First, let me state that almost every spiritual community probably has some redeeming qualities, perhaps even many; but, often the tone, the emphases, the spirit, of the leadership may be powerful negatives that can override the value of the good points. Sadly, some churches can actually inhibit or even reverse mature spiritual development.
It is painful to say this, but less than adequate spiritual communities abound in every religion; in fact, in Christianity, it is possible that they are in the majority. The truth is that all churches are not the same in their ability to nurture their adherents to more than an elementary, largely “exterior” form of spirituality. All of the reasons for that are too numerous to list, but we can pinpoint a few of them (in no particular order of significance).
(1) Of great concern is an authoritarian church, one in which the appointed spiritual leaders insist rigidly on only one particular way of thinking and denigrate anyone who does not agree with theirs.
(2) There are churches that overemphasize dogmas and creeds — all of which are human inventions. The problem with overemphasizing them is that most have little or nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus and actually omit the word “love!” Jesus was not a teacher of theology. He taught a way of life characterized by love. That insight was so important that the earliest Christians actually referred to following Jesus’ teaching as “the WAY.”
(3) Another indication of an inadequate spiritual community might be an overemphasis on denominationalism. If one goes to church and repeatedly hears phrases such as, “our Lutheran this,” or “our Presbyterian that,” “our Baptist such and such” or “our Methodist so and so,” the emphasis there may be more on denominationalism, its activities and emphases than on the WAY of Jesus. An institution can become more important than the original reason for the institution’s existence! The goal is to point beyond the institution to that which really matters.
(4) Some inadequate churches fill worship time with repetitive rituals that can cause people’s eyes to glaze over: repeating an incredibly outdated creed without adequate interpretation of even its most meaningful parts, the singing of the doxology or the Gloria Patri over and over again, or mindlessly repeating the Lord’s Model Prayer, despite the fact that Jesus warned us against engaging in “vain repetitions.” A church can impede the spiritual progress of its people by constantly singing hymns, the words of which teach seriously bad theology, just because they’re in the hymnal or because people may be familiar with and like the hymn tune.
(5) There is a directory of scriptural passages called a lectionary that many pastors use each week as a basis for sermon preparation. In the past, I have used it exclusively, taught my students to use it, and still think it can be a helpful guide if utilized with discretion. But, over time, I have moved more in the direction of trying to be sensitive to where the people in my congregation are, what they’re thinking about, what they’re struggling with, as well as what is happening in the world around us. I now tend to give priority to those concerns as my guidelines concerning what to preach or teach, just as it seems Jesus himself tended to do. I then try faithfully to relate the teachings of Jesus and other spiritual insights to where my people are. I’ve found that responding to their immediate concerns in sermons produces positive results, but trying to do that with some lectionary texts has been difficult or impossible. Consequently, I now believe churches that practice a slavish adherence to the lectionary and neglect responding appropriately to where their people are may be missing a golden opportunity to take advantage of what psychologist Robert Havighurst called their most “teachable moment,” thereby unintentionally impeding their spiritual progress. (I do, however, frequently return to the suggested lectionary texts when I am not aware of a truly relevant concern on the part of my people.)
(6) I have left the most serious issue until last. Probably the most frequent reason for an inadequate spiritual community is a spiritually immature minister; and, I’ve observed that congregations seem to be woefully inadequate at recognizing them. It is next to impossible for a church to grow beyond the spiritual maturity level of its spiritual leader. One who swims constantly in “the shallows” may be extremely likeable and well-intentioned, but he or she isn’t likely to lead anyone to discover “the depths.” There probably are huge numbers of people who have been short-changed or “burned” by encounters with ministers and churches that have failed to become accepting, loving, grace-filled, welcoming diversity and making the world safer for differences. Some “spiritual” leaders unintentionally distort the gospel to the point that the church becomes exclusionary rather than inclusive, sometimes even hate-filled and hateful. Others deliver messages that leave the gospel in the 1st century and seem unwilling or unable meaningfully to apply it to life in the 21st century, thereby wasting people’s time.
We can summarize by saying that people who are in a church may miss the joy of experiencing the more abundant life and more fulfilling relationships that Jesus said he came to facilitate for us, either because of their own inadequate motivation for being there OR the inadequacies of a spiritual community and its leadership. In either of those situations, individuals may become spiritual “drop-outs” or just go to church occasionally.
With that background in mind, now we can return to the original question: What about the people who never come or those who may have come for a while but drop out or just come on an occasional basis? What should be our attitude toward them, our response to them?
First, I think we need to realize that most of these people probably have not had a truly deep or meaningful spiritual experience. They probably are at the most elementary level of spiritual development, although they do not realize it. But as we stated earlier, that could be the fault of the institution(s) with which they were affiliated, and we need to be sensitive to that possibility. Our job is not to judge.
Admittedly, there may be an element of unrecognized dysfunctionality on the part of most dropouts — not because they dropped out but because of their action, or lack of it, after they dropped out. I think they may deserve to be praised for leaving an inadequate spiritual community which did not “speak” to them! However, if they had a physician in charge of their physical health care who was not helping them, they surely would look for a more adequate one; but when it comes to their spiritual health, they often will not do the same. That is an irrational response. All churches are not alike, and the choices are legion; although, particularly in this part of the country, people might have to explore literally scores of churches before finding one with a spiritually more mature pastor that can help them explore “the depths” that they’ve never experienced. But even then, there’s a caveat. Although they may discover a truly outstanding fellowship, they may maintain a “safe” distance from the process by merely “attending worship” without deeply immersing themselves in a more meaningful opportunity to explore “the holy.” That, of course, would abort the spiritual developmental process before it got started.
So, is there anything people such as ourselves can do to be of help? Maybe yes, maybe no. But I believe we should begin by respecting every person’s readiness. Some people are ready to begin or to resume the journey and some are not. In fact, some never will be. Even the scriptures, using a powerful metaphor, state that it is important to realize one cannot feed “red meat” to people who are still in the “pablum stage.” That sage advice is focusing on and taking seriously the principle of readiness. I myself have never tried to lasso or cajole anyone to engage (or re-engage) in a spiritual journey. Rather, I respect wherever the person is emotionally and spiritually and “free” that individual to make his or her own choices for or against a meaningful spiritual journey.
Jesus is reported to have told a story about someone (who no doubt represented God) who caringly prepared a marvelous banquet, an incredible feast, and invited a number of people to enjoy it. But some of the invited people demurred and gave various flimsy excuses why they could not attend. The response of the host? There was no effort to “lasso” those people into coming or to torpedo the flimsiness of their excuses. Rather, the host directed his assistant to invite only the blind, the lame, and the marginalized — people who presumably recognized their need and would be in a state of heightened readiness. The host then commented that people who turned down the invitation would have to accept the consequences of their freely made decision: They would miss out on the most incredible offer they probably would ever have to enhance their lives.
Although I never attempt to talk anyone into accepting God’s invitation to a fuller, more meaningful life, my own approach is never to abandon anyone. It is my desire always to be available to those who exclude themselves from the incredible feast, the opportunity to enhance their lives. I will not run after them or ignore their lack of readiness. But, as did the host, I choose to spend my time and effort to be helpful with the fellowship of the willing rather than the unwilling.
The Rev. Dr. John C. Whatley, III
Community Church of the Midlands