I’ve always had a fascination from afar with sequoias. It probably stems from their appearance as the home of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, and ever since then, I’ve longed to visit them for myself. They are the largest trees in the world. One of them, named ‘General Sherman,’ holds the title of largest tree in the world at 275 ft. tall, 102 feet around, and weighing in at an impressive 4.18 million pounds. Yes. 4.18 million pounds.
Yet my favorite thing about sequoias is not how big they grow, but how they grow. You’d imagine that trees so massive would need incredibly deep root systems, and yet their roots rarely go deeper than 20 ft. deep. Instead, they grow outward and intertwine with the roots of other sequoias, forming an interdependent network of trees.
The biggest threat to sequoias isn’t fire (their bark can grow over 30 inches thick!) or disease, but rather falling down under their own weight. It’s why you don’t see sequoias by themselves. They simply can’t grow to their potential alone. Their growth is irreducibly tied to their deep connection to the family of sequoias all around them.
Going At It Alone
In our hyper-individualistic age, we humans are constantly being pulled into increasingly isolated lives, where we are taught that our identity and growth are rooted in our independence and self-sufficiency. Whereas almost every culture before us and around us has rooted identity in a greater connection to family and community, our western individualism drives us to define ourselves by our happiness and personal fulfillment above all else.
Sadly much of Christianity in America has adapted to this worldview in the form of personalized, consumer-driven faith. Jesus is seen as simply a guide on my road to self-actualization, and if this is true, Church must simply be the service where I gather what spiritual nuggets I need (and leave behind what I don’t like) to help me become my ‘best self.’
Yet like the sequoias, our individual growth can fall under the weight of our spiritual isolation. We were made to grow big and brilliant and beautiful, but we were never meant to grow alone. In fact, the more our roots grow into one another in interdependent community, the more we can grow on our own. It’s a paradox – the best version of ourselves is deeply tied not simply to what we do, but who we do it with.
It’s why, in spite of her flaws and missteps, I still believe in the Church. I’m not talking about the service where we collect our spiritual nuggets on the road to self-actualization. I’m talking about family. Church is family. It’s the primary metaphor used for the Church in the New Testament. Church is the people who I share roots with – who together withstand the onslaught of the forces around us to grow into more than we could be on our own. Theologian Eugene Peterson puts it this way:
“There can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no wholeness in the Christian life, apart from an immersion in, and embrace of, community. I am not myself by myself.”
The apostle Paul shares this vision, as we see reflected in his prayer for the church of Ephesus in Ephesians 3:
For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19 CSB
The love of God is far bigger and expansive than we ever imagined, and if we want to have a chance to experience it’s fullness, Paul tells us that happens together with all the saints, rooted and established together in love. Amazingly, we can experience more of God together as his stumbling, misfit family called the Church than we can on our own. That community is the context where we learn to love God and our neighbor, through the difficult places of trial and the joyous seasons of triumph. Is it easy? No. It is worth it? More than we know.
An Act Of Rebellion
Being around Church my entire life, I’ve heard just about every pitch for community you can hear. The truth is, in a hyper-individualized society, choosing to be intentional about putting down roots together is counter-intuitive to the patterns of this world. In this sense, Church is rebellion. It shapes us and grows us in ways we never thought possible on our own. And when the storms and droughts and forces around us rage, those roots hold.
At Restoration, our expression of community is City Groups. We love and value our Sunday gatherings, and think they are vital for a healthy faith as we worship together. Yet the heartbeat of our Church happens in City Groups, where we intentionally put down roots together and grow into all we were made to be in Christ. Nothing has encouraged and challenged me more than the habit of meeting together over meals, talking through our lives, and wrestling with the faith we share together.
We believe that at it’s heart, Christianity is a communal faith. Christ has made us and equipped us each in unique ways as individuals, and yet the fullness of those giftings and purpose is found when we use them together to be built up in love. Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, it’s a tragedy to do it alone. Our prayer for every person who calls Restoration home is that they’d experience the beautiful paradox of community – becoming more fully ourselves as we deepen our roots together.