Most of the resources I come across that emphasize “spiritual formation” or “spiritual disciplines” focus on how I can grow my personal relationship with God. Things like reading the Bible, going to church, journaling, prayer, fasting, giving, and solitude make the list. These are good things. These things simply serve as instruments, or means, of God’s grace in my life. They are essential to my progress in the faith.
Very rarely, however, do I see “community” emphasized in these spiritual formation discussions. On a few occasions, I actually see community or fellowship listed as a “spiritual discipline.” I ran across something like the latter today and it got me thinking: is community a spiritual discipline?
My answer is that community (or fellowship or whatever you want to call it) is not a spiritual discipline. It is not merely one of the things that Christians do in order to become more like Jesus. Why do I say that? We get zero indication from the New Testament writers that community is an item on a checklist. We get very little indication that Christianity is overtly individual and so “community” must be considered an important aspect of my faith. Rather, the picture we get is that community permeates and transcends all the spiritual disciplines. Community is what Christianity, by its very nature, is at its core. Christianity is, of course, personal and individual. Make no mistake. My dad, in another context, always told me, “We don’t go to heaven in pairs.” Yes, but at the same time, Christianity is so much more than personal and individual.
This is because God is, by his very nature, a community of persons, existing eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is not a loner, he is a tri-unity, a Trinity. It’s because God sent his Son to purchase a people for himself and bring them into the community of God through the gospel. Christians are called to image God individually and corporately. The only way an individual can image God, who exists in community, is to exist in community. Bible reading, prayer, worship, service, fasting, and a host of other traditional “spiritual disciplines” are all for naught if they are done in isolation. In fact, done that way, they can breed self-righteousness, legalism, elitism (i.e. varsity and junior varsity Christians). On the other hand, spiritual disciplines are all nurtured and empowered when done in Christian community.
Because I am an American, my environment cultivates individualism. America is home to John Wayne or Lone Ranger spirituality: “I am all I need and I can get the job done.” “Spiritual formation” resources about my relationship with God are therefore appealing, and, to be sure, ego-boosting. They feed the lie inside that says, “I can do this on my own!” Lately, I have been personally challenged and convicted by this. I am not a professional at corporate spirituality. I do not have biblical, gospel-centered community all figured out. But I desire it, I want to grow in it, and I need others to do it with me (I can’t do community alone!). The old cliché, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is true for Christianity, too. As someone has said before, the Christian life is a “community project.” That’s anti-American. But it’s not anti-God or anti-gospel.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:10).