It’s interesting how a few chance conversational snippets can cause a train a thought that leads to such a deep question. I realised quite recently that within my own experience, my overwhelming sense is that the Christian faith is between God and the individual. The idea that faith can and should be experienced as part of a wider group of people – even beyond the circle of those with whom we directly connect – seems to be either a thing of the past, or perhaps never existed in the first place. I don’t mean in the sense of people attending church services together, because there is clear evidence of truly deep and moving experiences of communal worship in churches all over the world, but rather I think I mean that there is little sense in which for each of us, our faith belongs to others in the Christian family as much as to God. While many Christians do regularly gather together, and feel a sense of belonging to particular Christian communities, it feels as though there is a sense in which we isolate ourselves either because we are unable or unwilling to reveal too much. I think if there is any evidence of this sense of individuality, it is in, for example, a person’s desire to pursue their own ministry within their church without reference to the needs of whole community, or the Anglican churches who choose not to pay their parish share, or even the lack of interest in Christians from other denominations.
There is a strong sense of group faith in the Old Testament as the story of the Israelite community unfolds and it eventually becomes a great nation which (at least some of the time) worships Yahweh together; their religion is central to their national identity. A reading of the New Testament I suppose could indicate that the need for one’s faith to belong to other people as well as to God is no longer an issue. However I recently read a passage in Matthew (verses 20 to 24 of chapter 11) which suggest that Jesus is holding entire Jewish cities to account for their lack of repentance. The New Testament reports that Jesus’ message was spreading in each of the cities mentioned, so they weren’t lacking in individuals who believed. I tentatively wonder whether Jesus was referring to dishonesty and corruption running deep through the strata of public governance, which could have referred to the Roman occupiers but also the Jewish community leaders such as the teachers of the law. I can’t at the moment come up with any other ideas about what he could have meant, but I do know that Jesus was never vague – his words always had very precise meaning, even if those listening weren’t always able to grasp it! This particular passage is very brief, but does suggest that Jesus feels there certainly is a corporate dimension to what it means to follow him.
I do think it is important to recognise that a full experience of the Christian faith cannot be had simply by relying on other Christians to get you where you want to go. Hiding from God behind other people is unhelpful, if not damaging. Anyone desiring to follow Jesus hopefully recognises that we are called as individuals and therefore can experience an individual relationship with him. However I begin to wonder about how much more enriched our individual faith could be if we were to open ourselves more honestly and more lovingly within our church communities – be they formal or informal – and allow ourselves to be transformed not just by God working directly in us through his Spirit, but by the needs and gifts and hurts and difficult times and joys of the Christians with whom we fellowship and worship. There is a cost to integrating ourselves so deeply within a community, perhaps a sacrifice of independence or pride or privacy, but cost is part of a genuine faith, and if we’re willing to pay, the rewards of growth and maturity and wisdom – and above all, a greater capacity to love others – are there waiting for us.