And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. (2 Corinthians 8:1-5 NIV)
When was the last time you heard someone, especially an entire congregation, pleading for the opportunity to give to meet the needs of people they do not know? Despite all our technology we are more isolated from our brothers and sisters in Christ than the church in the first century. The oneness that characterized the early church in Jerusalem seems to have spread along with the gospel to the churches that Paul started. The mission of the church was simple: love one another and make disciples. Out of their love for one another flowed a connectedness that meant a famine in Judea impacted a congregation in Macedonia.
How did the lack of connectedness that we experience between congregations develop? I think it has much to do with the shift in discipleship from lifestyle to activities and knowledge. A focus on activities and knowledge leads to facilities and programs. Maintaining the facilities and programs requires resources. Regardless of the size of the congregation, the desire to participate in the greater body of Christ will be limited as so much leadership energy is consumed maintaining what exists in our own congregations. Too often there are too many internal issues to deal with to even consider an intentional focus on external connections.
The first shift could be considered a leadership issue, but another shift affects everyone in the congregation. In the U.S., our surrounding culture celebrates the individual and this emphasis on individualism has crept into the church. We talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus as being the most important thing for a follower of Jesus. Jesus talks about abiding in Him which certainly involves a relationship with Him, but it also assumes that as individuals we are small parts of the vine. Paul uses several analogies when describing the church. The most familiar are the body and a building. In both cases the individual member matters, but only as a functioning part of the whole. Both Jesus and Paul assume a connectedness that we rarely experience.
When the Macedonian believers gave themselves to God, they decided to give themselves to whatever need God identified for them through Paul. They did not hold back because they assumed that God would provide for them in the same way that God was providing for their starving brothers and sisters in Judaea. When Paul communicated the need to them their response was not, “Oh no, one more thing to deal with.” Instead, it was, “Thank you God for the opportunity to be used by you to help.” As I am writing this, I am also recognizing that I need to be much more intentional about staying connected to the broader Christian community without losing touch with those who are close by.