Why Biblical Community is a Spiritual Discipline
“Don’t give up on the church!” I typed. “Digital connection only goes so far.”
My typing thumbs were interrupted by the call of my twelve-year-old.
“When are we going back to LifeGroup?”
I chuckled at the timing of his question.
Between my seminary training, my husband’s workload, our collective ministry commitments, and raising three kids, we found ourselves where many land over time—burnout. With the assistance of wise counsel, we made the decision to step down from leading a church small group for a few months. Only our brief reprieve had grown to a few years.
As I returned to the freckled face of my firstborn, I said, “You’re right, Dom. We need to get back to our community.”
Local Church Matters
While our family never left the church, many families and individuals are leaving the local community of faith.
But not in the way you may think.
Many replace their physical presence in church by attending online or, due to busy schedules, catching the replay. Some comment they haven’t stopped believing in God, but the church is another matter altogether.
While online community is better than no community at all, I wonder what we lose by not gathering together—shoulder to shoulder—to worship as a local church. Is it possible that if we only share our highlight reel on social media, we put on a similar face in our online worship environments as well?
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “The community of the saints is not an “ideal” community consisting of perfect and sinless men and women, where there is no need of further repentance. No, it is a community which proves that it is worthy of the gospel by constantly and sincerely proclaiming God’s forgiveness…It is a community of men and women who have genuinely encountered the precious grace of God, and who walk worthy of the gospel by not casting that grace recklessly away.”
In other words, when we come together as a local body of believers, we reveal our broken selves in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, and we have the opportunity to both give and receive these gifts in abundance.
Your Presence Matters
A friend once observed, “It seems church attendance is a spiritual discipline as well.”
Any parent of small children knows arriving to church—on time or otherwise—with children bathed, teeth brushed, hair combed, with matching clothing and shoes is a challenge to rival a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon.
For a season, I labeled my family the Barefoot Tribe because one or more of my crew walked through the doors of the church without shoes. When my young family arrived at church on Sunday mornings, often 15–20 minutes late, the smiles of those holding the doors open for us reminded me that the effort of getting there was worth it. When I peeked into the classrooms to see other children with bedhead hair and bare feet—it reassured me I was not alone in this sacrificial act of getting to church. When I slid into my seat to hear the final bars of the worship song and prepare my weary heart to hear the sermon, a quick glance around the room infused my soul to not give up.
Church attendance is a spiritual discipline. And like most disciplines, worth the effort.
Theologian Carmen Joy Imes writes, “Our embodiment facilitates community.” She continues, “If the purpose of our meetings is to teach or convey information, that can happen just as well on YouTube. But church is a whole lot more than that. Something happens when I show up to church and see you there. Gathering reminds us that we are in this together. We belong to one another.”
When we witness a baptism, we remember why we are followers of Christ. When we participate in communion, we are reminded of His grace and forgiveness.
When we pray for one another, we do what Paul instructed us to do in Galatians 6—to bear one another’s burdens.
Being a part of the local body of believers was critical for the early church and must carry equal weight for us today. If we lose the practice of meeting together, we lose much more than the habit of gathering.
In the book, My Name is Asher Lev, young Asher complains that his father is leaving again to assist the Russian Jews. His father responds, “To touch a person’s heart, you must see a person’s face. You cannot reach a soul through a telephone.”
We can’t bear the burdens of another through a comment thread. An expertly crafted and typed-up well-wish on social media falls flat next to eye contact, physical touch, and unrehearsed words of intercession.
Yes, the digital world is here to stay, and there are immeasurable ways we can resource it for kingdom purposes. But digital connections that fail to lead to physical connections are no connections at all.
Our family is back to being a part of a church small group. It’s not always easy to show up, but I’m thankful for the space to connect with other believers who face similar struggles as my own. This little slice of my local church loves me, prays for me, holds me accountable, and makes me look a little more like Jesus. And that is a spiritual discipline worth practicing.
And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near.