Reality Check

The tragic results of this spirit (looking for quick and easy shortcuts in our faith) are all about us: shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit.

I keep reading articles and listening to denominational officials lament the fact that our church has changed so much in the past fifty years.  They decry a constant erosion from the strong church of a couple generations ago with what we have today.  The above quote sums up many of the criticisms — superficiality, fun-seeking, pop-star pastors, pastiche spiritualities, and the application of secular business models to the ministry of the church — and they would support the current nostalgic reverence for the past — had it not been written in 1948 by A. W. Tozer in The Pursuit of God.  Yep, those who pine for the 1950s and 1940s might want to look a bit farther back — oh, way beyond the 1920s (that godless Jazz Age) and prior to the 1890s (“God is dead!”) and before the Civil War (“Avoid drunks, robbers, and preachers!”) and before the turn of the eighteenth century when ministers were depicted in popular plays as womanizers and fools.  Arthur Dimmesdale and Elmer Gantry didn’t come from nowhere — they represent a long line of opinions about the priesthood.  And complaints about the superficilaity of organized religion date back to two days after the launch of the first organized religion.  Our future does not lie in our past.  Sadly, we haven’t seemed to learn much from the past to help us create a different kind of future.

In a recent conversation with clergy leaders about the practice of spiritual disciplines and accountability, I was told in no uncertain terms that “we can’t expect people to practice spiritual disciplines.  They are relics of a bygone age.” 

Really?  And what kind of faith will this leave us with?  When I don’t exercise, I get fat.  When I don’t practice on an instrument, I get rusty.  When I don’t study, I don’t learn as much.  To become Christlike, won’t I have to do something?   Well, my friends all agree that this is why people come to church.  Attending occasional worship, it seems, is all a person should be expected to do. 

 “It’s not like people have to get good at it,” one pastor reflected.  “You either are a Christian or you aren’t.”  I thought one of the other pastors at the table was coming to my aid, but he veered a bit off course, “That’s not right.  I think there are degrees of Christian, but just like me with golf, I’m never going to turn pro, so I don’t have to work at it.  I can just go out and enjoy it.”

So, Christianity is a hobby.  Discipleship is for amateurs.  We’re being stupid, naive or unfair if we want to hold people to a higher standard.  We shouldn’t burden ordinary people with unrealistic expectations…

“You have to admit, most people are just too busy to practice spiritual disciplines on a regular basis.” 

Do I?  Most people I know spend hours in front of screens — television, blackberries, iPods, computer — whiling away endless minutes, hours and days.  They find time to go out to eat, to exercise, to have coffee, etc.  Not practicing spiritual disciplines is due to a lack of interest, more than a lack of time.

“Most people in my church don’t even know what spiritual disciplines are,” shared one pastor.  “I can’t very well hold someone accountable to something they don’t know they should do.” 

Okay, I just sat looking at this person.  As a pastor, if people in my church don’t know how to nurture and cultivate their faith, perhaps I am somewhat responsible.  I agree that most people don’t know how to pray and worship and fast and meditate and study and build community.  This is why the church exists — to teach us how to do all these things.

“The problem is young people — they don’t know what it means to be church!” declared one preacher. 

My thought was, “but do we want the inert and non-motivated to be the ones to teach them what it means to be church?”  Making more of what we already have seems like an exercise in futility.  What we need is something better — something more.  Is it possible to improve without any significant investment of time, energy, commitment or practice?  Can a church of low expectations and poor performance ever hope to transform the world?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Our fears about the decay of the post-modern church seem very similar to the concerns of the modern church.  My mother’s church wrestled with the same issues I am wrestling with today.  Ultimately, we get the church we want — and apparently the church we have is the one we want — or we would do something to change it.

5 replies

  1. Hello Brother, I just ran across your blog today and found this post very interesting. Indeed, it made me think more of John Wesley’s Methodism than much of what can be found in the current version.

    Good thoughts to ponder.

  2. Dan-I’ve been reading about universalism and one of their critiques of traditional teachings about unbelievers burning in hell forever is that such a God doesn’t inspire our love but more like our fear. Consequently we don’t feel all that excited about serving this God of conditional love or spreading this “good news.” Do you think there’s any merit in that? Maybe that explains the lukewarm state of the church in general, not just the UMC?

    • One of the shifts in John Wesley’s thinking, preaching and teaching was a shift away from a focus on what we have been saved “from” onto a focus of what we have been saved “for.” This was one of the reasons I became a United Methodist — a God more interested in what I will become rather than what I have been. A vision of building a Promised Land is much more compelling (in my opinion) than the various Egypts we have escaped from. I grew up moving back and forth between my mother’s Presbyterian “predestination” faith and my grandmother’s Southern Baptist “turn-or-burn” faith. It wasn’t until I experienced the “grace-based” faith of United Methodism that I truly felt loved by God. I’ll take love over fear every time. What is too bad about the lukewarm state of today’s church is that it offers neither eternal damnation or salvation, but a placid, flaccid, passive feel-goodism that is less about the past or the future as it is about being comfortable with the present.

  3. Reminds me of this great and terrifying quote from John Wesley: “May it not be one of the consequences of this, that so many of you are a generation of triflers; triflers with God, with one another, and with your own souls?”

    -Sermon 4 “Scriptural Christianity” (1744)

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