The Communal “We” and the Necessary “I”
by Karen K. Minnich-Sadler (November / December 2005 • Volume 21 • Number 6)
Keeping the communal and personal aspects of faith in balance is necessary for a rich understanding and practice of discipleship.
As I continue to grow and be transformed as a child of God, I can look back over my fifty-some years and see how my relationship to God, the world, and the people in it have gone through certain stages. I have watched others walk similar journeys and also have seen these changes reflected in society.
During the 1950s and 1960s, for example, U.S. society encouraged a type of relating that we still find mirrored in many of our congregations: to be in community means being of one heart, one mind, and one opinion. But societal expectations have been transformed so that now there generally exists a demand for people to be able to think, act, and relate as separate individuals, what we generally term self-differentiation.
For the church, this means that many persons no longer accept opinions on faith and doctrine simply because they are written down in a book or preached by a pastor. They want to come to an understanding of faith and life for themselves. This focus on the individual in our society requires the church to consider a stronger emphasis on the personal aspect of faith.
One strength of fundamentalist churches is that people are helped to make a close, personal connection to Jesus Christ, and this emphasis on personal relationship answers an emptiness that we in mainline congregations often do not know how to address. We speak freely in terms of discipleship journeys and of being the dearly beloved children of God, but we tend to avoid the word “personal” as though it has no part in our relationship with God.
In part, this is because of the experience of the church throughout history. We know what can happen when the personal is stressed and the communal neglected. Peculiar doctrines spring into being, and individuals or whole congregations develop theologies not faithful to Scripture.
There also can be a tendency to neglect mission and ministry. A theology of glory is used to attract people to a faith that focuses so much on one’s personal relationship with Christ that the other dimension of our faith — our relationship with this created world and the people in it — is either shallow or nonexistent.
We know how to stress the communal. Mainline congregations tend to do that well. But in a culture that is no longer steeped in the “we” of the 1950s and ’60s, stressing only the communal will leave people feeling cold.
We need both the communal and the individual, personal perspective. If people are to learn how to better live in community, if the people we are trying to reach are to gain a better understanding of how truly interdependent we are as the people of God, we cannot neglect their need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We need to learn how to address the personal without negating the communal. We need to be able to talk about a personal relationship with Christ that takes shape both within the privacy of our hearts and minds and within the relationships of the community that bears Christ’s name.
Overemphasizing either the personal or the communal does not give a complete picture of genuine discipleship. Jesus’ earthly life seemed to blend both the personal and communal. This pattern continued in the lives of the disciples, as we see clearly in the book of Acts. Peter, for instance, retires to a rooftop for solitude in prayer. Yet, we also know that whatever personal convictions these leaders of the church experienced as a result of their personal relationship with Christ were always worked out within the communal life of the church. Personal convictions were brought into communal life and, through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, became the way the church was continually reshaped and transformed.
One way I believe the Holy Spirit has reshaped my preaching is that, for the most part, I am not using the lectionary to select texts from which to preach. As I was praying about whether I should take this step, I came to understand that, because society is largely biblically illiterate, it would be advantageous to the congregation if I would instead focus on an entire book of the Bible for a period of time. I believed that this could provide continuity and a better opportunity for people to connect Scripture to the ongoing life of the church and to their own individual lives.
I asked the congregation to hold this change in preaching in their prayers. Together we would discern whether this was a good and right practice at this time in our lives. Their response has been overwhelmingly positive as God’s Word connects to our contemporary struggles in ways the congregation and I have found astonishing.
Keeping in mind the communal and personal aspects of faith as I preach also encourages parishioners to do the same. This includes connecting to the seasons of the church year in new and different ways. For instance, preaching on Nehemiah beginning in January and continuing throughout Lent provided a mirror for both Christ’s journey to the cross and our own struggles — communal and personal — which were significant at that time.
The Necessary “I”
Without a close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we cannot be the church. I believe that this is at the root of some of the challenges we face as the church continues to adapt to changes in society. We know that the communal is good, for without the communal we also cannot be the church. Yet there is a longing within people that goes unaddressed if we do not also lift up the personal, individual response to the presence of Christ in our lives. We need to discover how we as individuals fit into that overall picture of the church. It is a process in which the communal and the personal dimensions of faith cannot be separated, ignored, or understated.
The danger of ignoring the personal aspect of faith is that people neglect to nurture a deeper spiritual life of prayer, devotion, and personal pilgrimage. Thus they bring into the communal a faith that is often underdeveloped or untested, and their understanding of the communal aspect falls short of the rich life of faith and outreach Jesus has in mind for the people of God.
Integrating Faith and Practice
I entered seminary as a non-Lutheran. As I experienced weekly communion with the seminary community and saw people walking up to circle the altar, filling in the empty spaces in an ongoing dance of needing and receiving, I saw individuals who sometimes disagreed with one another, sometimes talked about one another, people of every size and shape and level of faith. I took myself and my need to that altar also, in a personal response to Christ, hearing, as I had never heard before, the words “for you.” There I also experienced community in a way that was so new and so profound that my life and faith were redirected.
Keeping the communal and personal aspects of faith in balance — or tension — will hopefully lead to a better understanding of discipleship in our own time and place. As faith deepens and people tune their hearts and minds to the power and presence of Christ who continues to be active in the church, in the world, and in individual lives, a greater understanding of what Jesus requires of the church slowly emerges.
This process takes time, and it cannot happen if the personal aspect of faith is ignored. The church cannot be transformed unless the individuals within it are also transformed. But amazing things can happen when a few transformed lives begin to talk freely about the excitement of faith, Scripture, and prayer, and how this has changed their personal understanding of faith and the presence of God in their lives. A congregation that emphasizes the personal as well as the communal, is one that has opened a door to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
Karen K. Minnich-Sadler is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Biglerville, Pennsylvania.