That They All May Be One
Perspective on strong spiritual culture at a congregational level
It’s the only recorded prayer Jesus made for us who would follow him later: that we all would be one (John 17:21), that we would find the same unity among us that he knew of himself and his Father. Yet the church of Jesus today is hardly unified; in fact, many conservative Christians regard notions of unity with significant suspicion. Especially in the West, our philosophy and theology have been deeply formed by a humanist society that serves the fractionating gods of self-determination and self-actualization. We’ve come to understand culture, even church culture, as a restrictive and discriminatory social expectation–and many of us resent it a little. We’d much rather believe in a God who recognizes our individual worth and agency. He does, of course. Yet God knew that His people were too small to individually complete the immense task He had assigned them. Rather, He intended that we work together.
Christians have conceptualized congregation in a wide variety of ways, and while I’m not prepared to argue the point here, I am persuaded that the shapes and sizes of most of them are acceptable to God. The primary goal of congregation is to create a cohesive group that provides support for its constituents’ common aims—the aims of “one body and one spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4, 5).
It’s no secret that strong groups are characterized by a sort of uniform culture. After all, a group by its very definition must have at least one common characteristic, and the more cohesive a group is, the deeper and more extensive its members’ shared traits will be. Furthermore, and perhaps more pertinently, similarity produces cohesion. This isn’t just a fairy tale spun by fanciful elves in hardline conservative churches; it’s a wider conclusion supported by a growing number of secular sociologists (see e.g. Whitehouse and Lanman, pp. 674-675). Thus, a group with a well-developed culture—one that cultivates common practices and beliefs—will almost certainly become more connected and thus more effective in its mission.
Faced with this kind of proposition, many modern Christians balk: similarity may strengthen nonreligious organizations, but shouldn’t the church’s unity come from the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of its members? Such an objection fails to take into account that the Spirit does indeed work in—and through—those lives. Since God expects us to work together, we in turn should expect that He has given us the resources that will make cooperation rewarding.
Then what type of cooperation should church members exhibit toward each other? Plenty of Anabaptist churches have encouraged a degree of surface-level cooperation—not all have become spiritual powerhouses. I suspect many of these efforts fail because they emphasize physical assimilation at the expense of interest in deeper connection. Not that simple cosmetic similarity is inherently wrong or unhelpful; however, a consistent congregation without the distinctive unifying power of God is no better off than a local chapter of the Lions’ Club. The church’s goal is not exterior conformity but total transformation through union with and within Christ (cf. Romans 12:2). So a congregation should cultivate the common characteristics that lead to that goal. Thus, a strong spiritual culture ought to be the foundation of congregational development.
What behaviors cultivate or constitute spiritual culture?
So how does a spiritual culture look? What characteristics encourage a journey toward transformative union? It’s important to remember that to grow collectively, a congregation needs more than a series of simultaneous changes. Such growth must be driven by a shared pursuit of a single goal, and the members involved in it grow closer to each other as they strive for that goal. This shared pursuit involves the congregation encouraging spiritual growth in an actively collective way; it is distinct from a communal encouragement of strictly personal growth. However, practices that encourage personal spiritual growth will often encourage a culture of collective growth as well.
What should this collective transformation look like? There are three important facets to it. First, our growth must be toward God if we are to expect any sort of union with Him. Second, our growth must be inward—that is, within ourselves and among ourselves—if we believe that we will all share equally in this union. Finally, we must also grow outward into our respective communities, enlarging the community of God to include others who were once “far off” (Ephesians 2:13). To be sure, these categories are not always readily distinguishable, but certain practices lend themselves especially to each and are worth considering in that light.
Spiritual growth in the Godward dimension is fueled by intentional worship. That is, our lives as Christians ought to be formed by worship, and every part of them can spur growth toward God. But we find Him by far most readily in our times of dedicated search. Relationship with God, like any other meaningful relationship, takes time and effort, focus and respect—an opening of ourselves to His Word and will. As we read and study the Bible with this openness, our lives are drawn into the mystery of God’s truth. When we spend time together over the Word, we can all be drawn toward Him simultaneously. Certainly He will speak particular truth to each individual; yet He speaks just as particularly to the body as a whole, bringing all together into a deeper relationship with Himself. Similarly, when we meditate on God’s attributes and work, and when we praise and thank Him in prayer or song, we confess our personal inadequacy and need of His abundant grace. When we do the same thing corporately, we remind ourselves both that God’s wisdom and direction are needed at every level and that He has always been able to provide them to us. A spiritually cultured congregation, then, is one that dedicates significant time to Godward growth through Bible reading, meditation, and praise.
Inward spiritual growth is cultivated through mutual edification, that is, through the believers building each other up within the body. One of the best Scriptural examples of this process is glimpsed in Acts 2, where the (brand-new) church comes “together in one accord” from all kinds of ethnicities and backgrounds, “breaking bread from house to house” (v. 46). Of course, this kind of growth takes time as well; the trust required to build honest, supportive relationships doesn’t often spring up overnight. To grow inwardly, a congregation must encourage fellowship between its members. A major component of this fellowship ought to be regular observance of the rituals of the faith, particularly of the Lord’s Supper and foot washing. Theologians have ascribed various levels of Godward significance to these rituals, but they are really inwardly significant, with an innate focus on both the equality and unity of participants. When we partake in the Lord’s body and blood (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16), we must realize that His sacrifice has brought us together into the same family.
Exhortation is another part of inward growth. Many conservative Christian groups equate exhortation with traditional preaching, which is one mode of it. However, preaching is by no means a believer’s only way to encourage, admonish, or reprove his brother (in fact, the Bible holds up preaching rather as a mode of reaching the lost [1 Corinthians 1:21]). Exhortation can take any number of humbler forms, within a public gathering or outside it: a personal testimony of God’s work, a fresh revelation from a well-loved passage of Scripture, a smile and a reminder of God’s promises.
A third aspect of inward growth—one that is key to trust—is personal accountability and confession. Not only does confession often bring freedom to the wayward member, but it also gives the community a chance to expand its gifts of discipline and restoration. In sum, then, a congregation with strong spiritual culture values fellowship in equality and honesty and takes steps to preserve it.
Finally, no congregation could be complete without outward spiritual growth: the pursuit of new conquests for the King of kings. Christian community is an important part of God’s plan for building His new kingdom on earth. One important part of this work is intercessory prayer and fasting for needs in the world around us. Jesus promised that when His people pray together, He will act (Matthew 18:19). Again, we must set aside time for outward-focused collective prayer. Furthermore, we ought to regularly and directly engage people around us with the good news of Jesus Christ. Doing this together helps to prevent disillusionment or burnout in difficult settings. Corroborating witnesses can also be very convincing. A complementary aspect of outward growth is a call to generosity and hospitality. Each Christian is accountable for his own time, money, and other resources; yet they can often be much more effective in combination with those of his fellows. A strong spiritual culture within a congregation, then, cultivates real compassion and love for those outside.
To recap: A strong spiritual culture enables a congregation to grow in their vertical relationship with God, in their inward relationship with each other, and in their outward relationship to the broader world. In future articles, I intend to expand some of the themes I’ve touched on here, notably the double-edged potential of external similarity and the importance of creating a culture that welcomes outsiders.
I can’t pretend that I am the model Christian or that my church is the ideal congregation. Besides, while I have experiential basis for much of what I’ve written here, I won’t claim that I do my part to execute it well. How does your congregation develop spiritual culture? Let me know in the comment section.