The Role of Community in Spiritual Formation

Much of the emphasis in the spiritual formation movement focuses on personal disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, solitude and silence. While these are good activities to engage in, an overemphasis on individual activities may result in a devaluing of the role of community in spiritual growth. My experience of spiritual community was started in my biological family, developed in my youth group and refined through professors and church leaders who invested in me. While I intuitively knew that I needed relationships for spiritual growth, it was not until I took a class called Friendship and Community: Context for Spiritual Growth that I started to understand why relationships are so important. God created all humans in His relational image. Our interdependent nature is something we cannot avoid.

We cannot play at community development--it is essential to who we are and profound enough in its implications to keep us pursuing it until it climaxes in that great communal celebration of Lamb and Bride. It is not an optional choice for those more relational by nature. It is not possible to set it aside to pursue private gain and find the blessing of God upon us. The Old and New Testaments are filled with reminders of our connectedness to others and our fruitlessness without that awareness. Nor is it possible to grow up in Him by simply embracing the concept without allowing the reality of the needs and presence of others to cut across our lifestyles.[1]

This claim is quite startling if you really think about it. We cannot grow up in Christ alone. That means I need others, I am vulnerable, and at some level I am dependent on others. If the spirit of individualism and self-reliance runs as deeply in you as it does me, these are pretty terrifying thoughts. We fear rejection, betrayal, not living up to people’s expectations, and a whole host of other things that keep us from really connecting with others. “Yet if we wish to keep moving toward a full-orbed friendship with God, we must grow in our relationships with others within the body of Christ in order to stretch our emotional and social capacities for befriending the God who is love.”[2]

While God is the source behind our spiritual transformation, He ordained His people to be a conduit of His life-giving power. So those who try to “go it alone” spiritually are short circuiting God’s design for spiritual growth. We wonder why God is not moving in our lives and releasing us from the clutches of our sinful patterns. We pray for victory over sin and find ourselves defeated in a vicious cycle. “As people are cut off from others and their souls are starved for connectedness, the need for love turns into an insatiable hunger for something . . . so if you are in the growth process yourself or responsible for the growth of others, see connectedness as the foundation of how people grow.”[3] Spiritual community is a discipline we cannot afford to neglect.

 

[1] J. A. Gorman, Community that is Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), p. 16.

[2] K. Issler, Wasting Time with God: A Christian Spirituality of Friendship with God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 39.

[3] H. Cloud and J. Townsend, How People Grow (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), p. 124.


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