This past weekend I was reminded again of the value of Christian community. I had the opportunity to participate in a three-day spiritual retreat where fourteen men (plus leadership) gathered in a time of intentional worship, prayer, discussion, and reflection.
One of the best parts of the weekend was their insistence that we not bring a watch and that we “unplug” from all cell phones/texts/email/TV. Try it sometime, you’ll be surprised how refreshing it can be to spend your time turning to the Lord in prayer or opening up the Word rather than updating your Facebook page or scanning your Twitter account.
(Full disclosure: I’m not perfect—I did text my wife a couple of times to make sure she was ok with the kids on her own…but I did avoid the temptation to check the football scores on Saturday and Sunday!)
As nice as it was to be off of the grid for a few days, it was even better to shown a portrait of community discipleship that is too often lacking in the lives of most believers. Throughout the weekend, Proverbs 27:17 kept running through my head: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
Too often we pursue notions of individualized and individualistic spirituality that, frankly, bear no resemblance whatsoever to Jesus Christ’s call to discipleship. We focus on our personal devotions without giving a thought to our corporate communion.
It took some time this past weekend for people to let down their guard, but once we all did, there was some amazing growth and bonding that happened. But that’s not easy. It’s not easy because we don’t want to admit our struggles, we don’t want to acknowledge our weakness, and we sure don’t want to reveal that we don’t have it all together. It’s hard to be real with others when our “real” is so wretched.
Yet this is precisely the blessing of Christian community. We are to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). We are to pray with and for one another. We are to point one another to Jesus Christ, in whom we find fullness and healing and redemption. One piece of iron cannot sharpen itself.
Let me be blunt for a moment (pun intended). There is no such thing as a fully faithful Christian who refuses to be part of the gathered covenant community for corporate worship and life, when it is available to them.
As Hebrews 10:24-25 puts it: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as your see the Day drawing near.” Christian community is more than just corporate worship, but it is not less than that.
Throughout Scripture, God calls a people to himself, not a collection of isolated individuals. If you are not regularly invested in the community of believers, then you aren’t listening to the full call of God. I’m not talking about being a part of an institution (for all of you who chafe against the idea of something that would restrict your individuality). I’m talking about understanding the need to have others who can encourage you and challenge you because they’re walking the same path.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote at the beginning of his classic, Life Together, “…between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament…The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”
If you are not regularly involved in the beauty and ugliness of real life with other Christians, don’t think that you’re pursuing some enlightened path to inner solitude—rather, you’re missing a fundamental part of the DNA of discipleship. Find a place to worship that faithfully proclaims Christ crucified and raised again. Find people for whom you can pray and who can pray for you. Seek out accountable community and invest yourself in it.
There will be times you will hate it. People will be nasty and they will let you down. There will be times you will be grateful beyond words for it. People will support you and walk alongside you through the struggles of life.
You can only be reforged through the Spirit, who unites us to Christ and remakes us in his image, and you can only be sharpened when you’re in contact with others for whom the same is true. Are you?