Two recent news stories would have disturbed most readers. Both involved elderly people dying, only to be left dead for years with no one even noticing. Although we had two of these stories within a week, one suspects it may happen much more often than that.
The first story involved an elderly woman in Sydney. This is how a news item covers the tragic tale: “It’s shameful that an elderly woman had been dead for eight years before anyone realised, Police Minister Mike Gallacher says. Police discovered Natalie Wood’s skeletal remains on the floor of an upstairs bedroom of a house in Surry Hills, in inner-Sydney, on Tuesday afternoon. She would have been 87 in August.
“At a press conference in Sydney today, Mr Gallacher called on Sydney to reinvigorate its neighbourhood watch programs. ‘The death eight years ago now of an elderly lady … really does highlight the need for this state and indeed our community to work closer at building relationships with our community,’ Mr Gallacher said. ‘To hear today that an elderly lady can pass away, be dead for eight years and for Centrelink to still be sending cheques to her bank account and for those cheques not to be cashed – surely that must set off the alarm bells within government’.”
The second story involves a man in Perth: “The skeletal remains of a 75-year-old man lay in a central Perth state housing unit for up to two years despite neighbours urging housing department officials next door to check on him. The man’s remains were found on Thursday slumped against the bed in his Wellington Street unit by a Department of Housing worker.
“The discovery has prompted state opposition housing spokesman Mark McGowan to demand the government conduct a full audit to ensure no other people are lying dead, dying or suffering in state-provided homes.”
In both cases plenty of obvious questions come to mind: Didn’t these people have any loved ones, friends, family members, neighbours or relatives who took the slightest interest in them? Did no one care about these two? How can people live such isolated and remote lives, that no one notices if they have been dead or missing for years?
It is not my intent to explore the various social and political issues involved here. Instead I wish to draw some spiritual parallels with these two sad stories. What lessons might the believer draw from these two incidents? How can we apply this to the Christian life?
The truth is, there are far too many Christians living a spiritual life not dissimilar to that of these two elderly folks. That is, they are going it alone, thinking they can somehow be a real follower of Christ without any Christian fellowship. They believe they can faithfully serve Christ while being lone wolf Christians.
But the entire biblical record makes it clear that we are created to live in fellowship and community. We were never meant to be solitary creatures. While a select few might feel called to remove themselves from all society to be alone with God, such as some of the Christian hermits of old, the normal Christian life is one of interaction with others.
We are designed to be a social people, in relationship with one another. The heart of this need for Christian community of course is the very nature of God. The triune God has always enjoyed fellowship amongst the three members of the Godhead.
Being created in God’s image means sharing in that relational aspect. We are to be in loving relationship with each other and with God. The New Testament everywhere presupposes this communal nature of the body of believers. Indeed, the imagery of the body of Christ is a good explanation of this.
In 1 Corinthians 12 for example Paul speaks about how we are all many members of one body. He writes about how the various parts of the body need each other and depend upon each other. That is how God designed the church to operate: a group of individual believers in close community and relationship with one another.
This is not the place to enter into a detailed discussion of the biblical understanding of the church, but it should be clear that the fellowship or communion of the saints is a vital part of the Christian life. This is made quite clear in passages such as Hebrews 10:24-35: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Unfortunately some believers think they can get all their needs met by listening to radio sermons or watching an Internet church service. Not only can they not get all they need in this way, but they are thinking selfishly. We go to church first of all to worship God collectively, but we also go to give. We have so much to offer one another.
We do not enjoy Christian fellowship just to get, but to give. That is what body life is all about. If we think we can just get by without our brothers and sisters we are simply kidding ourselves. Indeed, we will wither up and die spiritually just as these two elderly folks did physically.
Of course no church is perfect – how can it be? It is comprised of imperfect people. So we may need to look around a bit to find the fellowship which is right for us and allows us to exercise our gifts as well as receive from others. But our full potential can never be realised by living in isolation from other believers.
Indeed, the gifts of the Spirit are given to us for the good of others. Paul clearly teaches this, as in 1 Cor. 14:26: “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”
We desperately need Christian fellowship because we need each other. At the best of times we can slip and fall. We need the support of others, and we need to be accountable to others. Every believer should be in a small, preferably same-sex, accountability group.
Such a group, meeting perhaps bi-weekly, should be a place where we can be honest and open with each other, confessing our faults, praying for each other, and encouraging one another. This is vital if we are to grow in our Christian walk.
In fact, it is really impossible to grow without close fellowship with a committed body of believers. God made us this way. He designed us so that we would become more like Christ in the context of community and relationships. That is his will for us, so we had better agree with him, and soon.
If you are avoiding Christian fellowship or refusing to join a group of believers somewhere, you need to reconsider. Spiritual development comes in large measure through our relationships with other believers. If you have had a bad experience with a church or a home group, then deal with God about this.
Seek forgiveness and offer forgiveness and move on. Don’t use past bad experiences as an excuse to avoid doing what you know you should be doing. We have too many believers falling into serious sin, falling away, and/or going off on a dead-end, such as into the cults.
All this can greatly be avoided if we stay in close, regular committed fellowship with other believers. We need each other. We really do. And others need us. So lest you want to end up like one of these two poor souls, make sure you do not neglect the need for regular fellowship and consistent church attendance of some sort.