THE WITNESSING COMMUNITY.

In some situations, our attention can become so focused upon what appears to be happening; that what is actually happening is missed. I saw an example of this, one afternoon, in London.
 
As I walked along; the pavement ahead of me, became blocked by a crowd of excited people; watching two men, who appeared to be having a violent quarrel.
 
One man pushed, thumped and shouted; accusing the other of picking his pockets, and stealing his wallet. The other man protested his innocence; and told the crowd that false accusations were being made against him.
 
That is what appeared to be happening. What actually went on was different. The two men were not only crooks, but also clever psychologists.
 
The noise and action was designed to hold the crowd’s complete attention, while several accomplices pushed among the people, and actually picked pockets.
 
A similar, fixed-attention situation can exist within churches.
 
Some congregations may appear to believe that they are called to be as Christ to the world all around: without realising that, gradually, they have become content to be no more than a community of believers.
 
Most church-attending Christians begin their journey of faith, by taking hold of bible-texts relating to personal salvation; and claiming the promises, that the Lord Jesus has made to individual believers.
 
Developing faith will encourage them to go beyond the merely personal; and move on into fellowship and sharing, within the gathered-together life of their church. However, those Christians who go farther yet, are somewhat in the minority.
 
 
Few churches have such a clear, corporate vision of outreach and witness: that, together, they undertake a Christ-centred mission to the world all around them.
 
Most congregations function as church families: effectively in touch with each other: but somewhat out of touch with the world all around them.
 
When ‘MISSION 89’ took place: by far the greater proportion of those going forward at Billy Graham’s invitation: were, already, regular church-attending Christians.
 
Why had they gone forward?
 
Research indicated that they believed that there was more to be discovered, and received. In various ways, they said: ‘Surely, when Christ commissioned his Church, he had more in mind than we have, so far, experienced’.
 
What Jesus taught, long ago, about outreach and witness, remains as true, and as urgent, today, as ever it was.
 
He calls his followers into personal faith and commitment. and then encourages them develop a unity of fellowship and purpose, within their church’s corporate life.
 
Jesus then commands his followers to fulfil the reason why he called them in the first place: ‘You shall be my witnesses. Go! Tell!
 
Today: some people, in most churches; do effect a personal witness to their faith in Jesus Christ; but, this is very far removed from church congregations having a united vision, and corporate witness. Why should this be so?
 
Throughout our lives: what is thought, said and done; and what we become; is largely determined by the choices that we make. From very early on, we learned to be selective; to choose; and then go with, and stick to, the choices made.
 
Largely, out of habit: we allow selectivity to enter our Christian and spiritual lives; where it does not belong. 
 
The crowd on the London street: was not aware of what was happening, until it was too late. And so it can be with large numbers of otherwise good, sensible, and loving Christians.
 
Many who claim that Christ directs their lives: will, out of habit, select those aspects of the faith that suit them; make their own decisions about what to do; and hope that the Lord approves.
 
Having accepted Christ’s teachings, on the essential nature of personal faith: Christians who enjoy the unity, fellowship and encouragement; found within churches; will need strong, clear spiritual direction; in order to move beyond that point.
 
It is all too easy, for them to settle down; and become part of a religious and spiritual family; set within a local community; but without any necessary connection to it.  
 
If pressed as to why they disregard the ‘Go! Tell!’ commands of Christ: they might say: ‘But we are not evangelicals! The Evangelical Church is at the other end of the High Street’.
 
Christ calls us into three, progressive aspects of the Christian life; a personal faith; which moves on to mutual love, care and sharing, within a church community; and then leads to a united outreach and witness.
 
Three stages on the spiritual journey, three progressive aspects of obedient faith: yet many never consider moving beyond the first two.
 
Here is another trio: a developing, three-part illustration, which may help our thinking.
 
