Somewhere there may be someone who read the Bible one day and came to saving faith all by themselves. But that is not the way it works for most of us. We read and hear God’s Word through filters set by relationships with others around us. It’s from other believers that we learn what the Gospel means in daily living.
It takes a fellowship to raise a believer. For many Christians this observation is self-evident. They came to faith and grew in it surrounded by believers who could express what biblical truth means in the way they live their lives. Expressing such personal application is typically not true for members of mainline congregations.
I grew up in a robust community of Christians who let their church life define their faith, with an emphasis on service to others. In that tradition, there is a sharp divide between clergy, who are specially trained in theology, and laymen, who support the real ministry done by clergy. That worked for decades when ethnic identity as a German or Swedish or Norwegian Lutheran was still strong. It was those cultural communities that raised generations of believers. Their church life worked.
But among third and fourth generations of ethnics, it is not working anymore. The restrained form of church life and interaction that worked for their parents is no longer attracting young adults and families.
What to do? This is a big issue for mainline churches that are withing away. Part of my answer is to help mainline church members become more comfortable and proficient at expressing their personal faith and experiences.
Do mainline Christians even have an interior life spiritual life to share with others? Yes, there is much to share. Several decades ago, I did a major research project on the prayer life of Lutherans. I discovered many have a very rich relationship with God that they reflect through prayer, often while they are doing other things like driving or doing chores.
Why was this a surprise? Because you see or hear little of this in routine church life. Their church culture did not support sharing prayer experiences. They were taught to keep their prayers to themselves, following Matthew’s instruction (6:6) to do your praying in a closet, lest others commend you for it. This emphasis is a leftover from earlier generations of village life that discouraged individuality. Today talking about what you are praying for is a way to reflect that you do have a live relationship with God.
Some branches of Protestants have a history of fixation on sin and eliminating it. The television program Saturday Night Live satirized this image personified by the Church Lady. She was uptight, smug and pious. Who would want to be like her?
For fellowship to matter in a believer’s life, those relationships need to be with other believers who have earned respect by the way they live. Typically, Christians who have a healthy relationship with God are humble. This attitude emerges as the Spirit pulls believers closer to God. Truly mature Christians are uncomfortable drawing attention to themselves.
In this age when the benefits of church life are in question for many observers, there is a need for sharing a believer’s source of peace, joy and hope with others who have too little in their life. This is the encouragement so many others need.
How do congregations develop such faith-affirming fellowships? This is hard when it depends on face-to-face conversations in a busy world with many distractions. But it can be made easier by promoting such fellowship exchanges through online communities accessible at convenient times.