Due to inclement weather, the 9 a.m. service for Sunday, Jan. 20 has been cancelled. We will have one morning service at 10:45 a.m. as road conditions improve.

Shaped By Community: Spiritual Growth

by Tim Yates

One of the greatest tools to shape your spiritual life is the local church. In fact, the very purpose of the local church is to move you toward Christlikeness (discipleship). There are still many good, Bible-believing churches that preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and promote the global mission of Jesus. Since every congregation is different, I encourage believers to look for a church that teaches the Word of God, employs the spiritual disciplines, and compels them to participate in the redemptive mission of Jesus. This kind of church will shape your soul, move you toward spiritual maturity, and personally engage you in the mission of Jesus. But why should a believer participate in the local church? Can the local church really shape my soul? Let me share with you three basic ways the local church can shape you into a Christlike disciple.

Biblical Preaching

Biblical preaching is essential for soul shape. The Apostle Paul told the believers in Rome, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). In other words, faith is produced when I hear the teaching and preaching of the Word. Constantly hearing Bible preaching will build a strong faith. Jesus used this same process when He trained the disciples. Matthew said, “When Jesus had finished instructing His twelve disciples, He went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.”  Jesus shared His life with the Twelve. The process included personal observation, instruction, and they heard Him teach and preach in “their cities.”1 The early church also placed a priority on biblical preaching (Acts 5:42; 8:4, 12; 15:35;
1 Cor. 1:17, 21, 23; 9:16, 18, 27; 1 Tim. 5:17; 2 Tim. 4:2). Nevertheless, many believers are reluctant to join a local church and disconnect themselves from the teaching and preaching of Scripture. This is a huge mistake. Let me say that again. You are making a huge mistake if you disconnect yourself from the local church. The consequences can be devastating since spiritual formation is hindered. Therefore, I urge you to sink your roots deep into the local church and faithfully apply the preaching of the Word of God to your daily life. What are some other ways biblical preaching shapes the soul?

First, biblical preaching causes me to encounter the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). In Ephesians chapter 3, Paul described the church as a mystery concealed in the Old Testament but revealed in the New Testament (v. 2-7). He insisted God’s revelation (Bible) fully explains this mystery, how God united Jew and Gentile, becoming “fellow heirs” of the same body (church) through the gospel of Jesus Christ (vv. 3-6). Paul insisted he was given the unique responsibility to “preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” and to share the message that had been hidden in ages past but is now revealed in Christ (vv. 8-9). The word “unsearchable” is also translated unfathomable. In other words, biblical preaching should uncover the immeasurable riches of Christ. Needless to say, you and I need this kind of in-depth preaching to help us grow in faith. Biblical preaching is one of the primary tools God uses to shape us in the image of Christ.

Second, biblical preaching has the potential to produce godly wisdom and thus move me toward spiritual maturity (Col. 1:26-28). Paul said, “Him we preach” and his preaching involved “warning” and “teaching” in order to “present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (v. 28). The theme of our preaching must be “Him.” The Christological themes presented in the book of Colossians are awesome. In fact, He is presented as “the image of the invisible God” that “created” all things, and “in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:15-17). Furthermore, “He is the head of the body, the church” and therefore “in all things He should have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18). In other words, He should have “first place” in every area of our life. Paul further declared, “It pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell.” In other words, Jesus is God in a body…. all the fullness of God “dwells” in Jesus (Col 1:19). In Him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Thank God for biblical preaching centered on Him. Preaching that digs beyond the surface of “feel-good speeches” and uncovers the hidden treasure/truth in the Word that always produces godly wisdom and knowledge. Paul argued the results of Christocentric preaching would be believers who are “rooted,” “built up in Him,” and firmly “established in the faith” because we “have been taught” the riches of Christ Jesus (Col. 2:7). It is nearly impossible to exaggerate the importance of hearing and applying Christ-centered preaching in the local church. When we hear Christ preached and apply the teachings of Scripture to everyday life, the process of transformation begins to occur. Slowly but surely, a Christ-shaped life is being formed.

Yet, I can already hear some of you challenge me about attending a local church just to hear biblical preaching. I hear all kinds of silly excuses. Some actually say, “I can just stay home and listen to Charles Stanley on television. I don’t need to join a local church just to hear Bible preaching. I can listen to a podcast or even watch live streaming.” Yet the New Testament presents a strong case for association and participation in a local fellowship. Many have forgotten most of the New Testament was written to individual local congregations. Paul confronted carnality at Corinth, legalism at Galatia and division at Philippi (just to name a few). These were local churches with real people and real problems. Furthermore, even Jesus wrote/corrected the seven local churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 2-3). I can say with great conviction, “Every believer needs to participate in a local church.” In fact, you need a Pastor, a spiritual leader, to teach you the Word of God. Paul commanded Titus “to ordain elders (pastors) in every city” (Titus 1:5) because “every city” needs a local church with a Pastor. Nevertheless, many contemporary Christians want to escape the accountability factor. While many want Jesus as a “fire escape from Hell,” very few want to be held accountable. The process of developing a Christ-shaped life involves accountability. Thankfully, God appointed authority and accountability in the local church (Heb. 13:7, 17). God has placed you in the local church for accountability. This is soul shape at its best. Yet, there is another reason to be faithfully engaged in the local church.

