For many Western Christians, the process of growing in faith is much more difficult that it needs to be because of a glaring error in the way we look at our faith. For a variety of reasons, we in the West have come to see faith–any faith–as a private and personal matter. Spiritual growth is the task and responsibility of the individual, who needs to personally discover God and personally develop some kind of sustaining relationship. Other believers are locked into their own spiritual path and while they may occasionally be some help, on the whole, western believers are pretty much on their own.
Such thinking is at the root of much of our western approach to faith and spiritual development–but it is not at the root of the Biblical understanding of faith. In both the Old and New Testaments, faith is a community experience in which the fullness of the faith is only discovered as individuals come together and share their common faith, learning from each other and teaching each other. A good spiritual growth process needs to have a strong community orientation.
That doesn’t mean that we can do nothing on our own spiritually. It does mean that everything we do is strengthened by the involvement of others. Take prayer, for example. We know that as believers, we have the right and ability to approach God at anytime about anything. We know that the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives means that no matter what we feel, God hears our prayers. We know from the Scriptures that God will answer our prayers–maybe not as we would like them to be answered but he will answer them.
So we can all do our own prayers–there is no need to ask anyone else to pray for us or with us. Except that the real truth is that even though I am a professional prayer and have all kinds of people asking me for prayers, there are times when my personal prayers feel fruitless and pointless. I know that isn’t the reality but I feel it. Fortunately, I know people who will pray both for and with me at those times–and the fact that they will involve themselves in those prayers stabilizes my shaky faith.
As I have said many times to congregations, Bible study groups and students, the New Testament doesn’t deal with believers outside of a community of believers. It assumes that believers in Christ will join with other believers so that their shared strengths will overcome their shared weaknesses. Rather than worship being a convenient time for people to make their individual worship, it is the coming together of a community whose worship experience depends on the presence of others.
So, when it comes to spiritual growth, a necessary but often ignored element is the Christian community. We can experience the value of this community both directly and indirectly.
Indirectly, we benefit from the resources developed and preserved by the Christian community over the course of our 2000 years of history. The music, the writings, the worship styles, the understanding of theology, the ways we can practically express the faith–all these resources from the Christian community have great value for the believer. Without this vast store of spiritual wisdom and insight, every believer would have to start from scratch.
The community also benefits its members directly. The Christian community not only helps us understand the theory and theology of Christianity but also helps us understand the practical expression of faith. And that is important because the reality of Christianity is that the true measure of our faith is found in our relationships with others. As I John 4.20-21 reminds us, “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (NIV)
No program of spiritual development and growth can be really effective unless it involves the wider Christian community. From prayer partners to Bible Study groups to small groups to Sunday worship to coffee and conversation to potlucks, the wider Christian community needs to play a powerful part in our faith development.
May the peace of Christ be with you.