I was talking with someone on Friday and the topic turned toward the importance of community. Our context was a discussion about the reading of scripture, and I shared something one of my Fuller professors once said to a friend who was not interested in participating in any local church community but was committed to pursuing serious study of God’s word. There was a particular passage in one of Paul’s letters that this individual was struggling with, and my professor said to him: “Oh, that’s all right. You don’t need to worry about that passage. That passage doesn’t apply to you.” Shocked, his friend asked why, and my professor responded: “Paul wrote those letters to communities of faith; to churches. They are not written for an individual to try and figure out how to apply to his or her life apart from that context.”
In our age of church-less Jesus-followers, I marveled at how stark his comment is in my own context of peers and family and friends who “love Jesus but not the church”.
I started blogging a few years ago, and one thing I noticed fairly quickly was that a lot of the voices that were seeking to dialogue over deep questions of faith were doing so apart from membership in any faith community. A lot of folks would talk about not having access to people who “get it”. Others had been injured by spiritually abusive faith communities and were in some form of recovery from that. Others were simply disillusioned by marketing practices or hype disguised as faithfulness. But by and large, I recognized an alarming “new normal”: thoughtful, faithful folk with more invested in virtual friendships and communities of the like-minded than in any sort of local expression of Christian life-together.
I have always loved the church. I have always been a part of the church. I have never flown solo, and I have never felt or been pushed away, abused, expelled, or rejected. I have never been in a perfect church, and have always been in fellowship with people I disagree with over any number of fairly significant things, be they theological, political, cultural, or whatever, so I don’t have a lot of understanding of the church-less journey. I actually feel a lot like my seminary prof in that I don’t know how to understand what this life is supposed to be about apart from the context of a real community. But I don’t say that lightly, knowing well that there are genuine, faithful folk for whom this has simply not been their experience.
I would be interested to hear more from those who have felt, for whatever reason, that their walk with God required them to separate from others. Or from those who float from this service to that study to some other retreat, picking and choosing parts of a community’s common life as they find interest. And if either of these are true, how then do they engage the scriptures that are written for communities? What would they say to my professor’s response to his friend?