After Hurricane Katrina passed through my state in 2005, I was selected to be a research subject for a study conducted by Harvard Medical School. At regular intervals following the storm, researchers called to ask me a set of questions about my mental and emotional health, as well as my social support system. Each time, the caller asked: “How many people in your community would you be comfortable asking to borrow a cup of sugar?” I would answer: “Let’s see, about 100?” That question was always followed by: “How many people in your community would you be comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings with?” I would answer: “The same.”
My answer to those two questions is an important clue to my identity. The reason I have such a sizable collection of sugar-lending, accessible friends is because I belong to a local church. The truth is, never once—in storm or sunshine—have I been alone in the world, and no Christian ever has, at least not in the deepest sense. Our identities hinge on the precious truth that belonging to Christ means we also belong to everyone else who belongs to him. In Christ, we are not simply individuals; we are joined to what Peter calls a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9).
In our individualistic culture, to say that my identity is necessarily connected to the people in my church is hardly popular. Our unbelieving friends and neighbors often reject the significance of membership in a local church and minimize it as a “personal choice.” Although those of who profess faith might distance ourselves from this secular, postmodern perspective, nonetheless we, too, sometimes find ourselves vulnerable to four pervasive untruths:
My relationship to God is strictly personal.
Like most seductive untruths, this one has a kernel of truth in it. Each one of us must repent of sins and trust in Christ (Mark 1:15). Each of us ought to study God’s Word and pray in private (Ps. 119:11; Matt. 6:6), and each one should rejoice in the precious fact that her name is written in heaven (Luke 10:20). Yes, our relationship to God is personal. But we lose our identity when we believe our relationship to God is only personal.
Sociologist Christian Smith studied the religious lives of American young adults and found that many of them think “each individual is uniquely distinct from all others and deserves a faith that fits his or her singular self . . . [and] that religion need not be practiced in and by a community.” To these millennials and many others, faith is strictly personal, and any type of “organized religion” runs contrary to authentic spiritual experience.
Others of us fall prey to the idea that we feel closer to God when we’re alone on the beach or hiking in the woods than we do in church. Although we can certainly experience his presence in other places, anytime we believe our spiritual condition is qualitatively better—more real, more fruitful, more profound—apart from the church, we’ve lost our true identity.
Read more at Christianity Today