How do you know you’re on a good personal track? What are the markers of your spiritual growth? What do you think it means to be a person of faith? How do you nurture growth in your life?
I had breakfast with a friend the other day that expressed concern because I don’t attend church services on a regular basis. Certainly she is not the only one to have voiced such fear. This friend followed up her statement with, “There’s a lot of stuff out there; what if you get off?”
I then launched into a 5-minute defense of my spiritual life.
We have social litmus tests for all sorts of things. And the common one for your faith is whether or not you go to church. (Interesting how church has become something you go to instead of who you are.)
I’m cool with my friend, but our conversation topic makes me crazy!
I think people and ideas and consciousness evolve. (I’m so glad we don’t believe in human slavery and are past the Crusades.) So a question is worth asking: To what extent can our understanding of God and faith evolve? I think that just as the universe continues to expand, so can our understanding of ultimate reality.
Do you still believe that participating in certain rituals is a good test of your relationship with God, what you believe, and how you live your life?
Jesus said people will know you are his disciples if you love one another.*
But today, being right has become more important than being loving. And many people outside the church (however you define that growing group of folks), is, unfortunately, dare I say, sometimes nicer and kinder than those inside. Ouch!
I’m not here to rag on church people. Neither am I here to church-bash. I love the universal church, but I think many local congregations are focused on early maturity levels that are often irrelevant to many people, as evidenced by the growing disdain for the institutional church. (See my podcast #18 titled, “Love God Hate Church?”)
Even many pastors are struggling with frameworks that seem outdated and irrelevant. They are super-conflicted, because they are tired of the same old models, yet continue to get the paycheck for keeping, what out-of-the-box theologian, Rob Bell, calls, “the charade.”
Some of the concepts and understandings that were popular, and seemed to worked for awhile, are no longer satisfying or applicable in a world of information, science and multiple voices. There is also permission today to ask questions that were not allowed in more authoritarian times.
Maybe you’re one of those who’s questions are propelling you in directions that never occurred to your parents.
Bell said in a recent podcast, “You have to go way beyond the superficial explanations to the real answers which are the answers behind the answers behind the answers, and the issues behind the issues behind the issues. Because when we talk about God, we are talking about our fundamental orientation toward reality. We are talking about our bedrock views of how the universe is…A number of people were handed a way of understanding reality that doesn’t work anymore. In some circles, the response has been to double down—let’s just sing even louder and longer, let’s get even more people in a stadium and raise our hands and sing the chorus nine times in a row…when in doubt, make the music better and make the light show better—in the face of how everything has changed, just keep going with the old conceptions but just make them more attractive. And so it sounds great, but is often has an underbelly of people who are like, ‘I don’t buy any of this.’”**
I would add that people don’t need to be told what to think. People need to be taught how to think and to take responsibility for their own development and behaviors.
Franciscan Richard Rohr wrote in his little book, Preparing for Christmas,*** “Jesus clearly says the kingdom of heaven is among us (Luke 17: 21) or “at hand” (Matthew 3: 2, 4: 17). One wonders why we made it into a reward system for later, or as someone called it, “a divine evacuation plan” from this world. Maybe it was easier to obey laws and practice rituals for later.”
Constructing little boxes with rules and expected behavior is much, much easier than welcoming personal transformation, engaging in mutually accountable, healthy relationships and deliberately striving for an active devotional life and life of devotion.
In another place, Jesus said you will know people by their fruit.****
I’m sure your friends can see the fruit in your life. Yet I think they have also likely been trained to look for church attendance as the “fruit-marker.”
So why do people go to church, or think others should go to church? I offer the following suggestions.
- To be spiritually fed
- To fellowship with like-minded people
- To be encouraged to keep the faith
- To worship God
- To alleviate guilt. Because they think they’re supposed to go.
Allow me to share how I, and dare I say, possibly millions of others accomplish those same things in other ways.
- To be spiritually fed. I read and/or listen to a daily devotional, the bible and spiritually challenging books. I also listed to a variety of podcasts. Spiritual development is a personal responsibility, not one you can easily pawn off on others.
- To fellowship with like-minded people. I am very intentional about who I spend time with, which includes a variety of people of different ages and in different life stages. We not only talk about “spiritual” things, but many aspects of life. (By the way, I firmly believe that everything is spiritual!) I find discussing life over a fine hand-crafted beer is the best Sunday School ever!
- To be encouraged to keep the faith. I am daily encouraged in my faith. Why wouldn’t I be? God has built a firm foundation over my lifetime. I continue to search for God and truth and reality, and find them on a regular basis. If your mind is not being blown regularly, you are looking in the wrong places!
- To worship God. Worship is not something limited to a building with stained glass. It can happen anywhere, anytime. Some of my most meaningful connections have happened on my face in a prayer closet or atop a mountain in the Rockies.
- To invest in others. What a privilege to teach college courses, blog, podcast, host a group that meets in my home twice a month, be a life coach and attempt to be conscious that any encounter can be potentially life-giving.
- To alleviate guilt. I try not to do anything from guilt.
And I’d like to add at least one more.
- To engage in long-term, committed, mutual-accountability relationships. This doesn’t happen by spending an hour or two looking at the backs of people’s heads once a week. It happens in life. It’s not about meeting times or even age-appropriate groupings. It’s about intentionally meeting regularly with committed friends, living your life in such a way that you allow others into your life on a regular basis. You allow them to know you, challenge you and co-celebrate your milestones; you do the same for them. And you work through your relational challenges instead of moving to the group down the road.
I want to challenge the old paradigm of what it means to be a solid person of faith.
I also want to encourage you.
If you are happy with attending a traditional church, or even a non-denominational (the “newer traditional”) church keep it up. Just remember that your spiritual development is your responsibility, not your pastor’s.
But also have permission to look elsewhere if it’s no longer working for you. Your spiritual journey may look very different than your parents’ or those around you. It may cut across what your friends think is regular and acceptable. Your friends may even think you’re“off.”
But you have to find how to be challenged and grow in ways that match who you are and where you at in this stage of your journey.
Instead of appraising your spiritual life by following the rules, look to those who count, like Jesus.
Pay attention to where you find life. Then go back for more.
* John 13:35
** Bell, Rob. (November 9, 2015). Episode 48: God part 1. The Robcast. The Robcast is available online and from iTunes.
***Rohr, Richard. (2012). Preparing for Christmas: Daily meditations for Advent.
*** Matthew 7:16
Royalty-free image by Christophe Libert; retrieved from: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stained-glass-1-1230712