On Belonging within a Christian Community: Lessons from Real Life and the Book of Acts

Christian community can be experienced in real life as described in the book of Acts. Here are elements to consider and pursue.

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Over the past several years, as I’ve become embedded in the recreational cycling community, I’ve flourished. This growth extends beyond the realm of sport and into my personal and professional lives. It’s brought contentment while also delivering deeper resolve and insight, encouraging me to set bigger and more refined goals, and enabling me to leverage my innate strengths and expand my capabilities.

None of this refinement is taking place in isolation, but rather in the midst of community. The connections, support, and guidance from people I’ve met have helped me leap forward while giving me the opportunity to help others.

As I’ve considered how challenge and support within a cycling group can work, I’ve also studied the early church in the book of Acts. Through this study, I’ve considered and worked to articulate lessons on nurturing friendships in a Christian community.

Background

Acts takes us through the birth of the Christian church and its subsequent growth through the adventures of Peter, Paul, and others. The apostles and followers of Jesus are inspired and emboldened by the Holy Spirit.

I’ve enjoyed reading about Christian community in the context of the formation and expansion of the early church. I laugh when I read about the servant girl keeping the door shut on Peter after his supernatural release from prison … wonder why leaders wrestle with rules for belonging, religious tradition, and persistent cultural beliefs despite being presented with fresh understanding of grace and righteousness … revel in Lydia’s claim of Christian sisterhood and its privilege for hospitality … bristle on behalf of sailing sojourners at Paul’s insistence of his technical prowess, only to later appreciate his clear, God-given vision for their rescue.

Through these and other stories, here are a few things I’ve learned:

Community springs to life through divine connection

The entire book of Acts describes a new type of faith community. Chapters 2 and 13 in particular are prominent in bringing fresh meaning to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far off, even as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.'” — Acts 2:38-39 (World English Bible)

Be it known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man is proclaimed to you remission of sins, and by him everyone who believes is justified from all things, from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” — Acts 13:38-39 (World English Bible)

The disciples were filled with joy with the Holy Spirit.” — Acts 13:52 (World English Bible)

At first, there’s a rush of excitement that looks like chaos to outsiders but is connection among believers. During this first-ever gathering of Christians, Peter explains the bridge between the past with the present reality of forgiveness, justification, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s this gift that connects community members in ways they had never been experienced before.

Pursuing community means reordering priorities

In Acts 2 and Acts 4, the early church demonstrates extravagant sharing of lives and resources. They hang out together, eat together, and worship together. They sell their possessions, pool their funds, and distribute to whoever has need.

Whether or not their economic perspectives are changed, they clearly shift and reorder their lifestyle and their financial priorities. They demonstrate a higher regard for each other than worldly status, security, and wealth.

I’ve realized that if I want to be part of a community, I must intentionally establish and manage my priorities. As much as possible, I need to build in free time for conversations and impromptu gatherings as well as consider my spending in order to build a cash cushion for generosity.

Differences can be handled without drama

The early church deals with differences through reasoned discussion and quick action. I’m amazed at how swiftly, if not elegantly, matters are resolved. In Acts 6, there’s a problem with key leaders spending too much time serving the widows, alongside inequities revealing ethnic injustice; the community devises a plan and moves on.

Even devoted community members express differences, I’ve found. But these can be resolved quickly when people work together and share a common goal.

In addition, I’ve come to understand that it’s important to delineate between my personal convictions on non-essentials from core beliefs. I need to check myself to be sure that I don’t advocate a point of view as “Christian” when it’s merely my preference.

Honesty trumps status

One of the most memorable stories in Acts is that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). Like others in the community, they sell land with the stated intention of giving the proceeds to the apostles for distribution as needs arise. Unlike others, though, they hold back some of the money for themselves. In separate incidents, Ananias and the Sapphira claim that they’re giving everything but Peter calls each of them out for lying; first Ananias falls down and dies, and then Sapphira.

According to an article in Church Resources, theologian John Stott writes that Ananias and Sapphira were not so much misers as they were thieves: “They wanted the credit and the prestige for sacrificial generosity, without the inconvenience of it. So, in order to gain a reputation to which they had no right, they told a brazen lie. Their motive in giving was not to relieve the poor, but to fatten their own ego.”

