Why Christianity Must Be Both Personal and Public

From beginning to end, the Bible is the story of God’s dream for all things and all people. The vision it presents is undeniably global, cosmic and universal.

And yet, for all that, I am continually gripped by how the Scriptures never lose sight of the individual. One of the things I particularly love about reading the Gospels is the attention they give to names. Peter and Andrew. James and John. Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Mary Magdalene. “Blind” Bartimaeus. Zaccheus the tax collector. Philip and Nathanael. Names, stories and personal histories—forever altered by the wonderful and surprising encounter with the Lord.

As a pastor of more than a decade, I’ve come to the conviction that when our ministries are functioning at their best, the personal and public dimensions of faith will not antagonize but rather complement each other.

JUST ME AND JESUS?

My own faith was reared in evangelical and charismatic circles, which laid heavy emphasis on having a personal relationship with Jesus. We talked often about inviting Jesus into our hearts and working on our walks with the Lord and so on. As such, the focus of our ministries was helping the highest number of people enter into their own individual relationship with Jesus.

A (surely unintended) consequence of this was that it diminished our sense of the greater story and mission to which we belonged. Sometimes it badly warped it. Our understanding of what it meant to be the church had collapsed into one dynamic of the Lord’s mission.

Somewhere along the line, that collapse of the mission unsettled me. The body of Christ, as I saw it in Scripture, did not exist exclusively to help get butts into the seats of heaven. And the mission of Jesus, so far as I could tell, included more than facilitating large numbers of highly personal, interior encounters with God.

My theological studies later confirmed my discomfort. We are saved, I learned, not simply by the community of faith but into the community of faith, which we will never leave behind. And we are saved not merely for a personal relationship with Jesus but for the purpose of the great mission that Jesus calls us into—together. The thought gripped me that the Church had a greater purpose than I had been told: nothing less than joining God in the healing of the nations. A bracing thought.

With that in mind, my wife and I moved to Denver in 2009 to help our friends with a new missional church plant in the heart of the city. Full of energetic young social activists, musicians and artists eager to see their faith make a difference in the world, the community, it seemed to me, was prime ground to work out many of these ideas. With passion, I preached and taught about the great renewal of all things, about the resurrection life that had been released into the church and about our communal identity as the heralds and bearers of the New Creation. I expected that the preaching of these great themes was enough to get the job done.

I was sorely disappointed.

AND YET … IT IS ABOUT ME AND JESUS

Several years into the plant, it was not at all evident to me that we were running into the mission with any more fervor than when we started. In fact, in some ways it seemed like we were losing ground. I looked around at a congregation that was suffering from what I could only describe as mission fatigue and I wondered where I had gone wrong.

Over time I began to see that I had overcorrected. Instead of expanding our congregation’s understanding of salvation’s horizon, I had substituted it, trading the personal and private for the communal and public. That was wrong of me. It was unfair to those precious people and, as it turns out, deeply unhelpful for our congregation as a whole. When I began turning my attention afresh to the personal and private dimensions of faith, the community responded accordingly. A sense of life and vitality returned, and with it, a new energy for serving the Lord in corporate and public ways.

I want to suggest that among the many occupational hazards for missional church planters and practitioners, a common one is the hazard of over-correcting in the way I have described. When we do, we rob our people of a precious piece of their inheritance as sons and daughters of the living God.

I have come to believe that losing a robust sense of the personal dimension of faith is not just detrimental but fatal to our ministries and the people we serve. Think for a moment: What was it that drew you to the church and launched you out on the quest of faith in the first place? Wasn’t it the face and voice of the Lord, addressing you personally? And what has sustained it to this very day? Is it not the strength and tenderness of his love for you, accessed in daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute interactions?

