Amateur Efforts Hoping For Expert Results

One of my best friends growing up played tennis once a month and could never understand why he didn’t get any better.  He would compete against opponents who played four or five times a week, and it drove him crazy that he couldn’t beat them.  The idea of practice and commitment wasn’t on his radar screen.  He wanted to be good simply because he wanted to be good.

I knew another guy who canoodled around on guitar for 15 minutes a day –having had no formal training and never doing more than copy simple guitar riffs off his favorite albums — who “desperately” wanted to be in a band.  He auditioned weekly, but always came away disappointed.  Nobody wanted him, and he just couldn’t understand why not.

adver-pacman02It is endemic to our society to want quick, painless, easy success.  We are a McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Disney, i-Phone, TiVo dominated culture where we seek the biggest return for the smallest investment.  This is how we are generally viewed internationally.  A decade ago I was in Israel, and I met a man named Ohad, who was a third-generation body healer, dealing mainly in touch and homeopathic therapies.  During our conversation he said,

You know what drives me crazy about you Westerners?  I will tell you.  You think you can attend a three day retreat and be an expert.  My grandfather apprenticed in his healing arts for thirteen years, and it took another twenty years before he was considered a ‘master.’  My father apprenticed with him for a dozen years, then took another dozen to become a ‘master.’  I began working with my father when I was eleven.  I am just now forty and I am just now considered a ‘master.’  In your country, people go to a three day retreat or a six session training on Reiki (a Japanese energy healing ritual based in fasting, meditation, prayer, and touch) and they get a certificate saying they are a ‘master.’  You cheapen every spiritual vocation that way.

In my own experience, I can confess feeling the same kind of thing.  I spent two intensive years training in the art and practice of spiritual direction — in San Francisco and New York.  It was a rigorous experience — more intensive than college in many respects — with stringent protocols (a spiritual director must be receiving direction him- or herself, a director should take on no more than one or two people at one time, spiritual directors must never charge payment or receive gifts from the people they work with, etc.).  Even at the end of two years, over half the people in the program were denied certification because it was discerned they lacked certain necessary skills, gifts, or attributes.  I can’t tell you how annoying I find it to see people hang out a shingle as a “spiritual director” because they attended a retreat once and decided it was something they would like to do!  Which is not to say they might not have the gifts and calling to do it.  They might be great, but it is somewhat galling to see people take a shortcut to ‘mastery.’

I see the same situations occurring in the church — especially at the Annual Conference level.  In my own annual conference a few year’s ago, someone decided we should have “discerning moments” built into the agenda as “order of the day” items.  We dutifully stopped whatever we were doing, sat in silence for a few minutes, then the bishop — or a bishop designee — would offer a prayer, and we would move on.  The overall reaction on the part of the conference body was, “What the hell was that?”  We are not a church well trained in silence, meditation, discernment, and even prayer.  It was like being handed a musical instrument and being told to play it, with very similar results — we played it, but not very well.

mcchurchThe pop-fad in the church right now is Christian Conference (or Holy conversation, or holy conferencing, or another variation on the theme).  In former times, holy conversation was a normal part of the life of Methodist faith communities.  The intensive periods of silence, the structured conversation, the prayer, the confession — all were very familiar to regular participants.  Today, we have people going to three day training workshops on holy conferencing who become our ‘experts’ to lead uninitiated, untrained people in spotty exercises.  It really doesn’t matter that we engage in these activities with good intentions.  What kinds of results do we truly expect from this?

Another favorite of mine personally is walking the labyrinth.  Labyrinths predate the Greeks, and the current craze of ‘walking the labyrinth’ comes not from Christian tradition, but from Sufi Muslim tradition.  Historically, it was an incredibly demanding discipline of those dedicating their lives to God.  The walk took hours and sometimes days, and during the continuous movement into the center and out to the edge, there was total silence (no sweet new age music playing gently in the background).  The supplicant prayed or chanted continuously, fasting for the entire walk.  Most would walk until they fell or until they experienced visions.  As with many modern revivals of ancient practices, we have lifted the positive and enjoyable aspects, ignoring the difficult and demanding.  Walking the labyrinth is almost a game in its modern incarnation — like riding a bike or going to the park.  Anyone can do it, any time they want.  We do it because it is a pleasant experience, and there is no doubt some find it meaningful.  But transformative?

cheap-Christian-gifts2-703986For the most part, the modern Protestant church offers few, if any, total immersion experiences aimed at providing mastery of any spiritual disciplines.  Honestly, few modern-day Christians are interested in such intensive experiences, but there are some and they are left pretty much to their own devices if they want to engage in them.  However, it raises an interesting question:  is it possible to experience true transformation, and even to be agents of transformation, if we remain at a surface level of engagement?

