One thing that we often forget about the early Christians is that the very thing that strengthened the community is also the thing that put it the most at risk. That thing is the coming together for worship. Now we know that the worship they practiced is nothing like any contemporary or even "traditional" worship in the modern church. While different, it was the assembly of the various individuals that made the witness to Christ, and ultimately the faith to grow and spread.
Often in our current society, we have an approach to faith that says, I can be spiritual but not religious. As if spirituality was an individual endeavor. The problem is that while faith may be individual, the practice and growth of faith cannot be. It is quite simple in that when we only practice a faith of ourselves we begin to fall into a dark path of practicing something that ultimately becomes somewhat narcissistic; in other words, a spirituality without community almost always results in an individual’s worship of themselves. Think about it for a second, isn't a definition of narcissism living for one’s self?
The community makes all the difference for the Christian witness, because it is in the community where we begin to grow and, more importantly, are called out when maybe our theology might have gone a bit beyond the words to describe God and become more about this world and one’s current situation. The difference from a feel-good spirituality and the church is the fact that as the church we live with one eye focused on this world and another eye on the next.
This has its positives and it has its negatives. Now before you read on, do a little experiment. Close your left eye and keep it closed. Take your right hand next to your right ear and slowly move it in front of your face, stop when you see your hand, and open your eye and notice where it actually is, then repeat on the other side.
Now if you are like most people you will notice that one eye has better periphery vision than the other. More importantly, you will recognize that both of your eyes see things just a little differently. Now think about how we see with one eye focused in this world and one in the next. From our vantage point, when not thinking about it, we clearly see a picture, but we often forget that we can only see in part. Thus, we need others to help us to see fully.
Hence, the need for community. Because we need the community to make up for both what we cannot see in the divine, but also what we cannot see in this world. Think for a second about magic. As a kid I loved a good magic show. Most of magic is about tricking the eye into seeing, or not seeing what the presenter wants you to see. It plays off of a truth that our eyes and focus cannot take everything in and we are always focused in one direction over another. Now in a magic show, everyone’s attention is singularly focused, but in a healthy church that focus is diverse and dispersed.
This means that most people in the church come to the church with a different view of spirituality and God. This also means that we have disagreements and struggles, because we are not always going to see things the same way, but then again, how is that going to happen when our views are always so different? And there is the very reason we need community, so that we can see an even clearer vision of what it means to be a Christian through the common witness of everyone in the community.
At the beginning of the article I mentioned that the assembly of the community is what brought the Christians the most risk. That is because it brought both attention and visibility, even as secret as they tried to make it, we know from accounts that often these meetings led to martyrdom. But it is that community that gathered that allowed the community to witness to each other and grow in faith. Moreover, it is that corporate witness which allowed people to connect, challenge each other, and ultimately grow in vibrancy, and the early Christians to spread the message of Christ to the world in Need.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen