When I say the word “church” what do you think of? Most Americans probably think of a single building that they might attend or drive by on the way to work.
If you said “church” to a first-century Christian, they had a very different image pop into their minds. New Testament scholars agree that the way the early church conceived of itself was as a collective city-church. In other words, when Paul writes his letter to the church at Philippi, he writes it to all of the congregations that meet within the city of Philippi. The letter made the circuit through the city and was read by the leaders at various assemblies. In other words, there was such strong unity across local churches that they conceived of themselves as a collective church.
In fact, there appear to be certain leaders in the various cities who held authority over their local church as well as a number of congregations within their respective cities (Titus, Timothy, Peter, John, etc).
Now, this isn’t to diminish the serious challenges and conflict within these city churches. A cursory look at the letters makes it clear that these churches dealt with many of the same problems we still deal with today: sexual misconduct, greed, heresy, gossip, and conflict, to name a few. It’s instructive to see how these issues are dealt with in the context not just of a local church, but of the city-church.
The average church today is an island unto itself. If truth be told, most churches are for their church, not the church.
It’s understandable why any given local congregation would withdraw from a broader commitment to the church. There are a number of challenges to being committed to the church.
Busyness. There is hardly a pastor out there looking for more things to fill out his schedule. Shepherding a local congregation is taxing enough. Similarly, good pastors are protective of overwhelming their churches with a flood of events.
Differences. A commitment to the city church will necessitate discernment about how wide a net can be cast. There are churches that stretch our theological comfort. There are churches whose practices create discomfort. There are churches that lie outside orthodox Christianity. These differences make the city church messy.
Competition. Many of our strategies to grow our church are done so at the expense of other churches. Many pastors are more than happy to have congregants flock to their church from other churches. Many church leaders view other churches not as true partners but as competitors.
Hurt. There isn’t a pastor out there who doesn’t have wounds at the hands of another pastor. I know I’ve caused hurt to other pastors. A commitment to the city church means reconciliation.
Humility. It requires significant humility for church leaders to honor and praise what God is doing in other local congregations. It requires humility for pastors to not be in charge, but work alongside other pastors.
How can we become churches that care more about Christ’s Church than our church? It will require sacrifice. It will require humility. It will require a change in mindset. All of these must begin with pastors. Pastors, I encourage you to invest in relationships with other pastors in the city. Make sure they know you are for them. Your goal shouldn’t be to be friends with every pastor, but to have deep, trusting relationships with a few, and good relationships with a number of local pastors. This past year instead of going to a national conference, I went to two conferences with local pastors and invested in those relationships and learned from godly men working shoulder-to-shoulder with me in Tucson.
Have conversations with new congregants who are coming from other churches to ensure they have left in a healthy and God-honoring manner. While it can be overdone, there should also be some city-wide events and efforts that our churches partner in. In Tucson, for instance, there are two city-wide prayer gatherings for pastors a year. There are events that intentionally build reconciliation in the city church (led by J17 Ministries). There are also city-wide initiatives to support the foster system and care for local schools (spearheaded by 4Tucson). The vast majority of schools in Tucson have a church partnered with them to care for them.
Let me clarify what I don’t mean by this. I am not encouraging engagement in interfaith events (although there is a time and a place for such involvement). I also wouldn’t want the local church to be so engaged in city events that it loses its unique call and thick relational commitments. In addition, I think that it is problematic for congregants to meander from one church to another because “we are all Christ’s Church.” Commitment to Christ’s Church assuredly begins with an investment in your local church. Just as a commitment to marriage means a specific commitment to your spouse, so too does a commitment to Christ’s Church begin with a meaningful commitment to the manifestation of Christ’s church in a local church family.
If you are a pastor, I urge you to lean into the city-church. If you are a congregant, I encourage you to ask your pastor how your church is investing in the city-church. Let’s be those who are not just about our church, but about Christ’s Church.
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