An accepting and affirming community is an important ingredient in personal development. This is true regardless of what we call that community: a family, a church, a class, a gang, a fraternity or sorority, a team, a club, or some other name. Some sense of identity, some perception of being valued and loved, some sense of acceptance and affirmation, some recognition of achievements and contributions, and even some sense of leaving a legacy can be garnered within any community. A community, however, can also have inhibiting influences. Personal identity can be restrained by the insistence on conformity. Failure to conform can result in isolation, separation, or banishment from the community. Achievement can be measured by the contributions that are narrowly focused on the community’s wellbeing. Legacies can be achieved by unusual loyalty to the community, its existence, and its values. These inhibiting influences are as true of churches as they are of gangs or any other exclusive grouping.
While some people may be content with a corporate identity that inhibits or restrains, personal development cannot progress without each member developing some kind of individual identity within the community. Some degree of individualization, some sense of otherness, and some kind of separation must be blended with a sense of inter-connectedness if each individual is to reach a level of purposeful existence (reflect here on 1 Corinthians 12). The grace that brings us into the community must be supplemented by a grace that allows each individual to develop a distinct self-understanding. Individuals must perceive that they are valued as distinct individuals, that they are individually gifted for some kind of unique contribution, and that they are special in who they are and what they do.
The same kinds of opportunities and restraints are at work in making disciples. Individuals find their places in the community, but some degree of individualization must take place if a disciple is to grow and develop in Christlikeness. Column 3 in the “Making Disciples” Chart attempts to address that need for individualization. It begins with a focus on individual identity as exhibited in the miracle of the incarnation. God chose to become personal by indwelling one individual life in the historic family of God that stretched back to Abraham. God’s identity was no longer inhibited by the identity of a community of faith with its opportunities and its restraints. The people of God, the family of faith, the representatives of God before the nations, were not cast aside. They still had a role to play in God’s plan. By indwelling human flesh, however, God initiated a new humanity that benefitted from its historic corporate identity but was no longer restrained by its limitations. In one individual God showed us what being human was truly about. God established a new goal for each of God’s creatures made in God’s image. That goal was to live the truly human life that Jesus lived. Becoming like Jesus—Christlikeness—was the new model. Identity, love, acceptance, achievement, legacy, and integrity received new definitions through the incarnate Word made flesh dwelling among us.
Restraints had to be removed, and God acted to redeem humanity from its restraints. That redemption was costly, for it meant that the one Model of true humanity laid down his life to show God’s deep love for all humanity—and thereby true humanity was redefined for all of us. A “New Covenant” of grace invited all people—and invites each individual—into a personal relationship with a loving God. This kind of relationship cannot be established through group-think, community decision, or corporate activity. It is as individual and as personal as the one true human through whom God showed love, redemption, and grace. Only as an individual can you enter into this kind of personal relationship with God and become a child of God.