Amelia Earhart made flight history when she flew solo in 1932 from Newfoundland across the Atlantic. We need determined individuals to pave the way forward. However, lest we forget, (and not to minimize Amelia’s feat) it took hundreds of years of trial and error, thousands of inventors who devoted their talents and skills to enable humans to be airborne, a number of investors, engineers, and flight controllers who built and guided the plane she flew. That’s a team the size of a Kansas town. Solo doesn’t come close to describe the efforts it took to fly solo. Plural is more like it.
In Christianity rugged individualism (this dogged determinism to do it my way, without help) is no friend of spiritual formation. In shaping our character, in walking with the Master no person is an island. Doing the Christian life solo is not an option. Spiritual formation beckons us to do life in community.
When it comes to our spiritual growth many of us are lonely. We know the depth of Paul Simon’s words in I Am a Rock: “Hiding in my room, safe within my womb, I touch no one and no one touches me.” The renovation of our soul happens best when we touch one another in groups where belonging and community prevail. Doing life together is spiritual formation’s bread and butter.
Africans have proverbs about the way the village raises its children. It also takes a village to raise a follower of Christ (Parents are primary, but grandparents, Sunday school teachers, aunts and uncles, pastors and youth leaders, etc... play a role). Spiritual formation tolerates no spirit of independence.
Shaping lives in the likeness of Christ is a multidirectional activity: Let us spur one another on to love and good works and thus to grow in Christ, enjoins the writer of Hebrews (10:24-25). When Peter commands “grow in the knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ our Savior” he uses the plural form of the verb to grow. The idea that spiritual formation happens best in groups is biblical and a way of life in church history.
Our God, who is Trinity, calls us and shapes our lives to become conformed to the image of his Son. This formation is done as the Holy Spirit acts in us as his individual and collective temple. Our Trinitarian God transforms us into his likeness individually (but never as separated from a community of believers). I am one member in the body of Christ. Most of the instructions for Christian living in Paul’s letters address groups. You is hardly ever singular.
Baby Boomers are attracted more by individualism than by plurality. The Marlboro Man fascinates us; that lonely figure who rides into the sunset with his cigarette as his only friend. We are attracted to the John Waynes, the Clint Eastwoods, the Colombos, and the Dirty Harrys of the cinema who personify rugged individualism. Trendle’s Lone Ranger attracts us with his mysterious private existence. This man whose name nobody knows, and who never takes his mask off, makes us wonder: “Who was that masked man?”, only to be told, “Why, he’s the Lone Ranger!” We build walls, “fortresses deep and mighty that none may penetrate” ... “I am a rock, I am an island”, we sing with our lives. Individualism hinders the spiritual formation in the church. A new day has dawned and by God’s grace younger generations know spiritual formation is a community affair.
We spend energy to hire the best preachers money can afford, we develop the best programs, we stage the greatest music for worship, we house these in the best brick and mortar dollars can buy, and not much of it has had a sustained record of success in changing our character or the character of the church or of society! Meanwhile, in the chair next to us, there is someone wondering: Where do I belong, how do I become Christ-like in my family, at work, and at church, and how do we do life together? How will we respond?
Reflection: What draws you into community? What hinders you?