In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community. There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston. Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son. And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends. Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.
Will Willimon reflects,
Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances. Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)
I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage. But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone. Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel. We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them. Willimon goes on to say,
The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus. The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people. The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)
I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths. But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself. If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love. How does that apply to Christian discipleship?
You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride. He never intended that to be an option.
[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]