Before my daughter arrived at toddler-hood, I read a lot about healthy toddler interactions. I read how to talk about sharing. (One key is don’t talk about it. Talk about taking turns instead). I absorbed wisdom on what not to do when one kid takes a toy from another. (Don’t jump in right away. Narrate what’s happening as you try to let the kids work it out on their own.) But until my family interacted with other like-minded families, all this information was just theoretical.
To really understand it, my husband and I had to witness our daughter cry because she wanted the coveted ice cream truck toy that her friend was enjoying. Then we urged her to ask for a turn and accept her friend’s answer whether it was “yes” or “no.” I observed carefully when a friend pulled a ball out of her hands. I realized she didn’t get upset about it, and she was able to move on to another toy as long as I stayed calm. I watched as my friends used these strategies with their own children. I learned from the words they spoke and the posture they took with each new toddler crisis. From books and blogs, I knew the principles well. But they didn’t become a part of my way of life until I had a chance to live them out with other people.
The same is true for my faith. There is much to be learned about Christian faith from books and blogs, sermons and classes. But until I try to put faith into action with other real people, it’s all just theoretical. It doesn’t take on meaning until I live it out.
It’s a lot more challenging to live out those principles than to simply know them. It’s harder to write that check to the church every month for a big chunk of money than it is to talk about the practice of giving generously. I struggle much more to pick up the phone and call the church member I’ve offended than I do to preach a sermon on forgiving 77 times. I am challenged to trust in God’s faithfulness in the middle of my own crisis, even though I fully believe in and invite others to trust God’s holy presence in hard times. By living out these ideas about faith in community, I begin to understand them more fully. I start to grasp their depth, their meaning and their tug on my heart and my life.
The Christian life cannot be lived in theory. We have to experiment with it in the messy reality of human relationships. Some of us are called to do that in our own families and friend groups. All of us who claim to be disciples are called into some kind of community to practice the teachings of Jesus over and over again. That’s why churches are an indispensable part of the Christian life. Belief in God without a church community is hard to sustain and not nearly as fruitful. On the best days, churches provide us a space to test out what we have learned about our call from God and see if it rings true. They let us mess up and try again. They point us toward better ways when we fall short.
Spending time with my parenting community also does much more than just let me practice what I have already learned. Those interactions teach me new lessons. They inspire me to try fresh ways of playing with my daughter and to test out a different kind of discipline. The interactions in my church communities have a similar result. When I hear the story of a church member ministering to a fellow shopper in the produce department, I am reminded about the array of possibilities for sharing my faith. When I witness a couple reshaping their entire lives in order to practice deeper generosity, I recognize what else I can do to put God first in my life.
None of our communities are perfect and definitely none of our churches are perfect. They disappoint us. They hurt us, sometimes without realizing it. They do not always fully understand us. But we still need them to help us practice what we read in the Bible and what we think we believe. Without that space to experiment and give things a go, I’m not sure we can claim the practices of faith as our own, no matter how much we know them in our heads. I’m grateful for the village of people who help me figure out how to parent and to make the theories my own. I’m grateful for the communities of Christians who help me figure out how to be a disciple in real life.
EMMA NICKEL serves as parish associate at First Presbyterian Church in Northville, Michigan, and a regular Outlook blogger. She is passionate about congregational ministry, trying new recipes and learning about each new phase of toddlerhood. She lives just outside Detroit with her husband, Matt, and their daughter.