Thoughts on Spiritual CommunityBy Nathan Mates
Originally published in University Presbyterian Church's One Purpose journal.
Videogames (which I write as a day job) tend to be manifestly "unfair" to the player-- it's usually a lone hero (or small band of heros) up against a million enemies, and the hero must defeat them by the skin of his teeth. Same as with most action movies-- things look real bad for quite a while, with the enemies outnumbering and outgunning the good guys. The Bible has similar stories-- David killing the much larger Goliath, Jonathan and his armor bearer taking on a much larger force and defeating them (1 Samuel 14:1-14), Gideon defeating tens of thousands with an army of three hundred (Judges 7).
We've seen such things many times over the years, but there's a bit of a lesson we forget to take away from them: that one can and should use what one has available at the time to do what one can. Unlike videogames, God is on our side. While things may look poor for us, we have the greatest source of power in the universe with us. And, as was the case with Gideon, God sometimes reduces our own strengths to make things all the more apparent that it was God's power that turned the tide of battle.
Some may rightly point out that warfare is slightly different than community, with good measure-- in a war, a lot end up dead. In community, that's not a desired goal. However, I believe a lot of the attitudes one enters either situation with has a huge effect on the outcome. Many would like things to be going better now, so that success would be more certain-- either a few more tanks in a war, or a better community now. Others get nostalgic for things-- they think "we had a great community at time/place XYZ, but we don't have any of the ingredients anymore."
However, in all these situations, I believe that the principle of making the best of what's available is critical-- in real life, God has placed us in certain positions, and he knows we can handle it. It may be that we need to pray for such a community before it'll happen. It may be that we need to simply stop romanticizing the past and get up and do something new (1 Samuel 16:1). It may be that some action on our part is necessary now. In all cases, our attitude should be a case of praying "God, what do you want me to do right now?" Then do it, even if it's not something we expected. In my experience, many times, God'll tell you to do something, then keep prodding and/or not mentioning much else until I do what I've been told to do. If you're not hearing much, it may be worth it to refresh your memory of what you've been told to do, and not yet done.
That being said, what does a spiritual community look like? I'd say that many of the Apostle Paul's writings give us important guidelines. In the middle of a chapter on spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12), Paul has what seems to be a diversion-- talking about the importance of all the parts of the body (1 Cor 12:12-27). I believe its positioning is critical-- there are spiritual gifts (prophecy, healing, etc) that tend to be rated as "cool." However, there's a lot of other gifts (service, generosity, etc) that don't rate as highly. And, there are many who may not yet know what their gift is. But, Paul says "that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other." [1 Cor 12:25]
That is a prime characteristic of a spiritual community-- that people do not pick favorites, or help those that seem better than others. We are all in this together, and a problem that affects one does make the whole suffer. Having people that you're closer to than others is natural (Jesus did that too-- John 13:23, 20:2, 21:7 and 21:20). However, that closeness shouldn't prevent caring for others.
Another characteristic of a spiritual community is that we encourage each other to grow closer to God. Sometimes that comes from encouraging a deeper commitment to prayer and reading the Bible. Sometimes that comes from getting involved in others' lives and saying "you can do better." Sometimes, that can be in just hanging out and demonstrating Godly love in their life-- many know it exists, but haven't received much at all. Sometimes, it may even come from reminding them of sin in their life, that they are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), and that they are to put away habitual sins in their life-- saying "go and sin no more," while being an encouragement when they make progress, and there to help if they fail.
In all of these areas, everyone's roles may be varied. Going back to Paul's words on the body, remember that it is wrapped by the discussion on spiritual gifts. Not everyone will receive every gift. [1 Cor 12:11] Not everyone will have the same part to play in the building up of a community-- there is no "one size fits all" role to play. Our roles can and probably will change over time as well, especially in a community like ours when many graduate and move on. As said above, our attitude needs to be in continual connection to God in prayer, asking "God, what do you want me to do right now?"