When the Church Was a Family: PART ONE
I was recently invited by Christianity Today to submit an article-length synopsis of my book, When the Church Was a Family. The piece is scheduled to appear sometime late this Spring. Over the next several days I will post the article—in four parts (it’s rather lengthy)—on the blog. It consists of excerpts from the book pieced together with a bit of new material. Those of you who have read the book will find better things to do. 🙂 Those who have not might find the following highlights thought-provoking. Part One:
Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. Persons who remain connected with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding. And they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially the case for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay grow.
People who leave do not grow. We all know persons who are consumed with spiritual wanderlust. But we never get to know them very well because they cannot seem to stay put. They move along from church to church, ever searching for a congregation that will better satisfy their felt needs. Like trees repeatedly transplanted from soil to soil, these spiritual nomads fail to put down roots, and they seldom experience lasting, fruitful growth in their Christian lives.
Then there are those who leave to avoid working through uncomfortable or painful relations with others in the church family. Running away does provide immediate relief from the awkwardness of a hurtful relationship. It is the easy way out in the short term. And there are legitimate reasons to leave a local church. But persons who leave to escape the hard work of conflict resolution are often destined to repeat the cycle of relational dysfunction with another person in another church somewhere else in town.
It is a simple but profound biblical reality. We grow and thrive together. Or we do not grow much at all. None of this is terribly novel. We all know it to be the case. Why, then, do we so often sabotage our most intimate relationships, seek help from others only after the damage is irreversible, and continue to try to find our way through life as isolated individuals, convinced somehow that God will remain with us to lead us and bless us wherever we go? Why do we continue foolishly to operate as if our own immediate happiness is of greater value than the redemptive relationships God has placed us in? Why are we seemingly unable to stay in relationship, stay in community, and grow in the interpersonal contexts that God has provided for our temporal and eternal well-being?
Some would attribute our inability to remain in long-term relationships solely to the sin and selfishness that have been around since Adam. Social scientists offer a more culturally nuanced explanation for the particularly pervasive loss of social capital and lack of genuine community that characterize life in America—and in our churches—today. We are a radically individualistic society, oriented toward personal fulfillment in ways profoundly more ‘me-centered’ than any other culture or people-group in world history. And it is our individualism—our insistence that the personal rights and satisfaction of the individual must take priority over any group to which one belongs—that has seriously compromised our ability to stay in relationship and grow in community with one another as God intends.
The church in the West has become utterly intoxicated by the elixir of radical individualism. Consider the messages that have dominated my own church experience over the years. Back in the 1970s, when I became a Christian, I was informed, through a popular Gospel tract, that God had a wonderful plan for my life. Sometime later, during the “rediscovery” of spiritual gifts in the church in the 1980’s, I was assured that I would experience great personal fulfillment, if I could discover my spiritual gift(s) and find my unique place in the body of Christ. And then along came the seeker-sensitive 1990s, when this baby boomer was delighted to be told, in no uncertain terms, that God longed to meet my needs, to help me improve my marriage, to make me successful in my career. The proliferation during this same period of worship songs extolling subjective religious experience only served further to commend an increasingly individualistic approach to the Christian faith.
Messages like these inevitably take their toll and, as George Barna noted over a decade ago, American Christians are now quite convinced that “spiritual enlightenment comes from diligence in a discovery process, rather than commitment to a faith group and perspective.” The Christian faith is all about me. It is not about us. Culture has hijacked Christ. We have recast the wondrous God of salvation history in the role of a divine therapist who aids the individual Christian in his or her personal quest for spiritual fulfillment and self-discovery. And we have reduced the sweeping biblical narrative of Yahweh redeeming for himself a community of people who will glorify him for all eternity to little more than “receiving Jesus into my heart as a personal savior.” Little wonder that we so casually take our personal savior from church to church, and from marriage to marriage, desperately hoping that we can somehow improve our quality of life by escaping the immediate pain which often clouds the very redemptive relationships that God has placed us in.
The Group Comes First
The early Christians had a markedly different perspective on personal fulfillment and spiritual formation. And it is a perspective that has great promise for renewal in the church today. Jesus’ early followers were convinced that the group comes first—that I as an individual will only become all God wants me to be when I begin to view my personal goals, desires, and relational needs as secondary to what God is doing through his people, the local church. The group, not the individual, took priority in a believer’s life in the early Christian church. And this perspective (social scientists refer to it as “strong-group”) was hardly unique to Christianity. Strong-group values defined the broader social landscape of the ancient world and characterized the lives of Jews, Christians, and pagans alike. Note Josephus’s perspective on activities at the Jerusalem temple:
At these sacrifices prayers for the welfare of the community must take precedence over those for ourselves; for we are born for fellowship, and he who sets its claims above his private interests is specially acceptable to God (Josephus, Contra Apion 2.197).
Strong-group thinking is so counterintuitive to us that we tend to miss it when it is right before our eyes—even in the pages of Scripture. In Paul’s letters, for example, the apostle refers to Jesus as “my Lord” only once (Phil 3:8). He writes “our Lord” fifty-three times. If Paul were here today, I suspect he would be much more concerned about what God is doing among us, than about what God is doing in me. So would Cyprian of Carthage (c. 250 AD). Consider Cyprian’s commentary on the prayer Jesus taught his disciples:
Before all things, the Teacher of peace and Master of unity did not wish prayer to be offered individually and privately as one would pray only for himself when he prays. We do not say: “My Father, who art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my bread,” nor does each one ask that only his debt be forgiven him and that he be led not into temptation and that he be delivered from evil for himself alone. Our prayer is public and common, and when we pray we pray not for one but for the whole people, because we, the whole people, are one.
“We, the whole people are one.” Cyprian’s strong-group sensibilities could hardly be more pronounced. [To be continued]