Los Angeles Christian Counseling
Of all the experiences in seminary, the courses on systematic theology, the counseling courses, counseling internships, and church history exams the most valuable “educational” experience for me was simply practicing my faith in the context of a seminary community.
I had decided fairly early on that I would challenge myself to grow in my interpersonal weaknesses during my years as a student of clinical counseling. I thought that if I am going to “help” people as a therapist I would need to have any personal hindrances processed.
Of course, now I realize the idealism in that statement because we are not a finished work until Christ returns, but I took seriously the call of a counselor to be in full service of the client’s process. As a result of my focus on existing in community, those years in seminary were invaluable to my spiritual development.
I have since found that according to Scripture we were made to grow only in community. Richard Hays writes “The church is a countercultural community of discipleship, and this community is the primary addressee of God’s imperatives.”
What he means by this is that obedience to Christ’s commands must come from the community, not just the individual. For instance, we see this in the Bible because the Pauline epistles are written to address churches, not individuals.
Hays continues, “The community, in its corporate life, is called to embody an alternative order that stands as a sign of God’s redemptive purposes in the world.” The people of God are to be a display of another way. The practice of reading “we” in the New Testament over an “I” would suit us well in the quest to capture the accuracy of Christ’s words to us.
Hays adds that “community” is not merely a “concept; it points to the concrete social manifestation of the people of God.”
Bonhoeffer also writes:
Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.
Community is not our idea of what it should be, but a “reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” Any other form apart from the person of Christ would be manufactured. Bonhoeffer continues to write about how gratitude ought to characterize our posture toward the community over superimposing our expectations on what the community should be.
When it comes to church participation American Christians possess particular ideas and opinions about what a church ought to look like, but Bonhoeffer and Hays write about a very different posture as related to church involvement. They speak of a designated body of individuals with a shared identity and purpose. To these authors “community” is not an ideal that is defined by each individual seeking it. “Community” preexists in Christ and stands as an entity in which we are invited.
N.T. Wright’s answer to the question, “How then can virtue be practiced?” are five “elements: scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices.” Wright argues that all of these elements are to be lived out in community.
He writes, “It will become clear to readers that the vocation to be a royal priesthood, the challenge to develop the Christian virtues which constitute us as genuine, God-reflecting human beings, is a vocation and challenge that we receive not merely as individuals but as communities.” There is no such thing as individualistic spiritual development. Spiritual development can only occur through participation in the community.
3 Steps to Spiritual DevelopmentIf you are searching for steps to establish a foundation for spiritual development, books and spiritual gifts inventories are helpful, but I recommend the following:
I suggest most ardently devoting yourself to either finding a church community if you are not currently participating in one or committing to a community, especially through disappointments experienced within the body.
Encountering hypocrisy in the church can be disheartening and can quickly hinder any motivation to pursue relationships and commitment to a church body, even a church that has strong biblical orthodoxy in their teaching. When you encounter conflict at a church this might be an opportune time to courageously practice Jesus’ instructions:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.
And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name there am I among them. – Matthew 18:15-20
Your church might even have a written policy related to conflict resolution in the church and how to apply Matthew 18:15-20.
There is no better way to grow than to serve in the church. Serving is also the means by which you can most clearly come to understand your spiritual gifts, the heart of Christ from His cruciform example, thereby understanding yourself more fully.
As Jesus Christ is the image of what a true human is to be, then we can take His example of being a servant to heart.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:3-8
If you have never actively served a church body before and don’t know where to start, speak to the church staff about their greatest needs. A church staff member might also help you determine what opportunity might be a good fit for you to try. There are usually plenty of opportunities to serve on the day(s) of a church body’s worship service(s).
Step 3Don’t leave the church. You would be hard-pressed to find biblical support for leaving a church community that is preaching the truth of the gospel.
If you’re deeply struggling with staying committed to one church body, speak to your pastor or church leaders. Invite them into your process of discernment rather than struggle alone.
That said, if any of these steps prove to be challenging to you, if you can’t escape this nagging feeling that you don’t belong, you don’t know what to look for in a church, or you seem to be in constant conflict in your community and can’t shake the sense that it’s time for you to leave, please consider reaching out to us to see a Christian therapist. We can walk alongside you through this process of laying a foundation for spiritual development.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together, p. 26.
Wright, N.T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. (2011), p. 260.
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