We have all met them. Perhaps there is one in your family or circle of friends. Those people who say they can be a good Christian without attending church. “After all,” they claim boldly, “the apostles did not attend church.” Is community really optional for Christians?
What Is the Importance of a Spiritual Community?
Americans, perhaps more than any other people group, are well known for their rugged individualism. Many of us have grown up with the old saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” repeated to them throughout their formative years.
We are raised to be fiercely independent people, relying on our own ingenuity, effort, intelligence, skills, and strength to achieve whatever it is we hope to achieve. We do not usually think in terms of large group identity, unless it comes to attacks on the nation, such as what we saw on September 11, 2001.
Small group identities, for example, can include school spirit for their sports team. So, it is no surprise, having this sort of attitude about life, that our spiritual lives often reflect this hyper-individualism. We place far too much emphasis on our individual, personal relationship with God while viewing the corporate expression of our faith as just something we do to advance that personal experience.
And since it is not a necessary component of a personal, individual experience of the divine, we reason, corporate worship is just one option of many. The internet has taken this to another level, with many opting to “attend” virtual services from the comfort of their own homes, and even taking cyber-Communion, observing the Eucharist online even after it was a necessary precaution.
If this sounds odd or somehow not quite right, that is because it is. What we are seeing here is not a positive individualism that says, “I am responsible for the conduct of my life — my attitudes and actions,” but rather a negative individualism, which disregards any notion of corporate responsibility, accountability, or effort. It is an individualism that has become narcissistic, which, in turn, always corrodes the human spirit, becoming nihilism. As noted by writer Lewis Lapham:
“Except in a few well-publicized instances (enough to lend credence to the iconography painted on the walls of the media), the rigorous practice of rugged individualism usually leads to poverty, ostracism and disgrace.”
This is true of temporal matters as well as spiritual. Those who reject the need for corporate worship and fellowship often find themselves drifting away from the faith altogether, having no support structure with like-minded people.
Why Were We Were Created for Community?
God created us to be communal beings. From the moment humanity was created, God noted that it was not good for us to be alone.
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found (Genesis 2:18-20).
We do not thrive and grow alone, but rather experience an absence of both dynamic faith and growth. Scripture tells us that community is important for many reasons:
2. It provides us with prayer support for our healing, which is not found elsewhere (James 5:16). It is the place where we can challenge each other and help each other grow to maturity (Proverbs 27:17).
3. It is the place where Christ promised His presence would be (Matthew 18:20). It is the place where we can be encouraged by each other’s faith in times of abundance, as well as in times of difficulty (Romans 1:11-12).
4. We are not just individuals, but part of the Body of Christ, and part of our calling is to show concern for the other members of that Body (1 Corinthians 12:25-27).
5. We are called by Christ to this one Body, and He expects us to be in unity with that Body (Ephesians 4:2-6). It is the place where we can use the gifts God has given us, loving and serving others without complaining or resentment (1 Peter 4:8-11).
Our journey of faith, indeed our entire experience of salvation, is intimately connected to the faith journey of all those other Christians around us. There is no such thing as being “called out of the church.” That is an impossibility.
The very idea is foreign to Scripture, violates the commands of Christ, and is even a marked violation of our created nature, which again is to be communal beings. The earliest Christians did not have such an individualistic notion of their spiritual life.
In fact, they viewed salvation as a corporate experience, and those who refused to take part in that corporate experience, meeting with other Christians, worshiping with them, bearing their burdens, challenging each other to higher standards, rejoicing with each other in times of good, and consoling and praying for each other in times of darkness, were considered arrogant, proud, and sinful.
The Apostolic Father Ignatius, a personal disciple of the Apostle John, and a bishop and martyr for his witness of Christ wrote: “He, therefore, that does not assemble with the church, has even by this displayed his pride, and he has condemned himself.”
Community is taken very seriously by Scripture and thus has been taken seriously by the church. Those who refuse, for whatever reasons, to be a part of an assembly should ask themselves some difficult questions.
Am I fulfilling the Lord’s commands by ignoring the community He established for my benefit? Is my choice not to attend a church based on solid scriptural principles, or is it really based on my own preferences, prejudices, or emotions?
Why Does it Matter if We Are in Community?
If you are serious about your personal relationship with Jesus Christ, then you should be serious about fulfilling all that He expects of you, and not just the parts that you agree with, that make you comfortable and that do not challenge you to be more like Him.
If you had a bad experience at one church, you should seek to forgive and reconcile with the offending person, not forsake the Body of Christ. Or if it is just personal preference, you must understand that you and I do not make the rules of discipleship, but Christ alone does.
He has clearly established a community, which you and I are expected to be a part of in good times and bad, regardless of your preferences. The choice is clear: discipleship or pride.
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Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Brooke Cagle
J. Davila-Ashcraft is an Anglican priest, Theologian, and Apologist, and holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from God’s Bible College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a recognized authority on the topic of exorcism, and in that capacity has contributed to and/or appeared on programming for The National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, and CNN. He is the host of Expedition Truth, a one-hour apologetics radio talk show.