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Spiritual Disciplines and the Local Church

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When Christians think of the spiritual disciplines, we often think of them as private duties—individual Bible reading, personal prayer, secret fasting, meditation, memorization, study, journaling, silence … and maybe personal evangelism. All this is, of course, good for us, even necessary. But in that all-too-common (and limited) taxonomy, the disciplines that get lost are often the very ones we need for growing in that crowning virtue of every Christian—love. For that, we need real people in real churches.

A Local Commitment

Committed, meaningful membership in a faithful local church is one of the most underrated disciplines. We are each baptized into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13), which is made visible in particular local churches. If the local church is a body (1 Corinthians 12:27), then you are, say, an arm. But what good is an arm detached from a shoulder? That’s not good at all; it’s gruesome.

Christian, your faith cannot flourish if you insist on remaining an amputated member of Christ’s body. Christ ministers his life to you through the gifts and graces he’s given you in other members of his visible body; and the visible body of Christ needs you, whether you’re a leg or a liver. Likewise, if the church is a temple made of living stones (1 Peter 2:4–5), then no living stone is living out its design until it’s cemented into the wall of a living temple where God’s glories are proclaimed and praised (1 Peter 2:9–10). Living stones not cemented into walls tend to lay on the ground only to be stumbled over by others.

What if, instead of asking my wife to marry me 16 years ago, I instead asked her, “Why do we need to get married at all just to prove our love? Let’s keep it common law.” I doubt we’d be together today. Why? Because she would have taken it as refusal to seal my love for her with my commitment to her. Love commits—maybe not worldly love, or selfish love, but definitely Christian love. Christian love makes and keeps commitments, even to its own hurt, because that is what Christ himself has done for the church. He committed to her at the cost of his own life (Ephesians 5:21–32; cf. Hosea 1–2), and then Christ poured out his Spirit and love into our hearts to love one another as He loved us (John 13:34–35).

A love that is only interested in keeping its own options open hardly deserves the name. Love is commitment borne of affection. And the affection that produces this commitment is our affection for the Christ who identifies himself with his church. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” (Acts 9:4). Those who love and identify with Christ will love and identify with His church—visibly, locally. After all, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). 

What We’re Committing To

Once we realize the necessity and benefit of commitment, here are a few things we’re committing to do in the discipline of committed local church membership. These are the activities and exercises—the reps and sets—that constitute the discipline of committed love in a particular local church. By committing to do these things, in and with the other members of a particular local church, we are in effect focusing our biblical “one-anothering” responsibilities on these particular people. It sounds great to say we’re committed to doing these things with all Christians everywhere, but a commitment to everyone, in general, is really a commitment to no one in particular. So let’s retrieve a neglected but needed category of individual Christian discipleship—churchmanship.  

Assemble together

If you want to help build a strong local church, assembly is required (Hebrews 10:24–25). The ekklesia simply is the gathering or a group that, even when not presently gathered, is known precisely for gathering. Your own habit of attendance, especially at the main weekly gathering, will become a pattern that others will follow, for good or ill. Your attendance will either be an excuse for their absence—“Well, Paul didn’t show up the last two Sundays and lightning didn’t strike him, so I’m skipping the next few”—or an example for them to aspire after—“I want be a pillar in the church like him.” Don’t provide the precedent for someone else’s neglect; give them a picture of what their own growth in faithfulness could look like.  

Then, when you attend the assembly, participate fully. Plan ahead to arrive a little early so you can be a welcome face for others as they trickle in. Look for visitors to encourage and help. Look for loners to engage in conversation or sit within the pew. Pay close attention to the announcements so you know what’s going on in the life of the church. Bring your Bible and open it to follow along as leaders read Scripture aloud. Pray silently along with the public prayers, and add your audible Amen at the end. Sing full throttle with the saints, even if no one would confuse you with a soloist. Think about the words of the songs—let their truth engage you even if the tune doesn’t. Learn the skill of expositional listening (Get a copy of Christopher Ash’s helpful booklet Listen Up!) and engage the sermon as closely as you can. Stick around after the service to get acquainted with others and to let them get to know you. 

Pray together 

The first word of the Lord’s Prayer is “Our” (Matthew 6:9–13). When Jesus taught us to pray, he taught us to pray corporately. “Our Father….Give us…Forgive us…Lead us.” Maybe that’s why we simply cannot read the book of Acts without being struck by how much the early church gathered to pray together (Acts 1:14; 2:42; 4:24, 31; 6:12; 12:5; 13:1–3; 14:23; 20:36–38; 21:5–6). Every time we turn around, the early church is meeting together in corporate prayer. It’s no surprise, then, that Paul actually commands Christians to pray together as churches (1Timothy 2:8; Romans 12:12; 15:30; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Corporate prayer is not extra credit. We are, in fact, not allowed not to pray together as churches according to the Lord’s Prayer, the apostolic witness, and the pattern of the early church.

