Progressive Churches of Christ: Community Formation

progressiveI confess to certain introverted tendencies. For example, I’m really happy sitting at my computer, listening to music, and typing theology for hours on end. That’s the behavior of an introvert.

But, ironically enough, I’m not a fan of the so-called spiritual disciplines, even though they’ve been designed with the introvert in mind. I mean, mention “spiritual discipline” to a preacher or theologian, and you’ll hear a list of such practices as quiet times, prayer, solitude, journaling, Bible study, prayer mazes, lectio divina, and meditation — a list surely compiled by an extreme introvert.

The problem I have with this list is the complete absence of any such a thing from the scriptures. Yes, there are psalms that urge us to meditate on the word of God — but nothing suggesting that this is to be a solo activity. In the ancient world, the scriptures were generally listened to, not read, and they were listened to in a group setting.

In the synagogues, the study of the Torah was very much a group activity. Reading a scroll alone would have been rare — and rude, because everyone in town wanted to read from the same scroll. There was usually only one per village. Rather, someone sat in the Moses seat — a chair before the seated congregation — opened the scroll, and read aloud. The scrolls were too precious not to be shared.

Jesus often sought solitude for prayer, but he was pressed by huge crowds — and not once instructed his followers to do the same. Not that it would be wrong. It’s just nowhere taught as an indispensable path to righteousness.

These are, I’m sure, very fine practices, but the Bible nowhere puts these forward as the path to becoming a disciple. And I’m not sure they help that much. (I detail further complaints about Dallas Willard’s teaching at this earlier post.)

If you were to read the NT looking for the behaviors of a disciple, without the benefit of evangelical popular literature, I think you’d quickly find guidance in such passages as the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Cor 13, Rom 12, and Gal 5. Neither Jesus nor Paul was reluctant to offer advice on how to live as a Christian. We just don’t care to follow that advice — by and large.

You see, the passages I just cited are all about how to get along with each other in community. For example,

(Gal 5:19-24 ESV) 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 

Notice the works of the flesh are largely sins committed against the community. You can’t be guilty of a rivalry or a dissension or a division all by yourself in solitude and meditation. You have to be in community.

And the cure isn’t to leave the community but to pursue the fruit of the Spirit. The point of, for example, kindness, gentleness, or peace is how you treat other people. That’s plain enough for most of the list, and in context, surely the major point of Paul’s selection of these particular fruits.

At the end of his letter to the Galatians, after a long course on narrative hermeneutics and deep theology, Paul concludes with: be in community, don’t sin against the community, rather help build the community.

What’s the point of love and peace but for community building? Who cares about your self-control unless you struggle to control yourself around other people?

So all the lessons on faith, works, and circumcision point toward: get along! And not just for the sake of having no conflict. Get along to build a community that so loves one another than the lost will want to have what you have.

(Joh 13:34-35 ESV)  34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Our love for each other marks us as followers of Christ; not our journaling skills. And when people see our love in action, they will be drawn to investigate and perhaps to be converted. It’s just that simple.

So it starts with the Sacraments. Done right, the Sacraments (among other things) build community — love in action. They draw us closer to Jesus, and as we approach Jesus, we become closer to each other. (Drawing close to Jesus in private, if such a thing were possible, doesn’t really do that.)

From there, we get to congregational life — which is hard like marriage is hard. Like raising kids is hard. Being around people you love is hard. Especially when you’re together a lot. But time spent together is the only way to grow together.

How well these things accomplish their purposes depends in large part on the story we tell through them. Are we announcing our superior theology? Or are we announcing the Lordship of Jesus? Are we asking individuals to get right with Jesus? Or are we inviting the lost to enter the Kingdom and to join Jesus in his redemptive mission through the church?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to Progressive Churches of Christ: Community Formation

  1. laymond says:

    “Jesus often sought solitude for prayer, but he was pressed by huge crowds — and not once instructed his followers to do the same.”

    Mat 6:6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

  2. laymond says:

    Jay, as a matter of fact Jesus warns against public prayer.

