Church isn’t a place. Church isn’t a thing. It isn’t an instable indefinite indistinct idea. Church is life together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famed and profound German pastor and theologian of the middle of the last century, in his book entitled Life Together wrote, “The community of the Spirit is the fellowship of those who are called by Christ; human community of spirit is the fellowship of devout souls. In the community of the Spirit there burns the bright love of brotherly service: agape."
Of course, he goes on to describe the antonym to the true community of the Spirit. Namely, the community of the flesh that is present wherever humans interact in community. The aim of highest aim of ministry in the local church ought to connect with the highest and most profound principle of the Christian life — to be united with Christ. Life together in the local church is perhaps best described as life united and uniting with Christ together.
The local fellowship of believers is best understood as a collection of those whom God has called out from the world, the Ekklesia, the called out ones, who jointly reach into the unseen in prayer, in sacrament, in worship, in fellowship, compelled by a desire to grasp the hand of God that has gripped their heart in Christ. Everything about ministry is rightly aimed at facilitating, cultivating and the life together of the community of the fellowship of believers.
The highest aim of all ministries and certainly the deepest meaning in preaching comes when preaching is geared toward cultivating life together. How do we do it? How do we move preaching beyond words to a collection of individuals to tools for cultivating life together? How does the preacher nurture life together with words when life together is really done with the hands? Here are a few principles gleaned from Bonhoeffer’s tiny but monumental work coupled with some practical insights from this Pilgrim Pastor on the journey of faith.
Preaching to Promote Life Together
1. Whenever humans enter into community, whether it is in the name of Christ or otherwise, there is always going to be a rampant tendency for the strong to overtake the weak. Preach against this tendency by greatly emphasizing the biblical basis for life together as equals. We are to put others before ourselves in practical daily real life ways.
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10 ESV) These are not fanciful words pointing toward some unattainable goal. They are the command of Scripture. Although — because of our imperfection — we will need to outdo one another in forgiveness as well.
Bonhoeffer writes “Here is where the humanly strong person is in his element, securing for himself the admiration, the love, or the fear of the weak. Here the human ties, suggestions, and bonds are everything, and in the immediate community of souls we have reflected the distorted image of everything that is originally and solely peculiar to community mediated through Christ.”
Power monopolizing in the local church is a distortion of the incarnate community doing life together. We are a kingdom of servants, not a kingdom of kings.
2. Don't preach to a clique — in fact, don’t have a clique. A member of our faith community recently said to my wife, “You and Pastor aren’t like our last few pastors. You don’t have a clique.” Her reply was simple and crucial for the pastor who wants to cultivate life together in his church. She said, “We serve and love the church, not any special interest group within the church."
Whether you are a pastor, a deacon, an elder or anyone in any form of active regular church leadership go out of your way to do life together with the Body of Christ, not just those people who appeal to your flesh in some way — be it your ego, your budget, your vanity, your pride, or just your liking.
3. Preach as one sharing bread with brothers. Preaching the Word to those with whom you share life together is vastly different than preaching the word to a random group of people. Bonhoeffer’s words in this area are no less valuable. “Brotherly pastoral care is essentially distinguished from preaching by the fact that, added to the task of speaking the Word, there is an obligation of listening.” Life together in genuine community necessitates that preaching become a two way street — active cultivation of the soul of the listener and genuine brotherly affection toward the one speaking.
Just as the preacher delivers a message of hope to those whom he is in actual communion in Christ with, the listeners give a heart’s audience to the shepherd who walks the fields with them and is ready to wake in the night to defend them from the wolves and wild beasts. When genuine Christ-centered community is cultivated in the local church preaching becomes a shared experience.
Some church leaders say that the missing jewel of the modern church is worship. This may be true to a large extent. I would suggest that if worship is missing it is because incarnate community is rarer still. Gathering people together and preaching at them doesn’t develop a community of people doing life together.
What I’m driving at is adopting an active bent toward developing church cultures that inherently know the difference between going to church together and being the church together. It’s the difference between sitting next to someone in a pew whom you’ve never met and being Acts 2:44 churches. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” (ESV) If it’s true that everything rises and falls on leadership, how are our churches supposed to learn to do life together if we don’t live it out and proclaim its value from the pulpit?
When we preach with a focus to cultivate life together, to nurture incarnate community rather than simple gatherings of people, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.” Cultivating incarnate community, being the Body of Christ rather than just a place where people may gather to discuss matters about the incarnation, is risky.
But surely it’s better to risk being what God calls His Church to be than to stick with a sure thing that falls so terribly short of His glory. It is far better to chance life together in community than to stick with life miles apart in the next pew.