“We want to be a New Testament church!”
I hear this sentiment popping up a lot lately. It’s one of the driving factors behind the new small-group ethos that has become popular in modern American churches of late – there’s more of an emphasis on communal spiritual growth, communal ministry, and communal evangelism than I ever remember seeing before. The thinking goes like this: because the New Testament believers lived together, prayed and ministered together, and spread the Gospel together, we should go and do likewise.
By itself, this is a noble aim. The New Testament church was full of active, dedicated believers who gave their lives to pursuing the cost of Christ. And the emphasis on “doing life together” – on sharing our Christian walk in an active way with others, and receiving spiritual growth from that – isn’t a bad thing. The Bible commands believers to gather together (Hebrews 10:25). In groups, we achieve far more in terms of ministry and outreach than we might individually. In groups, we give and receive comfort for grief and suffering and pain. In groups, we learn and celebrate together.
And yet this impulse to create Christian “togetherness” can also go astray when we value communal growth above all other kinds of spiritual growth. What once was a gentle encouragement to Christians – don’t go it alone! seek out fellowship! – has become a dictate. Fellowship has become the trend: the hot new way to be a committed Christian. Individual growth is encouraged in asides, but the bulk of most churches’ time and energy goes to small groups and communal studies, to bringing people together. And these communal activities are prized more than anything else. I recently heard a pastor preach from the pulpit that it was “impossible to grow spiritually when you are alone. God meant for us to learn in groups.”
And that’s where I draw the line.
It’s true that the Christian life is not always meant to be a solo affair. Teachers, pastors, fellow believers, even small groups: all of those things are a part of our faith community, and they can help us and grow us. But in elevating these, I fear that we dismiss what I perceive to be the fundamental necessity of individual solitude with God. By pretending that group growth is the best growth or the only way to grow, we’ll lose the inestimable value of solitary, individual connection to Christ.
Because individual spiritual growth and solitary time with God is Scriptural. Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16, emphasis mine; the Greek verb implies that this was a habitual act). Paul acknowledges in Galatians that after his conversion, “my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia” (1:15-17). Revelation came to John on the island of Patmos, to which he had presumably been exiled. In order to gain strength and wisdom to do what must be done, the Bible shows us that believers must turn to times of solitude with God.
And that’s just in the New Testament! The Old Testament is replete, too, with divine meetings that occurred only between individuals and the Lord. Moses spoke to God one on one in the tent of meeting (Exodus 33:11). The Psalms stem from intimate individual experiences with God. David, Elijah, Jacob, Abraham: all of these men had individual encounters with the divine. In fact, most of God’s significant revelations to and for his people come in these moments.
Solitude and an individual spiritual walk that occurs outside the communal gathering of the church is vital. Just as there are benefits from fellowship that an individual walk with Christ cannot replace, there are benefits from an individual walk with Christ that fellowship cannot replace. Every Christian believer should have the experience of being alone with God. It’s in those times that you can learn to hear God speak, that you can dwell in Him, that you can have your life richly filled with wisdom and with the Spirit. And those acts should be customary.
Solitude with God will not stunt our growth, but will hasten it. And if in our haste to resemble the “New Testament church” we abandon that practice, or relegate it as a second-tier form of growth behind group study and worship, we will miss all the blessings that we can only learn in the quiet places and the quiet moments where we are alone with God.