Sometimes I fear we forget this. In our zeal to prevent people from falling into an “it’s just me and Jesus” mushiness, we neglect or (worse) disparage the very thing that makes corporate and public faith possible in the first place: the call of the Lord to the individual. Karl Barth reminds us:

“But when all is said and considered, we have to add at once that the creaturely subject constituted in the being and work of Jesus Christ and awakened as such by the power of the Holy Spirit is in the last resort the individual Christian in the act of his personal faith. The humanity and world loved by God, fallen from Him and reconciled by Him to Himself, lives in individual men and their particular creatureliness and sin. And the community founded and preserved and ruled by Jesus Christ in the world lives in individual Christians and the multifarious but unitary activity of their faith.” —CD IV/1, p. 751 (emphasis mine)

The corporate and public are achieved not in spite of, or at the expense of, but precisely through the personal and individual.

WHEN PRIVATE INTIMACY FEEDS PUBLIC FAITH, BEAUTY EMERGES

When Christianity is at its best, these dimensions of faith sit amicably together. Larry Hurtado, in a study entitled Why On Earth Did Anyone Become A Christian In The First Three Centuries? ventures that it was precisely the personal and affective dimensions of faith that captured and kept people in the revolutionary new Christian movement in the first three centuries, in spite of considerable disincentives like ostracization from one’s family and friends, persecution at the hands of authorities, and, for some, martyrdom.

Taking the Apostle Paul’s conversion to Christianity as a test case, Hurtado writes that “this event apparently produced a vibrant sense of being thereafter in what for Paul was a powerful relationship with Christ” (p. 118) which motivated his missionary activity. He goes on to note that “what was offered in early Christianity that was distinctive to it, what was otherwise not readily available, and so may have been for some people sufficiently attractive to prompt them to make a Christian commitment … were certain beliefs or teachings” (pp. 121-122) about the kind of God they had encountered in the person of Christ; foremost among which was that this God revealed in Christ “sought (and even demanded) a loving relationship with people, in which a corresponding love … was the central responsibility” (p. 125)—an idea virtually unheard of in the ancient world. He adds that this vision of a loving God who sought direct relationship with people was “incredible to some … powerfully winsome to others” (p. 126).

Christian history bears robust witness to this. From Justin Martyr to Perpetua and Felicitas to Augustine to Patrick to Bernard of Clairvaux to Francis of Assisi to Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection to some of the great saints of our present time like Corrie ten Boom, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu—do a little digging and you will find that these (and so many others like them) led public lives of great beauty and courage precisely because of a private faith nourished and sustained by love of the Lord who first called them.

As a pastor, I have found that I cannot preach on this often enough, just as I cannot preach on the corporate and public dimensions of faith often enough. What is more, I have found that when I am preaching them right, they do not sit in any kind of antagonism or competition with one another. The Lord who meets us in the prayer closet is the same one who joins us together with his mystical body, the church, and calls us into the city streets with cold water, kind words, and compassion. The Lord whose tender voice awakened our hearts when we first heard it is the same one who lovingly addresses us in the gathering of the faithful and daily sends new strength into our souls as he calls us to stand up for the orphaned, widowed and oppressed. The Lord whose face we seek in the quiet of the morning baptizes our eyes so that we can see him in the faces our brothers and sisters at the table and in those of battered women, migrant families and children whose homes have been torn by strife.

LET THE HIGHLY PERSONAL JESUS LEAD YOU INTO GREATER MISSION

Without his daily, gentle, highly personal provocation, our engagement with the mission falls to pieces. So preach it. Preach him. Never tire of telling those you shepherd that Jesus saw them “under the fig tree” before their friends invited them to church. Never consider it beneath your theological acumen or your church’s missional IQ to teach them—again and again and again—the simplicity of practicing the presence of God. Never stop reminding them that the Lord knows their name and their story and values them for who they are. And do it all with a view toward the great corporate and public realities that our lives are situated within—the coming kingdom of God.

Your church and your ministry will be healthier for it, and the world will be better for it.

Andrew Arndt is a teaching pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he also co-hosts The Essential Church Podcast, a weekly podcast dedicated to provoking and strengthening the thinking of local church and ministry leaders. This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org.