Spiritual or Spiritualistic

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.

7 replies

  1. Here’s my question in response to the very good observations you make: In keeping with the diet analogy is it better to change behavior in small steps or a radical change in lifestyle?

    Do we encourage people to drink a bit more water and substitute fruit for chips at snack time? Or do we go on the no carb, all protein diet and sign them up for P90x?

    • Personally, I think slow, steady, with clear benefits is the pathway to transformation. We attempt either superficial behavior modification and wonder why it doesn’t stick or full immersion experiences that overwhelm, then fade quickly (seeds and soils come to mind…) I think the real problem is that we do not foster habits that provide a sound foundation. Prayer is a means to an end, not an end in itself. A relationship with God must pay concrete dividends or we will seek something else that does. Modern faith is commodity exchange — our time and involvement for like value. If we don’t feel the tangible benefit at least matches the cost, we won’t commit. Unfortunately, faith doesn’t fit the instant gratification motif. It is a long-term investment, and we’re not so crazy about pay now/reap later schemes! Transformation is evolutionary and organic. It takes time, and until we embrace change over the long haul we’re doomed to be dabblers.

  2. in a denomination that is fixated on maintenance (under the misleading heading of growth) why would anyone in the pew (or in the pulpit) think beyond the popularly held basics of the faith: individual relationship with Jesus as having a cognitive ability to call him Lord and Savior? to be spiritual immediately moves one from doing to being (it is ontological in nature and substance). if we cannot understand our own lives as being defined by God and the will of God, how can we do anything but tote around an owner’s manual in the form of distinguishing our denominational name as opposed and in contrast to some other denomination. as if church membership is but a key to the realm as forgiveness of sin and eternal life. a carrot on the end of a stick will cause even as ass to take a step.

  3. OK – you’ve identified the problem – I am despartely searching for solutions! Do we just kick out those who are waiting for spriritually to suddenly drop upon them and only continue with those who have some spiritual discipline? I keep saying we need to go back to the original Methodist classes and societies. Got your ticket?

    • There is only one way to raise expectations… and that is to raise expectations. Pastors cannot do it, though they have to be committed to seeing it happen. The vast majority of people attending United Methodist churches have no real minterest in discipleship, so we really need to revisit our mission. For those who seek authentic discipleship, The United Methodist Church will sorely disappoint. We pander to a lower common denominator — easy believism. As Methodists, we do not sign up for a tour of duty but an obligation-free membership. Most of our churches are much too large to foster discipleship. A handful of people, committed to shared disciplines of spiritual formation and spiritual service to others, have a much greater chance at holding one another accountable and to support one another in their efforts. Our once-an-occasional week attendance at passive worship may be popular, but it is anything but effective. We have robbed our communities of faith of any and all true community — leaving nothing but congregations. (Congregating is much different than communion…)

      • Dan,
        This is one of your best. How can I help my pastor raise expectations. One of the main reasons that I like her so much is that she understands the expectations of the Christian life. How do we get there? Is the approach in the book “Radical” the right one? How do we wake up the folks who are easy believism followers?

  4. I’ll never forget the guy who showed up to our very big church about 5 minutes before worship. His behavior suggested that he had a mental illness. The senior pastor was already in the sanctuary. The people milling about the narthex began avoiding him like the plague. Finally, in an act of desperation, one of the members shuffled him into my office and said something to the effect of “please deal with this.” The man sat down, and with a wide-eyed angry expression summed up our church as nothing more than a “compound” where we had effectively insulated ourselves. I’ll never forget the look on his face. In spite of his need for qualified help, I believe he was a prophet. He nailed us down in about 30 seconds. We weren’t disciples. We were members of a country club who didn’t like “inconveniences” messing up our orderly gathering and worship. I almost walked out with him! I’ve pretty much been haunted by that prophet ever since. So all that’s to say that I agree. I just don’t know whether I should be hanging around the guys on the street or praying for a miracle in the country club. I suppose a disciple should be doing both.

    By the way, Robert Pirsig observed something very similar to your thoughts 30-some years ago. He just substituted church with motorcycle maintenance. It really does come down to quality.

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