Lately, Christians have been talking about the need to reject the hyper-individuality that has for so long plagued the Protestant evangelical church. The sense of “I’ve got my relationship with Jesus and that’s all I need” is certainly problematic and is probably still all too common amongst believers. For this reason – among other concerns – we have recently seen a significant migration of younger evangelicals and non-denominational Christians moving into the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox communions. These churches are appealing because they more characteristically possess a catholicity and unity in worship that others do not hold as of primary importance. Liturgy, priestly vestments, icons of Christ and the Blessed Virgin, clouds of incense, and all the other accoutrements involved in “higher” church services often stun first time visitors with a sense of transcendent and reverent worship they had previously not experienced. The liturgy brings a sense of community, a unified voice that is often not experienced in churches where the pastor is the only who prays or reads Scripture in a Sunday service. Rustic icons replace “inspirational” posters and the smoking thurible pleases the senses in a way unachievable by any fog machine. One writer of a recent article calls the movement “a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age.”
As these ecclesial itinerants merge into new communities of worship and find they can jettison their previous individualistic religious experiences, a serious warning must be issued. While the movement is important and the corporate experience of worship is most beneficial to the spiritual life of newcomers, the sense of being an individual must not be quickly discarded. The fact is, Jesus Christ is building his “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” with individuals. The corporate and catholic identity of the church must not detract from the absolute necessity of a burgeoning personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Recall Saint Peter’s response to the inquiring recipients (“Brothers, what shall we do?”) of his first apostolic sermon: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts. 2.38). It is an undeniable fact that, along with baptismal dunking, “decisions” were made, prayers were said, and repentant hearts declared Jesus Christ to be Lord and Savior. Don’t get me wrong. St. Cyprian was right – “You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the church for your Mother.” But we are in dangerous territory if we want to have the church for our Mother without having God for our Father. And the only way God becomes our Father is through a relationship with his Son, Jesus Christ (John 14.6-7).
The conversion of single souls is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus that benefits the individual, but is a benefit to the entire church. Through it, we are built up and experience the joy of God’s saving grace as a community. We must never forget that God loves us not only corporately but as individuals; neither can we fail to remember that he loves us not only individually but as one corporate body. Let not the scales become imbalanced. We do, indeed, enjoy personal relationships with Jesus. But we enjoy life with him in the community of other Christians who also know and enjoy him personally.
So let us preach and uphold the catholicity of the church. Let us invite our “lower” church friends to come worship in a new kind of setting. Not because we are better Christians or simply more catholic than they, but because in the liturgy we bring our individual selves together and celebrate the glory of God as a Holy Community. Catholic worship should strengthen the spiritual lives of individual brothers and sisters just as those individuals’ participation in liturgical, communal worship should strengthen the life of Christ’s Body, the Church.