Often in our thinking about spiritual growth, we tend to stay fixed on our personal, individual relationships with God. Because of the shaping of perspective we have received from an individualistic western culture, it is more difficult to imagine (1) God having a relationship with a community, but in fact, much of the Bible assumes this very point. When God speaks, he speaks most often to the people as a whole. It means that (2) the community is a something together that we are not merely as a collection of individuals who happen to share the same interests.
In Exodus 19:5-6, we find the foundation text: "Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be more me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation." There is much to ponder in these short verses, but right now let's train attention on how God's people are a something together. You notice I said "are," not "were." The New Testament picks up this exact vision for the church in 1 Peter 2:9, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people..." This word extends to us in the present. Christians are a something together more than simply a collection of individuals sharing a common interest.
And one more crucial scripture that drives the point even closer to home, Ephesians 4:13, 'Until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ." This is how the New Revised Standard Version reads, which I think is very helpful. The literal Greek rendering of "maturity" is "to a mature man" (eis andra teleion - andra is the singular of "man"), but the "all of us" clearly indicates that Paul speaks not to an individual person, but to the whole congregation of the Ephesians.
Thinking about the singular andra, though, helps us grasp something important about the group. For a long time, as I have thought about college student experience, I have been aware of the shaping power of campus climate or culture. In spite of the fact that a college campus is a very diverse and variegated place, a set of values - an ethos - draws members of that diverse community into a something that is different than simply gathering up all the disparate elements in a quantitative way. A group has an identity. This fact gives the group a personal dimension. It is why, from a legal point of view, a corporation has the status of "person," does it not?
There are many implications to this point about the group becoming spiritually mature. One has to do with how we understand "church," which would take us into questions about all the different denominations, for instance. The ecumenical movement once was very strong, but the leading organizations have faded, even though conversations between representatives of various churches go on. We should keep asking ourselves how it is that we are one, yet so fragmented.
But in this post I want to draw the thought much closer to home, to where we live and to think about the people we interact with regularly as part of the same body. It may be a congregation. It may be a campus ministry group. It may be some other, like a Sunday School class. Think of where you recognize and locate your primary identity.
Imagine that group growing together as a group to maturity. What is needed?
Remember, "maturity" is the English word for teleion in the Greek phrase above, a term that I talk about constantly. It means to become fully grown, to arrive at the goal of an adult version of Christian discipleship. While we are individually responsible for engaging in growth-producing practices, we do this work together.
May I meddle without causing too much offense by offering an uncomfortable example of immaturity? How many times have I heard across the decades an adult church member say, "I usually get more out of the children's message than I do the grown-up sermon?" What is that person saying? Probably, one of two things. It might be that the adult sermons are dissatisfying, which, I admit, is quite possible (no offense to any of my pastor/preacher friends, but we do need to up our preaching game). It might also be - and I'm afraid this is too often the case - a revelation that the church is full of badly underdeveloped church members.
Bear with my bluntness. If you find yourself recoiling at this thought, I ask you to look carefully at what this example suggests about the condition of our contemporary church. Take Hebrews 5:12-13, "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, being still an infant who is unskilled in the word of righteousness." If we are infants in the Word, we need the milk, but we need to keep growing toward the solid food. If God is speaking to us through the Bible, then we see a vision for adult discipleship that should provoke us to a commitment to grow, no matter what.
What if a group decided together to aim at the maturity exhorted in Holy Scripture? What if a whole congregation agreed to this aim? A campus ministry? How would they get started? I recommend starting with searching the scriptures to see if these things be so. You don't have to take my word for it. But, discovering that this goal of corporate maturity is biblical, we then could turn to asking, "How?" How, in practical ways, do we help each other grow?
The answer to that question brings us back to the well-known phenomenon of small groups. Every congregation that thrives has a robust small group component. But(!) it is not enough to have small groups as part of the picture. Having small groups that clearly understand their purpose as mutually helping the group grow to maturity is what makes small group ministry effective for God's Kingdom.
Having that kind of small group calls for certain dispositions from members. We need to be willing to share transparently. To be sure, these groups are not therapy sessions except in the biblical sense that salvation includes healing of all kinds. People need not hang out their dirty laundry. Some training is necessary to help group members understand the limits of what to share and how to share. Too much extended personal sharing leads down an unfruitful path and subtly changes the group's purpose toward helping someone cope or feel better rather than grow. The blessing of an eased, unburdened mind is a natural by-product of the needed transparency, while keeping the main goal of growth toward maturity always in view.
It also means that every member of the group counts. This in turn means that we don't overlook anyone and that, conversely, no one gets to just ride along without taking responsibility for the group. We can see both the beauty and the challenge of working together as a group with this goal in mind, but if you've ever had a taste of it, you know how exciting and vibrant being part of this sort of group is.
Along the same lines, small groups need to understand that their life connects them to a much larger whole, beyond their local circumstances and organizations. Their growth locally contributes to the health of the larger body, even to parts of the body we have never encountered. (This is the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes!) We are linked to people that we've never met and never will meet. We are part of the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints. We belong to a people who encircle the globe, who speak many different languages with many different traditions. Growing to maturity calls for more careful (mature!) thinking about who we are together and how personal growth contributes to the whole.
But this is enough for now. If, on reflection, you find that you do tend to think of your Christian identity exclusively in terms of your personal relationship with God and then extending that sense no further than your closest Christian friends, I invite you to think about your identity in view of the scriptural teaching on the people of God. Read several chapters around Exodus 19. Read all of I Peter or Ephesians and ponder what it means that God, through the writer, addresses the whole group, including the group with which we identify the most strongly.