Sometimes in our efforts to express the importance of conversion, or “being saved” we underestimate the role of the church. While we all understand that being joined to the church does not save us, it is or should be instrumental in us maintaining the saving relationship with Jesus. We are social creatures and we need the interaction with our community of believers as part of the “maintenance program” of salvation.
To give an example: I studied for a PhD, a degree that is supposed to demonstrate that I am capable of thinking through original ideas and doing individual research. Much of my study was based on research done quietly, often in the middle of the night. But an important part of my research program was to meet with the team and to interact with them in workshops, and seminars, sharing my ideas and in turn absorbing and understanding their ideas. While individual work was important, the shared experiences served as an opportunity to test and grow our experiences together. I owe a lot to the team.
Likewise, a church does much to aid the “salvation process”. When we associate together we contribute to one another’s salvation. Yes I know we are saved by grace, but grace and the community of believers together make for a winning combination.
I have had occasion recently to study some of the early church work in the Pacific Islands. The stories of the struggling church in these remote areas gives a picture of the difficulty of maintaining one’s faith when fellow believers are few. The missionaries would stay for a short while, open a little school and do some missionary work, converting one or two, then move on. Sometimes years would pass before another missionary would come into the area, only to find that the one or two who were converted had lost their faith. It took many years before there were sufficient members to support one another in their faith, and to become an effective witness in their area.
Churches in themselves are not perfect – how can they be when they are made up of people like me. But they are God’s instrument for maintaining our faith and we need to ensure that we value the church experience, and more importantly, contribute to it. The book of Acts provides ample evidence of the important role that the community of believers plays in the lives of individual members in a growing church.