Most Methodists would balk at even the rigors of John Wesley’s instructions on personal piety and the practice of the means of grace in Christian community.  His instructions were anything but onerous in their day, but they are perceived as stifling and unrealistic to modern-day church goers.  Our contemporary tendency to “dabble” — to ‘do’ discernment and holy conferencing on an occasional basis without adequate preparation, training, and practice — cannot possibly bring about transformation.  Fasting and meditation — favorite components of occasional retreats and programs — have no real power to bring lasting change the way we do them.  No one would expect good results from dieting or exercising once a year, so what do we think the lasting benefit of a once-a-year fast will be?  Research shows that we’re not really dedicated to praying, reading the Bible, and that participation in spiritual formation experiences is sporadic at best for the majority of our church members.  This is not to say that there isn’t benefit in these activities.  People who play tennis occasionally, putter in a garden, play a musical instrument, etc., gain great personal satisfaction from such hobbies.  Enjoyment is not to be dismissed, nor are the benefits such enjoyment brings.

I’m going to be criticized — as I usually am — for ‘making the faith too hard.’  I would remind everyone that I’m not making this up.  There is a long history and tradition for this perspective.  Everyone has the right to pray as they choose, read the scripture as they will, worship when they want to, and decide for themselves the level of involvement they prefer.  This is all true.  What is also true is that we need to be realistic about our expectations and not assume we will get back more than we’re willing to put in.  The concert pianist gets the results she does because of the preparation, sacrifice, and dedication she invests.  The superstar athlete, top surgeon, expert mountain-climber, etc., got where they were through effort.  They can expect expert results because of expert commitment.  Those who don’t put in the time, the effort, the energy, and the heart shouldn’t expect (or claim) mastery.  Life doesn’t work that way.  Neither does faith.

Our churches have the opportunity — and now the missional mandate — to be centers where people are equipped to transform the world.  Not everyone is going to be interested — in fact, most will not.  But somehow, somewhere, we need to find capacity in our system to train people toward mastery in prayer, contemplation, discernment, service, compassion, justice, care-giving, mercy, and leadership.  An amateur church will only produce amateur results — and amateur results can be just fine, but they will not be good enough to transform the world.  So, let’s continue to dabble and produce random acts of kindness, but let us also work seriously and sacrificially to immerse ourselves in the kinds of practices that produce specific and systemic acts of transformation.

11 replies

  1. Okay, I confess this one is bugging me a bit. Of course I agree with you regarding the radical nature of discipleship and the need for folks to be serious about the undertaking that we are engaged in. I think what bothers me is the belief that somehow an “amateur” faith has less power to transform than a “professional” one.

    When it comes down to it, the mastery that you describe should be most clearly seen in monastic communities, those places dedicated to prayer and being formed in the Spirit. I have a soft spot for those places, and believe they are an important witness to the world about the nature of faith. However, while these communities are important, they haven’t necessarily led to the major movements of growth in Christian history. No, those movements (revivals) often utilized the least experienced, the least likely, to bring forth God’s will on earth.

    We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the witness of scripture is that God more often than not used the least likely and least trained to serve God’s purposes. They include murderers, scoundrels, prostitutes, children, and even a teen age girl who was willing to say yes. In the scriptures it is often the “professionals” whom God rebukes, because they often allow practices and knowledge to overwhelm their love of God and neighbor.

    “Unless you come as a child,” Jesus said. That leads me to think about the “amateur” soccer league that my girls played in this Spring. Frankly, the level of play was not good. The league certainly had some talented players from the immigrants in the community, but it also had kids like my own who had never played soccer before, and who were doing the best that they could to raise their ability while knowing that that the chances of their ever turning “pro” were slim and none. And yet, the success of this soccer league was found not in its ability to turn out pro soccer players, but in its ability to reflect the Kingdom of God through relationships between people of very different backgrounds, creating a loving place for folks to learn as God had gifted them. And in that experience, people are indeed transformed.

    Frankly, I think that very few churches have the mojo to “transform the world.” Amateurs look at that notion and know that is more than they can handle. That is why the mission statement of our congregation is that we exist for the transformation of Antioch, the little place where we live. After all, it takes professionals with all their professional tools and resources to change the world, but we think a bunch of amateurs might be able to effect a little change on our patch of ground. And if every United Methodist bunch of amateurs deals with their own patch, well then God might indeed throw a little mojo in to get the world changed as well.

