Read Christian websites, scan the title of books at a bookstore, or hear how leaders in the church talk and you will notice a common theme. That theme is that Christianity in Western civilization, especially in the United States, is facing a crisis. It revolves around a generational gap that challenges the health and vitality of churches across all denominations.
This generational gap can be seen in weekly church attendance, membership rolls, and the influence the church has in the lives of young adults. The church struggles to reach people under the age of 40. These are people who identify themselves as being members of Generation X, like myself, or the Millennial Generation. Our reach among these groups of people is considerably less when compared with other generations.
I’ve often wondered why this is, not just as someone who is a young pastor but as a Christian who is a young adult. Why do we struggle to reach people from my generation and younger? I am not thinking about Christians who simply go to other churches. I am specifically thinking about people who do not have a relationship with Jesus or the church. Why do we struggle to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with young adults?
Many have written about this issue and what young adults are seeking from the church. If there is anything young adults seek from the church it is authentic community. Young adults desire a church that isn’t focused on maintaining an institution, but is focused on relationships. Young adults want a church that isn’t static, but is a moving, breathing, life-giving, and missional in its response to Jesus. Young adults desire for the church to not just say it believes in Jesus, but to see the church live out its faith.
Young adults are hungry for the church to be defined by having authentic communities and expressions of faith. This is not an unfamiliar desire for us. We all have this desire. All of us, young or old, want the church to be the church. We all desire for a church to be authentic in its expression of the life of Jesus Christ that is alive in all of us.
This is not even a new desire for the church. Every generation of the church has sought to authentically live out its faith. Even the earliest followers of Jesus asked themselves what it would look like to authentically live as a community of faith. It was a pressing question for the church as early as the day of Pentecost, when more than 3,000 people came to faith following Peter’s first sermon. How would this growing band of believers authentically live out their faith as a community and what does it say to us today?
Written by Luke, Acts 2:42-47 examines how the early church might have answered this question and how they sought to live authentically with one another. What Luke gives can be best described as the four basic qualities of a healthy church. These are the bedrock characteristics of a church that is living out its hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When these characteristics define a church the church is better able to authentically live out its faith. This produces stronger communities within the church and in the mission field of our neighborhoods.
The first characteristic Luke mentions of an authentic community is that of teaching. An authentic community features sound teaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ. This means that an authentic community expresses what has been said about Jesus throughout time. A community of faith, the church, is called to teach what it means to have faith in Christ through its preaching, small group efforts, and other discipleship opportunities. These aspects of discipleship helps us to grow closer to Jesus and allows us to more authentically live out our faith in Christ.
We teach, as well, so that we may teach others. An authentic community recognizes that we are all teachers of Jesus Christ. Our lives teach Jesus to others. Truly, the most effective sermon ever delivered about Jesus Christ is how a follower of Christ lives their lives on a daily basis. Who we are, what we allow, what we accept, and what we do in our private lives teaches others about what it means to have faith in Jesus.
Another characteristic of an authentic community is that we are called to be in fellowship with one another. We are called to share life with other followers of Jesus. Not just the members of the community we like, but all the people of the gathered community. Luke describes how the early followers of Christ were a close-knit group. It was an intimate gathering of believes who spent every day with each other. They shared their entire lives in community with one another as a genuine expression of their faith in God and love for each other.
Think about how this contrasts with our modern ideas of fellowship. For many of us, the most time we spend each week in fellowship with other Christians each week is about 90 minutes. That is 15 minutes before worship, the hour in worship, and the 15 minutes we spend talking after worship. If we truly want authentic communities then we must desire to spend more time with each other. We cannot have a relationship with people who we barely interact with.
There is an additional component to understanding this idea of sharing our lives with each other. Sharing life also meant that the early believers shared their resources. They sold their excess possessions to care for the needs of others. They used what they had in order to care for people with needs. What we see of the early church is that they did not see what they owned as something to possess or protect, but as a gift from God to be used in order to bless others.
Luke moves on to describe another characteristic of an authentic community. He writes that an authentic community shares meals with one another. When we read this we might immediately think about church potlucks. As wonderful as church potlucks and fellowship meals are an authentic community includes something much more. It is about regularly welcoming the people of our communities into our homes to share a meal together.
For the early church, eating together was a holy act that included a time for worship and fellowship. It was an intimate gathering that reminded them of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples in the Upper Room. There was no separation of communion from the regular aspect of dining together. The entire meal was a holy time of communion and remembrance of God’s love expressed through the life of Christ. It was a time of deep connection and intimate fellowship. This type of gathering teaches us something. When we gather in someone’s home we are able to better connect with each other, be hospitable to one another, and worship with each other through the sharing of a meal that connects us to our fellowship in Christ’s love.
The last characteristic of an authentic community in that of prayer. An authentic community is rooted and grounded in prayer. For the early church, this meant having set times to pray in the Temple where they prayed together. The early church placed an emphasis not just on prayer but also worshiping together as a community.
For us to have an authentic community, we must place an emphasis on both prayer and worship. We must seek the Lord’s direction and desire, not just in our private lives but also in our church. Everything we do must be rooted in prayer, which allows us to seek the Lord’s will for us. An authentic community is also one that worships together by giving praise and honor to the Lord for God’s mighty name and all that the Lord has done. Praying and worshiping together equips us to live out our faith by rightly honoring and praising the Lord.
These four characteristics of an authentic community are not the only ones we see in Scripture. What these characteristics offer are something similar to the walls of a house that are built upon the solid foundation of faith in Christ. Other characteristics like forgiveness, a missional focus, and hospitality among others, become what fills in our community and allows us to express our desire to live in authentic relationships with Christ and each other.
Living in an authentic Christian community is not easy. It is challenging. There will good days and there will be bad days. There will be days when we will believe we have it all together and there will be days when we will struggle and want to run away. Growth in a community’s expression of authentic faith in Christ comes when we stay committed to one another and, more importantly, to living out our faith in Jesus Christ.
We must be committed to being an authentic community of Christ for the long term and desire to live it out in our churches and in our lives. This is not something we can do only on Sunday mornings. It is something that must be engrained in the very essence of who we are as followers of Christ. At the same time, we cannot desire an authentic community if our only reasons for doing so is to solve our our generational issues. Living in authentic community will not automatically increase worship attendance or even address the generational gaps in our churches.
Above all other relevant desires, our primary desire must be to live as an authentic community of faith as an expression of our hope in Jesus Christ. If this is our desire, then living as an authentic community will allow us to better live out our hope in Jesus Christ. If we commit ourselves to living out these characteristics, I can promise you there will be something different about our churches. New life and hope will spring up within us and our community. This new life will allow us to be in relationships with others that allows them to see the love of Christ in their lives.
Being an authentic church is not about saving the institutional church. It is about being a relational church that loves Jesus and others. May we be a church, not just here but throughout the church, that is known for wanting authentic relationships that lives out our faith in Christ.