In my book, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian, I offer "A Spirituality of Fellowship and Following" as a strategy for engaging the seekers of the world. For the next few posts, I'll offer some of that strategy here. But let me begin with a story.
A few years ago, a young couple came to my office to have their son baptized. My predecessor had baptized their daughter some years earlier. They had attended church for a while and even considered joining it formally, but grew disillusioned during a time of congregational turmoil. Now, meeting with me and answering the baptismal questions, it became apparent that while the mother could affirm an undeveloped but sincere Christian faith, the father really could not. When I gently probed further, I found that the father was really quite skeptical of any organized religion. He told me that he had “found peace in family and the ocean.” But he also wanted his children to have a “traditional base” from which to operate. Without directly saying so, he wanted his son baptized because he believed that we should start in a tradition and then grow into individual experiences of God and self that we find on our own. Why isn’t that kind of self-made spirituality enough, he wondered? Why do I need to confess allegiance to Christ and be part of the Church?
If you have followed this blog or read my books, you’ll know my answer: Why do we need to be part of the Community? Because the Community is a reflection of the image of God, and only within the Community can we become what we were made for. True spiritual life is found only in the People of the Table.
But, what about Seekers, Wanderers and Adventurers? Do we have anything to offer those who are already so disillusioned by Christians and the church? If Acts 2 has any power today, then we’d have to say yes. For a return to the community life of the earliest Christians—a life devoted to the word, prayers and meals together, a life of praising God and much time together led then -- and I believe now -- to the church “having the goodwill of all the people” and more and more “added to their number those who were being saved.” (And indeed, this “return to the community life of the earliest Christians” is exactly what so many movements of the day are attempting to do.)
But we can’t minimize the challenge seekers pose. Maybe the most telling commentary about the current interest in spirituality is found in the subtitle to Kenneth Woodward’s famous Newsweek article of a decade ago: “Americans love the search so much that the idea of a destination is lost.” (Kenneth L. Woodward, “On the Road Again,” Newsweek, November 28, 1994). It’s this struggle between unfocused spiritual pursuit and spiritual pursuit with a clear destination that separates the current “trend” from the centuries-old spiritual hunger of believers everywhere.
For this reason, in his book, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950’s, Robert Wuthnow cautions us against trying to re-establish spirituality as necessarily connected to any physical or geographic structure (what he calls a “dwelling-oriented spirituality”). For him, that spirituality of two generations ago and before has gone. Societal changes have disconnected us from dwelling spaces, farms, family, homes and yes, churches. We may not be happy about it, but we are now a culture of seekers, many even taking pride in being spiritually homeless. Tying spirituality exclusively to any sense of space, structure or tradition is irrelevant to those who are looking for God. They will no more show up at a church to find out “what Presbyterians believe” then they will take a trip to check out the latest findings of the Phrenology Fellowship. And while many in our culture long and even work for creating a new sense of “community,” trying to anchor that community in any space is increasingly difficult amidst the pervasive feelings of rootlessness that grip our culture.
But Wuthnow also warns us not to throw in the towel and make Christian faith just another highly personalized self-constructed spirituality that is so common today (what he calls “seeker-oriented spirituality”). Instead, he suggests that a spirituality grounded in a people who share the same values and disciplines has a chance to offer a clear choice (what Wuthnow calls “practice-oriented spirituality”) based on their commitments.
If the seekers of our era are genuinely less interested in sacred places than women and men of centuries past, then it could be argued that the most impressive cathedrals of the future will be not mere buildings, but rather vibrant communities of God’s redeemed people. While churches in our culture will always need sanctuaries and facilities, we now see the necessity for investing even more in the church as a Community. To that end, if the Church is going to produce the kinds of exceptional people that provide a satisfying and attractive example to a watching world then our Christian faith must be more deliberately, intentionally and inextricably communal.
Which is where I will pick up next post.