    • I intentionally avoided any mention of “professional” in the article — for a good reason. I don’t think we need anymore “professional” Christians, yet the world yearns for more proficient ones. It always astounds me when church leaders balk at the concept of practicing the spiritual disciplines. What was just assumed of pre-20th century Christianity, changed radically through the 20th century (especially after the advent of the almighty TV) and is now seen as somehow extraordinary. Most of the voices I hear calling for a return to a “traditional Wesleyan” theology don’t really comprehend what they are asking for. Wesley’s “minimum” standards are so far beyond what even many of our most committed Christians are willing to do, it isnt funny.

      Perhaps I buried it too deep into the article, but I admitted freely that the vast majority of our modern day church members have no interest in this. And sadly, too many of our churches are designed, organized, and structured to keep these folks happy, so that those seeking a radical discipleship get short-changed — and many of them are the ones getting fed up and leaving “organized” (tee-hee) religion. I don’t believe there are any more people today interested in discipleship than there were in the time of Christ. Many who followed him decided it was too hard, and they drifted away.

      See, the problem for me, Jay, is a systems problem. Our denomination raised the bar making discipleship the standard. Not church membership, not church attendance, not serving on a church committee, but discipleship. Then they bumped the bar up a little higher — “for the transformation of the world.” Not for the success of the congregation, not for the fulfillment of the membership, not to satisfy the disciplinary obligations of the conference — “but the transformation of the world.” What does this mean? What does the Lord require of the church to be an agent of cultural, societal, and global change? Is what we’re got going to do it? If the mission is too hard, then we need to change the mission. If the mission is the mission, then we need to change our behaviors. If you have a third option, I am open to it, but what keeps me up at night is the challenge of what it means to United Methodism to faithfully live its mission. We made it BIG. We made it BOLD. But I don’t see how we’re working to make it HAPPEN!

      Our leaders are good people. Our people are good people. There is great love and joy and fellowship in even the most dysfunctional church (well, almost). But there is enormous room for improvement. I just want to stir the pot, shake the cage, make waves, and all the other disruptive metaphors and cliches, to see what pops out. Personally, I don’t think the Powers That Be in league with General Conference actually thought through the implications of a church dedicated to becoming a system for the nurture, cultivation, strengthening, equipping, and deploying of disciples. (Especially since we have apparently run out of money…) I’m just sayin’…

  2. Hmmm… This raises all sorts of questions. First and foremost is whether our “mission” statement represents a goal we are working toward, or a descriptive reality of where we are right now. No, we aren’t a disciple making machine, cranking out radical Christians who are literally willing to take up their cross and follow Christ where ever he leads. But neither am I yet perfect in Christian love. The goal of making disciples for the transformation of the world isn’t a bad one, as long as we understand that it is a goal and not a current reality.

    I believe in stirring the pot, making waves, and all that stuff (trust me that I stay on the blacklist because of it). I also believe in calling folks to be radical in their faith. But I cringe a bit at the language of “expert” and “amateur” for in fact we all are amateurs at this. Yes, some folks know a little bit more, but very few of us have achieved total sanctification (to use a Wesleyan concept). In fact, part of our problem I believe stems from having a few too many folks who are willing to claim “expert” status which gives them power to ignore those who are “beneath” them. The problem I fear with the language of “expert” is that we can easily move into a modern Pharisaism which fails to remember Christ’s call that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

    I guess the problem for me in this post is one of language, and the fear that some could easily take it to mean that “experts” are the bomb and that “amateurs” should get out of the way. I know that you didn’t mean this, so this probably has more to do with my own stuff than yours. Certainly, we have too many folks who claim to be expert with little justification. But don’t knock the amateurs, for in my experience, it is usually the amateurs that have something to teach the experts.

    • It is one of the grand ironies that language can often be the impediment to meaning. And while language is an issue, you do get my meaning, and you point out a very real danger. This is precisely what we have done with clergy and laity. By professionalizing the clergy we made them the experts and laity the amateurs. We disenfranchised the heart and soul of the body of Christ by forcing some parts to feel inferior to others. When your head is in the wrong place, you abuse improvement and turn it into a competition. You cannot escape a biblical and theological call to radical commitment, no matter how you parse it. Maybe “expert” isn’t the right word, but “teacher” and “master”? Both biblical equivalents to the modern use of “expert.” It isn’t just the clergy called to teach and to master the practices and principles of the faith, and you’re right, we don’t ever want to give our people the idea (or the excuse) that this doesn’t apply to them. There is no expert that does not contain their inner amateur, but to allow that all should be left to their amateur status offers a very dim and dismal future. Amateurs can teach experts — no question — but the transformational advances in art, science, medicine, music, technology, etc. have come to us by those who pursued mastery, and they will continue to do so in the future as well.

