We live in an age of individuals. Which doesn’t sound like it’s saying very much because we can’t imagine anything else.
For all the philosophers and critics say we are ‘expressive individualists’, we might not believe it fully. You’re not so self-centred that you only act for yourself, after all? But we’re so inculcated by the cultural waters in which we swim we think from our selves outward.
Let me show you what I mean.
Christianity is church
You can’t be a Christian without the church. I remember as a teenager when wondering why we needed the church—why we couldn’t just have a relationship with God—I would always be told the coal analogy. Sometimes even without asking the question. The story is of a young man who goes to visit an older pastor and they sit by the fire together. Asked by the young man why he needs the church, the older man would remove a coal from his open fire and place it on the hearth. They would watch it slowly dim and grow cold. “That’s you without the church, you will grow dark and go out.”
Depending on your approach to soteriology it’s either: you need the church to stay in with God, or it’s much easier to be a Christian with the church. As rugged individuals I fear that we sometimes see the latter as a challenge.
While the analogy has some explanatory power, it is easier to live a vibrant Christian life with the church, I fear it misses the point on two levels. One, it implies that the power of the church rests in it being a collection of Christians who get each other “hot”, while I would contend the church is where God meets his people in word and worship, water, bread, and wine. Two, it’s not easier to be a Christian with the church, being a Christian is being part of the church. She’s the bride, the whole point of the gospel is the prince slaying the dragon to win his bride. We await the ending of history in a marriage. Yes, Jesus saves us as individuals from the powers of Sin and Death, but he does so both because he dearly delights in you, and because he wants to make a people to marry. She may be the kind of bride who got drunk the night before the wedding and threw up over the dress, but she’s the bride.
Even my joke is missing the point a bit, the church is some way away from maturity (which I might suggest implies the wedding is still a way off), and has yet to grow up into the beauty that befits her beloved. But she will, and he is already besotted with her. He always has been.
Personal piety derives from corporate worship
So here’s the thing, if Christianity is the Church, then personal piety derives from corporate worship.
Daniel Blanche expands: “the church comes first, and the individual second; preaching first, private reading second; the Eucharist first, private spiritual nourishment second; the Lord’s Prayer in the church first, private prayer second.”
I suspect most of us are a little uneasy with that way of thinking, which is our late modernism showing.
Dave Bish asked a question on Twitter a few months back:
I think that’s convicting. If I consider “my walk with Jesus” I think of my private devotions, my personal conversations with the Lord through the day. I think of how convinced I am that the Father and the Son have conspired to love me beyond imagining, and of the dynamic and dramatic presence of the Spirit in my day-to-day. These are wonderful things, vital things, but that they are first implies I don’t need the church.
That’s a lie.
Why has this year been so hard?
The last eighteen months or so have largely been without the church. Your personal devotions have had to do much more work than normal, even if you haven’t noticed that, and you’re frayed at the edges. To hold on you’ve had to go deeper, but all of us have suffered (and arguably so has our society) from the gathered church not meeting.
You might scoff and point to what we’ve done online, and I think it was a blessed gift that we were able to do that, but our inability to be the church as we’re meant to be has cost us. To point to the sticking plaster is missing the point, we’ve been wounded and we need healing.
The healing comes from hearing the word preached, singing at the top of your lungs, praying and prophesying together, watching new believers baptised, and eating and drinking Jesus at his Table. It comes in the church.
Why do we think our “personal walk” (itself an individualistic category, for all it’s not wrong) with Jesus rests on us, where us means me myself and I? My walk with Jesus, and yours, rests on us, where us means the gathered church in her beauty.
And for that matter let’s stop considering if that was a “good” church meeting. I’m well-meaning when I do this, and there’s always things we can improve, but there’s one question: did I meet with God?
When my answer to that is “not really” the next questions should be: did I hear the word preached? Did I hear my sister pray and my brother sing? Did I taste the body and blood in bread and wine? Then God met with me, even if I wasn’t paying attention.
I’m as up for the charismatic melee as anyone, and I rarely feel more alive than when dancing around the room laying hands on people and seeing them get the wibbly-wobblies as God arrives in their very bones, or speaking the heart of God to them prophetically. Even so, let’s get the basics right. To worship with the gathered church is to be in the heavenly temple in the presence of God.
To be a Christian is to be part of the body. Walking wounded, smeared in her own sin, and riven with division: it is the Church, the hope of all the world, the beloved of King Jesus.