Small Groups

The missiologist tells us the best tool to make robust disciples in the local church is small groups. Many preachers call this the “greenhouse effect.”2  In other words, when you combine the Word of God with like-minded people in a small group setting, life change can take place.3  In the same way it takes two wings for a bird to fly, it also takes two wings for a church to develop healthy disciples. This simplified process encourages you to participate in the Sunday worship services and join a small group Bible study during the week. This particular system goes back to the early church in the book of Acts. Luke claimed, “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house” (Acts 2:46). Notice the two settings where these believers met. They gathered for worship in the temple courts, and they met in homes in smaller groups. Concerning this text, Thom Rainer said, “The health of the early church was intricately tied to both the larger meeting and the smaller meeting context. It was not either/or. It was both/and.”4  Rainer goes on to explain, “It has been a constant theme throughout most of the history of the church. Those in churches gathered in both larger and smaller groups.”5  But how can a small group Bible study help shape my soul? Let me share a few ways a life group can form your soul.

First, a life group encourages participation, and participation will always grow disciples. For instance, a small group study is discussion-based. Throughout the week, you will study a particular Bible text, and you will prepare to participate in a group discussion led by a facilitator. Unlike the traditional, lecture-based Sunday school model, the small group setting encourages group involvement during the Bible study. As we wrestle with the biblical text together, we make a deep application that leads to transformation. Participation that demands application will always lead to transformation. In reality, this is soul shape on steroids.  

Second, a life group is a place of accountability. By the way, we need a group of people to hold our feet to the fire more than ever. For example, the church dropout rate is off the charts. All of us know people who once attended a Bible preaching church, but for one reason or another dropped out of church altogether. The problem was so bad, Rainer decided to conduct a survey to discover why. His research was eye-opening. He discovered church members who faithfully attended the Sunday worship service and a small group Bible study were five times more likely to be active in the church five years later compared to the worship only attenders. The numbers were staggering. He said, “More than 83 percent of those who joined and were involved in a small group were still active in the churches. But only 16 percent of those who attended worship services only remained in the church five years later.”6  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the need to connect church members into smaller groups if you want to close the back door. Group accountability is imperative for soul shape.  

Third, a small group is a great place to develop deep relationships with other believers. As you grow in your faith, you will discover each member of the body of Christ is interdependent of each other. Consequently, we need people in our lives. Good people, godly people, Bible people who see life from God’s point of view (Prov. 13:20). However, the western mindset tends to forget soul shape (life change) happens in groups of people and not in isolation away from people. For example, Julie Gorman said, “Life-shaping occurs when we come to know and allow ourselves to be known. Chat rooms, texting, and even emails permit us to communicate in selective anonymity today. You can’t fax a handshake, mail a hug, or have a family reunion by email.”7  While some relationships can survive at a distance, real, authentic life change occurs up close and personal. This is soul shape at its finest.  

Connecting with a small group will certainly deepen your relationships in the church and will emphatically deepen your relationship with God. As you grow and mature in your faith, the mission of Jesus becomes front and center. Soul shape happens, and you will progressively become more like Him. Small groups are more than a glorified “social day care” in the local church.8   The small group is a tight-knit community rooted in participation, accountability, and authentic relationships unified around the mission of Jesus. Let me share one final way the local church can shape you into a Christlike disciple.

Discipleship and Equipping

The very purpose of the local church is to shape Christlike believers. Thankfully there has been a renewed interest in the spiritual disciplines. For years the average church member has been content to be a “pew potato.” The philosophy has been, “Lay people are supposed to pay, pray, and get out of the way,” so the professional clergy can do ministry.9 Reluctantly church members merely sit, soak, and sour on the church pew and never engage in the mission of Jesus. While analyzing this problem, Ed Stetzer surmised,
 
The greatest travesty in the contemporary church is we pile hundreds of Christians into our churches and stack them on padded pews very similar to products stacked on shelves in the grocery store. We let them come and go and do absolutely nothing, and we let them think they’re okay. The greatest sin in most churches is that we have made it alright to do nothing and call ourselves a follower of Jesus.10

