Outgrowing the Church — Outgrowing God?

HarmonicSoulAs I have been clearing files, I came across a very interesting conversation.  It is a one-on-one interview with a young Christian woman who has turned her back on “organized religion.”  I present an excerpt from it here verbatim, then offer a few personal reflections.  My portion of the conversation is in italics, while my partner’s comments are in normal type.

You left the church in 2003?  How would you describe your spiritual life at present?

Oh, I am a Christian, but not in any traditional sense.  Not only was the church not helping me grow in my faith, it was actually holding me back.

In what ways?

At the risk of sounding arrogant, the churches that I attended — and there were at least a dozen — all had very limited and provincial ideas of faith.  I had a life-changing experience — my Damascus road, you could say — but when I tried to share it in church, I was opposed, and actually persecuted.

Persecuted?

Yes, I was told that my experiences weren’t real, and that I was misinterpreting what happened.  When I defended that my experiences were valid and true, I was asked, generally by men, to not talk about what happened to me.  When I went ahead and shared what happened, I was actually asked to leave two different churches.  That was when I realized that I didn’t really need the church anymore.  Organized religion is not interested in helping people know God; they only want to control belief.

Are you willing to share your “Damascus road” experience with me?

Of course.  It shapes my whole spirituality, and it describes my calling — I am a spiritual guide to women myself now.  I went to church for a few years — when I divorced I felt a need to go back to church, and began attending services in 1999 — and got very involved.  I went to worship and a Sunday school class and a Bible study and joined a women’s group.  It was fine for awhile, but something was missing.  I went on a retreat and sat on the beach and I saw a bright light in the sky apart from the sun.  I couldn’t look directly at it, but I felt it getting closer.  The light washed over me and I heard a voice in my head saying “You and I are One.”  In a flash it was like my mind was opened and everything fell into place.  Christ is in me.  I don’t need any intermediaries.  I don’t need any filters or special lenses to understand God’s will.

What do you mean by filters or lenses?

You know, like the Bible is the best example.  If Christ is truly inside you then you don’t need to refer to an old book to find out what God wants you to do, you just do it and trust that what you do it right.  With Christ’s Spirit guiding your thoughts and actions, you can live in a complete confidence that you’re on the right track.  You also don’t need some preacher to tell you what the Bible means — the ancient stories are replaced with modern stories.  The God of the Old Testament and the New Testament is continuously revealing a “Newer” Testament through people who are really tuned in.

And you feel that you are tuned in?

Well, enlightened is a more accurate term.  I just see everything clearly now and I don’t have anymore questions.  People always used to talk about discerning God’s will, but everything is God’s will — if it happens, it is God’s will.  If it needs to be changed and people step up and change things, it’s God’s will.  There is no false division between sacred and worldly; God is in all, and union with Christ is union with God.

So, what do you do to stay connected to God?

I don’t “do” anything.  People do things to connect with God, but when you’re already connected, it all changes.  Take prayer for example.  I don’t pray any more in the traditional sense, because I am in constant communion with God.  If something is in my head or in my heart, God put it there.  My life itself is prayer, if you define prayer as connection to God.  Same with the Bible, I don’t read the Bible anymore.  God will reveal anything and everything I need in my life.

What about the church — defined as a Christian community?

Once again, you’re automatically connected to everyone else who has reached this level of enlightenment.  I find that people need what I have, but I find less and less that other people have in their faith that I need.  It’s nice to find other people who know God — I mean, REALLY know God — but it is very rare, and it really isn’t necessary.

So, in your faith, you are fine going it alone?

I’m never alone.  That is the heart of my revelation.  Christ and I are one.  I don’t need an organized church.  I don’t need a book.  I don’t need a bunch of ancient myths and stories.  I don’t need any songs or hymns.  My heart overflows with an assurance that I am continuously connected to God.

How has your behavior changed because of your experience?

Oh, nothing has really changed much at all, except that I feel really centered.  I’ve always been a nice, friendly person, so I don’t think I act any differently.  I mean, I haven’t sold all my possessions and given everything away to the poor.  That isn’t what God wants me to do.  God wants me to just be the best person I can be each and every day.

