I have bought into the Western idea of rugged individualism, even in the area of spiritual growth. Oh, I know better. But that doesn’t stop me from embracing an ideology that puts me alone in the driver’s seat. It’s just easier that way. I don’t have to depend on others who may let me down or hold me back. My discipleship is determined by my own desire to study and grow and serve.
Yet, as I have begun graduate courses these past few weeks to earn a Master of Arts in Theological Studies, I have been required to read material that has caused me to rethink my lone-ranger approach to spiritual growth.
It’s not that I didn’t already understand the importance of community. I have connections with tons of people within the body of Christ after several years of speaking in different churches. I have a church family I dearly love. I even have a small group I meet with weekly to study and pray. But I was perfectly content to fellowship and worship with others while keeping my actual spiritual growth to myself.
Paul didn’t see it that way, however. In reading the book Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age by Lowe and Lowe, I learned that Paul used the Greek prefix syn, meaning “together with” a significant number of times in his letter to the Philippians.1 Consider the following verses where Paul combines either the preposition or the prefix syn– in compounds, along with his “all” language, to emphasize the connectedness of the church:
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus to all the saints….”Philippians 1:1a, NIV
“In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.…”Phil. 1:4
“…for whether I am in chains or defending the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.”Phil. 1:7
“God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”Phil. 1:8
From this brief letter to the Philippians, we can see several ways that spiritual growth is meant to happen within the context of community.
Paul’s spiritual connection with Christ and with the believers in Philippi is what moved his heart to intercede for them in prayer:
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.”Phil. 1:9-10
Paul didn’t just pray for their “prayer requests;” he interceded for their spiritual growth. He asked God to make them more loving, more knowledgeable, more discerning, more holy, and more fruitful.
Do we pray for other believers in this way? Do we intercede for their spiritual growth as much as we do for their physical needs to be met?
The Philippians’ unity with Christ and fellowship with the Spirit was a source of joy for Paul as they continued to grow their faith (2:1-2, 12-13). Paul encouraged the believers to think of themselves as one in Christ.
“…then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”Phil. 2:2
He encouraged them to imitate Christ in humility, to look out for one another, to obey God, to allow God to work in them to do His will, to be blameless and pure, and to “shine like stars in the universe” as they shared the Word with those around them (2:1-18).
In Philippians 3:17, Paul encouraged the Philippians to “join with others” in following his example. Mutual benefit existed as Paul encouraged their spiritual growth, and they brought him joy.
In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul used four syn- compounds as he encouraged unity between two women in the church:
“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended by my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”2Phil. 4:2-3
Again, we see the connectedness of the body of Christ as Paul asked for believers to help one another find common ground, unity, and agreement. Their holiness was meant to be lived in connection with others, where it would spread and impact those around them.
As Lowe and Lowe share in Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age, holiness can only be contagious within community.3 As I have thought about how Jesus’ holiness permeated everything He touched, I long for that to be what emanates from me and spreads throughout my circle of influence.
Do we seek to spread the holiness and purity of Christ more than gossip or negativity within our communities of faith?
Paul was thankful for the support for ministry he received from the Philippians as well. They supported him with their prayers and with their financial gifts. Those gifts enabled him to continue to travel and preach the gospel (4:14-19).
The Philippians’ relationship in ministry with Paul was powerful because they participated in his work of sharing God’s grace with others, and his prayers for them supported their spiritual growth in turn. Their mutual spiritual benefits were evident from this “partnership in the gospel” (1:4).
We all have a ministry. Our family is our first place of ministry and discipleship. Our places of vocation or education or neighborhood—these are all contexts for ministry of the gospel. We need the support and encouragement of our brothers and sisters to persevere when the work becomes difficult or we face opposition.
Do we support one another in ministry? Or are we too busy competing for our own family to be better, for more followers on social media, or for a bigger platform? Are we more focused on building a ministry than we are on building the kingdom?
Growth in Community
Just from this one short epistle, it is clear that the early church did not pursue spiritual growth in isolation but in relationships. And so must we.
As I prepare for a weekend retreat with my small group, my heart is being drawn toward more than just our usual fellowship. I still look forward to gathering with them for prayer, worship, and Bible study. But now I am longing for a deeper level of spiritual growth within our group—to intercede for one another’s faith, to encourage each other in holiness, and to support one another in our respective ministries.
And most of all, I am excited to let the holiness of Jesus in me be contagious to them. I want His love, His joy, His peace, His kindness to flow so abundantly that those around me can’t help but get infected.
How about you? Do you pray and worship with others but tend to keep your personal spiritual growth to yourself? Let’s learn from this letter and seek to grow our faith in community, praying more intentionally, seeking and encouraging spiritual maturity, and supporting each other in ministry. Let’s strive for a holiness that is contagious.
One More Thing
And if you are in seminary or thinking of enrolling in one, I want to encourage you to not give up meeting with a small group. As I have learned from reading Surviving and Thriving in Seminary by Zacharias and Forrest, you will have to let go of some responsibilities. You will have to say no to some opportunities. You will have to get up earlier and manage your time well.4
And some people won’t understand that full-time seminary is like taking on another job. But you need your community, and they need you. Keep gathering weekly and praying deeply for one another. Keep meeting for Bible study and growing in the Word. Keep encouraging their spiritual growth and their ministries. And, by all means, let them encourage you. Don’t be afraid to open up about your spiritual struggles. We are all at different stages of sanctification, and that is okay. Paul didn’t condemn Euodia and Synchye; he just encouraged their growth and maturity.
Spiritual growth happens in community, not in isolation. And real Christian communities encourage that growth in one another (Heb. 10:24-25).
“[Christ] works on us in all sorts of ways….But above all, He works on us through each other.”C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
1 Stephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth through Online Education, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 151-152.
2 Ibid., 162.
3 Ibid., 195.
3 H. Daniel Zacharias and Benjamin K. Forrest, Surviving and Thriving in Seminary: An Academic and Spiritual Handbook, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017), 102-103.