My family left the church where I was raised and I suddenly became what no self-respecting Christian wants to be: unaffiliated. We roamed for several months, occasionally visiting a Sunday service but never finding one my dad wanted to put on pants for. So, as a young, naïve Christian whose transportation was limited, I created my own makeshift community.
And the weirdest thing happened. In those days when my Christian fellowship should have been nonexistent, I found the most dynamic and exciting community I’d ever experienced. Instead of confining spiritual connection to those within a local church, I was forced to adopt a more global view of the Church and began to connect deeply with the Jesus followers already around me. My immediate family of Christ never grew, but my awareness of it did. And my personal community followed.
Finding (not forcing) community
I place great value on the local church and I’m even a youth pastor now, but my view of community hasn’t changed since high school. My faith family is uniquely my own; it has no legal name and is comprised of people both within and outside of my church.
I’ve found, however, that many people never build a personalized Christian community distinct from their churches simply because they don’t know it’s possible. We’ve somehow shackled communal spirituality to the organization and its programs. I want to remind us, though, that it is possible and it might provide the solution to our lack of daily connection.
This solution to isolation may require a slight shift in paradigm, however. We have to change the way we think about the body of Christ, shifting from a mindset of isolated churches to one of a global family. Only then can we begin to build a deep, spiritual network of believers, both in our local churches and out.
I’ve written a few steps to help us change the way we view the body and plant intricate Christian communities that are alive and active at work, home and everywhere in between.
Rethink the building.
Many of us grew up thinking God lives solely at church. That was why we couldn’t run through the pews or wear hats or swim in the baptistry. God’s got rules in His house.
When my family left our congregation, though, I suddenly had to find God elsewhere. Luckily, He had lived within my proximity the whole time. In Acts 17, Paul says “God does not live in temples built by human hands” and in 1 Corinthians 3, he adds, “You yourselves are God’s temple.”
While I intellectually understood my church building wasn’t “the house of the Lord,” that reality didn’t sink in until I reluctantly abandoned the physical context in which I was routinely aware of the Holy Spirit. I don’t suggest we abandon our church buildings, I only advise we consider them rightly. When we stop thinking of church services as play dates at God’s house, we can then develop community in so many more places and with so many more people.
Be aware of where Christ lives around you.
When I went looking for other believers, I suddenly became aware of my connection to the larger body of Christ around me. I found the awkward, lanky kid who played basketball loved God, too. And the smart girl in biology class loved God and liked to talk about Him. I even met my best friend because I actively searched for fellow Jesus followers in high school.
We are surrounded by Jesus people every day. The number of brothers and sisters with which we share daily community is so much larger than the number we meet with on Sunday mornings or in small groups on Tuesday nights. We already participate in these real-life Christian communities whether we know it or not, but we will never be nourished by them if we don’t acknowledge them.
Embrace the differences.
When I first wandered into the world of interdenominational relations, I approached it as if I were a theological John Cena, putting unfamiliar doctrine in a full nelson and squeezing with every ounce of Scripture memorization until it passed out. It didn’t take long to realize this approach to theological differences didn’t help build my much-needed community.
So, instead, I listened to those distant relatives in the Christian family, at first out of necessity, but then as a result of real curiosity. They showed me aspects of God I hadn’t seen before even, if I didn’t agree with everything they said. The same Jesus I knew lived in them. He was just sometimes wearing a more flamboyant robe.
When we encounter believers outside of a controlled, local church context, we must be quick to listen and slow to speak. If we disqualify fellow Christians from our personal community because they think differently than us, we miss out on the majority of our family of Christ and our community will suffer for it.
One of my closest Christian friends is named Christian. We found we were kindred spirits over lunch at the school cafeteria. A few months later he told me if it wasn’t for my unrelenting persistence and overbearing honesty, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable engaging in a real spiritual conversation. It took a random kid on a personal, community-building journey for relationship to happen. We’ve never attended the same church, but Christian is an integral part of the faith family I’ve built.
This kind of informal relationship rarely happens unintentionally. Sharing the Christian life with another believer outside the context of a local church can often be awkward. When we’re used to doing something one way or thinking in a certain way, it takes adjustment to do life with someone else. We can’t expect others to initiate spiritual relationships outside of Sunday school or small groups; it’s up to us to take that initiative to build our community. And accommodate accordingly.
Real, spiritual relationships require time to grow. The unavoidable first step to planting an organic, communal network, however, is to nurture the relationships we’ve neglected.
The answer to our spiritual isolation and loneliness may take some patience, but not as much patience as waiting and hoping our perfect, pre-formed community is at any moment is going to drive us into spiritual connection. We can wait our whole lives for community to come to us, or we can take the parts God already placed around us and build it ourselves.
Maybe the local church is not the extent of our spiritual family but it is vital and often where these family connections develop. Yet, to limit our quest for community to people within the walls of our church is to reject the beautiful complexity and nourishment of the body of Christ that God has made immediately available to us.