Column: Christianity is about community

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 19, 2004

By the Rev. Joel Xavier, Community Lutheran Church of Geneva

&uot;Christianity is not an individual and deeply private experience.&uot;

That thought was written by Inagrace T. Dietterich in a book of essays with the title &uot;The Church Between Gospel and Culture.&uot;

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A confirmation student in a former parish spoke very freely to me, &uot;Why should I listen to you?

You can’t know God.

What I think about God is just as good as what you think about God!&uot; That student expressed the religious sentiment of our culture, the sentiment that Christianity is individual, that religion is first of all a private part of life and it is centered on personal experience.

I did not quote the whole sentence.

The whole sentence from Dietterich’s essay also explains something that Christianity is. &uot;Christianity is not an individual and deeply private experience but a very concrete and practical way of life that is learned, practiced, supported, and empowered in community.&uot;

Specifically, Christianity is a way of life and it is in community.

Our culture does not function with this understanding of Christianity. The student challenging me as pastor was speaking with the voice of our culture.

Our cultural background begs us to live as if Christianity were an individual and private thing.

For example, while it is easy to see that our culture promotes sexual promiscuity; promotes sexual activity outside of marriage that simply is off the path of the Christian way, it is not easy to see that the same culture promotes the equally false idea that Christianity is best understood as individual and private.

In the Book of Acts we find that early Christians were described as followers of &uot;the Way.&uot;

It was not that they had some private experience with Jesus that made these people different from those around them, it was &uot;the way&uot; they now lived their lives.

It was &uot;the way&uot; of living that could be observed, learned, and practiced.

When Jesus was teaching his disciples he did not explain to them that in the future people would be impressed because they had individual and deeply private experiences of faith.

Rather, Jesus told his disciples, &uot;By this people will know that you are my disciples, because you love one another.&uot;

It was about concrete and practical life in community.

Indeed Jesus expected lives to be concrete and practical. After the passion, after the 40 days, the followers of Jesus gathered in community to worship and pray. Yes, there were surprises along the way.

But the surprises were met by the community with communal discernment of God’s will in the changing circumstances of life.

I heard from the mother of the confirmation student.

About a year after that student went through the rite of confirmation, his mother introduced herself to me in the post office.

No, I didn’t recognize her.

The only time I had met her was on confirmation day.

&uot;Pastor, you should talk to my son.

The confirmation classes don’t seem to be working.

He should be going to church now.&uot;

I don’t remember what I said.

I hope I was polite.

For herself she wanted Christianity to be individual and deeply personal.

For herself, she didn’t need to be a part of the community to follow the way of Christianity.

But she wanted her son to follow this other way, this concrete and practical way of life that was indeed practiced and supported and empowered in the community of the congregation where I was a pastor.

She wanted her son to choose the way of community, of gathering to share the relationship we have in God.

She wanted her son to choose a path that she herself had rejected in her own life.

Our culture teaches that you get to believe whatever you want to. It is our culture that teaches that religion is &uot;an individual and deeply private experience.&uot;

The Christian way of life is something else. Like most religions, Christianity becomes counter-cultural.

Christianity is about community.

It is a way of living that is learned from each other.

It is a way of living that requires self-giving for the sake of the community and for the sake of the world.

It is a way of living that is practiced with others.

I think it is a gift in our culture that we have the freedom of religion.

You are indeed free to invent your own religion.

Theologian Robert Bellah says that is the direction we are going.

You even get to call yourself a Christian if you want to. That’s what freedom is. But freedom is not the same as truth.

Christianity is not about individuals following their own spiritual way.

Christianity is about the followers of Jesus’s way gathering together to face the challenges of life together.

Jesus said, &uot;By this people will know you are my disciples, because you love one another.&uot;