Directly across from me, leaning back against a tree, sat the family patriarch. He looked 75 but was likely 15-20 years younger. Around us sat his family – young children, teenagers, and a few perhaps in their early 20s. My hosts brought me a small stool on which to sit, and for the next 30 or 40 minutes we talked about my faith and theirs, the Bible and the Q’ran, about Jesus and Islam. Several times, the patriarch – I never got his name – told me, “What you say is good.” As we concluded our conversation he invited us to return the next day to talk more, but with regret I explained that this was our last day in the area. Repeating his affirmation, “what you say is good,” he added, “We will believe, me and my family. Not today, but probably in two or three days, we will believe.”
This encounter took place ten years ago this past week, in a village in southern Ethiopia. Two days later, the team I was with flew home, spending Easter morning on a layover at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany. My mind often returns to that village and the twice-translated conversation with the family. Did the life-giving resurrection of Jesus Christ take place in their hearts? If I were to return to the village today, would it still be dominated by Islam, or would the patriarch—or one of the children sitting with us in the shade of the tree—be leading a ten-year-old church? For a decade I have longed to return and to meet this man and his family again. Maybe someday I will.
Across the barriers of language, I learned something under that tree that has shaped my life, my faith, and my ministry as a pastor: faith is not a do-it-yourself encounter. We do not come to faith, profess faith, walk in faith, grow in faith, or live in faith alone. Faith is a community affair. It is conceived, born, and nurtured in community. It grows and matures in community. It lives and thrives in community.
This challenges much of what I was taught growing up, which centered on making a personal decision for Christ, a personal confession of faith. This notion of individualized faith, while not theologically incorrect, is at best incomplete. Scripture is filled with stories of households and communities that believed in Jesus…apparently as one, at one time. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at a well and told her everything about her, she believed; then she went back to her village and told them about Him, and they believed. (Read the encounter in John 4.) When Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius each had a vision directing them to meet, Peter shared the good news of Jesus and “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10). Or read of the conversion of Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16) or Crispus in Corinth (Acts 18).
I don’t know all the implications of this community faith idea. It certainly doesn’t absolve any individual of confessing Jesus for himself or herself. Nor, I think, does it mean that children raised by Christian parents get a free pass into heaven. (These concepts of “fire insurance,” “ticket to heaven,” “get out of hell free” … they’re all really bad theology, anyway; they completely miss the point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But that’s a subject for another post.) Maybe this would be a good opportunity for you to share some thoughts. What implications do you see for yourself, your family, your church, your work, other people in your circles of influence?