Is Community Essential to Intimacy With God?

I was sorting through drafts and ideas I had for blog posts recently and I stumbled across this one I had scribbled down in February. The idea was spawned from a comment conversation I had on a friends blog. He asked the question Are Worship and Intimacy Compatible? which created a nice little discussion. As I wrote out comments and thought more about it, I realized I had sort of compiled a blog post. Some of the thoughts here are pulled almost directly from my comments with some additions to tie it all together.

The blog and questions that inspired this post were examining if a church worship service is the best place to encourage intimacy with God. This got me thinking about intimacy in general, both with God and with the gathered community in a church. I think we took a bit of a diversion in American and Evangelical Christianity when we spent so much time focusing on a “personal” relationship with God. This may also be compounded by our evangelical idea of a stuck-in-one-moment-in-time decision to follow Christ or be a Christian. Everything seems to have become so focused on personal experience and individual salvation that worship has become an individual experience too. People critique a worship service like they would critique a meal or latte on Yelp. One bad personal experience or one moment of “not feeling it” and people move on to the next thing. They go looking for that personal feeling, the intimacy with God that many believe can only be discovered in a one-on-one relationship with God or experience of God. They eject themselves from communion with others, from a church community, in order to find intimacy with God.

The problem becomes when we uproot and go looking elsewhere, there is little chance for true intimacy to form. I was always told growing up that intimacy without others was a bad idea. If I might push the image further, intimacy with just myself was empty and a false image of what true intimacy with others can be. Chasing an intimate relationship with God defined by our own feelings and experiences, absent from close community with others, is essentially religo-narcissism.

It seems to me that engaging with community is essential to not only intimacy with other people but also leads to a deeper intimacy with God. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for personal prayer and devotion in one’s growth as a Christian. However, choosing to not engage in intimate community with others is selfish and seems to miss the point of this whole Church, Kingdom restored creation thing that God has worked through Jesus. Gathering as a community was essential to the early church as we are told in the second chapter of Acts.

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-47 (CEB)

When we sing songs, speak prayers, eat together, read scripture, pronounce blessings and forgiveness of sins communally we acknowledge that this Church endeavor we’re on together is not just about us as individuals. It is in those moments, especially in moments of communal blessing and forgiveness (i.e. the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper), when we are more open to intimacy with others. We are more open to engage with others and welcome them to the table that God through Christ has opened to everyone.

I bet the closer we feel with those in our church community, the more welcoming and hospitable we are, we would be surprised how much closer we feel with God.

Intimacy with God then could equate to an intimacy with a community. If that is true, then many churches have REALLY missed what true intimacy can look like. From that perspective then, intimacy with the community and God might look a lot like the relationship you have with your spouse or other close relations. Highs and lows are a part of, and essential to, the intimacy of the relationship. Your best friend and closest partner knows how you feel and what you do in both your best and worst moments. Entering into a relationship opens yourself up to not only how things are now, but how they might be in an uncertain future. Intimacy with the community and God then embraces something more than just “me” and ” right now”.

It embraces the community that existed before and the community that will exist in the future.

It embraces the God who identifies as “I will be what I will be” or “I am that I am”.

It acknowledges and wrestles with the lows and celebrates and remembers the highs.

It may be important to understand and give the disclaimer that God is not the community and God is not the experience. But, what we do see when gathered as a community of God’s kingdom is only a faint glimpse of the God who is beyond and has yet chosen to interact with His creation. I think precisely because it is difficult to contain God in words, intimacy with God is not like what we often understand intimacy to be. We can have a difficult time communicating with and “feeling” close to God unlike how we communicate and feel in close relationships with other people. This is why the community gathered in worship is so essential to any development of intimacy with God. We may believe and read words that God has spoken in the past but the community gathered currently has the ability to embody and speak God’s words into a new time and a new place.

As it has in the past, as it is doing now and as I will in the future.

Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable. And let us consider each other carefully for the purpose of sparking love and good deeds. Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.
Hebrews 10:23-25 (CEB)

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