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]

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7 Comments on “When the Church Was a Family: PART ONE”

  1. Patsy Momary Says:

    Joe have you been talking to some of my friends? This so succinctly addresses one of the complaints they hold against the Western Church…that lack of community. I hope the succeeding installments are not too long in being available. Blessings, Pat M.

  2. Pat Says:

    We definitely are part of an individualistic culture and it has taken its toll on the Church. I would ask, how do we work within this individualistic culture to create community? Some would like to just go back to what they did 30 years ago, but that doesn’t always work. How about finding new and creative ways to minister to people and create community in the midst of the current cultural setting? A lot of people don’t necessarily come to church for anything other than Sunday service. Would home groups be an answer in which people can have that community right in their homes and neighborhoods? There are other things that can be done as well, but the key is finding what works and employing it.

    As for group values, the one thing I find challenging in church is that often “group think” takes over and other or new ideas that stray from the group think are often not accepted. Group think is often challenging to seeking new ways and strong individualists may find it hard being in groups that are not open to new ways of thinking and looking at issues. I think you can not buy into the “all about me” culture without losing your sense of individuality. After all, we’re all uniquely created beings. Why do we insist on forcing everyone into a mold?

    • hellerman Says:

      Hi, Pat,

      Welcome! So glad you commented. I think we are kindred spirits. Yes, there is a profoundly individual aspect to our faith walk, which must inform the way we conceive of a group-oriented approach to the church. And, as you rightly note, there is an ever-present danger of ‘group think,’ and the silencing of creative individuals. So, I agree. It’s a ‘both-and,’ and we need a balance. As you can gather, however, Pat, my burden is on the other side of the equation. I think we’ve had way to much emphasis on our uniqueness and not enough emphasis upon what God is doing with us as a group

      Indeed, apart from the teaching about diverse gifts/ministries of the Spirit in the body metaphor (which is not, in the final analysis, about our ‘uniqueness’ but, rather, about the edification of the group), I see surprisingly little in the New Testament about us being ‘uniquely created beings,’ in the sense of me being different from you, and so forth. In view of the fact that it is totally obvious that people ARE so uniquely different from one another, the Bible’s lack of focus on this theme is rather curious, to say the least. In Scripture, our ‘uniqueness’ instead seems to be positioned over against the rest of creation: only humans are created in the image of God.

      Now it is certainly the case that God loves each of us individually (“there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” — Luke 15:10). But this is quite different that the concept of individual uniqueness that is so important to the ‘find yourself’ mentality of contemporary Western culture, a focus that is rather foreign to the biblical mindset.

      In Part Three of the article (to be posted in a week or so) I will consider (very briefly) the relationship of the individual to the group. But I, like you, have not full resolved this to my satisfaction, so I much appreciate comments like yours, Pat, that stimulate all the readers of this blog to think a bit harder about what Jesus’ church ought to be like.

      God bless you in your life and ministry,


  3. Joe and Pat: One of the most helpful approaches I have found to the issue of balancing the concept of the relationship of the individual and the group is found in Stan Grenz and John Franke’s book, Beyond Foundationalism. They view the community as the most important aspect of identity formation for the individual. They cite George Stroup’s narrative theory of identity formation, in which “identity emerges as individuals, through the exercise of memory, select certain events from the past and use them as a basis for interpreting the significance of the whole of their lives” (p. 219). This suggests to me that we learn (become?) who we are in the context of our “strong groups,” to use your term, Joe. My own tradition has a statement in its Constitution that reads, “A Christian’s personal response to God is in community” (Book of Order, PCUSA, W-1.1005).

    I am enjoying the summary of your soon-to-be-released book, which I look forward to reading. Thank you for your enlightening posts.

    • hellerman Says:

      Great input, Isaac. Thanks for reading and thanks, especially, for posting. I’ll have to pick up the Grenz/Franke book. I suspect that to a great degree our identity is, indeed, socially constructed, though I think that the ‘nature’ side of the nature/nurture dichotomy probably plays a greater role in identity formation than some of our postmodern thinkers assume. And even on the nurture side, much of the formative work is done by the time we reach adolescence. That is why I feel it is so important for families—especially young families—to be deeply embedded relationally in the Christian community, so that the church can play a much greater role in identity formation than would otherwise be the case. A lot to reflect on here—you’ve obviously got me thinking!
      By the way, my book was released last Summer. See the ‘About’ page on my blog.

      • Joe: Thank you for advising me that your book is already in print. I’m not sure what made me think it was yet to be released. I am glad that it is available; in fact, I just now placed my order for a copy (although it is temporarily out of stock). I look forward to reading it when it arrives. My best to you.

  4. […] Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 […]

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