When I was in seminary, one of the big shifts in my approach to reading the Bible came from a reminder that many professors and books would give us: the New Testament is, for the most part, written not to individuals but to churches. The words we find in the letters (or in the Gospels—Jesus is often speaking to crowds of people) are addressed to “us” not “me.” This reminder to consider the communal context of the Biblical text pushed us to think of God’s purposes in terms of a whole community of people being formed into the image of Christ, not just a bunch of individuals working out their own discipleship.
As someone who as a late teenager was prone to over-individualizing some of my devotional reading (especially latching on to promises about the Lord giving his people “the desires of your heart” at that stage of life when all we can see are the things that we want from life but don't yet have) this was a healthy corrective. It’s also important for broader reasons. Alone with my Bible and Jesus I can believe I’m doing well, while much of the Spirit’s fruit—patience, kindness, gentleness, and also forgiveness and brotherly love—either never grows or dies on the vine, because they all involve other people. It’s important to see that we aren’t called to a pious solitary life but to a rich and Christ-centred community in which his word dwells and where his peace permeates all that we do (Colossians 3:15-16).
Yet over the years I’ve also come to see that some of my generation’s emphasis on revitalizing community has involved an over-correction. We took the cautions against individualizing the gospel a step too far, and forgot that a renewed and transformed community life includes the renewal and transformation of the individuals who belong to it. Yes, we need to let Jesus lead us as communities, but we also need to give our own personal lives over to him in a deep way. The Christian with a Bible open in her lap, the Christian on his knees before the crucified and risen Jesus, the Christian paying attention to her life in such a way that it’s routinely in conversation with God (Psalm 139:23-24) should be the norm rather than the exception. And I’m not sure it is. In our zeal to say that the Christian life is more than private prayer and Bible reading (which is very true) we may have forgotten that personal prayer and Scripture are to be at the heart of our lives as they were of Jesus’. Kingdom work, which is often community work, is what we are to aim at, but we're only true Kingdom workers to the extent that we bring ourselves to willing submission to the King.
This personal engagement is why I continue to find myself enriched by the books of Eugene Peterson and Frederick Buechner. These two wise Christians knew that the life of Christ has to develop in each of our lives in personal ways—in my workplace and family and neighbourhood and church in different ways than yours. Peterson, as a long-time pastor, never lost sight of the community of the church, yet he seemed to know that some of the hardest work to be done was going to take place in the soil of your life and the soil of my life, not just in the soil of our church's life. And Buechner’s well-known dictum, “Pay attention to your life,” stands as a reminder that Jesus is interested in you and me, not just in us.
Recently we’ve seen a tragic string of stories of failure among Christians: leaders whose personal lives didn’t match up with either their public face or the seeming strength of the communities they led. Part of the problem is undoubtedly the lure of celebrity and power. But part of it might be simpler: the community’s cause and success can easily be separated from a life lived in honesty and humility—and obedience—before the Lord. Most of us are not now and never will be dealing with celebrity, but we too know the challenge of bringing our lives into a place of unity, where who we are in private matches who we are in public. Knowing that Jesus is the Lord of both our private life and our public life, and that he deserves our attention and devotion in both spheres, is a key for both our personal wholeness and our community’s witness.