In my years of being in church, I’ve seen a lot of names given to groups of people who meet together in Jesus’ name. How many of these have you heard of? (Or, maybe I should ask, how many of these have you been a part of?)
- Sunday School Class
- Bible Study
- Missional Community
- Life Group
- Men’s / Women’s Group
- Covenant Group
- Discipleship Group
- Prayer Group
- Mentoring Community
- Small Group
- Ministry Team
Each of these may mean something slightly different to you, and possibly also to those who participate. Obviously, a Sunday School class probably meets on Sunday, and a women’s group is expected to be made up of women. There may be connotations around some of these, and participants in each of these groups often have a specific focus to their respective missions.
However, here’s the secret: These names are just for our organizational convenience – either to differentiate the main focus of several differently-named groups, or to help us remember our purpose in meeting together. Having said that, if you’re genuinely serving as part of the body of Christ, in meeting with other Christians and in building each other up, it doesn’t actually matter what you call the meeting or group, itself.
Instead, consider what many people in the world call a small group of people (maybe a few, or a few dozen) who meet together in Jesus’ name? I suspect that many – and perhaps most – of them would call that a church!
In a free country, where believers can assemble without fear of government intervention, I feel like a lot of time can be spent on deciding (or debating) what to call sub-groups within a larger congregation, and what they should look like, achieve, or accomplish. In countries with fewer Christians or less freedom, I suspect that there’s a lot less debate about what to call a gathering of Christians, and more time studying how to actually be the church and to do the will of God (including how to deal with hostile pressures from outside).
Certainly, there’s a time and place to have vision and a mission, and to live out the Christian walk with others. I’m not trying to pick on those who have successfully used a particular name for a group to inspire others to do God’s will, and to follow God’s plan. I agree that these names can have a positive purpose, if we use them correctly.
Maybe by looking at what Jesus had in mind for the church (both by His instruction and by the example of His directly-taught followers), we can agree on what the purpose of any group of Christians should be – and this should apply regardless of size, description, or hierarchy.
In what is often called the “Great Commission” (a charge by Jesus to his followers as to what they should do after He returned to Heaven), Jesus made several things clear about our mission:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 NASB
Jesus called those disciples – and, I believe, us as well – to 1) make disciples, 2) baptize them, and 3) teach them. If our focus is merely on those who aren’t Jesus’ disciples, and we don’t help them to grow once they choose to follow Him, we’ve only fulfilled part of this charge. On the other hand, if our focus is just on our own walk with Jesus (perhaps surrounded by those who are like us in faith and spiritual development), and doesn’t include helping others take more steps towards Jesus (and corresponding Christian maturity), we’ve missed the other part of the plan.
Furthermore, as Jesus’ followers were miraculously empowered to start a movement in His name (the church), their actions give us more examples:
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Acts 2:42 NASB
…then, a few verses later…
Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Acts 2:46-47 NASB
The early church enjoyed time together, including meals. (I’m certainly thankful for that!) They also learned from the teachings of the apostles (much of which we have at our disposal, where they were preserved in the Bible), and they took time to praise God.
At that time, they don’t seem to have been outcasts from society – in fact, they were on good terms with others. This led to more people accepting the salvation that comes from Jesus. I suspect that those new believers were accepted into the community, but that they were also expected to learn, grow, and then spread the word to others.
Do we live out this example when we meet together? Regardless of what we may call it when we are meeting together as followers of Jesus, our purpose is the same: Make disciples, which is a multi-faceted, life-long process.
If you and those you meet with aren’t fulfilling all of these goals (not necessarily all at once, but as a general mission), maybe God is calling you to invite them to the next level of service to Him? After all, God’s instructions are clear, and He may have selected you to make a positive change – both for His glory, and for the benefit of others. If that is the case, I would like to encourage you: I know that – when aligned with His plan – you can do big things for God. Maybe the next step is to start by raising the level of discipleship of those that you already know.