How Personal Is Spirituality?

June 26, 2008

There is an interesting article over on New Wineskins about discipleship, namely, what is the role of church leaders in creating more Christ-like members? On the one hand, there is the Rick Warren, purpose-driven, station-to-station regimented model I call “No Disciple Left Behind.” Like the similarly-named education program, it provides a safety net for those who would not otherwise be very involved (or interested) in spiritual growth. Newcomers are shepherded “around the bases,” going from one experience to the next in sequence until they slide victoriously home.

The problem with that model is two-fold. One, programmed spirituality has a way of stifling the very Spirit of God the leaders are trying to cultivate. If the whole point of discipleship is to unleash the Spirit of God in transforming lives, there is something a bit arrogant about dictating to God exactly how and when and under what conditions that unleashing will take place. Two, like the similarly-named education program, it appeals to the “least common denominator.” Those who might otherwise be inclined to race ahead are held back in the name of conformity to a program.

The most-mentioned alternative to the Purpose-Driven model of spiritual growth is what is sometimes called “Self-Directed Spirituality.” In this system, rather than being givena program to complete, the new believer is given a menu, with the freedom to choose whatever is right for him. Church leaders, in turn, try to provide a wide variety of offerings to suit as many different palates — and pocketbooks — as possible.

The problem with this model is, likewise, twofold. One, Jeremiah tells us explicitly that “it is not within a man to direct his own steps.” Newcomers come to Christ specifically because what they were doing before was not working. They have tried to direct their own paths to God and have failed. Spiritual direction is what they are seeking. They need more than a menu; they need a recommendation about what’s good. Two, there is the harsh reality that if left to their own devices, many Christians will actually fall further from God rather than be drawn closer to Him. See the Parable of the Sower.

I suspect that the problem with both models of personal spiritual development is that both start from a faulty premise, namely that spiritual development is meant to be personal. When the New Testament talks about drawing closer to God, being more like Jesus, unleashing the Spirit of God in our lives, it is always in the context of “one another.” “Love one another.” “Bear one another’s burdens.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Consider one another better than yourselves.”

Perhaps God never meant for “spirituality” to be experienced solely on a perosnal level. Perhaps God has always intended us to be part of a redeemed community. After all, Jesus did say “upon this rock I will build my church.” Singular. Collective. Moses did not lead 600,000 individuals or even 12 tribes out of Egypt so much as he did one nation.

Maybe, then, church leaders trying to create Christ-like disciples should focus less on individual disciple-making and more on community-building. If preachers and elders would focus people’s attention on their roles and responsibilities within the faith community, maybe individual members would have more enthusiasm about being a part of it. Come on Sunday night, Wendesday night, at Bible class time, to youth devotionals, to gospel meetings and VBS’s and camps — not because you stand to gain from them, but because the rest of us need you.

And when you need us, you’ll know where we’ll be.

(NOTE: If I’m right about this premise, the implications extend beyond whether or not people come to church on Sunday nights or Wednesdays. It will ultimately force a reconsideration of many of the things we do together and separately. Worship. Evangelism. Even eschatology. I might explore this here, or elsewhere, or not al all. Comments welcome.)


They’re All About Duty

June 4, 2008

“With humility of mind, regard one another as more important than yourselves.” — Philippians 2:3


Two characters in the TV show The West Wing are arguing about whether or not the Gilbert & Sullivan song “He Is an Englishman” comes from Pirates of Penzance or H. M. S. Pinafore.

“It’s the one about duty,” one offers.

“They’re all about duty,” the other counters.

(The song is from H. M. S. Pinafore, by the way.)

Conflict is inevitable.  Even among those who seek to live according to the teachings of Jesus, there will be disagreements, discord, even disunity.  Even though he prays for unity in the Garden of Gethsemane, in Luke 17 Jesus acknowledges that “stumbling blocks are inevitable,” even for His disciples.  Every person who walks with God will eventually find Himself a perpetrator of some sin or other.  The good news of the gospel, of course, is that there is forgiveness for sin in the blood of Jesus.

That’s when we are the perpetrator.  But what about when we are the victim?

As Americans, we tend to think in terms of our rights.  We want justice, protection from those who would harm us, even safety from the consequences of their attempts to harm others.  But as disciples of Jesus, we are called to think in somewhat different terms.  The one who stumbles is told that even as you stumble you have a duty not to take anyone else down with you.  The one who is the victim has a duty to forgive, no matter how many times or how severely he is harmed.  Jesus is not handing out rights, but obligations.

No wonder the disciples said, “Increase our faith.”

Herein lies the heart of Christian unity.  Harmony between believers is possible, but only if we can learn to trust one another.  For many, the hardest part of faith is not carrying out one’s own obligations, but trusting someone else to perform theirs.  A little bit of trust, a little bit of humility, a little bit of a servant’s heart deflecting glory away from ourselves (after all, we’re just doing our duty), a little bit of recognition of what God has given us so we can share it with others, all add up to a healthy, unified Christian community.

Unity in Christ depends on us all recognizing and doing our duty.