There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, "WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN." (Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
Typical American Christians' Church Experience: Organically Flawed?
My aim this morning is to persuade you and plead with you to get into a small group relationship with other Christians to experience the fullness of supernatural church life as the New Testament pictures it.
Sometimes I wonder if the frequency and seriousness of many problems that Christians face is not owing to the fact that most Christians in America do not experience relational, interpersonal, supernatural church life the way the New Testaments describes it. Psychological problems, marriage problems, parenting problems, self-identity problems, financial problems, career problems, loneliness, addictions, phobias, weaknesses—I wonder if the epidemic of emotional and psychological woes is not the symptom of an organic flaw in the way most Christians experience corporate church life.
How Most Christians View Corporate Church Life
For most Christians corporate church life is a Sunday morning worship service and that's all. A smaller percentage add to that a class of some kind, perhaps Sunday morning or Wednesday evening in which there is very little interpersonal ministry. Now don't misunderstand me, I believe in the tremendous value of corporate worship and I believe that solid teaching times are usually crucial for depth and strength. But you simply can't read the New Testament in search of what church life is supposed to be like and come away thinking that worship services and classes are the sum total of what church was supposed to be.
The inevitable effect of treating church as worship services and classes is to make the people of God passive and too dependent on ordained experts. And could it not be that this pervasive relational passivity and dependence of millions of Christians—I mean passivity in interpersonal, spiritual ministry—rob us of some of Christ's precious remedies for a hundred problems? If God designed the church to function like a body with every member ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit to other members, in regular interpersonal relationship, then would it be surprising to find that the neglect of this regular interpersonal, spiritual ministry cripples the body in some of its functions and causes parts of the body to be weak and sick? Isn't that what you would expect?
The Felt Need for Professional Psychologists
I wonder if the incredible felt need for professional psychologists—with the common assumption: Where else could you possibly turn?—whether this feeling is owing in large measure to an organic flaw in the way we experience corporate church life. Think about this for a moment. How do psychological counselors help people? (And many of them do!) It seems to boil down to three things: 1) personal one on one conversations, called counseling or psychotherapy; 2) personal group meetings with others facing similar struggles; and 3) medications, usually some form of antidepressant. Now I think we can be thankful for these things in many cases.
But isn't it amazing that when Christians are in distress and seek help from professional psychologists, short of medication, the help we get comes through one-on-one or group sharing? When confronted with the pain of people's personal problems, where do professionals turn? They turn first to one-on-one conversation. And when more is needed, they turn to small groups. Isn't that remarkable! That the multi-billion dollar ministry of psychotherapy that we have created to help hurting people is built almost entirely on the ministry of conversation. They talk. That is the ministry—the power of conversation. In the best settings, wise, insightful, prayerful, loving conversation.
A Source of Various Distresses and Dysfunctions?
Someone might conclude from this: So the church has failed to provide for this and should now be providing support groups—for all kinds of distresses and abuses. Yes, perhaps so. But the question that is troubling me more these days is more fundamental than that. I am asking whether generations of flawed organic church life is a significant part of the origin of some of our dysfunctions and distresses. It's the difference between asking whether the job of the church is to have programs to distribute vitamin C tablets to remedy a scurvy epidemic, or whether we should have all the while been eating oranges.
If I am anywhere close to the truth here, then we might ask whether those who experience church in small groups get victory over their problems more often than those who don't. Yes, perhaps that would tell us something. But the problem is deeper. Are most of the small groups that exist experiencing what the New Testament pictures as interpersonal, supernatural ministry in the power of the Spirit through the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Let me give you an illustration of what may be the case in many small groups, and plead with you to move toward New Testament life together.
An Illustration of What Small Group Life Could Be
A visiting pastor in Auckland, New Zealand, was asked by the pastor of a church to come to a small group to help it understand its function. He came early for dinner and the husband was not there. The wife was embarrassed and explained that the husband owned a construction company and worked late.
The group arrived after dinner and the visiting pastor taught for a while on how to use spiritual gifts to build each other up. Then he asked them to get alone for a few minutes to seek God for how each one might channel God's grace to the others for their upbuilding.
When they came back together, he assumed they knew each other's needs because they had been together for several years. The husband came home, showered, and joined them in a few minutes. When the opportunity was given to speak or to pray for each other, there was an awkward silence. They had never done anything like this before—seeking the Lord for how he might want them to minister to each other in that moment to build each other up.
The visiting pastor felt a fiasco was on his hands and turned the meeting back to the pastor to close. The pastor asked if anyone had a special problem they would like prayer for. The hostess said yes and showed the group the rash all over her arms. She said that the doctors had prescribed medicine but it hadn't helped. They invited her to put her chair in the middle for prayer. And as they prayed, Christ, the head of the church, did his ministry. The pastor said, "I sense in my heart the Lord is telling me your problem is the result of great anger."