Fortunately, there has been a “disciple-shift” mentality in the local church as a whole. In fact, discipleship has become the new buzzword. But what is real discipleship? I like to explain it this way. A disciple is a person while discipleship is a process. Discipleship is the intentional process of moving a disciple toward Christlikeness. Jeffrey Arnold concluded,

The word discipleship is a catchphrase in the church today, often without meaning. As a result,  some people think of discipleship when they think of Bible study workbooks or adult Sunday school. What they forget is that the process of discipleship is a dynamic relationship between fellow Christians and their Lord and that it is marked by continued progress.11

While Arnold says the word discipleship is often without meaning in the church, he also argued that discipleship is a process that is marked by continued progress. In other words, the discipleship process is movement toward spiritual maturity that can be measured.  Make no mistake. The Great Commission insists we “make disciples” of all ethnic groups of the world. The text further explains the process (discipleship) of making disciples by “baptizing them” and “teaching them” to observe all the things I have commanded you (Matt. 28:19-20). The process involves baptizing, teaching,  and obeying all the commands of Jesus. So, discipleship is the process of moving the believer toward Christlikeness through teaching and modeling the Word of God. Needless to say, the local church must develop an intentional plan for discipleship. How do you move the believer from idle membership to active ministry? Perhaps the Ephesians 4 model can help us with soul shape (strategic plan).

In Ephesians 4, Paul claimed that God gave gifted men to the church, “He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (v. 11). He further argued that God gave these gifted men to the church “for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (v. 12). In other words, training, shaping,  and equipping are the primary functions of the pastor/teacher because the work of the ministry belongs to the saints. Bill Hull says the word katartismon (equipping) means to set a broken bone, to mend a frayed net, to furnish an empty house, or to restore to mint condition.  The medical process of setting a bone suggests putting people back together again (shaping). Mending a net communicates the process of restoration. Furnishing a house implies equipping a believer for service. Restoring to mint condition could refer to helping people get well from spiritual injuries inflicted by the fall. Nonetheless, the nuance of the word communicates the restoration of God’s people to ministry.12 Paul further claimed when gifted leaders shape/prepare members “to do” ministry, the body will be oikodome (edified) or built-up (v. 12). Spiritual and numerical growth will take place in the body. Furthermore, as the discipling-equipping process continues, the “serving” believers will mature in their faith and become more like Christ (v. 13). In fact, they will no longer be spiritual infants tossed around by every popular teaching, but will spiritually auxano (grow up) “into Him in all things” (vv. 14-15). The text clearly demands the “the whole body,” even “every joint” and “every part” should “do its share” (v. 16). The Ephesians 4 developmental model of discipleship provides a process of mobilization for the everyday church member toward maturity and soul shape. When every member does ministry, the body will grow and be edified. Soul shape organically happens.

Conclusion

The local church is extremely important. Discipleship and soul shape can’t happen when you sever yourself from the local church. Christ is the Head of the church, and the church is His body. They are one. Thus, you can’t become a Christ-shaped disciple when you cut yourself off from His body. The very purpose of the local church is to move the believer toward Christlikeness. A place to receive a steady diet of biblical preaching that grows our faith, expands our knowledge, and shapes our service. We need a Pastor/Teacher to hold us accountable. Someone who can Shepherd us, feed us, nurture us and lead us. We need in-depth, weighty preaching. Preaching of substance. Preaching that transforms. Practical preaching that equips a believer, spouse, parent, and employee. Furthermore, we need a biblical community, a small group of believers we journey with through life - people, who hold us accountable, pray for us, love us, and show up in times of crisis. A close-knit group of believers centered on Christ and His church. We also need discipleship and equipping. A place for on-the-job training, equipping, and works of service. A place to discover my spiritual gift and serve others within the context of the local body. Is the local church important? You better believe it. The local church is one of the greatest tools to shape your spiritual life. Be shaped in His image in 2021. Get connected to a local church.

1  The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society, 2011).
2  I have heard and read this expression many times over the years.
3  A “homogenous group” is a group of believers who have some things in common. For instance, they are typically the same age and experience the same struggles in life.
4  Thom S. Rainer, I Will, Nine Traits of the Outwardly Focused Christian (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015), 36.
5  Ibid., 36.
6  Ibid., 37.
7  Gorman made these comments in the endorsement section of a book by Joel Comiskey, The Relational Disciple (Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2010).
8  Brad House, Community, Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publications, 2011), 47.
9  I have heard Ed Stetzer make this statement many times in his sermons.
10  http://www.vergenetwork.org/2010/10/02/ed-stetzer-missional-disciple-making-movements-video/.
11  Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 23.
12  Bill Hull, The Disciple-Making Church, 162-163.

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