I attended church a couple of weeks ago, which is an unusual use of my Sunday mornings. This particular church is a conservative evangelical church, relatively large, comprises a mostly young congregation, and is located in a greater metropolitan area. I attended one of four services that is held each weekend, every one of which is normally packed out. A combination of serious amateur and professional musicians provided music and it was very good, and loud.
The sermon had to do with communion in the midst of community, based on I Corinthians 11. “The community [that is] experienced at the [communion] table should lead us to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others.” The Corinthians were not very good at this (hence, Paul’s letter to them), but the church I was visiting clearly does a great job of looking outward to the larger community.
Prior to the sermon, I had learned about some of the outside activities in which people are encouraged to become involved. The church has established ties with about a dozen local social services such as homeless shelters and programs for at-risk kids. Lots of people volunteer on a regular basis in these programs. Through such efforts, the church is making a significant contribution to the communities in the surrounding area. In Matthew 25, Jesus made it clear that people who give of themselves in such ways will be welcomed into the Kingdom: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.“
Besides references to community activity, the sermon included statements like, “When you hold on too tightly to your stuff, you’re not remembering what Christ has done for you on the cross.” When I say “statements like…”, I am referring to statements about the interior, as opposed to the exterior, life.
If I wanted to get involved through this church in, say a homeless shelter, I could consult a brochure, call up a specific contact person for the shelter program, consult a website, talk to people already involved. What would I do if I wanted to figure out how to not hold onto my stuff too tightly? This sort of thing never comes up in the announcements. There are no programs offered by the church on deepening my interior life. There is no contact person, no email address or phone number to use. Sunday School classes usually fall prey to the same fault: they may teach what to do, but not how to do it. In some churches, there may be isolated cases where the interior life is addressed, but systematic approaches to the interior life on a par with what one sees with the exterior life are rare, indeed.
While the church successfully promotes activities that engage the exterior life, the interior life suffers from chronic neglect. It’s as if the church thinks, “Well, what’s so hard about ‘remembering what Christ has done for you on the cross’?” But, in my experience, “just remember” doesn’t work. What is required is some way of developing a habit of the heart and mind, some mechanism that will help me practice, on a regular basis, those behaviors and attitudes that will translate with time into a habit of remembering. And “remembering” is not the only issue that requires attention, because my interior life is every bit as broad and deep as my exterior life, maybe even more so, and its development requires at least as much work, if not more.
Why does the church give short shrift to the interior life? Let’s consider some possibilities:
The church considers the interior life to be unimportant. This seems unlikely given the number of times in the average sermon that some aspect of the interior life is referenced.
The church believes that right behavior is key, and that getting the interior life right is not that hard. This is simply bad psychology. Jesus spoke of the seminal importance of our interior disposition: “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” Get the heart right, and the mouth follows. Regardless, an outside observer watching what happens inside church walls would have to conclude that managing Christian behavior, rather than the interior life, is the basis for church programs of all sorts. The psychological fallout for those who find the interior life difficult, but live in a community where everyone else seems to “get it” would be a very interesting subject for a PhD or DD dissertation.
The church has given up because so many methods have been tried and found wanting. It seems more likely that the church has no methods at all. But, in those cases where a method does exist (e.g., the church teaches a “quite time”), the method is so poorly taught that it stands no chance of addressing the deep spiritual longings for which some people are desperate.
The church believes that all the average Christian lacks in order to develop the interior life is information: simply tell a Christian what they should do and, if they are interested, they will incorporate it into their lives. Based on the way most sermons are delivered, one has to conclude that pastors believe that if they tell their congregants something, then implementation is a simple next step of which most all are capable. The pastor of a church that we used to attend told me that this was his exact approach to discipling. Failure of implementation is blamed on Satan, or the world, or lack of self-discipline, or sin, or a divided heart, or something other than the chosen method of helping people.
The church believes that developing the interior life has to do with becoming proficient with Christian doctrine, and this then satisfies a deep thirst for God. The modern Christian church is focused on doctrinal purity. For many Christians these days, doctrinal understanding is a proxy for a relationship with God. Although doctrine is important, love of God, lived out on a daily basis, is essential if the soul is not to starve.
The church is filled with so many people who are not really all that interested in developing the interior life, so it makes no sense to spend energy there. While a member of the elder board of an evangelical church, I asked the pastor how many people show up to a Sunday service, sing some songs, listen to a prayer, hear a sermon, and then go home, not to give God another thought until the next Sunday. He responded, “Most of ’em.” This phenomenon of “Sunday-only Christians” has been the subject of a number of my own blog posts over the years. Reggie McNeal, Alan Hirsch, and George Barna, among many others over the last 10 to 20 years, have written books on the subject, so I will say no more about this subject here.
The church does not know how to address the needs of the interior life. In my experience, this is the central deficit. During college, the Navigators taught me how to have a quiet time. Maybe I missed the memo, but I never got beyond the mechanics to the point of actually connecting with God in a relationship that had anything to do with my real life. A little booklet called “10 Minutes with God” that describes the Navigators’ approach to a “quiet time” was simply not up to the task. Thirty-five years in the church did not rectify my problem.
There is no question that all sorts of people are looking for a sense of community or belonging, and a means of doing community outreach. Nowadays, community is readily accessible through venues other than church. On Sunday mornings, people are finding community at their kid’s soccer games, or at the gym, or on Tuesday nights at the Rotary Club. If community outreach is really what you’re after, the Suicide Hotline and the local food bank, among many other endeavors, are always looking for volunteers. A local church is also a great place to volunteer. Community and community outreach are available ubiquitously, but who has taken up the mantle of caring for the interior of people’s lives, especially for those who hunger and thirst for God?
The failure of the church to help me address my deep longing for God was a major contributing factor in my leaving the church. What an odd thing to say, considering that the church, ostensibly, is the institution whose raison d’être is God. As Reggie McNeal, director of leadership development for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, wrote concerning millions of people leaving churches today, “They are not leaving because they have lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.”
My personal journey has been long and circuitous, but I would have to identify the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises as being a key part of my endeavor to find God. St. Ignatius was a genius at psychology, even before the field of psychology existed. More importantly, not only was he a master of the interior life, but he excelled at helping other people develop their own interior life and to find God in the process. That the Exercises have survived and thrived for almost 500 years is a testimony to their high quality. That the church, by and large, ignores them is a mystery.