Sanctification is a Community Project

Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25, HCSB)

Early on in my Christian experience, I underestimated the degree to which sanctification is a community project. When I was a young Christian, I was convinced that vibrant spirituality was maintaining a regular daily devotional time of Bible reading and prayer, sharing my faith with others on a regular basis and reading lots of edifying extra-biblical books (I’ve always been pretty bookish). These disciplines sustained me, and by God’s grace, I grew as a follower of Christ. But these disciplines are all “personal” practices that can be pursued apart from the context of one’s local church. At least they were often detached in my experience, especially during my college days.

For the first four years of my Christian life, I operated in some respects like an independent spiritual contractor who happened to be a member–and frequently a paid staff member–of a local congregation. But the longer I’ve been a Christian, the more I’ve come to realize that sanctification is a community project. While I continue to maintain all the personal spiritual disciplines of my early Christian life, I now recognize that they are best practiced in conjunction with like-minded believers with whom I have covenanted with in my local church. In addition to personal disciplines, meaningful church membership by definition includes several corporate spiritual disciplines: small group fellowship, corporate worship, accountability relationships, even members meetings. I sincerely believe that I love the Lord more now than I once did, in part because I love his bride more than I once did. Sanctification is a community project.

Small Group 2010-2011

Finn Home Fellowship Group Picture from May 2011

At First Baptist Church of Durham, we have small groups that meet on Sunday nights in homes all over the greater Raleigh-Durham area. We call these small groups home fellowships. On several occasions since 2005, my family has hosted a home fellowship at our house (check out the pic above from our 2010-2011 home fellowship). Over the years, the vast majority of the families in these small groups have had ties to Southeastern Seminary as students, professors or staff (we live less than five minutes from the seminary). When we host a home fellowship, we tell everyone that we gather weekly with intentionality: we eat together, share together, pray together and studythe Scriptures together. And the reason why we pursue these spiritual activities together in that setting? Sanctification is a community project. This is especially true in Baptist churches, where every member is a professing believer and the entire congregation takes ownership of the church’s ministry.

Over the years, God has used our home fellowships, as well as the entire congregation of saints called FBC Durham, as a means of sanctifying grace in my life. I have no doubt that I have grown to love God more, love our church more and love lost people more in large part because of the way I’ve walked with the brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I’ve covenanted at FBC Durham. My wife would say the same thing. In healthy churches and church-based small groups, believers help each other to “promote love and good works” and point one another to the riches of the gospel, especially in times of doubt and need. The members are stronger in their faith because of their participation in the body. This is the way it’s meant to be. Sanctification is a community project.

(Note: An earlier version post was published in September 2013 at Christian Thought and Tradition, but it has been substantially revised for Between the Times)

Pastorally Speaking: Bobby Herrington on “Christian Community Created by the Gospel”

[Editor’s Note: This post continues the “Pastorally Speaking” series: posts written by pastors for pastors. Bobby Herrington is the Executive Pastor at Mercy Hill Church, a recent church plant in Greensboro, N.C., and Ph.D. student in theology at SEBTS.]

Three summers ago I had the opportunity to go backpacking across the snow covered peaks of British Columbia, Canada. One afternoon we approached the downhill slope of a massive glacier which was covered in snow. Walking down was dangerous because under the snow there could be deep unseen crevices that someone could fall into at any time. Therefore, when walking down the glacier we tied ourselves together with a rope, each person about 50 feet from the other. If the first person fell into a crevice each member of the team would roll onto their stomach and swing their ice axe into the glacier keeping the first person from falling very far. While going at it alone would have been extremely dangerous, hooking ourselves together made it rather safe.

This is a picture of how Christian community should work within the local church. As believers we should hook ourselves to one another through intentional discipleship relationships. We see this type of commitment both described and prescribed in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

The New Testament calls the local church to an impossible type of community; a community that breaks the barriers of race, socio-economics, and ethnicity. The Bible calls us to rejoice with our brothers and sisters when they rejoice, and suffer with them when they suffer. The Bible also calls us to share our material resources with one another.

Yet, because of sin, authentic Christian community seems more difficult than ever to establish. Churches split, marriages crumble, relationships sever, and church cook-outs and Wednesday night dinners don’t seem to be doing enough in creating the type of deep community the New Testament calls the local church to. In this post, I would like to both encourage and demonstrate that only the gospel can create the type of deep community within our churches that the New Testament commands.

No matter how hard we try as pastors, small group leaders, or Sunday school teachers, we cannot mechanically create community between members of our church. The reason for this is because our horizontal community with one another is grounded in our vertical community with God. The church is not a collection of people who share common interests but a people who have been called into fellowship with Jesus Christ and one another. As a result, division, disunity, and broken relationships within the church are not a community problem but a gospel problem.

Therefore, if we want to see authentic community in our churches, it will only come through the faithful preaching of the gospel. Only through the preaching of the gospel can people supernaturally begin a relationship with God that will enable them to have authentic relationships with one another within a local church.

So, while we ultimately cannot create community as pastors, what are some things we can do as pastors to help spur on and maintain this community that is only created by the gospel? Below are three things we are doing at the church where I serve ( to spur our members on to biblical community.

1) Emphasize the importance of gathering – Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” Nothing can replace the importance of the weekly gathering for developing community within the church; the gospel is preached through sermon, pictured through the sacraments, and celebrated through fellowship.

Many people today want deep organic relationships but are not willing to put the time in to allow those relationships to develop. In the era of chat rooms and Facebook many people have communication, but few have biblical community. I use to often tell my small group that only structured friendships lead to organic relationships. It is only through hours of intentional time spent together with other Christians that these relationships move beyond surface level to the point that discipleship happens on a weekly basis.

2) Discipleship happens in community – This is a plumb-line at Mercy Hill Church (which we “borrowed” from our sending church, the Summit Church). The fact is many of us, pastors included, believe that the church needs us more than we need the church. The church is always asking us to volunteer, give money, use our gifts, etc. And while yes we should do all of those things, we cannot forget, and should not let our people forget, that every Christian needs the church to become a growing disciple of Jesus Christ.

Too many in our churches are attempting to be lone ranger Christians where the church is seen as good but not necessary. As Jesus had a small group of men he invested in, each of us needs a small group of people that speak the gospel into all areas of our lives on a weekly basis.

3) Call church members to a covenant commitment – One way to practically implement the previous points is to make joining a small group of 10-15 people part of a church covenant that all members of the church agree to. Make it a clear expectation that part of joining the church is a commitment to others in the church. It is my belief that only this type of intentional community will lead to the commitment to one another we see in Acts.

In just the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians Paul outlines at least 30 “one another” commitments that members of the body of Christ are to have to one another. This type of deep commitment to one another can never happen unless the members of our church are deeply involved in one another’s lives, and open about areas they need to grow. As pastors we must call our people to this type of commitment and live it out ourselves.