A Family Affair
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 fellow human beings. This is especially the case for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the messy process of interpersonal conflict. Long-term 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 consumed with spiritual wanderlust. We never get to know them well because they cannot seem to stay put. They move from church to church, avoiding conflict or 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.
Despite what we know about spiritual growth, nearly all churches in America are characterized by an unwillingness of members to commit themselves deeply to their respective church. For some, it means church hopping; for most, it means keeping the church at arm's length—that is, living as if the individual's life is primary and that of the church is secondary.
Social scientists have intensively studied the particularly pervasive loss of social capital and lack of genuine community that characterize life in America and its churches. They have concluded that 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. It is our individualism—our insistence that the 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 with one another as God intends.
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 faith is all about me—about God's wonderful plan for me, about my spiritual gifts, about how God can meet my needs and save my marriage. 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.
With such meager commitment to the church, it's little wonder that spiritual life in North America is so stunted.
Group Comes First
The early Christians had a markedly different perspective. Jesus' early followers were convinced that the group comes first—that I as an individual will become all God wants me to be only when I begin to view my 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 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 the second-century historian 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.