I am by nature a very independent person. When that is coupled with my relatively strong introversion, you get a person like me, who doesn’t have a huge need for connecting with other people a whole lot. Give me a book, my computer and the occasional piece of wood to turn into sawdust and I am generally content. Now, I am not a complete social isolationist–I do interact with a lot of people on a regular basis. I see lots of people in the course of my ministry, I have some friends with whom I meet for coffee on an irregular basis and even taking a walk in our small town often results in extended conversations with people I know.
But I am an independent and introverted individual. And this means that I am somewhat reluctant to become part of a group of any kind. I don’t join clubs; I don’t seek out social activities; I think hard before committing to parties and so on. But there is one group that I have been part of for most of my life and have spend some serious time in the last few years thinking about. I have been a member of the church since I became a believer in my early teens–and before that, I was a part of the church through Sunday School and other groups.
And one of the things I have been coming to see in the past few years is that God’s plan and vision for the church is much more significant and important than many independent, introverted people like me realize. It seems to me that at least in the Western church, we have lost sight of the community nature of our faith that makes the church a vital part of God’s plan for believers and their spiritual development. Our Western expressions of the Christian faith tend to focus on the relationship between the individual and God, leaving the church as a convenient organization to store hymnbooks or listen to sermons or something like that.
But the church is meant to be much more than a place for individuals to get input for their individual spiritual journey. While I have known and taught this for years, I had a new view of is recently as I was reading something that took me to John 17, Jesus’ prayer after the Last Supper. In the course of the prayer, we find Jesus praying these words in John 17.20-21a, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (NIV).
This is a prayer for those of us who are believers in Christ. It is a prayer that we will be in relationship with each other–but it is a prayer for a very powerful and deep and special relationship, a relationship that is in its essence the same as the relationship between the Father and the Son. Whatever we say and think about this, we have to deal with the fact that the nature of our relationship with other believers is meant to be much different than what we often have.
Now, although it isn’t directly referred to in this passage, the place where those relationships are developed and fostered must be the church–that is where we are placed in closest proximity with other believers. It is where we will be with other believers the most.
When I say church, I am not thinking some building somewhere where we gather to listen to a sermon and sing some hymns. The church is a gathering of people and exists when we come together conscious of our relationship with God and each other through Jesus. We could be together in a traditional building using a traditional liturgy to guide our worship or we could be two or three friends sitting in a coffee shop somewhere–what makes us the church is our shared commitment to God through Jesus Christ.
And as the church, we have mutual responsibilities and privileges that are meant to help us grow together in the faith that we claim. Our unity in Christ is meant to involve us with other believers in ways and in depths that most of us never anticipated, which means that for many believers, the church is probably the most underutilized and under-appreciated blessing that God has given to his people.
In the next few posts, I plan on exploring the role of the church in our individualistic culture.
May the peace of God be with you.