Spiritual adults in church?

I had the pleasure of getting to know Fr. John Beddingfield last year during CREDO. Since then, I’ve been reading John’s excellent sermons from All Souls, Washington. This morning he offered a fine sermon on today’s Gospel. Citing Henri Nouwen’s remarkable book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, John says, “Nouwen believed that Jesus tells the parable of the lost child who is found not so we can relate to the prodigal, not so we can relate to the older child, but so that we can relate to the parent; the parent who forgives.”

He continues, applying this to the Church.

The life of faith is a growth into spiritual adulthood. It is the business of children, after all, to grow up. Saint Paul writes, “We are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and join heirs with Christ, provided that we share his sufferings, so as to share his glory.” (Romans 8:17)

What would the Christian church look like if it were filled with spiritual adults? The spiritual adult does not blame the problems of the church of a bishop or a few bishops, but takes responsibility for being the body of Christ. The spiritual adult in a parish does not always sit back and wait for the clergy or vestry or unnamed and unknown volunteers to do everything, but takes responsibility. And just imagine the power of a church that is filled with spiritual adults who offer forgiveness and welcome. I can’t help but wonder if one reason so few young people are in church these days has to do with the fact that so few of the adults have ever really grown up themselves. If a church offers no wisdom, no maturity, no leadership, then why should a young person bother?

I couldn’t agree more. So why isn’t it the case that the church is filled with spiritual adults?

Alas, I fear too many clergy don’t push it when people explain, “I’m just too busy to get involved” or “I’d like to take that class, but I can’t commit”. We let people get away with spiritually immature behavior, e.g. the parishioner who throws a temper tantrum and is not held to account. We spend our time dealing with those who act out, which prevents us from nurturing those who want to grow.

After a couple of generations of “I’m OK, you’re OK” people genuinely think that one can be a Christian and fit that into whatever one imagines is important in life, instead of the other way around. Too many people set their course in life (career, rearing children, making money, becoming famous) and try to squeeze their faith into that journey. I have grown weary of people who say they cannot attend church on Sunday because it is “family day”. (Now before you say that we need to add services at other times, I am quite sure there is not service time that would work for this particular crowd.)

I lay the blame for the sad state of Protestant Christianity in the US at the feet of clergy, who have not challenged people to do the things Christians are called to do. Celebrating the Lord’s Day with a Christian community is essential, I would say, to our health and salvation (in the sense of sozo, not necessarily in getting one’s ticket to heaven punched). Adults need to immerse themselves of God’s Word and in a life of prayer. This does not mean a theology degree, but a few minutes spent each day reading the Scriptures and opening ourselves in prayer. There is more, of course.

If we aren’t willing to “grow up” as Christians, we can’t become spiritual adults — which means we can’t do the things Fr. Beddingfield calls us to do. The answer to helping people live an abundant life and to building up the church is NOT to lower the bar so that everyone can cross. Instead, we should ask people to follow Jesus using his own dramatic language “taking up our crosses” and “leaving our nets”. My hunch is that more people would be interested in a church like that, instead of the I’m-OK-you’re-OK pablum that gets passed off across the nation.

Of course, it would be easy to commit another deadly sin here: the over-programmed church and the correlatively exhausted parishioners. As any number of emergent church thinkers are suggesting, we mustn’t measure programs by how many people show up, but rather on how many lives are changed. The point of a church is not a offer an enticing smorgasbord of classes, meetings, groups, and committees. The point of a church is to reconcile people with God. It’s hard to get past institutional thinking though.

If this were easy, Protestant congregations would be overflowing. I certainly do not pretend to have it all figured out. However, I am quite clear that we have to turn our present thinking on its head. As my friend John says, we need spiritually mature people to take their part in the church. We need to shift our focus from making people feel good (whatever that means) to bringing people into the abundant life that Jesus promises. We need to shift our focus from programs to people. We need to stop making things easy and contemplate making things hard. We clergy need to manifest the kind of discipleship we hope to see in others.

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3 Responses

  1. Meaghan says:

    Love this entry, Scott. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to meet at our Diocesan House with Bishop Curry and some other younger clergy to talk about the emerging church, and this kind of thing is exactly what we talked about. It’s frustrating to me that church is something people “fit in” if it’s convenient (or if there isn’t a soccer game, my personal point of resentment). But I agree that the church is a little slack about letting people know how incredible the reward is. We’re more of a “take up your cross when you find some time and the outcome will be very pleasant” church right now instead of a “Christianity is hard work folks, but the result is personal transformation, peace of mind, unimaginable love, and abounding joy.” I think you’re right that programming can almost get in the way of sharing that message. I can preach about the transformative nature of Christianity all I want, but I’m not sure how much the message sticks when the announcements roll around and we’re asking people to sign up for Supper Club. Sigh…

  2. Ethan Gafford says:

    I wouldn’t let the laity off too easy, Scott. While it’s true that mainstream Protestant clergy have by and large been weak prophets recently (from what I can see and have read, anyway,) don’t think for a moment the laity haven’t demanded that weakness. Any church at which hard truths are preached is labelled as “judgmental” and “unaccepting”, and there’s more than enough “I’m okay, you’re okay” elsewhere. It’s a tragedy of the commons: it’s good for us all to have Christian discipline; it’s good for any one parish (in the short term, on paper) to be lax and celebratory of all behavior, no matter how horrid it might be. As much as the pushers of the cloth need to stop dealing, until there’s no longer a demand for easy faith, it’s likely that we’ll keep spiralling downward.

    Still, there are people who want a challenge, and hunger for authentic truth. Preaching it in a congregation may drive some people away quickly, but it may, more slowly, attract people who want to live and grow in faith. Whether that’s good is a judgment call; there’s an argument to be made that keeping lax Christians in church at any cost, even to hear a watered-down Gospel, is a good thing. That argument seems to me like heretical poison, but I’m wrong a lot.

    This message brought to you by the Society for Universal Recognition of the Doctrine of Original Sin.

  3. Laura says:

    Shameless plug, here, but this is part of what we’re trying to address with Confirm not Conform (www.confirmnotconform.com).

    First of all, we require a commitment on behalf of the youth to attend all the classes, which is usually a very hard sell for the parents. In our Mentor/Parent handbook we address this by saying,

    “When parents say that soccer practice is more important for their child than a class that explores their deepest questions, it’s important to remember that one day their child will face a crisis, because it’s a part of life. They will face a crisis that will challenge them to the depths of their being and, when that day comes, they will not be turning to soccer for answers.”

    The other thing about CnC is that it designed to create active participants rather than passive observers. Towards the end of the program, they design a service project and make a presentation to the vestry. One of the things we hope this accomplishes is to convey that they will be stepping into this role of church leadership as adults.

    I’ve gone on too long, but I do think it’s a great program, and one that addresses many of the things the church currently needs.