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Leadership
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The Arenas of Christian Life

In the process of establishing the community of the “underground” German Confessing Church seminary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of both the nature and the spirit required to enjoy the divine reality of fellowship. As for the spirit, there was a call for humility: He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial … God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious…[1]

Given the nature of western Christian expression, those words sound prophetic. Each year new models of Church life are added to a growing list: house church, missional church, emergent church, mosaic community, satellite church, mega church, meta church … With each addition to the list, there is a subtle subtext: this is the way Christians were intended to meet … this way, and no other.

In balance to that, Bonhoeffer wrote: Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily.[2]

From that call for a spirit of humility, Bonhoeffer was then able to define the direction, order and balance expected of community. The directions embraced a fairly wide bandwidth: Let him who cannot be alone beware of community …  Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.[3]

The “zen-like” nature of those warnings only serve as a challenge for a Christian to provide equal attention and care to all of what I would call “the Arenas of Christian life” or, better yet, the circles that define Christian interaction and fellowship.

During my term as the Pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church in Richmond, British Columbia, our congregation underwent a significant period of transition and growth which included a building program, a move, and in Biblical terms, a season where the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.[4] Among all of the challenges posed by that season, the most significant was the transition from being the “big-little church” to becoming the “little-big” church. Such a transition demands careful attention. [5]

In order to guide the church through the transition, I found it necessary to paint graphic pictures to help orient the congregation to the “new feelings” required by our growing dynamics. In order to do this, I needed to describe the context in which Christians are intended to gather together. I termed this concept “The Arenas of Christian life” or the “Circles of Fellowship” depicting it as five circles, each with a name:

Celebration: the largest conceivable group of people … a mass of humanity gathered together for a single purpose. Here, the title of “arena” fits well to describe a faceless mass of people gathered together in a stadium. It’s a familiar biblical image. The Bible speaks of us, in this life, being “surrounded by a cloud of witnesses”[6] and in the reality of heaven being numbered with “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands”[7] all gathered with one purpose: “to worship the Lamb .. the one who sits on the throne.” In our Church context, this circle of Celebration was to describe the expectations we were to bring to our worship, and view the worship as training for our ultimate heavenly occupation. Because of the nature of Celebration, it was not necessary for everyone to know everyone else by name because only one Name really mattered.

Congregation: a “church-within-the-church”, a “manageable” group of people .. typically more than 15 in number and, in some cases as many as 50. I used this to describe a group of people who gathered together primarily for the purpose of service. Whether it was a choir or a mission’s group or a Sunday school class, the group gathered around a specific task or mission. While they could expect to develop a sense of personal relationship and belonging, the defining purpose of such a group was to accomplish a particular task. If there was to be a Biblical illustration of this, the 72 disciples appointed by Jesus to go out “two by two to every town and place where he was to go”[8] could serve as such a group united by a missional purpose.[9]

Community: the small-group, local home fellowship, a familiar group of people .. typically more than 8 but less than 15 who would meet with regularity. While the conventional image of such a group was that it gathered for Bible Study, the interaction was intended for more personal support and care. Names matter in such a group, and spiritual growth the object of attention. The community of the 12 disciples with Jesus could serve as a picture of such a small group.

Cell: the intentional fellowship with those who are “closer than a brother,” [10] an accountability group, typically no more than 2 or 3 people with whom a bond of trust allows a depth of interaction, confession, and care. The exclusive boundary of such a situation allows for more intimate conversation.  The interaction of Jesus with the three: Peter, James and John[11] could serve as an example.

Communion: the direct relationship that a believer cultivates and enjoys with God in private devotion, and spiritual discipline. Typically. that’s done alone! This circle touches the core of a believer’s heart and serves as the primary resource for life to be lived in all the rest of the circles.

None of the circles exist in exclusive isolation. The picture that we used showed a sense of interaction and flow between each and all. The idea was that to have a healthy fellowship, each member of a church would earnestly, and equally, cultivate and value participation and relationships at each level.

Graph:

Group Type Quick Definition Example Advantages: Needs Met
Celebration Large, encompassing mass gathering,

One purpose – to worship

Typically: innumerable

the Myriads, the heavenly host, worshipping God.

