A statement from a lay leader of a local congregation shocked me.
“When we are pursuing being disciples of Jesus Christ, we realize we need the church less,” one man said at a church’s annual retreat I was helping lead.
I hope my mouth didn’t drop open in response to his comment.
The congregation had asked me to guide their experience using the Shift Learning Experience, a program that seeks to help congregations move from focusing on membership, attraction and consumerism to discipleship, mission and covenant.
I was describing the move from member identity to disciple identity, and this gentleman seemed to be tracking really well. He was asking insightful questions and vigorously engaging the learning.
But when he made this remark, everyone stopped and stared.
“Tell more about what you are thinking” was the best I could respond, given my shock about his statement.
He went on to describe the process of becoming a disciple more fully as a very privatized and individual activity.
He talked about a system of spiritual disciplines one would engage on a daily basis (which is one aspect of discipleship) and how one would go deeper in one’s faith journey.
Afterward, it became clear to me that this gentleman represents many Christ-followers.
A large number of Christians see the process of being formed more fully as disciples as a very personal, private and individualistic activity.
Discipleship is something one does behind closed doors, in one’s private prayer closet, so to speak. Within this view, one needs the programs and services of the church less and less.
Two insights rise to the surface after reflecting on this experience:
First, I’m reminded that the culture of our context significantly influences our faith.
In the U.S., where I live and work, we value individuality. Here many believe the prevailing myth that individuals can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
We also promote John Wayne types as heroes. Would John Wayne ever need a community, a team, to accomplish his mission? No, he goes it alone.
“Hyper-individualism” is not too strong a phrase to describe our cultural context, which then influences our faith.
Second, I’m afraid that church leaders have taught, or at least insinuated, that following Jesus is a very individualistic activity.
Protestant evangelical churches have (and some still do) emphasized a very personal relationship with Jesus. When we stay with this thought, the “very” part becomes formative.
Because we understand the heart of our faith to be about a very personal relationship with Jesus, then gathering with other disciples for mutual support, growth and sharing becomes less important.
The gentleman in the retreat simply verbalized succinctly what many Christ-followers believe: “Just me and Jesus will do fine.”
The irony in this is striking. When we actually try living as disciples of Jesus Christ, we find that we need the church – an invigorated community gathered around the risen Christ – so much more than before.
As I seek to live as a disciple, I’m completely sure that I cannot live that way by myself. I’ve tried it and failed.
I can maintain a systematic devotional life on my own. But implementation – actually living the gospel – is another story.
Loving people when I have a schedule to keep, giving away things rather than getting more things, and forgiving people who really hurt me cannot be practiced faithfully on my own.
I need to have a community of disciples with whom to ride that river. I can’t sustain it on my own. The challenge is too significant.
This is true of all Christians, despite the strong emphasis on individual commitment and growth in many U.S. churches.
It turns out that “just me and Jesus” won’t do. Instead, Jesus provided for us a community of faith with whom to share the journey.