The last few posts have focused on the church, looking at what it is and can be and perhaps should be. But as I was writing the posts, I was very aware of the fact that there are a great many believers for whom the church, any church, simply isn’t a part of their spiritual life. For a variety of reasons, many people prefer to make their spiritual journey alone.
Now, there are some who make say they are making the journey by themselves but the truth is that they do have a church in their lives–it just doesn’t look or sound like a church. They don’t have a building, they don’t have worship services, they don’t have a pastor and they don’t have a name. But when people who follow Jesus get together, they actually form the basis of a church–and if as a part of getting together, they influence each others’ spiritual development, they are a church. A group of people who meet for coffee on a semi-regular basis can be a church for someone who doesn’t actually realize they are part of a church. My guess is that a great many believers who have problems with church are still part of a church–they just don’t recognize it as a church.
I say that because our Christian faith is rooted in community. The New Testament, which provides us with our understanding of the faith we have accepted envisions believers as being in community. Becoming a follower of Jesus involves accepting God’s grace in Jesus Christ–and then becoming involved in a community of people who have made the same commitment. There isn’t any place in the NT I can think of that envisions a solitary Christian living their faith life alone and unattached from a community of some sort.
Rather, the New Testament sees the Christian faith as being lived in the messiness of community. Each part of the community affects and is affected by the community. Those effects can be and will be both positive and negative, which is what makes Christian community so messy and unpredictable. It is also why many people would prefer to live their faith outside of community.
And there is some validity to thinking that way. The initial commitment to faith is an individual act–we each need to make up our own mind of following Jesus. We are influenced by a variety of people put in place through the activity of the Holy Spirit but we do have to make our own personal decision.
And there will be times in our spiritual development when we need to take time to ourselves. These times can range from a few minutes for prayer to a few days of spiritual retreat to three years in Arabia (Galatians 1.17-18). But our faith is not meant to be lived totally apart from community. Trying to live our faith outside of community sets serious and significant limits on our spiritual growth.
Living outside Christian community might protect us from the pain and struggle that Christian community almost inevitably produces but it also keeps us from experiencing the fullness of what God offers to us through our faith.
Many of the blessings and benefits of faith can only be discovered in the context of a Christian community. Even the strength and validity of our faith can’t be discovered outside of the context of community. In I John 4.20-21, we read,:
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
Unless we are in a context where we have significant contact with fellow believers, we simply can’t know how serious we are about loving God. God exists on a different level of reality and we don’t bump into him at meetings and over coffee in the same way we meet fellow believers. And so while we can say how much we love God, it is only as we live in the reality of a Christian community that we can really know how much we love God.
“Me and God” sounds like a wonderful way to live our faith–but the God we follow wants us to live our relationship with him in the context of a community of other believers, all of whom are as imperfect as we are. Together, we help each other become what God is calling and helping us become.
May the peace of God be with you.