A few years a good friend of mine decided that he no longer considered himself to be a Christian. After decades of church involvement he felt that, since he didn’t believe the creeds or find the liturgy meaningful, the time had come to resign his membership and spend his Sundays in ways that seemed more relevant to his life and interests. I asked him if there was anything he would miss. He said that his one worry about finally giving up on church was that he might stop growing.
Despite the many things that made my friend feel alienated from church the one thing it had dependably given him over the years was, he said, an opportunity to reflect on his life. Reflection came naturally to him, both by personal disposition and professional training and work as a philosopher. But although he didn’t usually agree with the answers given by the church to the important questions it addressed, his involvement kept him honest because it confronted his natural tendency to associate only with people who shared his opinions and values.
I think my friend makes an important point. For whatever else growing together within a community means it certainly includes the fact that real involvement with real people – particularly with the assorted ages, ethnicities, personalities, and political and sexual orientations that one encounters in a healthy church – will always give us opportunities to grow in ways that we never would if we succumb to the individualism of our culture.
I realize, of course, that one can find these opportunities for growth in other relational contexts. And spiritual communities can take many forms other than that of a church. But, commitment to journey with others within a community offers important advantages over merely hanging out with friends in that we don’t get to choose the other people in a community. Of course, this isn’t entirely true because we typically choose a church or other community based in part on the sort of people we expect to encounter there. Instinctively, we then tend to avoid those who fall outside our natural comfort zone. But, once we commit ourselves to journey and grow together, those people that we might never choose as friends but who we encounter in community offer us a chance to deal with the precise issues we need to confront if we are to become whole, not merely holy. And let us never forget that wholeness is one of the best measures of anything worthy of being called authentic spiritual development.
God comes to us disguised as our life. If we are open to it, life will present us with the experiences we need to engage with if we are to become whole. Many of those experiences come bundled with people, and some of those people we will encounter in our families, some in our places of work and some in our spiritual community – whatever form that takes. So, the next time I or someone else does something to irritate you, consider whether this might be God in disguise as your life-in-community, offering you an opportunity to deal with something in yourself that you need to deal with if you are to become more whole. And I will try and do the same!
Growing together – truly more than the sum of us each growing individually!