A few weeks ago, I said that the church needs to study the Bible corporately more than it should be studying the Bible as individuals. This sparked in my mind, and in the mind a several respondents, the relationship between the corporate and the private. In this post, I’d like to push the envelope a bit (that’s a shocker, eh?) regarding how we encounter the presence of God. So here’s the question: do we experience the presence of God more fully as individuals (on the proverbial mountain top by ourselves) or in community?

Psychologically, I can build a pretty good case that we need to get away to experience God. Because when we are alone, there are no noises, no distractions, no one to interrupt our raw communion with God. But biblically? Well, it’s quite shocking how the Bible speaks of the vitality and intensity of the presence of God that is manifested in the community of believers. Here’s a few observations:

Ephesians clearly says that the full, life-giving, vibrant presence of God dwells in the church, the community of believers. Ephesians 1:22-23 says that God “put all things under his [Jesus] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Notice, the church as the body of Christ is “the fullness of God.” And your local church as the localized manifestation of the universal church is “the fullness of God.” Crazy. But that’s what Paul says. So if you want to experience that life-giving, soul-transforming presence of God, go hang out with that messed, high maintenance group of needy believers that constitute your local church, or a manifestation of it. The irony is comical!

Ephesians 1:22-23, by the way, is one of many passages in Ephesians that speak of the presence of God manifested in community. Ephesians 2:19-22 says that the church is a “temple” (metaphorically speaking) that is “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (2:22). You want to go visit God? Well, He ain’t on the mountaintop; he’s down the street where believers are gathered together. Ephesians 4:11-16 says that the Spirit has given gifts to the church so that we may be built up and therefore attain maturity “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). Attaining the “fullness of Christ” is a “we” thing not an “I” thing. In fact, 4:16 talks about Christian “growth,” but this growth refers to the church growing together as a body. You want to grow as a Christian? According to 4:16, you can’t do this by yourself; it’s a “we” thing not an “I” thing.

And let’s step back and look at this theme with a wide-angle lens. Without spelling out all the details, it goes something like this. God first dwelt in EDEN. After Adam and Eve sinned, they were banned from the garden and therefore from the full presence of God. God’s presence returned when Israel constructed the TABERNACLE (Exod 25:8; 40:34-38) and it was filled with the glory/presence of God. The glory then dwelt in the TEMPLE (1 Kings 8), but after piles and piles of sin, the glory departed (Ezek 8-11) and didn’t return until JESUS came on the scene. “And the Word become flesh and tabernacle among us” (John 1:14)—a clear connection with the Tabernacle/Temple theme of God’s presence. But Jesus Himself said that a greater manifestation will come when Jesus leaves and sends the Spirit to dwell in…

…not just individuals, but the CHURCH. The gathering of believers. This is why Paul often refers to the CHURCH as the temple of the living God (1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22). Jesus passes the baton on to the corporate gathering of believers, who now house the presence of God. It’s a clear line: Eden, Tabernacle, Temple, Jesus, and then the Church. You want to visit Eden? You want to walk with God (Gen 3:8)? You want to bust through the veil and gaze upon the glory of God in the holy of holies? You want to commune with God in a way that David only longed to have (Ps. 63)? You want to hang out with Jesus? Then go be a part of your local gathering and then—and only then—will you experience the rich, surprising, counter-intuitive, dangerous, powerful presence of God.

The presence of God is experienced more fully when you engage the corporate body and not when you isolate yourself from the body.

One anticipated push-back. Didn’t Jesus model for us meeting God in isolation by getting away from the crowds to meet with this Father (e.g. Luke 4:42)? Well, perhaps. And maybe this would be one piece of evidence that it is ok at times to have an individual encounter with the presence of God. But my good friend and stellar student David Seehusen has pointed out in a recent email exchange that Jesus’ ministry is “pre-Pentecost.” In other words, Jesus Himself said that it is to your benefit that I go so that the Spirit will come (John 16:7). There will be something new, something greater that we will happen when He leaves; namely, the presence of the Spirit who will indwell the gathering of believers (Eph 2:19-22). In a weird way, but according to His own words, Jesus’ situation on earth does not give us the complete picture of our relationship with God. Our relationship is made greater, more intimate, when the Spirit comes to dwell in us. Jesus’ pre-Pentecost communion with God may not necessarily be a model for us living in a post-Pentecost—more glorious—situation.

So how do we experience the presence of God? Primarily, we experience Him as we dive into the community of believers where God has placed us. And this has endless ramifications for how we do church.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Preston, I love what you are saying and I think it is a good balance. We in America are way too individually oriented and it hurts our experience of community and worship. Ephesians 5:18-21 seems to indicate that spirit filled worship has to take place in community (speaking to one another, submitting to one another). At the same time, there is a legitimate place for that intensely personal relationship with God (Matthew 6). If my only experience of the presence of God is with others, I think I can become more about the emotions, but when I come having had time alone with God, my worship is focused on him, yet directed to encourage others as well. Thanks for the great article.

    • Thanks for dropping in, Steve! And thanks for pointing out Matt 6 (praying in secret). Certainly, there is an individual component to experiencing God. Paul too talks about private prayer, or so it seems, in Eph 3:14 and other passages. I only want to say that the private should supplement the corporate, rather than the corporate supplementing the private. And in our highly individualistic context, we need to push hard for the corporate.

  2. Hey Preston, I appreciate you my friend!

    This really resonates with what I have found in my thinking about worship. However, I am trying to be super sensitive to false dichotomies, and the way you configure this question raises a yellow (not red) flag. Here’s two ways you said it (to introduce and then to summarize).

