Why we should join a local congregation

by Peter L.

When my family and I moved to South-East Asia, we could not find a local congregation[1] with solid Bible teaching. Expository preaching and biblical theology were non-existent. Sermons were topical, allegorical and/or moralistic. Small groups consisted of worship and fellowship with the occasional Bible study. Our dilemma was: should we do ‘church’ at home or should we attend a local congregation, even with substandard Bible teaching? Or are there other reasons we should join a local congregation? 

To begin with, look at this picture of the first local congregation in Acts:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. (Acts 2:41–42, 44)

This is a snapshot of the first believers who devoted themselves to activities as a group. They listened to the apostles’ teaching, they fellowshipped, they partook of Holy Communion, they prayed together. Their life in community expressed who they were. 

For who we are influences what we do. Who we think we are shapes how we live. Identity leads to ethics.[2] So we’ll first think about who we are as Christians, and then how our identity shapes what we do. 

Who we are

By nature, Christianity is corporate. In Christ, we are automatically linked into a whole new social network. We can’t be Christians without being connected to all other Christians. The Bible uses several images for this reality (the church as a flock [John 10:16; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:2–4], a bride [Ephesians 5:25–28; Revelation 19:7; 21:2] and a spiritual house/temple [1 Corinthians 3:16–17; Ephesians 2:19–22; 1 Peter 2:4–8]). Here we will focus on two—the church as a family and as a body.[3]

1.     Born into the family of God

As Christians, we are family. We all have earthly families, but when we receive the Lord Jesus and believe in his name (John 1:12) we are ‘born again’ (3:3). This is a second birth, a birth by the Spirit (3:8), through which we gain entry into a spiritual family, with God as our heavenly Father. We become children of God. We may be saved individually, but we are saved to become part of a family. As Christians, it is in our nature to be communal. We have a new family with brothers and sisters in Christ. Just like we want to spend time with our earthly family, we should also want to spend time with our family. And for those of us who don’t want to spend time with their earthly families or who don’t feel like they belong to one, God blesses us with a spiritual family to belong to.

The Bible also speaks of us being adopted into God’s family. Before, we were not in his family but now we receive ‘adoption to sonship’ (Romans 8:14–17; Galatians 4:5–7). God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, and one benefit of being his children is that we are now heirs, co-heirs with Christ. What a great honour that we are children of God, with Jesus as our big brother! And unlike any inheritance we might receive from our earthly parents, our inheritance from God can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4). 

In a family, we all know that we have roles and responsibilities. In a family, ‘me’ becomes ‘we’, as we all have a part to play.

2.     Incorporated into the body of Christ

As Christians, we are all part of the body of Christ (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 10:17; 12:27; Ephesians 4:12; 5:23; Colossians 1:24). One implication of being a member of the body is that each of us plays their part using the spiritual gifts Christ has given us. These gifts include (but are not limited to) prophecy, evangelism, pastoring and teaching, serving, exhortation, giving, administration and showing mercy (Ephesians 4:11–12; Romans 12:7–8; 1 Corinthians 12:28–29). These spiritual gifts are given to us not for our benefit but for the building up of the church, the body of Christ: 

Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15–16)

Can you imagine if you’re a foot but you say, “I don’t want to walk.” How would the body get around? Or if you’re an eye but you say, “I don’t want to look.” How would the body see? (See 1 Corinthians 12:14–25). These examples are absurd, but it is the same if we refuse to go to a local gathering to use the spiritual gifts Christ has given us to build up his people, his body. Just as a human body has different parts—the whole body is not an eye, for instance—so the body of Christ has different parts. Jesus is our head and we are members of his body. Our different gifts are complementary. Each of us is to use our Jesus-given spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ so that the whole church might reach maturity (Ephesians 4:7–16). As Christians, we grow in community.

When you first return you might not think you can do much to build up the local body of Christ. You might know many people or what the church needs. The church leaders perhaps might not trust you or know what your gifts are. Not to worry. You can always start by serving in a small way, like helping by setting up the chairs. And you can always encourage the pastor or the leaders with your words and prayers, because they are often under a lot of strain. Your presence at the local congregation is itself an encouragement, and your attention and interest during sermons will be appreciated by the preacher. Just look around for ways to serve or ask a leader how you can help. Your serving will not only build up the body of Christ, it will also help you feel a part of the local family of God.