It is nearly midnight in a city-centre street. In ones, twos and small groups, dozens of tramps begin to meet together. Because they have a common purpose; to receive a meal of soup and bread; they can appear to have a corporate nature. But their apparent togetherness is not ongoing.
 
Once the food is eaten, the tramps will have little, or no thought, of meeting again, until the next ‘hand-out’ Their personal vision goes no farther than their personal receiving of that which keeps them going until the next time.
 
This is something like the first phase in the life of a believer; when he or she enters into a personal faith in God. For many, at that stage, the Church exists to support them. It is something to which they turn for ‘topping-up’, with that which will keep them going, until the next service or meeting.
 
In the second part of the three-fold image: one-time scholars of a famous public school; gather for their annual ‘Old Boys Dinner’. As they sit together; eating and talking; they do have something, which goes far beyond the food that they share.
 
However, the things that unite them, and give them a corporate identity, even when they part again, do not really go beyond themselves alone. Their togetherness does little or nothing to touch the world that lies beyond the school, and the ‘Old Boys Association’.
 
This is something like the second phase of the life of the believer: where he or she takes their personal faith into the corporate life of the gathered-together, local church.
 
There: they no longer see their church only in terms of being a provider of ‘topping-up’; and begin to experience the unity and fellowship of the believing community.
 
However, as said: it is at this point that so many Christians, and churches, settle down, and make little or no progress into that third and greatest phase of Christ’s calling - that of a corporate and effective outreach and witness.
 
The last part of the threefold image; relates to a great concert, given by a fine orchestra, and conducted by a wonderful interpreter of the music.
 
The audience begins to gather, and fill the concert-hall. It, too, has something of a corporate nature, because of its common love of good music. Individual music-lovers, look to the concert to provide all that they hope of it.
 
Gathered together, as an audience: they create an atmosphere of expectancy, appreciation and encouragement: that goes far beyond anything that individuals can create on their own. And there is something else. The providers of the concert arranged for it to be broadcast to many parts of the world. Because of this form of outreach, millions of others will be able to receive that which, otherwise, would have remained with the audience, in the confines of the concert hall.
 
In the early stages of their Christian lives, many people take a ‘soup-kitchen’ approach to the Church, because of what they believe that they receive from it.
 
If what they receive from it does them good, and they grow in the faith: they may take on something of the ‘Old Boys Annual Dinner’ concept of what common purpose, and meaningful togetherness, is all about.
 
This may well carry them on into a deeper form of unity, and eventual fellowship in the Spirit.
 
However, even at its best, this concept of sharing within the Church, is not enough, because it does not go beyond itself and its own needs.
 
This third part of the three-fold image; that of the concert being broadcast to the world: is not a perfect concept of the Church as ‘The Witnessing Community’; but it does move a little nearer to what Christ had in mind.
 
It is not perfect; because broadcasting the music, even to vast numbers of people; world wide, was merely incidental to what was going on within the concert hall.
 
The Bible teaches us, that God-given witness and outreach is never ‘merely incidental’ to the life and work of Christians: but is the very reason why Christ brought the Church into being, in the first place.
 
As said: ‘Mission 89’ was attended by many Christians; who were searching for that special ‘something’, that went beyond what they had, so far, experienced within their churches.
 
Spiritual searching must go far beyond what individuals would like to experience: and be at the heart of a whole congregation, as, together, it seeks to know what the Lord requires of it.
 
Christ did not bring his Church into being, in the hope that it might, incidentally, have some sort of good effect, beyond its own walls. Instead, he raised, commissioned and equipped his Church for a very definite, powerful, ongoing and life-giving reason - to be his witnesses, and to undertake Christ-like, spiritual ministries, in the world all around.
 
There is great hope abroad, for the Lord has made great promises…
 
…but he has chosen to bind some of those promises so closely to active Christian life: that they cannot be kept without the obedient, outreaching, and witnessing Church fulfilling them.
 

What promises are we helping the Lord to keep?   Amen.