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.
Note also Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (circa A.D. 250), and his commentary on the prayer Jesus taught his disciples:
Before all things, the Teacher of peace and Master of unity did not wish prayer to be offered individually and privately as one would pray only for himself when he prays. We do not say: "My Father, who art in heaven," nor "Give me this day my bread," nor does each one ask that only his debt be forgiven him and that he be led not into temptation and that he be delivered from evil for himself alone. Our prayer is public and common, and when we pray, we pray not for one but for the whole people, because we, the whole people, are one.
"We, the whole people, are one"—Cyprian's strong-group sensibilities could hardly be more pronounced.
Early Christian communities, moreover, represented a specific kind of strong-group entity. Historians have struggled for generations to situate early Christianity in its social world. Were churches like Jewish synagogues or Greco-Roman voluntary associations or what? As it turns out, the social model that best accounts for the relational expectations reflected in our New Testament epistles is the Mediterranean family. Most of us are familiar with the surrogate kinship language (brother, sister, Father, child, inheritance) that permeates the New Testament. Family remained the dominant metaphor for Christian social organization in the writings of the church fathers, as well.
To illustrate a key difference between ancient and modern family systems, let us think about a popular film from a decade or so ago, the blockbuster Titanic.
Rose is a high-society girl engaged to be married to an arrogant, distasteful fellow for whom she feels no affection. In a memorable scene, Rose's mother reminds her that the arranged marriage is in the best interest of her family. It seems that Rose's father died after squandering his fortune, so for Rose's mother and her family, the impending marriage represents the only hope of maintaining their wealth and preserving their social status. Rose has been set up with a man she detests in order to guarantee an honorable future for the group, her extended family.
But then one evening Rose meets a street kid named Jack on the deck of the ship, and the encounter ignites a romantic fling that serves as the film's main storyline. Rose loves Jack. But she is engaged to a highly unappealing man whom she is obligated to marry for the sake of her family. Whom will Rose choose?
Jack, of course. If Rose had chosen otherwise, the film simply would not have worked for the tens of millions of North American viewers who followed the tragic tale. We are quite unmoved by the potential social dilemma confronting Rose's extended family. Our sympathies lie, rather, with the heroine's personal satisfaction. As I watched Titanic, I could almost hear the thoughts of the audience: Forget your family's fortune, Rose! Ignore your mother's wishes! Dump the rich jerk! Follow your heart! Go after Jack!
If Titanic were shown in first-century Israel, the audience would be utterly appalled that Rose would even consider sacrificing the good of her extended family for her relational satisfaction. They would find Rose's fling with Jack risky and foolish. First-century Jews and Christians alike would expect Rose to marry the rich fellow, if such an arrangement could somehow preserve the honor and social status of her extended family.
Taking Care of the Family
Stories of the ancient church living out its family values appear throughout early Christian literature. For example, sometime around A.D. 250, a marvelous thing happened in a small church in the rural town of Thena, just outside the Roman metropolis of Carthage in North Africa: An actor converted to Christ. We do not know his name, but let's refer to him as Marcus. Marcus's conversion created a stir in the church in Thena.
Theater performances in antiquity were typically dedicated to a pagan god or goddess, and the plays often ran as part of larger public religious festivals. Scenes portraying blatant immorality were commonplace. All this proved rather troubling to the early church. Christian leaders, such as Tertullian, spoke out in opposition to the idea of believers going to the theater:
Why is it right to look on what it is disgraceful to do? How is it that the things which defile a man in going out of his mouth, are not regarded as doing so when they go in at his eyes and ears—when eyes and ears are the immediate attendants of the spirit? You have the theater forbidden, then, in the forbidding of immodesty.
Thus, when an actor converted to Christ in third-century Carthage, the church demanded that he quit his profession.
Marcus did just that. Our new convert now faced an economic dilemma, however, since he was no longer gainfully employed. So, instead of acting, Marcus opened an acting school. This apparently created quite a stir among Marcus's fellow Christians, and the surviving letters exchanged by his pastor and the church's bishop paint a portrait of the church truly living out its strong-group family values.
Marcus's pastor, Eucratius, naturally wondered how it could be acceptable for Marcus to teach others what he himself was forbidden to do. Yet Marcus had already made a tremendous sacrifice to follow Jesus. So Eucratius wrote to his spiritual mentor, Cyprian of Carthage, to ask "whether such a man ought to remain in communion with us."
