Sr. Pastor Mark Stafford
The Church is Vital to You
We love to have things personalized. Take a cell phone for example: People personalize their phone cases, wallpaper, and ring tones. They download apps to make the phone best suited for their personal needs. A cell phone really becomes a micro-expression of who we are. If we treat a cell phone that personally, then why not personalize the church as well?
Since I’ve been in the ministry, I have had a recurring conversation with people. I might be in the store or at the barber and the fact that I’m the pastor of a church will come up. Often a person will offer a few of their personal ideas about spiritual things and then follow up those thoughts by saying something like,
“I’m really into Jesus, but I’m really not into organized religion.”
In other words, they want to follow Jesus but don’t have any desire to be a part of the local church. They are not necessarily against the local church, but they genuinely feel like they can get along just fine without it. They have Jesus, prayer, and the Bible and that’s enough for them.
Worshipping Jesus on your own without a church body might sound a like a very enlightened and personalized approach to Christianity until you understand God’s design for the church. All through the scriptures, God’s plan is for community. God is not just bringing individuals to Himself, but He is making a people for Himself. 1 Peter 2:9 describes God’s people like this:
“…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
God intended for His people to worship together, not just individually – 1 Peter 2:9, Genesis 12:2, Rev. 7:9-10
God’s purpose in gathering a people is not only to have them relating to Him on an individual level, but to form these individuals into a people, a race, a nation, and a priesthood dedicated to His purposes as a group.
Holy nation building was God’s purpose for His people from the very beginning. Consider what God said to Abraham all the way back in Genesis 12:2. He said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
Then let’s jump to the end of the scriptures. At the other end of the Bible, John sees the people of God and offers up this description in Revelation 7:9-10, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
From Genesis to Revelation, God is purposefully and intentionally gathering a people for Himself, not just individuals. Part of God’s work in drawing people to Himself is drawing His people to one another as well. Those He saves, He gathers.
He is often described in the scriptures as a shepherd. Shepherds don’t isolate the sheep from one another; they gather the sheep together into a flock. There is a website dedicated to training people how to raise sheep (www.sheep101.info). Under a section labelled, “Normal Sheep Behavior,” it says,
“Changes in normal behavior can be an early sign of illness in sheep. The most obvious example of this relates to the sheep’s most natural behavioral instinct, their flocking instinct. A sheep or lamb that is isolated from the rest of the flock is likely showing early signs of illness (unless it is lost).”
If in the Bible, God is compared to a shepherd and if His people are compared to sheep, then this principle from the farm could be true of our lives as well. The Christian, who does not naturally follow the Lord’s leading to fellowship with other believers, is most likely either sick or lost. Isolation in a believer is never a sign of spiritual strength, just the opposite is true. Both sheep isolated from their flock and Christians isolated from fellowship become stressed, not strengthened.
This modern age of technology is very effective in bringing people together and it is just as effective in moving people into isolation. On my Facebook page, I have been able to keep in contact with hundreds of people from my past who I would otherwise have lost contact with.
Technology is a wonderful tool. I wrote this message on a laptop. I do some of my research on the internet. I carry with me a smart phone. I’m able to download and listen to some of the best teaching in the country while I work out. People in our church can instantly text me their prayer requests.
However, the internet, Facebook (and other social media sites) can also draw us deeply into the digital world of superficial friendships. In this digital age, we begin to lose contact with real people altogether:
- If we are able to download the best preaching in the country, choose the topic and listen to it on demand and…
- If we are able to find recordings of the latest and best worship bands in the world in the exact style we would prefer and…
- If we can pray anywhere and at any time…
Then why do we need to go to church?
- Can’t we get just as spiritual of experience lying in bed on a Sunday morning listening to a podcast?
- Why bother getting up out of bed and getting dressed up and driving the whole family down the road to sit in a church meeting where the music and preaching isn’t personalized just for my own preferences?
- Can’t I just have Jesus and some downloads?
- Does Christianity have to come with Christians….and all their problems?!
The New Testament puts our individuality to the test! Let me offer you two truths about the local fellowship that are critical for your personal growth.
Two Truths about Fellowship
#1 When you come to Jesus, you become part of a family – Galatians 3:26-28, Romans 12:5, Acts 9:4-5
Your relationship with Jesus has dramatic effects and implications on your relationships with other people – especially people within the church. Consider what Paul says in Galatians 3:26-28
“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
All believers are united to Christ. Baptism by immersion serves as a symbol of this new status. Once we were in the world, but now we have been taken out of the world. We are so plunged into Jesus that He touches every part of who we are. We are immersed in Him. Then the Bible says that His righteousness is imputed to us. That means that all of His perfections are deposited into the accounts of His people. We are wrapped with and clothed with His righteousness.
