No inner journey, however rich it may be, can replace a life in Christian community. Followers of Jesus are called to others—called to eat with them, to drink with them, to feast and fast with them, to laugh and weep with them, to read and pray with them.
Many leaders experience this truth intuitively. However, we need to discover it intentionally. So how do we move from hoping that one or the other of this vital, two-pronged spiritual life will simply “happen,” to beginning to foster it? Without any suggestion these are the only practices to encourage, here are three things I am learning about encouraging our inner lives of devotion to intentionally mesh with our outer lives of community:
1. Let life start with you—and talk about it.
The temptation to fake spiritual maturity is persistent and venomous. Reject false appearances. There is no shortcut to true life. It grows organically. It cannot be forced or forged. It can only be encouraged and fostered. Embark on a continually deepening process of knowing yourself. Give yourself permission to set aside time for quiet. Invite the perspective of a trusted friend; “Where in my life can I grow?” is a powerful question.
Introspect—but with intention. Carefully consider how your personal devotional life and your life in community measures up to Jesus as the standard of spiritual maturity. In life and ministry, the Messiah showed us what it meant to live and work in the balance of personal prayer and community connection. Imitating him gives practical form to the doctrines of Christianity, and it sets a concrete, practical pattern for the people in your life to observe and imitate. “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1, and in being a learner-leader, sets the pattern for true Christian ministry. Leaders are not experts of the Way, they are fellow experiencers of it, offering themselves as examples of the trial and error of living in faith.
Ask “Who am I imitating?” and “Am I allowing myself to be seen in my real-life settings by those I care for?” Consider your internal life of devotion and your external life of prayer, and open yourself to true growth. Let life start with you.
Then, talk about it. Don’t showboat your spirituality, but make intentional links between the individual devotional lives of yourself and your people, and your group’s life together. Trace how any growth is our collective growth, and how our collective growth can support each of our individual spiritual lives.
2. Understand Christ as the goal of Christian life.
Building on Paul’s “imitation” language, embrace the true, clear goal of Christian faith—to be conformed to the image of Jesus. This is presented again by Paul in Ephesians with an intentional blurring of the line between individual and corporate. Ruminate on this mighty passage:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Eph. 4:11–16, emphasis added).