Today I’d like us to take three steps back, tilt our heads slightly to the side and have a look at the church in the West. I think something’s off. Let’s explore together.
The ‘I’ in church
When I look at the church of Jesus today (mainly, but not limited to the West), I see groups of individuals who happen to associate themselves with a particular movement, society or social club. Individual disciples of Jesus, their nuclear families and other people who, for a period of time, gather with other like-minded individuals. The church of Jesus in the West is (at large) an expression of the individualistic West. Which is to say: the individual is the point, the whole serves the individual, and the individual is part of the whole for so long and as long as (s)he gets more out of it than they need to give or put in.
This individualism of the church can also be seen in our interpretation of Biblical texts. When the words “you” or “your” are used in the Bible (for example: “the joy of the Lord is your strength”) our individualistic ears perk up and we hear: this applies to me as an individual walking on my own with God. The joy of the Lord is my strength (not ours). God is with me, not with us. Not we but I am the salt and light and the beloved of God.
When I look at the Bible a bit more closely, I come to suspect that Jesus had more in mind for His church than such an individualistic Christianity or Christianity-flavoured individualism…
Now all of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.Acts 4:32 (speaking about the early church)
I pray […] that all they may all be one, Father, just as You are in me and I am in You.Jesus praying in John 17:21
Jesus’s disciples (apostles) and the early church were pretty collectivist (opposite of individualist) if you ask me. They lost and found themselves in this group of believers, in a way that feels deeply foreign to our Western mind. You might argue that at that time they lived in a more collectivist, middle eastern context – and that the individualistic church in the West is a newer and equally valid expression of the church.
I’m not convinced. Let me explain why not.
A brief history of the church
Let’s step back to see the church in the larger context. Due to the Fall of humanity (and the whole world with us), God entered human history and selected for himself a nation (Israel) through which He would save the world. With the Fall, all of humanity was like branches that have fallen off a Tree (God, our source of life). God started growing a new offshoot in the tree (Abraham) and this became a small branch (Abraham’s growing family: Isaac & Jacob), which then became a massive branch called the nation of Israel. God’s chosen people, creation being restored in unity with Him.
In the New Testament, there’s a significant point where Jesus reveals and the penny drops for people that God’s salvation is not confined to the Jews. No, because of the Jews’ hardness of heart and stubborn disobedience, God opened up the invitation to unity and restoration to all people. He made a Way, new life in the Tree: Jesus the Messiah. Through Him, anyone could now be grafted into God’s life – when they believed in Jesus. During Jesus’s time on Earth, He made disciples, people who started following Him, who were then grafted into the life of God (through Him). They became part of the tree of God – saved and brought back to life, by becoming one with God through Jesus. This offshoot, this branch of Jesus’s grafted disciples grew and expanded, to become a rapidly growing tree, a movement: the Church of Jesus. God’s chosen people, a royal priesthood, called to make disciples of all nations and graft other people and people groups into God, through Jesus – the only Way.
Here’s the crux: just as Jesus prayed in the Acts verse I shared earlier, the grafted disciples of Jesus not only become part of the life of God, but also of each other’s lives. Paul drives this concept home when he uses the picture of the church as a body with many parts. The disciples of Jesus are not meant to “have a Christian life” as individuals. That’s a sneakily unbiblical idea.
Instead, like the early church, we are called to lose and find ourselves in community: becoming as close as family with other disciples of Jesus. Such that we aren’t individual Christians “going to church” but that we become the church – together.
In Africa we have this concept called Ubuntu – which essentially means that a person is only a person through other people: I am because we are. I am well because we are well. I cannot be whole if you are broken; I cannot be happy if you are sad. I cannot be rich while you are poor. We are of one fibre, part of one tree…
Not only is this not a Western idea; it feels foreign and intimidating to the Western mind. It goes against the heart of our individualistic ideals.
And yet, when I read the Bible with an open mind, I see that this is what Jesus envisions with his church. One tree, one body. When you shake one branch, the others also shake. Disciples of Jesus, deeply connected to each other, living with ubuntu.
From me to we
So, here’s the invitation. To what extent would you say that you are trying to follow Jesus solo, or without becoming close (one) with other disciples?
Why would you say that’s the case? Because you’ve been hurt by people / the church in the past? Perhaps because you’ve for some reason walked away from a previous congregation and been hesitant to either return or find a new spiritual family? Because you’re afraid that they will disappoint you (spoiler: they will sometimes). Or perhaps you’ve simply bought into the idea of an individualistic church, that we can do life with God without being rooted in a spiritual family?
I can tell you that a significant part of the healing and growth in my life has come from awakening to the fact that when Jesus calls us to His table, He calls us into deep, ubuntu community with His other followers around the table. I’ve known the church as a family beyond my natural family: doing life with flawed people (like me) who want to follow Jesus.
May you and I awaken to the richness of ubuntu church, of what Jesus had and still has in mind when he calls us to His table, together. May you challenge your individualistic comfort zones, and become close and go deep with other disciples of Jesus in your life (those you know or are still to meet). And may you find life and healing and growth in this strange, broken-but-beautiful community of believers called the church of Jesus.
2 replies on “Ubuntu Church”
Brilliant piece. Thanks.
Reblogged this on Candle in a Cave and commented:
Beautiful insights. Niel has a remarkable way of seeing things.