What we do

1.     Grow in community

There are at least three ways we grow in community. First, we hear God’s word taught. We become Christians by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23, 25); we mature as Christians through the Word of God (1 Peter 2:2). Hearing God’s Word preached faithfully at a local congregation is central to our growth. I’m not saying attend a local congregation even if it teaches heresy. We need to find a church views the Bible as the final authority and teaches it faithfully. But what if you can’t find a local congregation with a style or quality of teaching that you’re used to, like us when we arrived in South East Asia? We may be tempted to not attend a local congregation, and just listen to online sermons. But if there are no other options, it’s important to join a local congregation rather than not go at all. Why? Because the church by nature is a family, it is a body; we are not a loose association of individuals. Not belonging to a local congregation is going against our DNA. The sermons we endured were not of the standard or format or length or even theological persuasion that we were used to. Yet we prayed that God would speak to us from his preached Word. And he did. Sometimes, like the Bereans, we examined the Scriptures to check if what we heard was true (Acts 17:11). This sharpened our biblical understanding immensely. At other times, we were challenged on aspects of biblical truth in ways we weren’t back in our home local congregation. We still listened to online sermons from our home culture to supplement the teaching, but at our local congregation we could discuss the sermon with other believers. They could hold us accountable to what we heard, and we could do the same for them. The sermon was delivered by a passionate local pastor who could apply the Bible passage to our needs in our specific Asian context, unlike an online sermon from New York or London or Sydney. The pastor knew us—we spoke, ate and prayed together—so he could speak directly into our lives. We knew the pastor, so we could experience his love and service, and see his example of living out his message (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2–3). Hearing God’s Word preached in a local congregation makes it really come alive.

Just a few suggestions about how to persevere if you join a local congregation with substandard teaching. To help me stay attentive during sermons, I would bring a pen and paper to sketch out the structure of the Bible passage. I would then write down what I thought was the main idea of the passage, and how I would teach or preach it. It is easy to fall into criticism of the teaching, but we need to learn to hold our tongues. It is neither kind nor encouraging for the preacher or other church members, and we come across as arrogant and supercilious. Instead of criticising, we can share with others what we found helpful in the sermon or we can share selected parts of what we worked on during the sermon. I found it useful to remember that pastors and leaders rarely have the privilege of solid Bible training and good role models. It is not their fault they do not know how to preach an expository sermon or understand a Bible passage within the Bible’s storyline of creation to new creation, or how an event, object, person or institution points forward to and is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. God has appointed them as our pastors and overseers; we would do well to respect and honour them as such. One way we can do this is to sit humbly under God’s word and the pastor’s preaching of it.

Second, we grow in community through encouragement and accountability. We live in a world full of uncertainty, where each point of view is valid, and where people militate against objective truth. We live in a world where the wicked prosper and we might envy their chosen path in life (Psalm 73:2–3, 12–13). In this moral fog, we must belong to a local body of Christ, where God’s Word lights the way of truth, where we see others daily live out this truth, and where we can encourage others and be encouraged to walk in the same path (cf. Matthew 5:14–16). For the Christian life is a long race that we have to run with endurance (Hebrews 12:1–3). We need all the encouragement we can get, otherwise, we risk falling away (1 Timothy 4:1–5; Hebrew 3:12–19). Also, we are blind to our faults and magnify the faults of others (Matthew 7:3–5), so we need brothers and sisters lovingly to point out ours to us. Within the context of care and accountability (John 21:15–17; Hebrews 13:17), we can be disciplined to maintain biblical standards and so we (and the local congregation) can grow in maturity (Matthew 18:15–18; 1 Corinthians 5:1–13; 2 Corinthians 2:5–11; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15; 1 Timothy 1:20; 5:19–20; Titus 1:10–14; 3:9–11). We have a responsibility to watch over one another, which does not extend to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 5:12). At local congregations and in small groups we can share about our fears, our faults, our temptations, and be accountable to others. We can stir one another to love and good works (Heb 10:24–25). And we can pray together—that God would strengthen us by his Spirit to keep walking on the narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:13–14). So seek out people to talk to, learn about their lives and how they live out their faith. Find a small group to share with, to pray together and to keep each other accountable in your Christian walks.