Sunday Morning worship

Corporate worship, augmenting and elevating a shared voice of praise
Congregation A church-within-the-church:

Primary purpose – to serve

Mission oriented

Typically: 15 and up

the 72 Disciples

Sunday School class,

Worship team, choir, Board of Deacons, Mission team

Corporate service: augmenting and strengthening the impact of service
Community A localized group of care

Primary purpose – to support and care – and to know each other by name

Typically: 8-15

the 12 Apostles

Home Growth Groups, House Bible studies

A sense of belonging, ability to serve one another with individual impact
Cell A private circle of accountability, the special few who have earned the right to care in confidence

Typically: 1,2 or 3

John, the beloved Apostle; Peter

Marriage, close friendship,

A sense of knowing, an environment of honesty and accountability
Communion A personal encounter with God, the one-on-one relationship of devotion and spiritual life, typified by a meaningful quiet time, devotional life Jesus [Matthew 14:23]

Personal devotional time

Cultivating an authentic relationship with God

 

As the conditions in the church changed, it was important to focus on how each of the five arenas would be found in the Church experience.  Even more, how each of the five would be expressed and valued. This was especially important during a time of turbulence when the nature of “doing church” began to change, and we entered unfamiliar territory.

Keeping these five circles in focus helped address two particularly troublesome temptations:

Limiting the “Church” to one exclusive definition: As models of ministry compete, I’ve noticed a tendency by some to promote their  experience of fellowship at the expense of others. The assumptions vary: a small church is better than a large church, a home fellowship is more authentic than a church that meets in a building, a mega church is more exciting than a small church. It is possible to violate the spirit of community with the sort of spiritual hubris described by Bonhoeffer:  God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the visionary proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself  .. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure ..  he becomes an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.[12]

Misplacing expectations from one circle to another: While each circle provides an environment for multiple experiences, each has an primary purpose that defines appropriate behavior and expectation. It proved to be quite helpful for people to see the picture of the arenas and circles in order to recalibrate their expressions and expectations. A few examples: Occasionally I would encounter a person who would leave a worship service, disappointed that God hadn’t really spoken to Him. Pressing the issue further, I would discover that they had expected the worship service to provide their personal devotional needs. Occasionally they would “meet God” in a worship service, but it was more an act of serendipity than intention. Cultivating a personal devotional life allowed them to find the sort of spiritual balance that renewed their experience of worship.

Another example: It’s easy to imagine what happens when a person walks into a classroom of a 50-person Sunday school and announces that their marriage has just ended. It happens often, in various ways. At best, a few people may sympathize and pray with the person. But the class goes on, and the person is left to wonder if anyone really cares. Again, the best expressions deserve an appropriate arena, which only enhances the need for “community of care” rather than a “congregation of service.”

Learning these lessons helped our church navigate through the turbulence of change. It helped provide a  plan for us to go beyond building a Church building – to create meaningful Arenas. And it helped people get down to the real business of fellowship and consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.[13]


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Harper and Row, 1954  page 27

[2] Life Together, page 28.

[3] Life Together, page 77

[4] Acts 4:47 [a wonderful phrase that could easily outline the Book of Acts: Acts 2:41, 4:4, 5:14; 6:7; 11:24, cf. 14:1, 16:5, 17:4, 18:8

[5] There is a whole discipline of study given to growth and transition issues. Notable studies include: Gary MacIntosh [One Size Doesn’t Fit All, Taking Your Church to the Next Level], Alice Mann [The In-Between Church, Raising the Roof]

[6] Hebrews 12:1

[7] Revelation 5:11

[8] Luke 10:1

[9] I had to observe some caution in applying Biblical illustrations to the model, realizing that I was drawing principles from descriptions which is based on much softer ground than specific precepts given by command. The one command that did define the effort was that we “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.” [Hebrews 10:25]

[10] Proverbs 18:24

[11] Matthew 17:1

[12] Life Together, p. 27-28

[13] Hebrews 10:25

1 Response to “The Arenas of Christian Life”


  • I think the piece on visionary dreaming is right on ,i believe the church of the day is heading in this direction, and is hurting discipleship and true fellowship

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