20 May I believe in the Communion of Saints
In a conversation I had earlier this week the comment was made that in the same church there will be some who believe that the communion of saints is strong and healthy, while others think the very opposite. This follows on from something that was said about the communion of saints in my own church which did not reflect my own experiences or understanding.
How can it be that experiences are so varied? How can people see the same church in such contrasting light?
There are so many factors that influence our opinions and experiences and many of them also come in to play when relating to our experience of the communion of saints. However, there are a few that are perhaps more significant than the rest. These relate to our understanding of what the communion of saints is and the expectations we have based on that, our own personal experiences, and the size and structures of our church.
What do we mean by the communion of saints?
Many of us will hear or sing the words of the apostles creed each Sunday. We are familiar with the words I believe in the communion of saints. What then do we mean with that line? What do we believe in?
When you dwell on your understanding of the communion of saints, what image comes to mind? Perhaps it is an image of bringing a meal to someone’s door, or touching base with a phone call. Perhaps your image is of families sharing a meal together, or of a group of women sitting around a table doing bible study together. Maybe your picture is of one to one mentoring, or of support groups for particular struggles or stages of life. Perhaps your picture is of something very different, or of all the above and more.
Our understanding informs our expectations. If the image that comes to mind is of something particular and we do not see that evidenced in our own church, then we will be saying that there is not a strong communion of saints in our church. If that something particular is evident, then of course we will be saying that there is a strong communion of saints.
What does the Bible tell us of the communion of saints?
When we study the Bible to understand further what is meant by the communion of saints, the instruction found there is not directed at the different activities that we should be doing. We are not told what structures are best for our bible study, or if there is a right or wrong way for mentoring. What we are told is to love one another, to pray with one another, to speak the truth in love.
We are commanded to step into the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to walk side by side, carrying the burdens of those around us and sharing our own needs and vulnerabilities. Paul gives us an example of this in 1 Thessalonians 2:8 where he says being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. That is what being a part of the communion of saints looks like. That is what it means to have strong friendships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we say we believe in the communion of saints, we are saying that we believe in sharing intimate details of our lives, that we believe in sharing our inner thoughts and feelings with other believers.
It is in sharing the intimate details of our lives that the body of Christ grows. The honest, vulnerable moments are where we are encouraged and provide encouragement the most.
Our own experiences of how we have been treated by brothers and sisters in the past, the different events of our own lives and the relationships we have formed within our own church also impact our understanding of how the communion of saints is operating within our own church community.
Past hurts from relationships in the communion of saints will strongly impact how we open we are to building new relationships. The church is filled with broken people, and we are most certainly a part of the brokenness. This can lead to misunderstandings, conflict and the breaking of trust in a relationships. These experiences are hurtful and can be very damaging, leading us to withdraw ourselves from relationships in our church community, or to close ourselves off from developing new relationships.
Our own experiences also can make it challenging to engage with others in our church or to experience the communion of saints. Burdens of life may make it challenging to participate in some of the structured activities in our church. We may not want to be distant from our brothers and sisters, but because of what we are carrying, we find it very hard to actively be involved. Consequently, we are limited in how available we are to spend time with others in our church and feel that the communion of saints is not active because we are unable to tap into what is happening. It may also be that we have particular burdens that we want support in, these burdens give us specific expectations for the communion of saints. If we find that we are not able to share or find support for this particular burden, then it is also very easy for us to say that the communion of saints is not active.
Nature of the Church we belong to
The size and structures of the church we belong to will also have a big impact on our experiences and understanding of the communion that is shared among the people that go there.
In a church of 100 people, it is hard to hide. People will notice if you don’t attend church. It is easy to keep track of who attends what bible study. In a small church you will be seen. Every one will know your name. When a church is smaller there will be less difference in the experience of communion between members. The levels of connection will vary as you cannot safely be deeply connected with everyone in the church, but there will be some connection with everyone.
As churches become larger, 300, 400 or 500 people, the connections end up being stretched and severed. It is easier for there to be certain groups of people, for those like-minded or at similar stages to gather together. While not inherently wrong, gathering together based on similarities will lead to a certain level of exclusivity, an attitude that says that you only need certain parts of the body of Christ. In larger churches it is easier for people to fall through the cracks.
There are different structures that can be put in place so that people do not fall through the cracks. There are ways and means that can be developed so that there is a more consistent experience of what the communion of saints is like within our church. What are some that your church has? What are some of the things that you do yourself to stay connected and to love your brothers and sisters?
What are you doing today to be a part of the body of Christ? How are you actively participating in the communion of saints?
What can you do to step into the lives of those in your church? What can you do so that it is possible for you to share intimate details of your life with your brothers and sisters?