Third, we grow in community by singing together. As the Apostle Paul says, “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18–20). We address God when we sing at a gathering: we sing praises to God with thankfulness in our hearts (vv. 19–20). Our delight in God is complete when we express it aloud,[4] and when else better to do so than gathered with our family of God? For in singing together we not only sing to God, we also sing to one another (v. 19). We let the word of Christ dwell in us through teaching and admonishing by “singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Our corporate worship is to be Christ-centred and God-focused, but at the same time we are involved in believer-to-believer ministry—we “teach and admonish one another.” We can’t be involved in this ministry by ourselves. Singing was one way the Colossian local congregation prevented one another from being lured into false teaching. Biblically sound, gospel-infused songs still do the same when we gather as God’s family. 

On the flip side, it is impossible to grow to maturity as a Christian without belonging to a local gathering. Many of the commands of the Bible—Old and New Testaments—are written to people in community and assume regular attendance in a local gathering. For instance, the following imperatives make little sense for an isolated individual: love one another (e.g., 1 John 3:16); seek peace and unity (e.g., Rom 12:16); edify one another (e.g., 1 Peter 4:10); pray for one another (e.g., Ephesians 6:18–20); avoid those who would destroy the church (e.g., Romans 16:17); and be examples to one another (e.g., 1 Tim 4:11–16). Maturity in the faith is a corporate experience (Ephesians 4:13–16), and all Christians need to grow in maturity, including submission to leaders within the structure of a local gathering (e.g., Hebrews 13:17). The apostles wrote these commands and others to local congregations, not individual Christians; they can only be obeyed within a Christian community you meet with regularly.

2.     Reach out with the gospel 

As members of God’s family and Christ’s body, we are part of God’s mission. Jesus’ words to his first disciples still apply to us: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21; cf. 17:18). As a local congregation, we have been sent with a double task. First, we proclaim the wonderful news of salvation in Jesus Christ. We urge people to find life through repentance and faith (Matthew 22:1–10; Luke 14:16–24). As we do so, we make disciples of all nations (Matthew 24:14; 28:19–20; Mark 13:10; Luke 24:47–48). Second, we show love and compassion to those in need (Luke 10:25–27; Romans 12:20–21), just as Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry (Matthew 9:36; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13). As we do good deeds, people will glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16; 1 Peter 2:11–12). As a local congregation, we can reach out through playgroups or ministering to the poor. A local body of Christ can send out and support a missionary—a cross-cultural gospel worker. As a local congregation, our works of compassion back up our words of the gospel.

As we show love to another as God’s family, it will be attractive to outsiders. We live in a world where people are becoming more isolated from one another and more and more people are feeling lonely. People are looking for a place where they can belong and be accepted as they are. Jesus said the world will know that we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). As we show kindness to one another as the body of Christ, not-yet believers will ask questions about why we are different from others around them. The local gathering is a place where all people can be accepted, where we express our diversity in unity, “for there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). The local gathering is a foretaste of the final heavenly gathering, when there will be “a multitude from … every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” standing before the throne of God to worship him (Rev 5:9; 7:9). God’s universal church has a missional goal, with each Christian playing their part as a member of a local gathering.

I’ve met people who approach church like consumers. What does this church offer me? Does it have good preaching? Does it have an engaging Sunday School program? Is the music inspiring? They might stay for a while, but once their needs are not met, they’ll move to another church. But we are not consumers, we are children adopted into God’s family, we are members incorporated into the body of Christ. In a family, we all endure inconveniences. If we’re served a burnt dinner, we don’t join another family. If the fan isn’t working, we don’t search for another household. If our brother or sister hurts our feelings, we don’t leave our family. Just as we don’t choose our earthly family, we don’t choose our spiritual. So, we need to learn to get along with one another. When we were reconciled to God (Ephesians 2:1–10; Romans 5:10–11; 1 Corinthians 5:17–21; Colossians 1:19–23), we were also reconciled to one another in a community of faith (Ephesians 2:11–20). A church is comprised of a jumble of people—different ages, ethnicities, occupations, interests and financial backgrounds. We will rub each other up the wrong way; we will step on each other’s toes. But we get to display the wonderful gospel truths of reconciliation and unity each week, as we think more of others than ourselves and put their needs above ours (Philippians 2:1–4). We display it by bearing with one another and forgiving those who offend us, just as the Lord forgave us (Colossian 3:13). We display it by caring for people we have nothing in common with apart from Jesus. What a way to adorn the gospel—by expressing our unity in diversity before a world filled with hatred, prejudice and disunity.

