklesia: Are they rooted in the authentic, multifaceted, multi-gifted life of Christ found in real community? Do you see the local, dynamic and participatory expression – both internally and to the surrounding community – of the diverse Body of Christ?
Because only life can reproduce life, and they ain’t gonna give birth to what they ain’t living. That’s just a law of creation, and I don’t care how nice, personable, inspiring, charming or whatever else they otherwise may be.
There are some valid voices of experience and wisdom out there, who are not trying to build fellowships around themselves, their pet issue, their gifts, or their personal understanding of Christ.
Instead, they are rooted in actual, healthy, functional local fellowships – even when they travel to help others. In fact, that’s likely why they are not out of balance: Healthy ekklesia just naturally seems to keep you grounded and integrated.
So there you have it: Go and be fruitful, multiply and enjoy some good ekklesia along the way.
~ Jim Wright