On the five Sundays since Christmas, our congregation has been gathering for one worship service each Sunday. This is different from our usual practice of having two weekly services: an earlier service with more traditional liturgies and an organ, and a later service with less formal orders and a band.
One of the reasons for having one service on the Sundays after Christmas was the desire some people in our congregation express to have one common service more often. Some have told me that they are concerned that having two services divides the congregation and it would be good for us to worship together at one time and in one place to make us more united.
I understand their point of view and see some merit in it. Over the last month people have told me how much they have enjoyed the services and appreciated the chance to worship with people from our other service. However, if our goal is a deep sense of unity in the congregation, maybe there are other ways to achieve that. Worshiping together in one service can be a visible form of unity, but it needs to reflect a deeper unity we have as the people of God.
The Apostle Paul addresses this deeper unity in 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. He appeals to the Corinthian Christians in the name of and ‘by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other’ (v10a NLT). These words tell us that the unity of the church is not a trivial thing. Unity is something we need to take very seriously. Paul goes on to instruct his readers to ‘be of one mind, united in thought and purpose’ (v10b NLT).
The unity Paul is talking about runs much deeper that simply having a combined worship service. Looking at the Greek words he uses, Paul is talking about being in the same mind and in the same intention. He mentions this ‘mind’ a little later in his letter when he tells his readers that ‘we have the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16). When the Holy Spirit gifts us with the life of Christ we are also gifted with a new mind, the mind of Jesus.
This ‘mind’ gives us a whole new way to think about God, ourselves, our relationships with other people, the world around us, in fact our whole existence. Paul uses this same word for ‘mind’ in Romans 12:2 when he writes, ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think’ (NLT). A key element of the unity God is looking for in our congregation is that we are in the mind of Jesus and we are learning to think in the way of Jesus together.
Another aspect of this unity is that when we are in the mind of Christ together, we will also be in the same purpose or intention. This has to do with why we are here as a congregation, what our reason is for existing, what God is calling us to do and where he is leading us into the future. Paul is urging us to be united in our understanding of who we are, why we are here and where we are going as God’s people in this time and place. This is closely connected to and grows out of being in the mind of Christ and learning to think in the way of Jesus. When we are united in our purpose or intention, we will be looking at our circumstances from Christ’s perspective and not just thinking about what is good for ourselves as individuals, what we like or how we can get our way. Instead, being united in purpose is about finding our purpose in Jesus and then living together in his purpose as his people in the world.
It is vital to recognise that unity is not the same thing as conformity. Conformity happens when one person decides that everyone should be like they are and do the same things they do. The church in Corinth wasn’t like that. As we saw last week, for example, there were a wide variety of gifts among the Corinthian Christians. Living with this diversity caused tensions in their community of faith but it was necessary for them to function faithfully as the body of Christ. In the same way, when we look for our unity in our minds and purpose we will be able to embrace diversity in our congregation as we see people who are different from us as people who are also part of and who contribute to the body of Christ as a whole. To try to enforce an external form of unity only leads to conformity as we attempt to get everyone doing the same thing. We’re not the same. Part of the mind and purpose of Christ is accepting that and accepting the people around us with our differences (Romans 15:7). Our differences are vital for the church to be the body of Christ in the world.
With all of our differences, then, it is possible for us to aim for the harmony Paul points us to, being united in the mind of Christ and our purpose as his church. At this point I could go on to describe what I believe that looks like, but I’m not going to. Part of our growth to maturity as Jesus’ followers is to work that out together. As we get to know Jesus more, we learn more about his mind and the Holy Spirit transforms our minds to be like his. As we listen to God’s word in worship, in small groups, in our families and on our own, the Holy Spirit shows us more and more who Jesus is and how he thinks. The Bible is the way in which we meet God through Jesus. The Holy Spirit uses its words, stories, poems and letters to continue to share the mind of Christ with us, transforming our thinking to be like his. As we remain in God’s word together and as we pray together, the Holy Spirit will continue to gift us with the mind of Jesus so we can participate in Christ’s purpose and move closer to the harmony God wants for us.
This unity can be evident when we worship together in one service. It can also be evident if we have multiple services in a number of different places. Worshiping together needs to be the fruit of being united in thought and purpose because trying to achieve these by enforcing things like one worship will only result in external conformity and not the kind of deep unity God is looking for. The unity God wants, the unity Paul is pointing us to and the unity that is possible in our congregation is being united in the mind of Christ, when thinking the way that Jesus thinks is the most natural thing for us, and participating in Jesus’ purpose for his church.