You might think: “I go to a small group so I need not attend a local congregation.” A small group of ten people is a manifestation of the body of Christ, as is a local congregation of two hundred because both are subsets of the universal church (1 Cor 12:12–26, 27; Eph 1:22–23; 3:6; 4:4)—all who are alive with Christ, physically living and physically dead. The church is, was, and always will be a single community, gathered in the true sanctuary of heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:22–24). So, a small group is a manifestation of the church. But in a small group, we don’t receive all the signs of the grace of God in Christ. The snapshot of the first believers mentioned baptism and the breaking of bread as two things they did together as a larger group (Acts 2:41–42). Jesus commands us to share in these sacraments—corporately, as the body of Christ (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26). In a small group, we don’t get baptised, which reminds us of the washing away of our sins by the blood of Christ and our regeneration in the Holy Spirit (John 3:5; Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:20–21; Titus 3:5). It signifies our union with Christ in his life, death and resurrection and our death to sin (Rom 6:3–4; cf. 6:5–18; Colossians 2:11–14). In a small group, we also don’t receive Holy Communion, which reminds us of the death of Christ, as well as his return. Also known as the Lord’s Supper, the bread symbolises his body, broken for us, and of which we are reminded that we are all a part (1 Corinthians 10:16–17; 11:24–29). Baptism and Holy Communion are “visible truths” which don’t save in themselves but strengthen us in our faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. And a small group has a limited scope in which to exercise our spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ. For instance, I can play the drums but they are not always appropriate in a small group setting, and those who teach Sunday School might not need to exercise their gift, nor those on the welcoming team. Among other things, we miss out on these—the sacraments and exercising our gifts—if we don’t attend a larger church gathering. So, keep going to your small group. And also belong to your local congregation.

A few words about expectations of local congregations in your home country. If you became a Christian overseas, be prepared for things to be very different to your previous experiences. The structure of sermons will be different to what you’re used to, and the length also. We were used to 25-minute sermons but found that forty minutes was often the minimum in our new country. A whole service may be over in 45 minutes in Western settings, but in Asian, two hours or more is not unusual. Then fellowship continues over food and drink. Most people from Asian cultures value being together; fellowship is important. The way people communicate in a local gathering may also be different. Chinese Christians are often not as direct as people in Western countries. They will show their concern by, for instance, asking you to put more clothes on rather saying so outright. In Malaysia, people would show their care by asking, “Have you taken your breakfast/lunch/dinner?” Finally, a word about women teaching men in local gatherings. If we come from a church background that discourages women from preaching or teaching men (an application of 1 Timothy 2:12), we might be surprised to find women doing so as we return home. With this issue and others, we need to determine if it is a core gospel issue or if it is a side issue. Although we are not theologically comfortable with women teaching men, we realised it wasn’t a core doctrinal issue. In fact, it isn’t an issue at all in many Asian countries. Given a choice between not going to a local gathering and joining one with a female pastor or preacher, we would choose the latter.

Since there seemed to be no good options when we arrived in South East Asia, we just googled ‘church in [home suburb]’. It was a local denomination run by locals. It became our home church from the week we visited until we left the city two years later. We made firm friends with brothers and sisters in the local congregation, who lent us a car (on the first week), invited us for meals and to a small group. Our many chats helped us settle into life in a foreign country. We learnt about the physical and spiritual needs of the local church and some challenges we would face as Christians in that environment. Without the blessing of this fellowship, our transition wouldn’t have been as smooth. We also had the chance to serve at the local congregation: through preaching, leading small group Bible studies and in Sunday School, and encouraged sisters in the ladies’ fellowship, among other ways. The local gathering was not just a place to get something, but also where we could serve others. Our experience reinforces the Bible’s teaching on what a church is and why we should join one—even if there seems to be no suitable local congregation.

[1] In this paper I will use ‘church’ to refer to the whole community of believers in Christ, ‘local congregation’ to refer to the large Sunday gathering of Christians, ‘small group’ to refer to the smaller weekly gathering and ‘local gathering’ to refer to the last two.

[2] Observe the link made by the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison: “On bulk purchasing of supplies: Stop hoarding. … That is not who we are as a people. It is not necessary. It is not something that people should be doing.” https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-18/coronavirus-panic-buying-pm-tells-people-to-stop-hoarding/12066082 (accessed 19/3/2020).

[3] God is essentially relational, as expressed in the Trinity. We are made in God’s image, so we are essentially communal beings. This paper focuses on the NT church, but there are some points of continuity with the OT people of God, God’s old covenant community of which he said, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7; cf. Leviticus 26:12).

[4] “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation”; C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2020), 94-95.