A few thousand years ago, the prophet Jeremiah wrote these words to the exiled Israelites. They were a promise of a new covenant; a new way in which God has chosen to relate to his people:
“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says theLord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 And they will not need to teach their neighbours, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.”
– Jeremiah 31:33-34
It is one of the most important passages of scripture for understanding our walk with Jesus. But we will come back to it in a minute.
First, let me start by discussing one of the most important revelations of the church in recent years, that of understanding the concept of Church as family. What does it mean to be God’s kids and how does that translate into community? It is so key and I absolutely love it. The precedence of relationship as a blueprint for how we do church (*be* church) is absolutely brilliant, and something we’re sold out for – it forms the foundation on which we are calling students to mission through Campus Awakening.
Yet, as with everything, there are certain areas where we can come unstuck. For example, we can sometimes fixate on the ‘cuddles-on-the-couch’ aspect of family when applying it to church; forgetting that in reality family consists of so many more aspects as well. Like doing chores! It’s not just movie-nights and holidays the whole time, there’s also the ‘family business’ to care of.
I think one of the ways we can misunderstand family is when our focus on community, a larger whole, comes at the expense of our loss of individuality.
This happens in particular in the area of responsibility. It’s so easy to forget that ultimately I’m the one who is responsible for my relationship with God, and that as part of that I have a unique role to play that cannot simply be passed-off and deferred to the ‘wider body’.
Take ‘mission’ for example. Every single person wants to go to a church which does mission well. “So, what does your church do for mission?” is one of the first questions that comes out of people’s mouths when investigating a new church family. And rightly so! Jesus gave us a pretty big assignment to be getting on with and, of course, you want to make sure that your church has got a grid for that.
The problem for me comes when a positive answer to that question alone is enough to satisfy one’s desire to ‘be missional’.
(*spoken) “Great, my church loves mission. And I can point to all manner of things that we do to prove it.”
(*thought) “Whether or not I ever get involved with any of them is another matter entirely.”
What I’m talking about in this example is ‘mission-by-association’. Something which I’m sure all of us have been guilty of at times. And I do sometimes wonder how much of our scheming and strategising exists primarily to qualify ourselves as a vendor of this ‘mission-by-association’, as opposed to actually being concerned with the needs of the people we want to reach… But I digress!
The point is this: it’s so great for a community to value something; in fact, it is essential that they do. But the impact of these values is ultimately determined by the level of personal responsibility taken for them, and not just in the corporate acknowledgement of their existence.
The impact of values is ultimately determined by the level of personal responsibility taken for them, and not just in the corporate acknowledgement of their existence.
Settling for a life of mission-by-association, without embracing an actual missional lifestyle, doesn’t just rob you of a part in God’s plan for your city, it actually undermines your church’s desire to instil this as a culture within your community.
Which brings me back to Jeremiah 31 and that intriguing picture of the new covenant.
Verse 34 in particular really piques my interest – “And they will not need to teach their neighbours, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord.”
This new covenant is personal: an invitation into an individual relationship, person-by-person. Instant access. Every single person will be given the opportunity to know God for themselves: to commune with him directly. All who believe have been given the right to be called children of God. Everyone. Individually.
This means that we are no longer solely reliant on church to supply and maintain our relationship with God. It is a personal thing that comes with personal responsibility. It’s that great breakthrough of The Reformation: no longer would the “institution” hold the monopoly on the presence of the God or on the execution of His will in the earth. But rather, now, for the whole body to be functioning in the manner it is called to, is essential for the individual to play their each of their respective parts.
We must all take responsibility.
In our (excellent) desire to be in community, let us not forget this important, personal aspect of our faith. Let us not approach our spiritual family as immature consumers in need of constant sustenance, but as passionate individuals who have taken personal ownership of our faith and personal responsibility for the calls of God on the lives of all believers. Particularly for that dangerously adventurous call of Jesus for us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
It is freedom from co-dependence within church family that, I believe, actually releases us to enjoy it properly and for it to be the gift to the world that God always intended it to be.
God is my source of life, not my church family. But he has placed me in that church family, not just for my benefit and theirs, but also so that together we can be an invitation for others to come and be a part of this beautiful imperfection that He’s using to change history.