A few year’s ago I noticed an interesting trend. As Christians reported giving less and less time to prayer, the sale of books about prayer increased dramatically. For me, this is a simple illustration of a continuing dilemma — we are more interested in spirituality than we are in being spiritual. We amass great libraries of books, CDs, DVDs and workshop handouts on things spiritual, but we never reorient our lives to put all these wonderful things into practice. Our spiritual pursuits most closely resemble our weight-loss pursuits — we’re good on the concept, just lousy on the performance. Most Christians admit that they think prayer, meditation, study of scripture, worship and Christian fellowship are very important for spiritual growth and maturity, but these same people confess that they simply don’t have the time in a busy life to cram in even a few minutes for prayer or Bible reading. Our development is underdeveloped and our disciplines are undisciplined. We want a piety pill that we can take with the morning multi-vitamin so that we can get on with our lives. Jesus wept.
Not to overstate: I know there are thousands of men and women in our church who engage in a robust and intense spiritual life. These people are true disciples — organizing their lives around their spirituality. Their faith is their priority, and all else falls in line behind their devotion to God and their service to neighbor and one another. I have seen it and I have been impressed by it. Additionally, there are millions of people who fit a demanding and time-consuming devotional practice into busy lives, and they give this practice a higher priority than many other things. However, there are tens of millions who wish they could become spiritual by osmosis — holding a Bible until something soaks through the leatherette cover or viewing worship as a kind of holiness booster shot that will inoculate them against sin-sickness. I remember the young woman who wanted to join a church I served in New Jersey who asked, “And how often will I have to attend for it to do me any good?” — as if there is a minimum daily requirement to ensure salvation.
Christian belief is not some magic formula to shield us from perdition. Those who view faith as flame-proof Scotch-gard for the soul will never make a true commitment to a faith-filled life. Avoiding a negative is never as sustainably effective as embracing a positive. Life in Christ is something we have no want — not just salvation from the fiery furnace. We must find fulfillment and connection in prayer, otherwise it won’t be compelling enough to become part of our essential routine. We don’t stick with things that don’t pay dividends. We also don’t tend to count intrinsic benefits as well as extrinsic. If we get a tangible result to a prayer, we say the prayer “worked.” Not so much if the “answer” to our prayer is fuzzy or other than we expect. Prayer as its own reward doesn’t sing in the hearts of most Americans. At the very least, our faith practices must make us feel better. We have systematically eliminated such practices as confession and fasting from mainline faith, simply because they don’t make us feel so good. No pain, no gain is fine for sports, but not for spirituality. Denial of self and sacrifice for the common good are for suckers.
A truly spiritual faith would find few adherents in our modern/post-modern culture. This is why “discipleship” is a hard sell in The United Methodist Church. Faced with the choice of raising the bar to hold members accountable to their faith commitments or watering down the concept of discipleship to be easy and palatable, we (of course) are choosing the second. A poll of United Methodists in the 1990s indicated that 71% or regular church-goers define Christian discipleship as “believing that Jesus is the true Son of God.” This definition is not Biblical, nor does it track with the Wesleyan side of Methodism, but just believing is good enough for the majority of us. Now, instead of counting the number of “people” who attend United Methodist worship, we are being encouraged to count the number of “disciples” in worship. Leaders who should no better are copping out and making discipleship nothing more than showing up. Are you willing to die for your faith? No worries, it won’t come to that. All you have to say today is “yeah, whatever…” and you are a Christian disciple. Easy-peasy. No cost.
Buying diet books won’t make you lose weight. Reading an auto-repair manual doesn’t make you a mechanic. Getting an on-line degree doesn’t make you an expert. Owning a Bible doesn’t make you a Christian, nor does joining a church. There is something more to it. The road to hell, as has been long understood, is paved with good intentions. Just having the equipment doesn’t guarantee proficiency. It is easy to be spiritualistic without being spiritual; it is easy to believe in Jesus Christ without being Christlike. But is it impossible to be a disciple without discipline, and the longer we deny this simple fact, the longer our church will lack relevancy and power.