Church is exactly the kind of apprenticeship we need for our spiritual transformation. We can't practice self-sacrifice in the solitary comfort of our bedrooms. In fact, we can only place ourselves under the rigorous demands of the gospel in relationship. Even Jesus himself affirmed this when, identifying the two greatest commands, he made sure we understood that love for God would necessitate love for neighbor. The two are inextricably linked, and in stories like the Good Samaritan, Jesus preached the gospel, not simply as a truth to contemplate, but as an ethic to live–in community.
To be formed in both the truth and ethic of the gospel, spiritual disciplines are necessary. Here, too, church is needed. Though we may be tempted to view our spiritual disciplines like the training exercises of the lonely marathon runner, prayer and study like hills we climb alone, this is a more modern understanding of the means of grace. We haven't always been so individualistic in our assumptions.
As James K. A. Smith points out in Desiring the Kingdom, there are no private practices, no practices without institutions.
"The letters and documents that came to be the New Testament (in addition to the psalms prayed and sung by the early church) functioned primarily in a liturgical context of worship, not the private context of individual study," Smith writes. "And when the Scriptures are heard and read in the context of worship, they function differently. Rather than being approached as a "storehouse of facts" (Charles Hodge), the Scriptures are read and encountered as a site of divine action, as a means of grace, as a conduit of the Spirit's transformative power, as part of a pedagogy of desire." The church, as the site of corporate worship, mediates our spiritual practices of prayer and Bible reading–and those practices form our most holy desires.
We may think we want keenly to be like Christ. But this desire is tested and proved in our participation in a local church. Do we want the glory of Christ–without the humiliation of washing dirty feet (John 13)? Do we want the honor of Christ–without the pain of human betrayals (Matthew 26)? Are we longing for a heavenly kingdom–without the muddle of humanity? I hardly think that biblical evidence proves we can have Christ without his church. There can be no avoiding that God humbled himself to become a man and rescue for himself a people; that central to our story of salvation is the church, the bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2).