Community is your only option if you want to grow significantly spiritually.
But if you live in a radically individualistic culture like I do (America), you have difficulty finding it. That’s because in my culture, we believe (by our actions) that individuals take precedence over groups. We believe a personal relationship with God is more important than a community relationship with His family. OK, we may not believe it in the literal sense of the word, but we behave like it. After all, doesn’t your behavior tell the story about what you believe?
We’ve been trained to think that focusing on bettering ourselves is what will make us healthy and cause us to grow. We’re taught that if we don’t get along with others, if we don’t agree with others or if we don’t like others, it’s best to stay away from them for the sake of our “happiness” (we can thank the self-help industry for that one). Ironically, you might feel happy in the short-term from avoiding the pain of dealing with others, but you don’t grow in the long-term. And this is what life is about in the end, growing into “little Christs.” (Colossians 1:28)
When it comes to making major decisions like marriage, vocation and place of residence; priority is given to personal fulfillment and happiness rather than the honor and health of the groups to which we belong. It’s no coincidence that we’re paying the price for it.
God designed humans to be collectivists, not individualists. He designed us to live in and for healthy groups whose well-being takes precedence over any one person’s individual pursuits. Another bit of irony – it’s also healthiest for the individuals involved. These types of cultures are the most well-known throughout history, and it’s the type of culture the Church was born into.
The strongest of these groups has always been the family, and this is the type of group the New Testament overwhelmingly teaches us the Church was created to be. But if the Church is ever going to get back to being one, it won’t come through changing church programs or models. It will require a systematic change.
The Group Comes First
This issue goes all the way down to the roots of where we find our identity, security and purpose; the foundation of our souls . If you’re an American, you tend to find them in what you do, who you do it with and where you do it. These are the things that determine how you think and feel on a daily basis. They are the measuring sticks for whether or not you’re “successful.”
When these decisions are made individually and in isolation from a community of people, they are overly burdensome for one human being to carry on their own. Individuals in isolation are continuously questioning and re-considering if they have made the right choices in the major areas of their life. It’s no wonder the average person in our culture changes jobs 7 times in their career, can’t stay planted in one place for very long and is more than likely to get a divorce. It’s also no wonder professional psychologists or clergymen have become the default support system for people.
Instead, the nature of humans is to find their identity, security and purpose in the context of the groups they’re a part of. Instead of prioritizing individual pursuits and then looking for groups that can serve their purpose, humans were built to find their pursuits within the context of serving a group. Unfortunately, many cultures reflect the former.
Take the Church for example. In my culture, the Church is a place we go to get our needs met. If you’re to ask the average American Christian why they attend the Church they do, you will hear answers that are individualistic in nature. You’ll hear things like “I like the preaching & music” or “they have a good youth group for my kids.” If we feel like the Church is no longer catering to our needs, we shop for a new one. Our relational priorities bow their knee to our personal satisfaction.
But as God intended it, the Church is a living organism made up of a family of people. And just like in a healthy family, an individual’s life is a community responsibility, not an individual one. The individual is responsible to the group, and the group is responsible to the individual. I love how the book When the Church Was a Family puts it…
In a strong-group society, the individual perceives himself or herself to be a member of a group and responsible to the group for his or her actions, destiny, career, development and life in general. The individual person is embedded in the group and is free to do what he or she feels right and necessary only if in accord with group norms and only if the action is in the group’s best interests.
Family in the New Testament World
Most (if not all) of us would agree to the concept that the Church is meant to function and behave like a family. But this meant something totally different to the culture of the New Testament where this concept was first put forth than it does to the culture I live in. In that culture, when someone was forced to choose between the good of their family and their own personal satisfaction, there was no debate. They knew what was right to do, even if it meant great personal pain.
Your primary allegiance was to those you shared blood with. Your closest relationships were to your brothers and sisters. No matter what, you stood by their side.
So when the Church was started and the concept was put forth that those who are in Christ are brothers and sisters of each other, the stakes were much higher than they are today. It meant that they received your undying loyalty. It meant that your identity, security and purpose was formed by how you belonged to them. It meant that your decisions were dependent primarily on how they would be affected. Yes, you would still consider your personal satisfaction, but it was secondary.
If you want to know why we have such a hard time experiencing true, meaningful, deep and healthy Christian community, look no further than the fact that these types of spiritual brother/sister relationships are essentially non-existent. They must be restored before we can experience the type of Christian community we need and hope for.
Jesus’ New Group
When Jesus came to earth, his mission went beyond dying on the cross for the sins of the world. He came to start a new spiritual family that required total priority and allegiance over all else in the world, even your physical family. This is why he said…
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matt 10:34-38)
When it came to being a disciple, there was no distinction between loyalty to God and to His family. A disciple’s priority list doesn’t have God at the top and the Church somewhere tucked under family and work. Jesus clearly modeled this when he said that his family was not who he shared blood with, but the family of God (Mark 3:31-35).
When a person becomes a Christian, they are supposed to exchange one family for another. Ideally, the person’s blood family would be or become Christians as well. In this case, you would now look at your blood family members from a spiritual perspective first. But if they weren’t Christians, your loyalty would be with the family of God. This was not an easy decision to make and carry out. This is why Jesus gave Peter the assurance he did in Mark 10:28-30…
Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.
Jesus was telling Peter that he would be taken care of by his new family. That’s what family does.
The Churches of Paul
One’s spiritual family is the training ground where discipleship is supposed to take place at the individual level. It works so well because when you throw a bunch of people together in a family-like context, opportunities naturally present themselves for testing and training. Just think about your New Testament. Jew and Gentile Christians were racist against each other, rich and poor Christians separated from one another, males and females had conflict about their roles, and church members who thought they had been wronged were taking others to court (I Cor. 6).
This is why we’re able to read most of the New Testament today. Leaders in the faith were made aware of circumstances where church family members were being extremely immature and un-Christlike, and they needed to take these opportunities to train them in how to be God’s family.
As you read Paul’s letters, you’re constantly reminded of how we’re first and foremost “brothers” and “sisters” as he deals with all the issues going on in the churches he worked with. But more importantly, he reminds them of the behaviors that should result from this truth. They should sacrifice and suffer for one another. They should cease quarreling and let themselves be wronged. They should share material resources. They should not divide over earthly things. His whole ministry was to bring people into the family of God first, and then get them to act like the family of God.