Two of the most “overpromised, underdelivered” aspects of church life are community and transformation – so says Ruth Haley Barton in the opening pages of Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community, and I’m inclined to concur.
Barton has learned from experience, as you likely have as well, that “it is possible to hang around other Christians a lot, meet regularly for worship, study our Bibles, join a church and even call ourselves a community but not change at all in ways that count.”
Rather than settling for life without community and transformation, however, Barton makes the case that our best chance at experiencing a measure of both is to pursue them in tandem, as two sides of the same coin. “Spiritual transformation,” she writes, “takes place incrementally over time with others in the context of disciplines and practices that open us to God.”
Fundamental to spiritual transformation, she goes on to say, are three things held in common: shared understanding about what it is we’re pursuing; shared language for speaking about the process; and a shared commitment to making transformation a priority in how we orient our lives.
If transformation is to be Christian in any meaningful sense of the term, it will not end with us. In other words, it will not only be a matter of the heart, though it may very well begin there. That’s because, in Barton’s words, “Spiritual transformation results in an increasing capacity to discern the will of God so we can actually do God’s will in the world. This is how spiritual formation and mission come together in fruitful synergy for the good of all.”
And as we become the kinds of people who are able to discern and do the will of God in the world, we’re able to help others figure out what God has called them to do and support them as they accept “God’s risky invitations.” She continues:
We might even discover that there is a shared mission God has in mind for us as well – something we are called to do together for the sake of the world. Then together we will learn how to live within a constellation of beautiful paradoxes that are held together in creative tension. Love for God and love for neighbor. Solitude and community. Silence and word/Word. Prayer and action. Work and rest. Discerning and doing the will of God. Formation and mission. Just like the disciples who journeyed from Jerusalem to Emmaus and back again, we will learn how to move into the center and out and then back again; and at every point along the way, Jesus’ presence is there, causing our hearts to burn within us as we walk the road together.
That’s a beautiful picture of what “life together in Christ” looks like, if you ask me. It doesn’t change the fact that Christian community and spiritual transformation are woefully elusive for so many of us. But if nothing else, let it remind us that our longings to experience life together are God-given. As such, we can move forward in faith, believing those longings are not in vain.
Header image: “The Road to Emmaus” by Daniel Bonnell via fineartamerica.com