Last Sunday as we gathered for worship at First Baptist Church – Columbus I noted at least nine persons in our midst who’d not been able to attend in some time. These individuals, couples and households, each have overcome something (either that very day, or over the past days, weeks or months) that kept them from worship with our faith community. It may have been bereavement (the difficulty of going to worship for the first time as a widowed person), or an ongoing illness or health struggle (that makes mornings especially difficult), or a “come back” from a life threatening scenario. For the purpose of this post the specifics of what these persons are dealing with is secondary to the fact that they were able to come – seeking to be in community with fellow Christ followers for worship on a Sunday morning. I know that my spirit was lifted just seeing their individual and collective faces amidst the congregation.
Community matters – it makes a difference – it is important. But community is a largely undervalued aspect of the Christ-following experience in middle class America. We tend to so completely embrace our freedoms and individuality, variously disguised as the personal pursuit of happiness in a consumer culture; that we forget one of those freedoms is the freedom to assemble and worship as we choose. We overlook the element of “together” and what it brings to our faith. Catholic theologian and author Richard Rohr laments: “The primary philosophical and spiritual problem in the West is the lie of individualism. Individualism makes church almost impossible. It makes community almost impossible.” (Source: Everything Belongs, p 79).
The faith Jesus taught, modeled and lived is a together faith – a together spirituality – based in community. It’s a faith built around abiding or dwelling with God. It’s a faith where (Jesus said) “two or three (who) are gathered in my name” are given the promise of the “I am” being with us.
Those who’ve been without community, because of circumstances beyond their control, often speak of it’s importance when they are able to return to it. Sometimes they even hasten that return, knowing it will provide solace and healing that no pharmacy can dispense or physician prescribe. But the truth is that by their very presence, they are bringing fullness back to the community that has suffered their absence. They are bearing witness to our collective experience in the Spirit. They are embodying the body of Christ.
It’s for these reasons I wish persons who’ve faded away from our faith communities, or outright chosen to neglect their participation, would be able to see how they are missed. Not missed as a statistic that goes into the worship attendance record, but missed as part of the covenant community of mutual promise and livelihood that has gone on record to love God and love one another.
Why does it so often take our inability to congregate, brought on by a crisis or circumstance not of our choosing; to remind us of how precious such times of communal gathering can be? Would that we might never be in the position to find out the answer to such a question, but if we are – may our separation be only temporary, and our faith once again strengthened by a fresh embrace of together.
All of these thoughts raced and rattled through my head as I prepared to lead worship this past Sunday; looking out on a congregation that I am better for being part of – remembering other congregations that have loved, shaped and molded me along the way. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of community.