The Power of Community in Spiritual Formation

Discover how community plays a vital role in your spiritual growth, drawing on the teachings and life of Jesus to foster deeper faith and understanding.

This is an edited excerpt from Lost Faith by Seth Bouchelle.

Learning from the Sermon on the Mount

At the outset of all our church plants, groups begin reading scripture in the Sermon on the Mount. I think Matthew 5-7 is the clearest manifesto of a life built around the imitation of Christ. If there was a rule book on how to play Kingdom, these teachings would be at the center of it. When our church groups are first forming the way we engage scripture is built around a common set of questions. We begin by discussing things we are thankful for since our last meeting, then we ask what needs and struggles each of us have at the moment and how we might help one another meet those needs. These initial questions become the foundation around which the group begins to develop in faith. Following these we read scripture and ask four questions:

What does this teach us about who God is?

What does this teach us about life?

How will we put this into practice this week?

Who will we share this with?

Structuring gatherings around inductive and self-correcting dialogue with scripture as the authority, we create churches that are not only highly reproducible by everyday disciples, but which also are communities of praxis for those seeking to follow Jesus in order to determine whether or not they believe he is Christ and Lord. 

Spiritual Formation through Relationship

Our communities operate this way because we are attempting to replicate something we see in pedagogy of Jesus: a respect for relationships and communal discernment. Unlike so many philosophies of teaching employed in our world, Jesus’ is one in which we - as fellow human beings - are invited to be discoverers and participants. For every direct teaching like the Sermon on the Mount, there are parables and object lessons that we are invited to hear, if we have the ears to. For every new command, there is an interaction around a table that Jesus is calling us to interpret and respond to for ourselves. Jesus may frequently make an “I am” statement - “the bread of life,” “the good shepherd,” etc - but he also draws us into the conversation asking, “Who do you say that I am?” It is this collaborative and inductive style of formation that we seek to emulate in our disciple-making work. We do this because we see modeled in Jesus a way of teaching that embraces the relationships formed in community as the locus for discerning and working out the implications of the good news about God’s Kingdom. We refer to these best practices, in our own team’s work, as “discovery” and a “process orientation.” Both are important principles for disciple-making in our contemporary context.

Facilitating Connection through Story

When this sort of culture is utilized in the disciple-making process, it not only shapes the content and style of our teaching to closer resemble what we see in scripture - one with the relational nature of human beings as central to our identities - it also facilitates a way of being church that fosters and empowers the priesthood of all believers. So when a new disciple seeks to process what she’s learning in scripture with others at work or on her block, she doesn’t need years of seminary training or a set of lesson plans to gather everyone around scripture and ask questions. And she doesn’t have to be intimidated about not having all the answers to everyone’s inquiries because she is not expected to be the center of authority and knowledge. She is able to facilitate the discovery and mutual seeking of her friends, and do so in a way that respects their prior knowledge and experiences as partners in a dialogue. I often will walk into a friend’s place of business and heard them telling a customer one of the parables that I told a few days before, and they are asking them, “What do you think this story is supposed to teach about how to live? What is this saying about who God is?” This is not a bait and switch question pushing another person toward conversion, it is a genuine example of people connecting around a story and seeking together to discover answers. 

Balancing Solitude and Community: The Rhythm of Spiritual Growth

As we seek to emulate the life of Jesus, we do so not as individuals but in community. And what we see in Jesus’ own person is a balance of community and solitude. He often withdraws so that he can then engage. He gives and reveals of himself, but then he must go away or move on to the next town. And in the communities he forms, the very nature of the relationships works to facilitate the communal discernment of how to live in Kingdom together. These gatherings must be made up of individuals who are deeply grounded in solitude, who know their own calling and identity before God, but who come together ready to discover and learn from one another. This is a body formed by Christ, it is a body which seeks to imitate Christ. This way of - while grounded in a contemplative attention to God - seeking after and imagining together an alternative to the order of things is what we call, “Church.” It is how we seek to form communities who are like Jesus in our world.

Want to take the next step toward formation in community?

Sermon on the Mount is a free resource designed to help you and your community discover simple practices to encounter Jesus in a fresh way.

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