We know that following God happens in two main ways: individually and communally. We not only attend church each week, but we also strive to dedicate some time to God each day so we can continue building our personal relationship with Him. Some of us do better at communal worship than at personal devotionals; for others, it is the other way around.
I don’t know if it is my Western upbringing but I tend to place my individual devotion above my church involvement. We also have the examples of David, Solomon, and Daniel who had a strong personal relationship with God. Moreover, Jesus spent time praying alone in Gethsemane. Surely, there is benefit in private time with God.
As I have mentioned before, Israel had a strong sense of community. If we turn to the Psalms, we find a people who suffered, rejoiced, and worshipped together. We get a glimpse of what this community will be like in the New Jerusalem when we get together like the General Conference for Seventh-day Adventists is doing this week in San Antonio. But we can also get this every week in our churches. We can enjoy each others company. However, there is even more to a community.
Over my short life, I have heard of people who say they are not the “church” type. They believe and love God, but they don’t need to go to church. While I personally understand how important a personal relationship with God is, I always feel uncomfortable with undermining the relevance of a spiritual community.
Communities, of any kind, exist to achieve a common goal. We get together because we know we can accomplish more (although some of us have been in group projects where we’ve had a different experience). If done right, groups can work harder and smarter than a single individual.
On the other hand, working in groups is difficult. Church members disagree with each other. Sometimes, our church resembles Congress, with the “liberals” in one side and the “conservatives” in the opposite side. The struggle is real. It has always been and it will always be, but I don’t think we need to agree with everyone in church and enjoy every thing that happens there. If I believed that, I would not attend church. It is about struggling together and learning how to move forward in love. I know that is possible because the struggle didn’t start yesterday or a couple years ago.
I’m not sure Jesus needed people around him to do his work, but he still called 12 disciples and many more. What a struggle it was to make them work together. There was jealousy and betrayal. Yet, they moved forward. The church expanded and problems did, too. Oh, poor Paul had to write so many letters to help the churches reconcile and move forward. And so on, and so on.
Despite the struggle and the vital personal relationship with God, a spiritual community is as important as ever. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul explains what happens to those who have died believing in Christ and finishes the chapter saying, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” In the middle of the next chapter, he says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” To the Romans, Paul said people all over the world heard about their faith. In the first chapter, he also wrote, “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.”
We do not have to be part of a 10,000-member congregation. Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20, NIV). With a support system and, more importantly, Jesus’ power we can together fulfill our mission of preaching His love.