I have many friends who are ‘spiritual, but not religious.’ I have other friends who claim Christ, but are not part of a Christian fellowship. Many people love Jesus but have a problem with the church. Gandhi said: “I like your Christ, I don’t like your Christians. They are so unlike unlike your Christ.” Sadly, I have found much truth in his statement. For years I pursued a spiritual journey without being part of a community. Indeed, I could not see Christ for the Christians.
In Vernon Luckey, a Lutheran pastor, I found someone who knew the Christ I had heard of and read about in the Bible. He drew me to Christ, baptized me, and welcomed me into a local expression of the body of Christ. Apostles Lutheran, the church we joined, was far from perfect. I drew solace from a teaching I heard while driving around my sales territory. The pastor proclaimed, “If you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it, because you’ll ruin it.”
My life in Christian community began in 1980. The experience has been exhilarating and painful, with times of great stress and times of great joy. Our children gained a moral and spiritual framework through our involvement in the church. They and their families are both involved in a Christian community today.
I know many people who have turned away from the church after painful experiences. Many more never darken the door of church because of the hypocrisy and judgmental attitudes they see in Christians. Yet, despite it all, with all the brokenness and sin I’ve found in church, I still remain convinced that the local Christian church is the primary means of forming Christ-followers and setting them on a pathway to spiritual maturity.
The fundamental question is how can we love the God we cannot see, if we struggle to love the people around us we can see. We see it stated this way in Scripture: 1 John 4:20:
For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
I am reminded of how a sculptor chips away at a block of stone until the figure she envisions is released from the stone. The beauty emerges as the rough edges are chipped away. I look back at the person I was when I was baptized at age 28, and realize that I have been a work in progress ever since.
Think about the sharply angled boulders that are dislodged and fall into a river. Slowly, over a long period of time the current pushes the boulder downstream. As it encounters other rocks caught in the current, they rub up against each other and chip away the sharp edges. The picture above of Fall River shows huge boulders that were brought downstream by a flood in the 1980’s. You can already see the sharp corners are gone from the boulders.
By the time the rocks reach the mouth of the river, they have been smoothed into nearly round river rocks. You can see in the following picture rocks have been ground down to gravel beds in the Kulik River in Alaska, where I went fishing last fall.
From my own experience, the process of chipping away the sharp edges is inherently painful, and will only be undertaken in the service of a larger goal. As we choose Christ in our lives, we then make other choices to shape and mold our lives into the image of Christ. Think of the river’s current as the force of God’s grace flowing around us, propelling us further into the depth of God’s love. These two forces, the current of God’s grace, and the other believers in the stream, interact together to smooth us out as the river smoothes the river rock. It is in learning to get along with others who share faith in Christ, but have little else in common that helps us mature as believers.
Genie and I were first part of adult Sunday classes in which we formed deep friendships and walked together through the good times and bad with a small group of other young parents. We learned together, went camping together, met in each others homes for meals. This life on life journey allowed us to be inspired by the lives we saw, and perhaps inspire others.
We were invited to spiritual retreats that proved invaluable in launching my spiritual journey. I met men who had years of experience and wisdom in the ways of Christ. Decades later, I stay in touch with these men who were so important to my formation as a man and a leader.
One of my church friends invited me to join him for a weekend Christian Businessmen’s Retreat in 1982, and I have only missed going three years since then. We have walked together for thirty years now, caring for and challenging each other. We have a design criteria for picking topics now. We only pick topics that we cannot explore in any other setting. We realize how precious the vulnerability we have cultivated is and want to use that space to talk about things that we are not willing to broach anywhere else.
Our children were baptized and confirmed in our local church. Our son met his wife on a church ski trip with another local congregation. Our continuing involvement in small groups of couples meeting in homes for fellowship, learning and service brought a resolve to live the Christian life, and pragmatic examples that inspired us in how to do so.
Living life in Christian community encourages us to learn to appreciate diverse gifts and talents, to deal with conflict when it arises, and to grow in maturity. Sometimes we share a vision of the future, but argue about tactics to get there. Sometimes there is a conflict of vision. Sometimes there is just a conflict of personality. Learning to love each other even when we don’t like each other at the moment is a mark of growing maturity.
In the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible, I find a strong affirmation of the ongoing role of the local church community to the formation of faith. In the introduction to the Pauline letters is an essay called The People of God in Community. In it, the authors make a strong case that the path to maturity in the life of a Christ-follower unfolds in community. Here are excerpts from the essay:
In the Letters of the New Testament, we find the continuing incarnation of Jesus Christ in “gathered communities.” These communities of faith-the Body of Christ in the world-literally become a new organism, in which people become part of one another, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, help one another begin, nurture and sustain their relationship with God. They help new disciples discover and cultivate their own spiritual gifts while teaching them to celebrate the gifts of others. Sustaining a life with God without an active, living connection to a visible expression of the Body of Christ is virtually impossible and is not a goal to be sought after.
The community of faith has been established to bring us into living communion with God and abiding fellowship with one another. We seek God and find him most often through the ministry of a local church. Here we experience, in real and concrete ways, the love of Christ and learn how we are to love one another despite disagreements and imperfections. This love, witnessed by those outside the community, draws the world to God.
Every community of faith is a real, if imperfect, reflection of the kingdom of God, and ultimately exists to preserve a living witness to the life of love, power, and peace that comes from God alone. Under the discipline of guidance, by the spiritually mature in the local church, we learn the secret of spiritual formation as we put off the old nature and ‘put on Jesus Christ.’ In our life together, we experience the risen Christ. Life finds it truest, fullest expression in pouring ourselves out as a sacrifice to God, working with him to bring his kingdom to earth.
Don’t get me wrong, I have encountered significant conflict, pain and betrayal in my church community. The sinfulness of a broken people does not end just because God forgives us and we forgive each other. As Richard Foster says in the Renovare Bible, “We are challenged to be living sacrifices. The only problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar.” Often, we continue to lust after our idols, not being truly challenged into discipleship. However, without the experience of living in the community of a body of Christ, I would never have had the strength, courage and persistence to keep seeking and trying to follow God’s faint path.
I pray that you might wade into the mighty river of God's grace. That you will be drawn deep into the current drawing you back to God. And, that you might be formed, like the boulder in the river, by God's grace, and the friction of living with other imperfect believers. Jump on in, the water's fine.
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. Michaelangelo. Isn't that what God does with us?