She was silent for a moment then began to cry softly. Then she confessed, "I am so angry at my husband. He promises to be home for dinner, but night after night we eat without him . . . He's broken his promises to me over and over, and I feel I am a widow as I raise our children."
There was an awareness that something had just been revealed that two years of small group meetings had not revealed. And the husband was blushing with embarrassment.
To make the story shorter, several of the men began to speak about how they had wrestled with the same problem in their homes and had almost ruined their marriages. One in particular spoke of a deep meeting with God in such a crisis and how God had made everything new.
By the grace of God the husband knelt down in front of his wife and wept into her lap, as the group prayed for them more earnestly than they had ever prayed. The visiting pastor commented later, "The Lord had invaded His Body, and the gateway into the supernatural world had been crossed by us all."
The following Sunday the visiting pastor was to preach and saw the small group gathered on the parking lot outside the church. When they found him inside, the woman pulled up her sleeves and said, "Look, no rash anywhere!" The husband approached and said, "I've cut back my workday to eight hours. I took the kids to the zoo yesterday. We have a new home." (Ralph Neighbor, Where Do We Go From Here? pp. 161–164)
In other words, it is possible to turn a small group into just another impersonal time where we learn some more about the Bible, but do not minister to each other in an interpersonal way in the power of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, it is possible to lay hold on the supernatural supply of the Holy Spirit by faith and minister to each other in ways that, over generations, might rebuild a healthy church body with less weakness and sickness and immaturity and fruitlessness than we see today.
So what I am pleading for this morning is a serious reconsideration of whether you are experiencing corporate church life the way Christ reveals it in the New Testament.
Paul's Description of Church Life: The Building Up of the Body
Let me take just a few minutes to sketch what that looks like from Ephesians 4. Start with verses 16,
. . . from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
Now this is a description of how the church, the body of Christ, "causes growth" and is built up in love.
Notice two things. First, the verse begins with the words, " . . . from whom." The growth and building up of the body is "from somebody." Whom does "whom" refer to? The answer is the last word in verse 15: " . . . who is the head, even Christ . . . from whom . . . " So the first and most important thing to say about how interpersonal church life happens as the church is built up is that it happens "from Christ." That is, it is supernatural. Christ lived once, died for our sins, rose again, ascended into heaven. He reigns there today and, as he promised, he is building his church. He is not passive and distant. He is a living, dynamic, active head of the body. He is supplier and guide by his Spirit. But will we receive his supply? Will we expect it and channel it to each other? That's the first thing to see: Christ is the living source of church life and growth.
"The Whole Body . . . Causes the Growth of the Body"
The second thing to see in verse 16 is that, even though the growth and building up of the body happens "from Christ," it is the body itself that is the immediate active cause of that growth. Verse 16: " . . . from whom the whole body . . . " That's the subject of the sentence; now where is the verb? What does the whole body do? The verb is way down in the last line: "the whole body . . . causes the growth of the body." Everything else in that verse is explains how. But the basic sentence is "the whole body . . . causes the growth of the body."
So even though growth and upbuilding are from Christ, the head, it is the whole body that builds the body. And the word "whole" is important. The whole body builds the body. That point is emphasized in the words, "according to the working of each individual part." The whole body—that is, each individual part in the body properly functioning—causes the growth of the body.
Where and How Does That Happen?
Now I ask you, where and how does that happen in your corporate church life? Can we ever create enough programs that every person would be involved using some particular gift? That's probably not even the right question to ask. Isn't it more likely that Paul envisions a kind of regular gathering of the body in groups small enough so that every member of the body can minister to others with his own unique spiritual gifts?
Look at verse 7:
To each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore it says, When He ascended on high, he led captive a hose of captives, and he gave gifts to men.
Notice: "To EACH one of us grace was given." And then in verse 8 that grace is expressed in terms of gifts: "Therefore, it says . . . he gave gifts to men."
So what verse 16 means when it says that "the whole body causes the growth of the body" when "each individual part is working properly," it means that all the members have gifts, and all of those gifts are to be used in building up the body "in love." And this is how Christ, the all-supplying, supernatural Head of the body, builds and cares for his church.
Conclusion: Is Significant Change Needed?
So I close by asking again, Is there not implied here an immense resource for healing and joy and power and strength and mission that most Christians miss because they only experience church as worship services and classes? Is there an organic flaw in this pattern that may account for untold weaknesses and discouragements in the body of Christ?
I invite you to put this matter to a test. Are you living normal New Testament church life in personal spiritual ministry with others? Or are you part of a flawed and disfigured pattern of life that may account for more weakness and woe in the church than we can imagine?