Cyprian's reaction to Marcus was unequivocal:
It is not in keeping with the reverence due to the majesty of God and with the observance of the gospel teachings for the honor and respect of the church to be polluted by contamination at once so degraded and so scan-dalous.
No compromise. No drama teaching. Marcus must either leave the church or quit his job—again.
Marcus's story has the "strong-group" aspect of the strong-group, surrogate family written all over it. It is Cyprian's conviction that "the honor and respect of the church" must take priority over Marcus and his acting academy. Marcus, on his part, finds himself answering to the church for his whole vocational and financial future.
Cyprian's handling of Marcus's dilemma grates harshly against modern social sensibilities, since we tend to prioritize the needs and goals of the individual over the viability of any group to which he or she belongs. But for all of his hard-nosed strong-group convictions, Cyprian is not unaware of the suffering Marcus will face. As Cyprian's comments clearly demonstrate, the intense emphasis on personal holiness that characterized the North African church had a beautiful complement: a genuine concern for those whose livelihoods might be adversely affected by assenting to the church's demanding moral standards. In short, Cyprian tells Pastor Eucratius that the church should provide for Marcus's material needs:
His needs can be al-leviated along with those of others who are supported by the provisions of the church …. Accordingly, you should do your utmost to call him away from this depraved and shameful profession to the way of innocence and to the hope of his true life; let him be satisfied with the nourishment provided by the church, more sparing to be sure but salutary.
And if this is not enough, Cyprian concludes by telling Eucratius that Cyprian's church will foot the bill if the rural church in Thena lacks the resources to meet Marcus's basic needs:
But if your church is unable to meet the cost of maintaining those in need, he can trans-fer himself to us and receive here what is necessary for him in the way of food and clothing.
Cyprian made sure that the church would serve as the economic safety net for any brother or sister whose finances were adversely affected by their willingness to follow Jesus. Why? Because the church was a family, and this is what families in the ancient world did.
The conviction that church members should meet one another's material needs is, of course, central to the New Testament understanding of church family life: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" (1 John 3:17, NRSV).
Can we recapture in our churches the biblical vision for authentic Christian community as reflected in the strong-group, surrogate family model that characterized the early church? I believe we can, with careful reflection and culturally sensitive contextualization.
First, I am advocating a markedly relational approach to Christian community, not the institutional model that most associate with the word church. I suspect, in fact, that our aversion as Westerners to the idea of a strong-group church finds its origins in the institutional nature of our own church experiences. For the early Christians, belonging to a local church was a commitment to a group of people, not to a highly programmed institution driven by corporate management and numerical growth. First and foremost, then, we must return to the concept and practice of church as a relational entity.
As inspiring as it is, moreover, the North African scenario above will likely prove exceptional in one important sense. Most of us do not belong to church communities where decisions are handed down through the channels of formal church leadership. Rather, the benefits of a strong-group, familial church will accrue informally, in the course of daily life, as we work through conflict, share victories, and endure heartaches together in those relationships that inevitably develop and bear fruit among Christians who determine to stick it out together.
Second, then, commitment to such a group must remain a decision belonging to each member, not one imposed from above. And it will be a decision that will need to be renewed on an almost daily basis. Our friend Marcus had little choice in the matter. He could either assent to the church's demands or lose his place in the community. We have other options. We can simply leave one church to attend another across town. We must choose, instead, to stay. For people who stay grow. And people who stay help others to grow as well. But we had better prepare ourselves at the outset to make the choice to stay, again and again, in the face of cultural pressures—pressures often reinforced by the raging whirlpool of our own emotions that are screaming for us to do otherwise.
There are many other cultural specifics to consider—for example, how to create a strong-group church without turning into a cult, and how to convince strongly individualistic North Americans to make the group a priority. To be sure, the cultural challenges are great. But if we are really serious about spiritual formation, we must become really serious about creating churches that act like real families.
Joseph H. Hellerman is professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He is the author of When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community (B&H Academic).
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Previous Christianity Today articles related to spiritual formation and theology include:
In the Beginning, Grace | Evangelicals desperately need spiritual and moral renewal—on that everyone agrees. But what do we do about it? (October 2, 2009)
Spiritual Formation Agenda | Three priorities for the next 30 years. (February 4, 2009)
The Blind Spot of the Spiritual Formation Movement | Let's not forget the spiritual discipline of choice for the masses. (September 24, 2008)
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