I recently ran across this in the article “Breathing Together” written by Peter W. Marty for Christian Century (August 23, 2005):
[When yearning for something beyond themselves,] those with Christian leanings commonly turn to the church, and more specifically, the local congregation. Week by week, individuals gather together voluntarily in congregations, often with high expectations for experiencing what they cannot locate in their solitary lives. The church’s business, after all, has everything to do with relationship, putting people in touch with each other and with God. So who wouldn’t expect to find a profound sense of community there?
Surprisingly, a richly textured communal spirit is absent in many congregations. There may be experiences aplenty of social togetherness. And friendliness may be an abundant part of all these experiences. But this is not the same as participating in and being deeply entwined with a spiritually grounded community. The two should not be confused. Inhabiting the same ecclesiastical space for an our on Sunday morning is not the same as belonging to a community where your presence truly matters to others and their presence truly matters to you…
A communal spirit blooms where people are deeply in touch with one another, thriving because of the faithful interaction with one another. Outwardly, members of a community may have little in common. Inwardly, they can be touched by the possibility they have something to learn from each other. Broad friendship, mutuality of purpose and an abiding care for one another are all by-products of a spiritually grounded community that is working together. The way in which members of a congregation reproduce the love of God through genuine hospitality and a love for one another will indicate whether they are indeed the body of Christ or simply a religious club.
Every congregation has its supply of believers who would love nothing more than to cultivate their own private spirituality by taking home that beloved hymn refrain or sermon quip to benefit their personal life. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this private eagerness for spiritual nurture. But as soon as personal edification becomes the primary focus for “attending” church, individualism begins to infect the health of the congregation and the possibility of a grander sense of true community. (pg 8)