    “Do we experience the presence of God more fully as individuals (on the proverbial mountain top by ourselves) or in community?”

    “The presence of God is experienced more fully when you engage the corporate body and not when you isolate yourself from the body.”

    Engaging the corporate body and isolating yourself from it aren’t the only two possibilities. It’s possible to “have devotions” every day and go to church on Sunday but not be connected to the people there; and it’s possible to never have private worship and yet love going to Sunday service. Obviously, neither of these is ok. Both individual engagement with God and corporate engagement with God are necessary, and neither alone is sufficient for a robust Christian life, right? So how can we make the point (in our weirdly individualistic culture) that corporate engagement with God is necessary without making it sound like private engagement with God is optional or secondary?

    One other point: I need Thai food soon. Email me sometime soon so we can set that up, ok?

    • Excellent point, Andy! Thanks for your thoughts, and I totally agree. I’m still working through the role of our “private engagement” with God. In all things, I want to emphasis it as much as Scripture does, and I continue to be surprised at how much of an emphasis there is on corporate engagement (or worship) and how little there is on the private. Certainly, you can encounter God as an individual, but if you want the “fullness of God in Christ,” then Paul says that He dwells in the church (Eph 1:22-23).

      My thoughts (as they always are) are a work in progress, so I’m still trying to find a biblically sound way to relate the private with the corporate. Thoughts?

      • Yes, this is also what I’ve found in observing the Bible on worship. I picture it as a symbiotic relationship that is portrayed well in Ps 34:1-3. The psalmist begins with how the Lord has blessed him personally, then invites the congregation to join him in praise to God.

        However, I have to remember that in your post above you’re dealing with “experiencing the presence of God,” and I’m talking about worship, so we may have apples and oranges, or at least oranges and tangerines. Maybe sometime you could open up that concept a bit — what do you mean by experiencing God’s presence?

        Thanks again for your close attention to Scripture, it is a challenge to me.

        • Ya bro, this would be a great dialogue to keep revisiting and wrestle with–perhaps over some Thai? BTW, I’ll be down at the Sem probably mid Dec if that works for you?

          Good catch on the “experiencing the presence of God.” Even as I wrote that phrase the first time in the post, I thought: “Hmmm..that’s kind of vague…but I’ll leave it vague for the sake of the discussion.” What exactly does it mean to “experience” the presence of God? I’m not sure how to define it exactly. So ya, I think worship is a subset of experience, or maybe vice versa?

  3. Preston – thank you so much for this post. Some thoughts as someone who came to faith later in life:

    1. Before I was a believer but after I had begun “seeking God” (in quotations because I know God is the one who was chasing after me) I had a wonderful Christian community in my life. Because I was a self-avowed Muslim, they all knew that I would never read scripture or pray to the God of the Bible on my own and – desperately wanting me to come to know Christ – they brought me into their community where these things were expressly encouraged. So much of my budding relationship with God, therefore, was wrapped up in my relationships with these people and mediated through things like Bible-study, accountability groups, retreats, etc. I found this exhilarating and very fulfilling.

    2. This continued, to a lesser degree, when I first became a believer. As a “baby Christian” I found a lot of support was there to help me grow into the things of Christ. I think also that many were so shocked that a Muslim actually came to saving faith in Jesus that I found conversations about faith were always at the forefront. Again, there was a lot of “hand-holding” if you will to help me to know God.

    3. Today, having been a believer for 3.5 years, I am just a “regular old Christian” and am expected to know God on my own. There is no longer any real push from the community to study the word or pray or be in accountability apart from verbal encouragement to keep a “quiet time.” Otherwise this ‘community seeking of God’ is relegated to Wednesday night Bible study and church on Sundays. My church has put A LOT of emphasis on small groups which is a good thing but I still find that relying on one night a week alone is not enough to really dive into the word or to get to know and support one another the way a family should. I miss all of the support and ‘togetherness’ that was there when I was a non-believer/new Christian.

    I have often felt very guilty that I don’t have a closer one-on-one relationship with God the way I did three years ago but I think what I’m realizing more and more – and what jumped out at me about this post – is that a big part of the depth of my relationship with God was forged in my relationship with his people. And – yes – if that’s all there ever was to it than there would absolutely be something missing. I don’t want to have a second-hand relationship with God or – worse – to make gods out of the Christians around me. But, based on my experience, what I find is that my one-on-one with God is actually deeper when I’m in close community with other believers who are on mission and on fire for the Lord.

    It’s counter-intuitive but the truth is, if you want to be closer to the Lord – get closer to other people! This is not a message I have heard very often. Rather the message has been – buck up, get some self-discipline, and spend time alone with an open Bible. Spend a lot of time preferably. Do this and the wonders of God will open to you. There is truth in this. Absolutely. But I don’t think it’s true that somehow this is a “purer” or better connection to God than what I have felt and learned through things like Bible studies and retreats and just living life with other believers.

    In our hyper-individualistic culture we often make the mistake of reading the Epistles at a personal, individual level but we forget that, save for Timothy 1/2, Titus and Philemon, these are letters that were written to churches NOT individuals. Even the gospels were meant to be read by groups of people together (correct me if I’m wrong on this).

    Anyway, just wanted to write to say thanks for this new way to think about things. I know I’m not perfect and I don’t want to justify times when my heart has been lukewarm towards God but I do think a lot of my guilt and self-flagellation has been misplaced and that it was wrong to expect myself to have this super-intimate relationship with God that was complete apart from and independent of being part of local body of believers. As with most things – we cannot do it alone!!!