When the scripture says, you are “all one in Christ Jesus,” it means that we are united with every other person who is also united with Jesus in a position of immersion and imputation.
- Our “oneness” in Christ is true on a global level. Through our connection to Christ, we are united with Christians all over the world and all throughout history – most of which we have never met. Where ever we are in the world, we are never far from the family of God. The people of God have family everywhere! However, it’s difficult to do life together on a global level or to be in fellowship with historical figures that are already in heaven. There is an immediate spiritual family that requires our most focused attention.
- Our “oneness” in Christ is best expressed and worked out in the context of the local Our church family at home gives us the most opportunities for service, equipping, training and fellowship.
When Paul speaks of the Church being a body, it is implied that the body involves those who we are personally connected with. Listen to his description of the church in Romans 12:5, “…we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
Paul uses the illustration of a body intentionally. Any one part of a body has obligations to the other parts of the body. My eyes and heart and legs all have to work together seamlessly if I’m going to walk from one place to another. If my knee decides it’s not going to function one day, it has an adverse effect on my ability to do anything else.
In the church, the verse says quite plainly that we “are one body in Christ,” and that the individual pieces are members of the whole. My ability to serve the body of Christ does not belong to me. It belongs to the body:
- My abilities to teach, understand theology, play music, pray, design graphics, and lead a church are not mine to be kept for myself. Those abilities belong to you as the body of Christ.
- Your ability to administer, sing, pray, witness, love children, fix cars, give sacrificially, visit the elderly, or host a Bible study does not belong to you. Your God-given abilities belong to the body, not to yourself.
When we are “in Christ” that means we are connected to and responsible for other believers. You can’t be a healthy part of God’s family while avoiding the needs of the body. I hope it’s becoming clear that the church is not just a meeting you attend on Sundays, it is a family you belong to.
If God is your Father, then His people are your family and we show our love for Jesus by treating God’s family the way our Father tells us to treat them. On the other hand, if we mistreat God’s family, it is as if we are mistreating Jesus Himself. Consider Jesus’ words to Saul on the road to Damascus.
Saul (who became Paul later in the Bible) had been aggressively and systematically trying to stamp out Christianity. The account in Acts 9 states that He thought he was doing a good thing until the risen Christ appeared to Saul and said these penetrating words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Saul was confused. He was trying to root out a group that he thought was a cultic distortion of Judaism. In verse 5 he asks, “Who are you, Lord?” Saul knew that this appearance of a Divine being was of great significance. Notice what Jesus says to Saul at the end of verse 5, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
When Saul mistreated God’s people, He was mistreating God’s Son, Jesus. The relationship between Jesus and His people is so tight that what you do to them, you do to Jesus. Christ is utterly connected to His people, so on the positive side, the ministry you have to God’s people is done as if it is ministry done to Jesus Himself.
#2 When you serve God’s people, you are serving Jesus – Matthew 25:35-40
What you do for the church, you do for Jesus, Himself. Jesus makes this point abundantly clear in Matthew 25. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, He describes two groups of people:
- One group is righteous.
- The other is not.
He describes the actions of the righteous people in this way (In verses 35-36), “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” The righteous were confused. They may have done those things for God’s people, but they never did them for Jesus personally. Then Jesus says these words in verse 40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Jesus was not talking about people in general in this parable. He was talking about people in the church – the brothers (or the brethren) in the body of Christ. The New Testament says a lot about helping the needy in general, but in this context, Jesus is saying that when you serve God’s people, you are serving Jesus Himself.
- When we serve people in the church, we are serving Jesus.
- When we fail to serve people in the church, we are failing to serve Jesus
Neglecting the church is neglecting Jesus Himself. When people are “going to church” in their own private bedroom by watching podcasts or Christian television, it does not give them the opportunity to serve Jesus by serving His people.
I know there are seasons where a person may not be able to fellowship with God’s people.
- Sometimes because of an illness or a traumatic situation in a family, an individual may not be able to be around crowds for a period.
- Sometimes a family emergency takes a person out of town for a while.
BUT… these types of situations must be the exception. If a person is indifferent to the needs of God’s people, it indicates an indifference to Jesus Himself. Sheep outside of the flock are either sick or lost. A Christian outside of fellowship is also either spiritually sick or lost.
