One of the ways western individualism informs how we think about church is that we conceive of “fit” in terms of how a church fits us. Does its worship style, architecture, preaching, values and demographic makeup fit well with our personality and preferences? This approach puts the burden on the church to adapt or perform to our liking if it wants to keep us around. But what if we have it backwards? What if the biblical approach is actually that we should fit ourselves into the life and mission of the local church, adapting ourselves to the family and filling gaps where needed, even if that means we are the ones who have to change? We shouldn’t look for a church that will change to fit us. We should look for one where we will be changed to better represent Christ.
I love the New Testament passages that describe the church in terms of stones. Peter says Christians are “like living stones” who are “being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5), with Christ as the cornerstone (2:6-7). Paul says similar things in Ephesians 2:19-22:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
The biblical image of the people of God is that we are stones being built together into a dwelling place. A dwelling place requires not one big stone but many pieces of stone, interlocked and fortified together. It’s not that the stones must lose their individuality or their unique textures or shapes; the image is not one of identical bricks or pre-fab concrete blocks. It’s just that only together do individual stones achieve the structural purpose of becoming the household of God. Each of us has unique gifts, but none of us is gifted in everything. Together our unique shapes compliment each other and create a more structurally sound “building.”
Sadly our individualistic culture seems more drawn to the “rolling stone gathers no moss” metaphor. Our heroes are the chameleonic artists and celebrities who refuse to be pinned down in style or genre or identity. We love the restless wanderers like Jack Kerouac and rogue subverters of convention like Jackson Pollock. We aren’t so compelled by the notion that our “individuality” should be a selfless thing worked out in and for a larger community. Yet that is the biblical ideal.
A Christianity that focuses too much on the individual journey and the “how is this growing me?” question easily becomes “sourly narcissistic” and “crowds out openness to the Spirit himself,” argues Gordon Fee. This is one of the reasons why committing to life in community, however uncomfortable it may be, is essential. Individualistic faith shrinks our experience of God and saps the full power of the Spirit in our midst. We thrive most when we live out faith in the presence of the family of God—in all their weirdness and wonderful diversity.
This post is an excerpt from my book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community (Crossway, September 2017).