Speaking of which, where are you at with that?
As I've recently shared, I'll be soon heading into a new opportunity to be a lead pastor of a church in Ohio... so naturally you might expect me to be all about promoting my little organizational bias. To the contrary, I am no longer a self-preservationist when it comes to what I do professionally and so this is by no means a sales pitch to keep me or my buddies "in business."
Rather, I want to talk with you about something I am head over heels in love with... the Church.
We've all probably heard or uttered the phrase, "You don't need to belong to a church to be a Christian... faith is a personal thing with God." I used to feel that way, too, even as a pastor. It felt good to say something rebellious against the institution of the local church that in many ways can be more hurtful than it realizes. In fact, I believe that many people who say that may very well have had a bad experience with Christians and chosen to boycott the church. Such people (including myself) feel as though the "personal relationship with Jesus" thing is a Bible "loophole," when in reality having a "personal relationship with Jesus" isn't an overt phrase in the Bible and not necessarily the complete biblical concept we assume it to be.
For starters, yes - faith is an individual decision. However, we are also created for community... something that Genesis 2 showed us before the fall not to mention the fact that there are the "tribes of Israel," the "12 disciples," and so on. As I read it, both personal faith and communal living are needed for spiritual growth the way we are best designed.
For several centuries, there has been an institutional church that has at times resembled a family, a kingdom, a corporation, and a rock show. On many occasions we (the church, which is people and God) have gotten it wrong, erring on the "people" side a bit too much and not enough on the God side. On other occasions, though, we've done well honoring God and brought about things like the invention of hospitals, social freedom, care for the poor and sick, and so on.
I heard this interesting story that may shed some light on it:
A fourth-century Egyptian soldier named Pachomius was determined to grow in his faith and did what many serious believers did in those days. He became a hermit: living by himself in the desert, fasting, praying and having visions. But after a while, Pachomius began to question this approach: How can you learn to love if no one else is around? Can you learn humility living alone? Is it possible to learn patience, kindness or gentleness in isolation? He realized that developing spiritual fruit requires being around people. Pachomius quit the hermit life and formed one of the first monasteries. "To save souls," he said, "you must bring them together."This story sheds some great light on these biblical concepts of how spiritual strength buidling requires other people, especially those who spur us on in positive and negative ways. For example, in my life I have had some amazing mentors who have made positive investments into my life in all the right ways. On the other hand, I have been ripped to shreds by others who have caused me to grow through pain... much like physical muscles grow under stress.
So it would seem the best way to grow with God means being around those in community that we enjoy and don't enjoy. In a MySpace world where you get to allow friends and block spammers, is it possible that we're missing out on some people who will hurt us in all the best ways possible? Are those people in our lives for us to fix.. or are they in our lives to fix something in us?
I'm not trying to be insensitive... I know many of you may have wounds that are just to hard to speak of. On the other hand, it's possible this isn't even a blip on your radar screen because you love your church and it loves you. In either case, I get the sense we all need each other more than we realize to stay engaged in the daily process of redemptively reclaiming our personal identity and innocence.
"Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." (1 Corinthians 12:27)