The takeaway for me is the emphasis on honesty within the community, not perfection. The deaths of the husband and wife don’t mean that I’m required to sell my properties and give all the proceeds to the church. Rather, it indicates that I should be honest with God and my friends, even if being transparent reveals my frailties and imperfections.

Hospitality means taking risks and experiencing the pay off

I never really thought about hospitality as being a core part of Christian community until I started exploring the book of Acts and living with greater intention. Before, drawing on my knowledge of church activities, I viewed fellowship events, like potluck suppers and ice cream socials, as the hub of social interaction. These could entail deep discussion but often involved lighthearted chit-chat.

When I started receiving invitations for lunches and weekend trips involving bike rides, I realized that I should try harder to offer hospitality, not just accept it.

My hospitality experience has been like Lydia’s in Acts 16. As a newcomer to the community, she must persuade Paul and Silas to visit her the first time. Later, though, they become close enough that they spend the night at her home. Perhaps they realize that Lydia is faithful, that she doesn’t have a secret agenda, that she’s committing to Christian hospitality as a way of serving God and serving people while showing her treasure of friendships.

Similarly, I’ve discovered that straightforward talk and persistence are essential to winning visitors. My job is to ask and see what happens.

Divine interruptions often look like “random” encounters

Reading Acts has shown me that God works through seemingly random events. In Acts 16, Lydia meets Paul and Silas in a life-changing encounter that brings her into the Christian community. She has pursued God but it’s this unplanned meeting that allows her to hear and open her heart to Paul’s message.

As an example from my own life, several years ago I planned to meet an acquaintance at a charity ride about an hour’s drive from my home. When I got there, she told me she had an injury that prevented her from riding though she did have friends whom I could accompany. The ride didn’t go horribly but wasn’t what I had imagined. However, while at this event, I struck up a conversation with a person who parked next to me; he then introduced me to another group, which contained members who lived close to my home. Years later, I still ride with folks to whom I was introduced through what I believe was divine connection that day.

Yes, I like checklists and detailed plans as much as anyone. But I’ve come to see that God has his own agenda. Not every stranger with whom I’ve spoken has turned into a lifelong friend. Not every unplanned adventure has altered my life’s course. But some of the most life-changing and memorable happenings have been seemingly random. So I’ve adopted a stance of being open and available to people and plans that surface unexpectedly.

Saying something is helpful but showing up is the best kind of encouragement

In Acts 28, Paul is encouraged when brothers in Christ visit him in Rome, where he’s awaiting trial. This story tells me that even the most devout and dedicated appreciate encouragement. It also tells me that taking action and showing up, perhaps unexpectedly, are important ways to encourage others.

Looking at this passage and considering my personal experiences, I realize that encouragement involves both words and action. As a simple example, if I’m about to finish a running race but flagging, I appreciate words of encouragement that I can sprint those last 100 yards or so. In addition, I both appreciate and benefit from encouragement expressed through actions such as training with me or accompanying me to a race.

Positive thinking should be rooted in truth

Paul’s trip to Italy for an appeal to Caesar, as recorded in Acts 27, gives me insights into positive thinking.

This journey reveals both God’s provision and the power of a positive, inspired outlook infused with realism. As background, Paul is one of many prisoners going to Rome, all of whom are accompanied by a Roman centurion and the ship’s crew. Trip delays make the journey dangerous because of seasonal winds. Paul warns of destruction if they don’t stop and wait for better conditions. Unsurprisingly, the centurion takes the opposing advice of the pilot and the ship’s owner and continues with the trip.

As Paul predicted, storms bring turmoil and damage to the ship. Still, when the prisoners and crew express hopelessness, Paul offers hope (after he tells them “I told you so”):

When they had been long without food, Paul stood up in the middle of them, and said,Sirs, you should have listened to me, and not have set sail from Crete, and have gotten this injury and loss. Now I exhort you to cheer up, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For there stood by me this night an angel, belonging to the God whose I am and whom I serve, saying, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul. You must stand before Caesar. Behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ Therefore, sirs, cheer up! For I believe God, that it will be just as it has been spoken to me. But we must run aground on a certain island.'” Acts 27:21-26 (World English Bible)

Soon after, Paul makes sure everyone is nourished and orchestrates the rescue of all who are on the ship. He instills in them both the reason to think positively and a specific plan to achieve goals.

