by Andrew Yeager
We live in an individualized world. I think back to Church History IV, a class I took at the seminary, where our instructor, the Rev. Dr. Lawrence Rast introduced us to a book Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. Putnam examines a major cultural shift that has taken place in modern Western society. To put it simply, people have stopped joining things. Membership in social institutions—whether the PTA, political parties or church—have disintegrated, leaving us more disconnected and isolated from one another than ever before. Once we bowled in leagues; now we bowl alone.
The spirit of individualism has crept into the Church as well. Postmodernism, the prevailing worldview of our time, seems to have lent credence to our spiritual isolationism. Since there is no such thing as universal truth or morality, each individual has the freedom to decide what’s true for himself or herself. What’s true for me might not be true for you. Faith then becomes a private matter, something shared only between me and God, and everyone else is required under the doctrine of “tolerance” to see my private beliefs as equally viable and valid as their own.
Spiritual but not religious
It is widely believed that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. Spiritual isolationism gave birth to the tired old cliché, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” This is really just another way of saying, “Christianity has sentimental value for me like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, and I’m perfectly fine with my nominal status as a Christian, but ultimately I’m just too lazy to drag my carcass out of bed on Sunday morning and practice the faith I give lip service to in the company of other Christians.” At the end of the day, it’s a cheap, lame excuse for the deadly sin of sloth.
The fact is, you can’t be a Christian without the Church. Perhaps there is no better resource that militates against spiritual isolationism than Luther’s Small Catechism. Consider the Explanation to the Third Article: Who is the Holy Spirit? He is the Spirit who gathers. The Holy Spirit is not just the calling Spirit, the sanctifying Spirit or the enlightening Spirit. He is the gathering Spirit. He gathers the whole Church on earth to Jesus Christ and keeps her with him in the one true faith.
What does this mean?
It means he is not a Spirit of isolation. He’s a Spirit of koinonia, communion. He is not a Spirit who spreads people out, hermit-like, to live separate, isolated spiritual lives, but a Spirit who draws people in—into Jesus, to His living voice and into communion with one another in the Church.
It also means He is not a Spirit of secrets. The Holy Spirit doesn’t take us away from others to walk and talk with Him in the garden alone. He doesn’t whisper His Word to you in the quiet of your heart as you are cloistered up alone in your bedroom at night—unless of course you are meditating on an external Word of God. The Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer says, “Those who want to search for the Holy Spirit deep inside themselves, in a realm too deep for words to express, will find ghosts, not God.”
The Holy Spirit is not out to get you alone. He is out to gather you, with His Church, around the Word. And where is that Word heard? First and foremost, in the corporate setting together where His Sacraments are administered—the Divine Service. “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14). And second, in Bible Study, catechism, confirmation classes and family devotions at home.
The Holy Spirit gathers. And when He does, He knits us together into the body of Christ, so that we are never isolated individuals, but always members of one another (1 Cor. 12:27). And—perhaps we don’t talk about this in the Church enough—as the body of Christ, we need each other. Loneliness is a harsh cross to bear. Empty churches are a discouragement to the saints. But when we look around and see other Christians confessing and singing—no matter how off key!—we are edified by their faithful witness.
Building up the neighbor
Your attendance at church is actually a great work of love and helps your neighbor, probably more than you know. Maybe the man in the pew next is suffering under the weight of addiction. Maybe the woman next to you is carrying the cross of barrenness. Singing and praying alone has become too painful for them. But they hear your Our Father, your Te Deum, your hymns of praise to God, your public, corporate confession of faith builds up your neighbor and bears them up in faith, all without you realizing it.
In the Smalcald Articles, Luther talks about the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren as one of the ways Christ’s Gospel comes to us. All this phrase means is Christians encouraging one another with God’s Word. It’s all a way of saying we need each other. It was not good for Adam to be alone, and it is not good for God’s Christians to be alone.
Therefore, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).
The Rev. Andrew T. Yeager is pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Garrett, Ind.
 Putnam, RD. Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2000.
 Bayer, Oswald. Theology the Lutheran Way. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2007. p. 55.
 Part III, Art. IV.