Solitude Before Community

“Why is it so important that solitude come before community? If we do not know we are the beloved sons and daughters of God, we’re going to expect someone in the community to make us feel that way. They cannot.” –Henri Nouwen 

I’ve been blogging a short series about our inner life, discipleship, community, and ministry, inspired by Nouwen’s Spring 1995 Leadership article (see blogs from November 1 and November 2). Nouwen suggests that many of us start by trying to do ministry ourselves. Then, when that doesn’t work, we try to beg others to help us, and then, finally, when it still isn’t working, we decide to pray about it. But Jesus acted in reverse. He began with God in solitude, then created a community who would carry out the mission together, and then finally they would serve together. It was within that context of what today we might call a “missional community” that Jesus did discipleship (note, not in a classroom or even in a circle in someone’s living room!).

It seems to me that in today’s church culture, we put everything else in front of solitude.

  • Some put discipleship first. They say it all starts here. That we have to teach people how to grow  and serve and share their faith.
  • Some put evangelism first. Our first priority, they say, is to carry out the mission to make disciples.
  • Some put leadership first. Everything begins with leaders who model the abundant life and bring others along, right?
  • Some put community first. After all, they say, all of this good stuff happens in the environment of authentic Biblical community. So we have to build small groups.

Jesus said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We seek God’s Kingdom by being committed to the King.

I’ve been involved in small groups ministry for a long time. I guess I’m kinda known by being a small groups champion and cheerleader. Several years ago, the leadership team at Northeast came up with words that would describe each staff member’s personality or passion. The word they used for me was community. Makes sense, but truthfully I didn’t like the tag. Can you say pigeon-hole? Silo? Type-cast?

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I think we put the cart before the horse when we put community before solitude.

We need both, but especially as leaders, we must prioritize solitary times with God. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in Life Together, “One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.  Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

Perhaps a reason that our small groups are sometimes not very healthy and they do not bear much lasting fruit is that the group members have so little time alone with God. On the other hand, in a group where individuals have been alone with God, they arrive with hearts prepared to share out of their overflow what God has been telling them. They reach out to others out of the overflow of what God is doing in their lives. They serve others together out of the overflow of time spent with a loving God. They step up to leadership because they sense God’s calling upon their lives.

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Again, Bonhoeffer said, “Only in fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to be rightly in fellowship.” In your small group are people learning to be “rightly alone”?

Solitary means fasting from people for a specific time period in order to connect intimately with God and revive our souls. When group members are regularly spending time alone with God, it changes everything in the group!

Here’s how Nouwen said it

When you are aware that you are the beloved, and when you have friends around you with whom you live in community, you can do anything. You’re not afraid anymore. You’re not afraid to knock on the door while somebody’s dying. You’re not afraid to open a discussion with a person who underneath all the glitter is much in need of ministry. You’re free.

Do you really want your small group to be healthy? Start here! Discuss this as a group the next time you meet. Plan some solitary time alone with God yourself.

What do you think about this?
How does your time alone with God affect your community? Your ministry?
How’s your own solitary time with God?

2 Thoughts to “Solitude Before Community”

  1. This was a thoughtful and needed post. We Christians are so busy today running from one activity to another there is too little time for solitude. How we expect to get direction when we don't spend time listening is beyond me. I'm blessed with a group that take time to find solitude and pray for me every Monday morning. Instead of the enemy convincing me it is selfish, I'm encouraged to find solitude as a ministry tool. I have had many miracles in my life – delivered to me or I've been able to reach out to others. People think I'm some sort of brave soul but I'm not – your last paragraph really says it – because I'm aware that I am the beloved I cannot give less than I've been given.

  2. Thanks, Delores! It is so heartening to hear from Christ followers who are spending time with the Father. My prayer is that more of us can slow down, turn off the TV, get off Facebook, and spend time alone with our Father who loves us more than we can understand. Many blessings to you this Christmas season!

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