The Christian life has become fragmented. But God never intended us to live isolated; he inteded us to live together in community.
Brian J. Wright discusses this and more in his upcoming book, The Rhythm of the Christian Life (Leafwood, 2019). We recently talked with Brian J. Wright on how we can establish healthy rhythms, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together and more.
Read the conversation below.
Why did you decide to write The Rhythm of the Christian Life?
I decided to write this book because I share the same concern as a growing number of pastors regarding how fragmented the Christian life has become today. Many Christians have some idea, perhaps, about what individual prayer, giving, studying and other spiritual disciplines are; but what about the rhythm that connects them all? Could it be that the modern church’s preaching and teaching has left out a key component of our Christian life—one that has nurtured believers and their believing communities for centuries?
I remember listening to a panel discussion with Tim Keller and Don Carson while I was writing this book. They were discussing how our discipleship nowadays tends to be extremely privatized. We focus on building up a believer’s confidence in Christ (which is a good thing) and helping them examine themselves (another good thing), but it’s a relatively shallow way of thinking about the church and life together. I couldn’t agree with them more.
Sure, we talk about “quiet times,” and perhaps occasionally examine our “life together,” but the actual rhythm between the two is hardly ever fleshed out. Therefore, I decided to write the first book-length treatment of it.
In this book, you draw from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. How did this book influence your thinking on this topic?
I was first introduced to Bonhoeffer’s Life Together about 15 years ago in a reading group held in the home of a local pastor in Denton, TX. Reading Life Together while experiencing the joy of life together was all the more formative for me and its impact longer lasting. (I write more about this experience of communal reading in this article at The Gospel Coalition).
In my opinion, Life Together genuinely captures the essence of Christian community and conveys it in such a clear and compelling way that generations later it remains one of the best works on the character of Christian community.
Although Bonhoeffer never uses the word “rhythm” in Life Together, he exceptionally describes the pulsating flow of the Christian life as it swings back and forth from time together to time alone with God. He writes, for instance,
Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship. It is not as though the one preceded the other; both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer began at the ground level, surveying for us the biblical text in relation to time alone and time together, among other things. That certainly influenced how I approached this topic while writing this book.
I also modeled my work after Life Together, in that it is five chapters and just over 100 pages. So my book is a concise work, just like Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.
How do many Christians misunderstand the Christian life?
Today, the Christian life is often described in two separate categories: vertical and horizontal, personal and interpersonal, individual and communal, private and public.
Think about the last time you read an article, blog or book on the spiritual disciplines. The chances are probably high that the focus was mostly (or solely!) on how they benefit you; how they draw you closer to God; how they help you overcome certain issues; how they provide you peace and comfort. But the Christian life is not about you.
By offering some simple, even helpful categories to think through the Christian life, a false dichotomy has arisen between our individual lives with God and corporate lives with other believers. This widespread mentality among Christians has led to a fragmented and unrhythmic Christian life, especially in how we understand many verses in the Bible and apply them to our lives.
For instance, when Paul writes, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” he is not simply commanding you as an individual. The “your own” is plural, and the corporate directive of working out our salvation is in the context of a Christian community. Similarly, the charge for us to “put on the whole armor of God” in Ephesians 6 is not meant to be understood as the armor you put on every day as a single soldier going out to face individual spiritual attacks (though there may be some extended implications for that). Rather, Paul conveys we are all to suit up together as a united front going out into battle in unison. As we stand together, we advance together.
As a result, we experience less unity and focus almost exclusively on our own individual needs. This book, then, is a step toward drawing attention to and enlarging in practical ways the rhythm God expresses in Scripture, and that Bonhoeffer notes in Life Together.
A growing number of Christians don’t find it important to gather with the local church. What would you say to them?
This question hits at the heart of my book, and it saddens me to think about the growing number of people—some of whom I’ve known personally—who don’t find it important to gather with the local church.
I would ask them to imagine what might have become of Samuel had Eli not been there to guide him in discerning God’s call on his life. Suppose King David never spent time together with Nathan, who rebuked David’s great wrongdoing with a shattering revelation. Picture what could have happened to the Ethiopian eunuch had he remained alone in the chariot without his time together with Philip. Consider how different Apollos’s ministry would have been without his time together with Priscilla and Aquila. What would have happened to Augustine without fellow believers in his life like Ambrose; Luther without Melanchthon; Calvin without Farel; Bonhoeffer without Bethge? Of course, praise God, we will never know!
I would also want them to consider whether it was worth the consequences of not frequently gathering with fellow-believers. When people choose to march to their own beat, their lives can become a mess. They base their life on an arrhythmic pattern, as if they have spiritual atrial fibrillation. Hearts harden. Sin occurs. Destruction comes. Guilt is sensed. Disgrace is felt. Shame is experienced. Faith weakens. Pain increases. Confusion appears. Prayers are hindered. Failure arrives. Burdens linger. Grief persists.
On the other hand, our best life occurs when we are in sync with God and others. Missions succeed. Forgiveness happens. Blessings flow. Divine intervention transpires. Help follows. Faithfulness flourishes. Holiness increases. Nourishment comes. Love abounds. Churches grow. People rejoice. Health restores. Salvation occurs. Baptisms emerge. Assurance takes place.
The stark differences between life with and without the fellowship are staggering.