Individuality in Community, Continued

by Matthew Raley

Evangelical teaching about being “filled with the Spirit” has tended to be individualistic. You have your own personal faith in Jesus Christ, and God responds by giving your own personal immersion in the Spirit.

I don’t deny this teaching. It became an evangelical emphasis because of cultural inertia in churches, in which individuals coasted toward heaven on the strength of group membership. The individual new birth, and the resulting personal transformation, is an antidote to self-righteousness.

But the Bible’s teaching about the Spirit goes into more detail about how personal transformation works. Each of us is transformed by interacting with a Spirit-bonded community.

In Ephesians 4.1-6, Paul teaches that there is “one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” For Paul, all these things are the substance of “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Individuals in a church have each had a bonding experience. They have come to see their own sins (unique to them, not shared), have heard the gospel of Christ (teaching held in common with others), and have each gained new life directly from the “one God and Father of all” (an experience that mixes the common and the unique).

That is to say, an individual is bonded with Christ and with other believers at the same time. The depth of the individual’s baptism in the Spirit also deepens the individual’s human relationships.

In this context, the personal transformation begun by the new birth accelerates as an individual participates in the body of Christ “in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” That worthy manner requires “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” Individuals who are jarringly different become more like Christ as they suffer through their disagreements with grace.

(Yes, I have expounded these verses “backwards,” starting with the reasons in vv 4-6 that motivate the commands in vv 1-3.)

As I said in the previous post, this teaching gives life and health to individuality. There is no implication that individuals conform to each other, ceasing to be unique. On the contrary, Paul teaches their continued diversity explicitly (Ephesians 4.11-16).

But in that diversity there is not independence or autonomy, as if the parts of the body function separately. The individuals interact, being transformed by the process of giving and receiving. And their interactions are governed by the one thing we postmodern iPod worshipers instinctively reject: a bond, a tie to others that cannot be cut or ignored. In Christ, the Jew is bound with the Greek, regardless of whether either would choose to be.

Paul applies this theology directly to worship in music (Ephesians 5.18-21). Singing together is one of the interactions that are governed by the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace, and as such is one of the tools Christ uses to express his own self in us. This is Paul’s conception of being “filled with the Spirit.”

Therefore, corporate singing is not about my passions at all, but Christ’s. Music is a way of submitting my passions to His.

Contrast that application with most worship in music today.

1. What holds musical worship together in most churches is sameness of style.

The style of a church’s music is carefully crafted to target a specific demographic. The invitation most churches extend is, “Join us because we are exactly like you!” The other (unspoken) part of this invitation is, “If you aren’t like us, you won’t really fit here.”

This conformity kills the interaction individuals need with believers who are different from them. It replaces a genuine filling of the Spirit with mere human affinity.

2. The demographic bond is cheap.

People in the same demographic share the same media reference points, many of the same likes and dislikes, the same stage of life, the same job. They relate to each other, as T. S. Eliot put it, only with the most conscious part of themselves.

The “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is a bond at once deeply personal and deeply relational. It supernaturally overcomes ethnic, linguistic, and cultural divisions, and blows away superficial, market-based identities. It makes individuals larger and larger.

The ugly truth is that many churches are actively manufacturing small, superficial people whose ability to interact is retarded.

3. The demographic bond is false.

Many people now link their personal identities to their choices as consumers. The cars, clothes, music, food, and attitude with which they upholster their lives all make up their identities. Thus, people labor to join certain demographics, and flaunt their status once their satisfy their ambition.

What churches create in their pursuit of demographic affinity is a lie. People seem to be bound together. But they are only attached by their choices, which they are free to reverse at any time.

The stark reality is that style-driven worship music resists the Spirit’s work of bonding, his work of love.

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