  3. I got an email from a twenty-eight year old professor of Sociology who wrote to me (Some of this portion of her response is in answer to Jay’s first comment. I got it before my second exchange with Jay.)
    “I would never go to a church like that. I speak for a lot of young people when I say that we are sick to death of churches that won’t challenge us, and that just want us to fall in line and be “amateurs.” If the church offers nothing special, why bother? If being a Christian means being just the way I am with no reason to change? Forget it. I don’t want to be an “amateur” Christian. The only church I will commit to is one that will help me become more than that. I agree with just about everything in your post, and will tell you, if the United Methodist church is being led by preachers who think good enough is good enough, then you’re in big trouble. And the hang-up about “professionals” (which you Never said) says more about the writer than your ideas. It won’t be the professionals that change the church — they have had their chance and they haven’t done a very good job at all. Change will come when the paid professionals do what they’re paid for and help “amateurs” develop their skills and faith so that they can live it. If a university took the attitude that people don’t need to grow toward mastery of a subject, we would have to close our doors. It is just one more indication of how little education there is in Christian education.”

    There is a lot more in the email, but this portion indicates a passionate response from a young adult seeking more challenge than what many churches are willing to give.

  4. Wow, when it rains, it pours. Tim, from Oklahoma, wrote me a note to say (I got his permission to share this):

    “I am no young adult. I haven’t been one for forty years. But I recently left the Methodist church because of exactly what you are talking about. My pastor was the nicest man you could ever want to meet. We had five good pastors in a row. A record for us and maybe for a lot of churches. The people were great. They were our friends. We loved them dearly. Still do. My wife died, and people were very kind. But I realized that the only reason I went to church was because of her. When she died, I asked myself why do I go? The more I thought about it, the less I could think of a good reason. I like your word dabbler. That is exactly what my church was. A church full of dabblers. Good people. Loving people. But people who were happy dabbling and didn’t want anything else. In fact, if you tried to make them do more, they would complain and stay home until you stopped. We got all caught up in the watchband What would Jesus do? stuff, and everybody liked it, but my friend Bud and I stood up and said Jesus wouldn’t be happy with what we’re doing and somebody asked what we meant and my friend Bud said We aren’t doing much of anything. People got all upset with us, but it was true. Nobody in our church really wanted to do what Jesus did. They just wanted to think about it. I have been an amateur Christian all my life and it makes me mad that I have spent all of my adult life going to church and I am still an amateur. Shame on me and shame on my church. Bud still goes to our church and he sent me your sermon and I just wanted to let you know you spoke right to me.”

    Thanks Tim (and Bud)

  5. Okay, fair is fair. This comes from Margaret in Ohio, responding to three different blogs from the past week:

    “I am offended by the term amateur. I also disagree with your interpretation of discipleship. I am a nurse and I work hard all week and I come to church for me. There is nothing wrong with that. I do a lot of good for people, I am a good Christian, and that won’t change if I pray or read the Bible or join a small group at church. None of that has anything to do with being a good Christian. I attend church when I can, I love God, and I know God loves me. That’s what makes me a good Christian, and believe me, I am no amateur.”

    • There are a lot of Margarets out there, and the big problem I run into is that most conversations devolve into something like:
      “Discipleship is more demanding than just believing that Jesus is God’s Son.”

      All I can do is put out the truth as I understand it, and support those who see some wisdom in it. There are so many people seeking a deep, life-enriching relationship with God, that I can’t do more than raise the issue with those who don’t. If Margaret is truly happy in her relationship, then that’s where she is. All I can do — and I try to do — is lift up a vision for something more (something else). The greater challenge for me is when this attitude comes from pastors. I think it is a much greater problem when our pastors think getting people to attend worship one hour a week occasionally is an adequate definition of Christian discipleship. Then I push back a little harder.

  6. I don’t go to church anymore, and anybody who cares why should read your blog. I run a restaurant. You demand the best. People who want to give less than the best can go somewhere else. You want crap, fine, but don’t pretend it isn’t crap. I am fed up with churches that say one thing but don’t mean it. Being Christian means being a wimp. Your plastic wrapped Jesus picture says it all. Pastors are scared to demand anything of anyone. I read the comments from pastors who are wastes of time. This let people be where they are and they will get better way of thinking is stupid. You want a church to change the world? Make people work for it. Don’t hand it to them on a platter and expect them to thank you. Make the church matter. It may be too late. Listening to the defensive idiots on your blog? They have no intention of changing. I think what you’re trying to do is great, but it’s a waste of time. No one really wants to hear what your saying because you want people to be serious, and pastors just want to keep their jobs and your leaders don’t have a clue.

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