The School for Spiritual Direction (SSD), the Next Step School for Spiritual Direction, and Men at the Cross were life changing.
At both SSD and Next Step, I was able to spend a week with Larry Crabb and about 30 other folks exploring relational theology, for lack of a better term. There were excellent teachings by Larry, but also some important small group work applying the ideas. During each of those weeks, I also had time to spend one on one with Larry. As a Christian psychologist, I consider him a mentor, but he has also become a friend.
Men at the Cross was similarly valuable. On the recommendation of my friend Eric Johnson (another Christian psychologist), I attended MATC in Kentucky with my friend Brad. We explored who we are in Christ in a very experiential sense. Whereas SSD/Next Step are more of a long soak in a warm tub, MATC was a fire hose.
Both required difficult, but important personal work. If you have the time, inclination, and resources, I would heartily recommend either of them. This rather long introduction brings me to my actual purpose.
A few instances recently have reminded me that real life is local. I did really hard, really important work at MATC. I wouldn't trade it for the world and I hope to be involved with the ministry for years to come. I cannot thank God enough for the lessons learned and the friends made through SSD.
But they are not my church. My church is an old waterbed store, repurposed for the worship of Jesus. Every Sunday, we come together. We talk and we drink coffee and eat "Nancy Z Bars". We gather into the sanctuary together, sit in pink (!) chairs, and we sing songs and pray and listen to teachings from the word of God. Throughout the week, we gather for AWANAs, life groups, and Thursday coffees. Conversations may be mundane or they may be deep, thoughtful, and challenging.
Although some will disagree with me, I don't think God's prescriptions for New Testament churches are that detailed. There is no direction given on the size of the building, how they should be decorated if at all, or what type of instruments to use. The picture of New Testament churches, it seems, is about life lived together. Read 1 Corinthians. That church was messy. Just like ours. Just like yours.
The thing about Larry Crabb is that he is not my pastor. He is a friend and I value his counsel and his prayers, but we don't see each other on a regular basis. He doesn't watch me parent, work, worship, or try to love my wife well. He doesn't observe me close enough to know which of my spiritual and relational vines need pruning. That can only occur with people who actually see me regularly.
Real life is local. But real life is also hard sometimes. If you go to church with me, if we actually live in relationship, at some point I will hurt you. I promise. You will hurt me too. Because we live in a broken world, sometimes I will injure you unintentionally. Other times, because we are walking together toward relational holiness, the wounds will be deliberate. Proverbs 27:6 says, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." Exhortation is uncomfortable, but ultimately God-ordained and for the benefit of the body of Christ.
Living in the information age, we are part of a global "community." I can binge on sermons from a famous pastor in another country and even benefit from them. I can email people in a different city for counsel or advice. I can share my frustrations with online chat groups. But it isn't real. Real life is local.
In Romans 8:22, Paul wrote, "For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now" (NET Bible). Don't expect heaven before you get there. Be cautious about making your primary spiritual influences people outside of your local body. A distant pastor, friend or counselor, even a godly one, cannot offer the same insight as someone living with you, life on life. God calls us to be a part of a local church, a body of broken people who can encourage and uplift but also challenge and exhort as we walk together on the road to holiness.