Fostering deep community, strong spirituality, and rigorous discipleship
January 23, 2024
I recently listened to episode 436 of the Voxology podcast hosted by Mike Erre and Tim Stafford that featured pastor and author John Mark Comer to promote his upcoming book, Practicing the Way: Be with Jesus. Become like him. Do as he did. This is a fantastic episode that seeks to promote habits of discipleship (spiritual disciplines and a rule of life) that lead to a flourishing life with Jesus. If you have any interest in learning more about disciplines, this is a great introductory episode that explains the value of such discipleship habits.
One of the things the episode does well is unpack the tendency of Protestant evangelicals and “exvangelicals” alike to try to reconcile all their spiritual, physical, emotional, and social lives with large amounts of intentional effort centered around church attendance, volunteerism, and recent models of personal Bible devotions. In a section toward the end of the episode, the conversation makes an interesting tangent by comparing a rule of life concept to how discipleship has been framed by many local churches in recent decades.
There is a big disconnect between stated values and real-life actions. Most every church website has a statement of faith that seeks to clarify where they place themselves along the theological spectrum on popular doctrinal issues. But almost no church has a document or statement on how they live together in community. However, they observe that many churches implicitly do have such a statement. Comer quotes popular author and retired pastor John Ortberg, who observes, “…Churches do have a rule of life. In fact, most churches have the same rule of life. Come to church on Sunday. Be in a small group. Serve. And give…The problem is that is not a rule of life designed to produce a high level of spiritual maturity. That is a rule of life designed to run a local church.”
This is a powerful observation, even if it is not a novel one.
Many of our local churches are not designed to create deeply connected communities that shape us in Christoformity (to borrow a phrase from Scot McKnight’s Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church). Many local churches are designed to perpetuate their own institutional existence through high levels of engagement, volunteerism, and financial support.
In 2024 let’s commit to fostering deep community, strong spirituality, and rigorous discipleship. Baptists of all people should be communal people. Our theological and praxis foundations are built upon the need for us to read Scripture together, engage in social dialogue together, worship together, and share in mission and ministry together. We are not alone together; we are united together in Christ.
In 2008, French choreographer Matthilde Monnier and German composer Heiner Goebbels brought hundreds of nonprofessional dancers together into a great hall to perform a series of peculiar performances of modern dance and music called Surrogate Cities. In near-perfect harmony, a different set of laypersons performed steps and movements in time and rhythm with one another each performance. Everything looked amazing from the audience’s point of view. The secret to their success was not great choreography, practice, the ability to count steps, or being in sync with the other nonprofessional dancers. It turns out there were cleverly hidden monitors that only the dancers could see, allowing them to imitate whatever they saw on the screen in real time, with no concern for the actions of the other dancers or the rhythm or mood of the music.
As Fall Out Boy protests in their song Alone Together, “This is the road to ruin, and we started at the end…Let’s be alone together.” These dancers were alone together. While they had a common purpose of following the moves on the monitors, there was no real community taking place.
They were not engaged in a shared fellowship of dance; they were more like solo artists performing at the same time. And the crowds cheered.
I think these two observations are connected. In 2023, the Surgeon General announced that the United States was suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. Despite most of the restrictions related to COVID being lifted, Americans continue to feel lonely, isolated, and lack a sense of community connection. I feel that too many churches are doing more to enhance this reality than they are doing to alleviate it. Too many churches exist to perpetuate their own institutional existence and they do so by having everyone face forward to imitate what they see on a stage, rather than fostering deep spirituality and community.
In 2024 let’s commit to fostering deep community, strong spirituality, and rigorous discipleship. Baptists of all people should be communal people. Our theological and praxis foundations are built upon the need for us to read Scripture together, engage in social dialogue together, worship together, and share in mission and ministry together. We are not alone together; we are united together in Christ. We need to reclaim a vision of being Christian that is deeper than the enlightenment ideas of individualism, church attendance, and financial stewardship.
Through shared acts of integrated worship experiences, individuals not only deepen their personal connection with the divine but also forge bonds with fellow believers. We need to do more than sing songs from the radio and listen to sermons. We need worship practices that unify our voices in prayer and praise that create a palpable sense of spiritual awareness. We require some reciprocity between the people gathered and the people leading.
The importance of shared community elements in the church cannot be overstated. The church becomes a witness to the society around us where individuals learn to navigate differences and find common ground in their shared participation in the Kingdom of God. Through shared worship, fellowship, and service, the church becomes a vibrant tapestry woven with the threads of diverse lives, creating a harmonious community.
Church community extends beyond the confines of the sanctuary. Shared meals, social events, and small group gatherings provide fertile ground for fellowship and connection. But so do softball teams, being coworkers in the city, sharing our city parks with others, going on prayer walks, and visiting your local high school sporting events and theater performances. What would it look like for your church to show up en masse to a middle school show choir event just to support students and let the community know you are with them? These moments of shared life experiences facilitate the building of genuine relationships among church members and the city in which they reside. In a world often marked by isolation and disconnection, the church becomes a haven where individuals find support, empathy, and a sense of belonging. The bonds formed in these shared moments of fellowship become a source of strength, enhancing the overall resilience of the church community and the place in which it resides.
The church is not merely a collection of individuals attending services; we are not alone together. Church should be more like a living organism where members are interconnected. Shared community elements such as accountability groups and mentorship relationships foster an environment where individuals can be held accountable for their spiritual journey. This mutual accountability encourages personal growth, as individuals are spurred on by the collective commitment to spiritual development. The church becomes a place where individuals are not only supported in their triumphs but are also lifted during times of challenge or adversity. When we learn to live together holistically, we also learn to be more in tune with our own heart, mind, body, and soul in holistic and healthy ways.
Shared community elements should encourage congregations into action through various outreach initiatives. But not in a programmatic, volunteerism-only sort of way. Whether it be feeding the hungry, supporting the vulnerable, or engaging in community development projects, the church should be fostering relationships at every step. People are not projects; they are neighbors who should be invited into every aspect of the larger church community activities and relationships.
In a world marked by diversity in beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences, American Baptist Churches, USA stands as a testament to unity amidst differences. Our shared community practices are pivotal to fostering an environment where diversity is not only accepted but celebrated and brought into a holy commonality. The church becomes a witness to the society around us where individuals learn to navigate differences and find common ground in their shared participation in the Kingdom of God. Through shared worship, fellowship, and service, the church becomes a vibrant tapestry woven with the threads of diverse lives, creating a harmonious community.
The importance of shared community elements in the church cannot be overstated. From the foundational act of communal worship to the intricate threads of fellowship, accountability, and outreach, these elements weave a tapestry that binds individuals into a cohesive and vibrant community. In embracing and nurturing these shared elements, the church becomes a haven for spiritual growth, mutual support, and a powerful force for kingdom change in the world. As the church continues to navigate the complexities of the modern era, the emphasis on these shared community elements remains crucial for sustaining its timeless mission.
Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula is executive minister, American Baptist Churches of Nebraska. He is author of Table Life: An Invitation to Everyday Discipleship, published by Judson Press. Visit table-life.org to learn more about his ministry and writing projects.