When you miss church, you miss a lot – Hebrews 10:24-25
So far in our series, we’ve seen that church is a local outpost for the gospel. It is a community of God’s people gathering together. The true church is not defined by its denomination or affiliation. A church is not a building. We understand that the church is its people.
We also need to understand the Church is more than just preaching and music. It is possible to experience preaching and music without being connected to other believers at all.
The reason we gather together to listen to preaching and sing songs is because those things are intended to be corporate activities.
- Listening to a preacher on the internet is not going to church.
- Singing along with K-LOVE is not corporate worship.
The person who skips church is missing more than just good Bible teaching and good music. They are missing out on the most important thing of all: God’s people!
There is a common saying that is growing popular in church circles right now. Well intentioned preachers, trying to motivate people to act more like believers during the week, will get up and say, “don’t go to church, be the church.” I don’t like that saying because it implies that we could be the church without ever going. A huge part of being the church is meeting together with other believers. You can’t “be the church” on your own!
The attempt to have Jesus without having the church is a modern issue, but it’s not a new issue. Apparently people were trying to do the same thing when the Bible was written and it prompted the writer of Hebrews to write these words in chapter 10 verse 24-25, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Notice what the alternative to “neglecting to meet together.” The alternative is to be “encouraging one another.” And then the urgency of the needed encouragement is underscored with the line that says, “all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
This weekend is one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year. Advertising reminds us on a daily basis that there is a good day approaching: Christmas. Christmas will be here before you know it and you need to be ready. Children will be expecting gifts.
I wonder what would happen in the Stafford household if my family woke up on Christmas morning and I neglected to buy any of them gifts? They would be so disappointed!
There is something approaching that is far better than Jesus’ first coming. Jesus says that He’s coming again. The Bible tells us to prepare it now. Hebrews exhorts us to get ready, “all the more” when we see that days drawing closer.
You and I don’t want Jesus to show up when we are unprepared. Being unprepared for Christ’s second coming would be far worse that forgetting to buy Christmas presents! God calls His church to gather and to encourage and to get ready for a day that is infinitely more significant than the holidays: the return of Our King, Jesus Christ!
In order to get ready, we need the input of others in our lives and we need to have input into the lives of others. Outside the local church, we lack the encouragement God says that we need in to keep our eyes focused on Jesus in the midst of a world that usually chooses to ignore Him.
Notice I said that God says we need the church! It is more than a little arrogant to assume that we can get by with something God says we need. It is also quite selfish to keep gifts to ourselves that God says we need to share with others. We need the church and the church needs each one of us.
Your participation at church has a significant impact on other people – 1 Cor. 12:15-26
Even if you don’t show up for yourself, you should show up for the benefit of others. We already spoke about how Paul compares the church to a physical body. But let’s look at that passage more carefully so we can draw a few last conclusions from it. In 1 Corinthians 12:15, Paul writes, “15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.”
- A hand is still a part of the body, even if it wishes it was a foot. It’s a hand and it functions best as a hand.
- In the same way, a guitarist is still part of the body, even if he wishes he was a children’s ministry worker! That person is a guitarist and function best as a musician.
This verse makes it clear that your church needs you to serve using your God-given spiritual gifts. Every person and gift is vital to the health of the church. You may not have the gifts you wish you had or that even seem important to you. Some people are discouraged because they wish they could preach in the pulpit or play the piano like Brian, or relate to children like Karen.
But… imagine a whole church full of preachers. What a mess! Everyone would be trying to get into the pulpit while no one ministers to babies, manages the ushers, balances the book, or sets up AV. Your contribution to the body is vital to the health of the church. Your gifts were given to you by God in order for you to give them away. You don’t keep gifts. You give gifts. Your church needs you to serve and you need the service of the other people within the church.
Consider what Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 12: 21-26,
“21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
Whether you’re an elder or a child; whether you’ve been a Christian for decades or for a few weeks; whether you are a wealthy and successful businessperson or you are currently unemployed, you need the church and the church needs you.
Verse 18 of 1 Corinthians 12 says, “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” God ordained that you’d be here today, listening to this message. Your participation in this local church is no accident. There are no spare parts here. There are no extra pieces. God put every one of us here for a reason and that includes you. You are a vital part of the church and the church is vital part of your spiritual growth.
 Rev. 7:9-10
 Hebrew 10:24-25