Considering this passage and lessons from Two Old Women, I’ve realized that positive thinking is powerful though not magical. Ignoring harsh realities can be dangerous. But consciously not complaining — which has helped open my eyes to the innate worth and unique strengths of those in my community — benefits other people and me.

Friends can mentor each other

Throughout Acts, there are examples of mentoring relationships involving apostles teaching other believers, persuading them about specific points, asking them to model their behavior, and more. What’s interesting to me is that these are not typically one-hour-a-week relationships but friendships that embed believers in each other’s lives over the span of weeks, months, and even years.

Many years ago, while in college, I took part in a mentoring arrangement that was perhaps meant to model a teacher-student relationship. But the mentoring method focused on imparting knowledge, not connecting lives, developing Christian friendships, and engaging with people. As a result, our time together didn’t lead to greater maturity or deeper involvement in the community.

Before and after this experience, thankfully, I’ve been able to learn from other Christians. Some were significantly more mature than me. Others had specific knowledge or experiences that could offer insights into how to deal with a specific issue in my life. None were condemning. Instead, they shared their experiences, encouraged me, taught me, listened to me, showed me the brilliance in my thinking as well as the flaws, and helped me see how certain decisions could affect my life in the future.

What I’ve found is that people like me often flourish in deeper relationships. I can gain knowledge on my own but insights and strength often come from God through friends.

Trust is scary but well-placed reliance delivers amazing results

I’ve always been fascinated by the way the Damascus disciple Ananias comes to trust Paul as described in Acts 9. God asks Ananias to visit Paul, who persecuted the early Christians. And by persecution, I mean he killed them or incited their murders. Naturally, Ananias protests but God assures him that Paul is his “chosen vessel” so he agrees to the meeting.

After re-reading the passage, I realize that Ananias trusts God, not Paul in the initial encounter. Paul is simply the object of God’s trust, the person Ananias is asked to visit. Later, Paul is trusted by the community. Then, he becomes one of its most prominent leaders and influential persons.

It’s this type of trust that intrigues me: an unlikely trust that starts with a prompting, receives validation from God, and continues to deepen. This trusting of one’s life to another is scary, yet powerful.

In my own life, I tend to start with tokens of trust, weighing the cost of betrayal if I’m wrong and then progressing to deeper trust that could cost me more. In most cases, folks have shown me whether they’re trustworthy or not in our initial interactions. Like Maya Angelou, who said “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” I don’t hesitate to mistrust if the situation calls for caution.

Still, I’ve benefited from trusting people and hopefully others have benefited from trusting me. In my experience, well-placed trust bonds people grow together.

Joiners may not look or act like I imagined

Just as I’m intrigued with Ananias and Paul, I’m fascinated with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Like Ananias, Philip is prompted to meet the Ethiopian. Philip answers this man’s questions. He guides his acquaintance and helps him to take a step in faith. The Ethiopian eunuch is baptized. Then, the two part ways and continue on separate but similar journeys.

Responding to God’s call enables this meeting and disciple making, which expands the community. This new disciple may not have shared the religious tradition or physical characteristics of the earlier disciples. But his thirst for understanding and desire to believe and be baptized brings him into the group.

I’ve begun to grasp and accept that I shouldn’t limit my conversations and friendships to those I imagine fit the profile of whom I should befriend, or who I think will want to hang out with me. God may have different plans for me.

Closing Thoughts

Both my experiences and my study of scripture inspire me to pursue a greater sense of belonging. At the same time, I have renewed intrigue and hope regarding the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit.

More specifically, I have begun to more intentionally embrace seemingly random encounters as opportunities to experience the day’s purpose … encourage others and receive encouragement … discern when positive thinking is favored and when abandoning ship is the best decision ever (and know that the two aren’t mutually exclusive) … offer and accept guidance from those who have wisdom and kindness along with relevant experiences and a genuine desire to grow … trust in ways that seem promising but scary … grasp how acting on the promptings of the Holy Spirit take me to places and people that I’d never imagine or encounter on my own.

I’ve realized that community doesn’t follow a formula or script. It’s about recognizing and responding to divine nudges and treasuring the people who are part of my life.

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