We’ve heard many testimonies in our church of men and women who have gradually learned to pray by hearing other congregation members pray publicly at our Sunday evening prayer service and following their example. Neglecting corporate prayer with your local church is not a matter of Christian freedom. It’s usually a matter of misplaced priorities or even faithless pragmatism. Charles Spurgeon is famous for saying a lot of things, one of which is that “we shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general till the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians.” Even the prince of preachers held out little of hope of success without corporate prayer as the driving plea for the spiritual productivity of the church’s gospel proclamation. 

Disciple together 

The Great Commission is given to the disciples as the nascent church, not merely to disparate individual Christians (Matthew 28:18-20). And Hebrews 3:13 tells us to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” We make disciples together, in the context of a shared biblical understanding of the gospel and what it means to follow Jesus.  

Evangelism and discipling are responsibilities and privileges for all of us to engage in together, not just our leaders or preachers (Acts 8:4). So look around in your church. Who could you learn from? Who could use your encouragement and example? Suggest to them that you’d like to start reading the Bible or a good Christian book together, praying together, or doing ministry together.   

Relate together 

The church is really a web of edifying, committed relationships. The stronger and more edifying the relationships, the better the local church. The apostles in Acts 6 assume the congregation knows which men who are filled with the Spirit and wisdom. How did they know? They must have had relationships with each other. So, how are your own relationships in your local church? 

Open your heart to your fellow church members. Open your home for gospel hospitality and see if you can make it a little hive of gospel encouragement and conversation. We all feel inadequate at this. So take some time to think about a few good questions to ask others at church, or during the week, that can gently nudge your conversations and relationships toward more meaningful interaction over the gospel. “What are you reading in the Bible lately? Are you reading any good books about the Christian life? What part of the sermon or church service was especially encouraging or convicting to you? How’s your ministry going? What are some things you’re praying about right now? How can I pray for you?”

And when others ask you these kinds of questions, answer them honestly so they can get to know you. Learn to recognize and point out evidences of God’s grace in the lives of others. “You were really patient in that conversation, or “You’re a good example of serving others.” Send encouraging notes to people during the week via e-mail or snail mail. Use public forums as venues for encouraging people who are genuinely good examples of godly character and conduct. Recognize godliness, not just giftedness. And when you have to correct, do it privately, in person, and with genuine love.

Receive 

Let others help you, love you, get to know you, pray for you, serve you, bless you, be generous to you. Refusing help, hospitality, or generosity is a sure way to stunt both the intimacy of your relationships and the growth of other people in the church.

Give

Yes, the local church does need you to be a cheerful giver in terms of money. Yet there’s far more to give than just that. For a healthy church to grow stable and joyful, it takes all of us giving time to gather, energy to serve, and hospitality to welcome. It takes giving our gratitude, respect, and recognition to others for their encouragement, even if we don’t always feel affirmed ourselves. It takes giving each other the benefit of the doubt before we doubt each other’s motives or hearts. It takes leaders giving others freedom to fail in ministry before they succeed. We give each other mercy and extend the grace of forgiveness when others sin against us. We give each other time to grow, and biblical counsel for hard decisions. We give each other godly encouragement, and godly correction. In short, we don’t just throw money at the church and expect it to thrive. We give ourselves to each other in love, because Jesus gave himself to us in love.

Decide together

Many Christians avoid the church’s regular members’ meetings because they don’t like “church politics.” But did you ever stop to think that church politics is actually a gift and privilege given by Jesus himself? Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to the local church (Matthew 18:18). So when we take in new members, we’re affirming people’s unseen citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. When we exercise public church discipline, we’re warning unrepentant members that we can no longer affirm their claim to Christ’s kingdom while they disregard God’s commands. When we vote together on a church budget, we’re affirming and embracing gospel priorities in our shared financial commitments. When we vote new elders into office, we’re affirming gospel leaders and preachers. When we vote new deacons into office, we’re affirming gospel servants and deployers of the church’s human resources. 

The Crowning Virtue

Love is the crowning virtue of the Christian. But “better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Proverbs 27:5). Committing to these kinds of local church disciplines makes our love for Christ’s people visible, concrete, real. It makes our testimony believable. It proves our love for Jesus genuine and mature (John 13:34–35). It makes the church beautiful. If you’d like to think more about this topic, grab a copy of Don Whitney’s classic Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church. Even better, read it and talk it over together with a friend in your local church.

Paul Alexander is as the Pastor of Grace Covenant Church of Fox Valley in St. Charles, Illinois.
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