What are Spiritual Practices Without Community?

When I was growing up, communion was served on silver trays with a pyramid of plastic cups filled with a swallow of grape juice. In the middle of the tray was a pile of small crackers. We would pass the tray down the aisle, each taking the bread and juice. We would hold the elements and wait for everyone to be served. Then, as a congregation, we would eat together. Now, we go to a church where communion is served at the front. We walk down in a line and one person tears a piece of bread from a loaf while another person holds a chalice of juice. As we dip the bread, we are reminded of the blood of Christ, shed for me.

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Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Even though my childhood communion was eaten simultaneously with the entire congregation, it felt like a lonely act. And even though I’m eating the juice-dipped bread on my own as I walk back up the aisle, I feel much more connected to my community in this format. And isn’t that part of the point of communion? This communal aspect?

Recently, I got an email from Kiva microloans, celebrating seven years of lending with them. This means that this is my seventh year of Lenten practice. We’ve given up wine to fund microloans, I’ve written to forty influential women, I’ve fasted from social media, and I’ve prayed for forty of the president’s staff. This year, I wrote about needed a quieter, gentler Lent. Our season as a family needed something that required a bit less intention.

But now, just over a week away from Easter, I’m wondering if Lent is meant to be quieter? While I’ve enjoyed my daily Bible reading and on some days, it definitely has felt like I’m “giving up” time I could be spending reading other things, I’ve felt it’s missing something.

In reflection, the Lenten practices I’ve most connected with are the ones in which I’m participating with my community. Maybe I’m not doing the same thing but I’m engaging with others – through giving, through encouragement, through prayer. The practices that have fallen a bit flat are the ones that I’m all alone. The social media fasts are good but they also were inconvenient for my community. This year, my daily reading was good but they didn’t necessarily connect me with anyone else.

It has me thinking about the difference between mindfulness and spiritual fasting. Giving up the spiral of social media helped me be more mindful of my surroundings but was it an actual spiritual practice? I suppose if I had replaced my scrolling with Bible readings or devotionals, it may have felt more like that.

There are many important and healing mindful practices I can observe: moving my body, getting fresh air, limiting screen time, absorbing books and articles that make me think are all ways in which I stay connected to my world. In some senses, I’d call these spiritual practices. And yet, they are quite personal. Getting outside for a walk improves my own mood but it is something I can do in isolation just as easily as I can with a friend.

I’ve been thinking about spiritual practices and how Protestant Evangelicals are becoming more and more enamored with liturgical observations. Advent and Lent are becoming norms. We announce our social media fasts on all our platforms so people won’t miss us; we take beautiful candlelit photos leading up to Christmas; we find parts of the church calendar that make sense. I think it’s awesome. These rhythms have helped me slow down and notice. I love the seasonal aspect of the church calendar and how it helps me recognize the story of Christ throughout the year.

And yet, we’ve held onto our Personal Savior mentality as we try out these communal practices. We do Lent alone – it’s more about our own personal mindfulness than a communal practice. I’m wondering how I can change this? How can I better engage with my community as we deepen our practices together?

Maybe that’s what I’ve learned most this Lent. That I’m not meant to do this alone. The years when I’ve engaged with others have taught me so much – about myself, my world, and how God speaks through our longing. This year, I’ve learned that the absence of that was noticeable.

I’m glad for this Lent – that I did it alone. I needed the reminder to keep returning to community, however that looks. Maybe next year will look like intentionally fasting from something as a family or finding a friend to work through a study together. Maybe it will be getting out in my community and stretching myself. I have a year to lean into this reminder.

Ultimately, I’m remembering that, when God tells us that the greatest commandment is to Love God and Love our Neighbors, any practice I implement must reflect that. It’s not just about me. It’s about me loving God and my Community.

Do you follow the church calendar? How do you incorporate community into your personal practices? What have you learned this Lenten season?

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20 thoughts on “What are Spiritual Practices Without Community?

  1. I still struggle with the Lenten practice. It was never part of our church tradition and it’s been hard for me to consistently put into practice. I can also admit to often in our position as ministry leaders making more of an effort to put these forth for others. {sigh} As to doing things together, we saw the latest Jumangi movie with the granddaughter yesterday at her request. The main theme throughout the movie was how we need each other. I have to say, it was a pretty good movie for kids with the message brought forth in an entertaining way.

    1. Oooh, I’ll have to check Jumanji out. I loved the book. (Though very odd!) I hear A Wrinkle in Time is good for young girls, too! 😉 I guess it often comes back to doing things together, doesn’t it? As much as I think I do it better and faster alone, it simply isn’t true.

  2. Maybe for Lent next year your objective should be to do something in the community. It would be interesting to read about the comparison between the two experiences.

  3. These are great lessons. We learn as much from our Christian community as we do with our one-in-one time with God. We were not meant to do this thing alone. I love that you are incorporating people into Lent next year. Excellent idea! I never would have thought to do something like that.

  4. Lenten practices aren’t apart of my church practices, unfortunately not much I can contribute here. If I was to give up anything it would perhaps be social media, but just like you I would likely not have replaced it with more personal time with God, thus missing out on the main focus for me giving it up in the first place. I like the idea of getting involved in the community, seldom do persons think of this as an option when it come to lent.

    1. I agree – if I give something up without the intention of spending more time with God, it feels more like habit reset than a spiritual practice. I suppose that’s the balance between works and faith that James talks about, right?

  5. Some great thoughts and observations. Disciplines of abstinence – like lent – make space for good things, but don’t always necessarily lead there.
    I grew up Catholic – so as a kid – lent wasn’t a choice. I will say though, that there was a sense of community in being unified eating fish and not other meats on Fridays.
    I think there can be blessings in sacrificing / abstaining as a community.

    1. I love that – even if the practice doesn’t “make sense” as a kid, the communal aspect stuck. I think that’s what I want to teach our girls: That Lent is about remembering together.

  6. My church does not follow the church calendar and I miss it, especially the intimacy of communion. So I practice spiritual disciplines with a small group women and some alone at home. This Lent I’ve been reading more from a “studying” perspective which is adding to my understanding of why certain things happened as they did (or didn’t) during Jesus’ life.. But also practicing short disciplines each morning to get my focus off immediately getting up and “doing”.

    1. I love that you’ve filled the gaps with your own small group, Sandy! I think that’s where I’ve grappled. I’ve appreciated my quiet time practice but it does feel a bit isolating… (Maybe next year the DWT could do something communally…??)

  7. I love your thoughts on this! It’s amazing how God can teach us and grow us in different ways. Even though you’ve been doing this for years, God taught you something new this year. I also love your point about mindfulness and spiritual fasting. What a great perspective!

    1. I think that’s why I keep up at this practice, even though it’s not really part of my tradition. God has always revealed something incredible when I take time to pause and intentionally notice.

  8. Beautiful post! You’re asking all the same questions I’m asking. Thank you for articulating them! My situation with a chronic illness and surgery two days ago complicates my participation and my sense of community. I’ve been grappling with being alone since I got sick in 2013. You capture the emotions and desires for more oneness that this season stirs within us as members of one body. Thank you!

    1. I’m so glad, Melinda! I imagine your sense of community has shifted as you’ve learned to live with chronic illness… It’s a physical reminder that we need help. Thanks for stopping by!

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