Has anyone else confirmed or validated your revelation with you?

Don’t need it.  That’s what a couple of the pastor’s tried to tell me — that unless the other people could confirm my experience it might not be authentic.  But there is no possible way anyone will ever talk me out of the fact that my experience is not only real, but true.

So, you’re not looking for a church home anymore?

No.  I realize now that organized religion is a sham — no matter how well intentioned it is, it will always reduce real union with God to a set of rules and beliefs and rituals.  Churches turn faith into religion, and religion does as much harm as good.  In my experience, it reduces all belief to a childhood level belief in a mythical old man God and his Son who gave us a set of new rules to follow.  But, the Bible tells us that the future rests with the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit to all those who are in Christ.  This is the message I share with anyone who will listen.

Thank you for talking with me, and offering your story.

tee97-coexist-blackRereading this exchange reminds me of the monumental challenges we face as church leaders in the 21st century.  This young woman expresses an interesting mix of orthodoxy transformed by modern, American, individualistic, consumeristic values.  She is sincere, her experience is truly life changing, and she feels that she “has arrived,” that she has nothing more to learn.  She has given up on community because she feels so personally connected to her version of God.  She talks about her experience, but she does not involve herself in service to others, nor does she feel responsible for anyone beyond her close circle of family and friends.  The biggest change in her day to day living, she explains, is that she doesn’t waste time going to church, praying, or reading the Bible.  Her oneness with God, in her own words, “has given me back precious time just for me.”

Hers is a rare and fairly unique story.  I only encountered one or two other people who described their faith journey as “outgrowing the need” for church, Bible, worship, or service.  Many more simply see no need for church, no real benefit in joining a faith community.

Our culture is filled with hybrid messages of traditional theology, modernistic orthodoxy, new-age truisms, and eccentric fringe theories (think DaVinci Code).  The young woman I spoke with shared that the only real teacher she still has is Deepak Chopra, who she believes might be an incarnation of Christ’s Spirit.  What are the messages we offer in response?  How do we speak faith to those who feel they have no need for it, or that their own brand is so superior to our own that we have nothing to teach them?  How well do we equip our own faithful participants to tell our story?  How confident do we make the people who learn in our Sunday school classes and Bible studies to share their faith with others?  Where do the Christian faithful get the tools and knowledge necessary to engage in difficult and challenging conversations of faith?

We live in a culture where more and more people say, “Church?  Who needs it?”  How great it is when we help the people in our congregations to have a meaningful answer.

3 replies

  1. Fascinating story, Dan.

    I don’t know exactly what that woman’s church said to her, but I can imagine being challenged to respond in a constructive way to her if she was in my church.

    Our confusion about “exclusivism” complicates conversations such as these. If Islam or Hinduism is just as valid as Christianity, then why isn’t “me-ism”?

    Of course, I find myself challenged to get people who are Christians to consider new perspectives on their faith. They tend to feel like they’ve got it pretty well figured out and information that conflicts with that is dismissed just as this woman dismisses things that might change her views. We are all pretty good at constructing a faith that suits us. Some of us do it in church.

  2. She seems to be truly centered, which is probably a peaceful way to think and live. Can’t help the next part here: And politically correct, too! The economy of self-worship is you don’t have to be in community with God’s children when you are god. Then again, I have read and heard about people who have extraordinary spiritual gifts.

  3. I’ve been mulling what I would say to this person as well. Perhaps it is enough to say that I have a different understanding of God, a God who is still creating, who uses us to bring in the kingdom/commonwealth of God in the here and now, that it is our work as believers. If I am in continual prayer with God in all aspects of my life, others should see the fruit of that relationship — I might exude joy, calm, generosity or compassion. I don’t see Jesus as giving us “rules,” but rather guidelines to live the way God intends, and Jesus was clear that if we are in a right relationship with God we are to sell what we don’t need and share with others. And I believe the Bible still speaks to us, because it is a record of humans trying to live in covenant with God. If I were quick on my feet, I might ask what she thinks God intends for her to do with this special gift — this vision of oneness, because my faith teaches that gifts are to be shared with others. The Transfiguration of Jesus was a gift to sustain the community through the hard times to come. My 2 cents.

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