  3. Skip says:

    Jay, There are two extremes: 1.) Viewing all of our Christian walk as being with the whole church where we exclusively read scripture together, pray together, only baptize when we are together, or 2.) It is all about my private devotions and the corporate worship is not vital. BOTH extremes for the Christian are wrong and can’t be supported by scripture. As Laymond quoted above, we are commanded to pray in secret. David meditated on the word at times in secret. Jesus did go up on a mountainside by himself and prayed all night in secret.
    The tendency to swing the pendulum too far either way unnecessarily leads away from a balanced approach.

  4. Dwight says:

    I would gather that many saints are imbalanced in living in Christ. They go to church, they pray in church, they sing at church, baptized at church, they read and listen at church (three hours in a week) and then when they leave church they don’t do many of these things at home or at work, etc. And we don’t often encourage and teach people how to do these things other than in the assembly. This is probably worst in the conservative coC thinking who often argue that worship time is done at a certain time with certain people and is not part of the saints life in general. In this we have gone backwards to Temple worship on a certain mountain. We offer our sacrifice to God at certain times at a certain place and aren’t a living sacrifice.
    In regards to praying, Jesus argued for prayer as not to be seen of man, but even the private prayer of Jesus was recorded for all to read. Also they sang and prayed in I Cor.13, in tongues, but still it was in the assembly. But still the concept of prayer lends itself to more of a private affair as we are talking to God. Even when we are offering a blessing for the Lord’s Supper it is our own words to God and not the congregations, although they might agree with it.

  5. brent says:

    The early church was in community a lot more than we are. They didn’t travel 10-15 even 30 miles to “go to church”. They lived close to each other and did daily life together. We want to talk about our personal spiritual disciplines the other 6 days of the week, but there was no other 6 days of the week for them. They sometimes met daily to talk and pray. It’s just a different culture than we have today.

  6. Tiffany says:

    I agree the inward spiritual disciplines, namely, meditation, prayer, fasting and study (you mentioned labyrinths and journaling as well) can quickly become egocentric and create a Christian community that resembles a Buddhist one, everyone ‘working out their own salvation’ with no sense of the Body or outreach. I do not think this is inevitable though, nor the intent. I appreciate Robert Mulholland’s definition of spiritual formation where he considers the disciplines (inward, outward, and corporate) to be valuable parts of “the process of being transformed [by the Spirit] into the the image of Christ, for the sake of others.” So, even in quiet, alone Bible study one can be, and should be, doing this for the sake of others. Even in prayer to confess a vice, or be strengthened in one of the fruits mentioned in Gal 5, it is always ‘for the sake of others.’ Just because one is practicing a discipline alone does not mean that the benefits of it , or motivation behind it, are not for the Body. Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts…” (Matt 15:19), and it’s interesting how these “thoughts” Jesus mentions include murder, adultery and theft. Good thoughts and good deeds begin in the heart as well. As I see it, the reason Jesus got away alone with God; said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile,” in Mark 6:31; why Paul went to Arabia for awhile after his conversion before going into to Jerusalem to begin his ministry to the Gentiles; why we’re told to fast and pray…is to spend time with God abiding in our hearts, to allow the Spirit time and space to transform our minds, so then what flows from it-the actions of discipleship that you mentioned-are pure, sustainable and bringing glory to God. ALL for the sake of others. Mulholland has another quote I think is appropriate here, “There is no way that an individual can be conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others without the nurture of the body of Christ; and there is no away that the community of faith can be the body of Christ if it does not nurture the individual members toward wholeness in Christ.” As other commenters have said, balance is key here. I think we have countless examples of Jesus’ ministry as Sage, Priest and Savior intimately meeting both individuals and the Bride, and this should trigger a response from both the individual and the Body back to Christ-a type of sacramental living that flows from the love that has been nurtured in time practicing the inward disciplines.

  7. Joe B says:

    Confess your sins to one another that you may be healed. Bring your sick to the elders to lay hands upon them that they may be healed. Pray for your enemies and go the extra mile. Share your possessions such that there is no need. This is how we overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony. That is in Revelation if anybody is wondering.
    Well one another and group context passages show up a lot.
    So do the passages about individual times with the Lord. We must not create a false dichotomy.

    I will say this that the passages emphasizing a personal relationship with the Lord are taught and practiced more than the one another.

    I suggested two things that could bring a communal aspect to the Lord Supper and Baptism in those respective posts. I would like to see more input here on more communal aspects that could be used in both.
    What do y’all think?

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