Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Vibrant Spirituality and The Wall

John 7:37
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.”
What follows is part one in a series of blog posts. Part two; Face-to-Face with the Wall can be read here.

Part One:

Questions, doubts, suspicions and uncertainty are part-and-parcel of authentic Christianity. In fact, it is almost inevitable that there will come a season where these things serve as the primary catalyst for spiritual growth in one’s journey of following Jesus. What’s unfortunate is that the modern church doesn’t always make space for people to doubt or to question or to be suspicious. Organisational church growth tends to require unwavering commitment to the vision, the values, the mission and the culture of “the house.” This tends to mean cultivating an environment of momentum, alignment, excitement and anticipation; an “atmosphere of faith.” The demand therefore tends to be for uniformity and conformity. This becomes a pretty challenging context in which to ask big questions about faith, the nature of the church, Christian spirituality and what it means to follow Jesus. Questions and doubts can be wrongly interpreted as a “lack of faith,” “a bad attitude,” “divisive,” or even a clear indicator that someone is “backsliding.” This is problematic on so many levels.

Let’s back it all up a little though…

In the early days of following Jesus, one’s spirituality is essentially shaped around the enthusiasm, excitement and newness of life that comes from an encounter with Jesus. In faith and repentance, either in a moment or slowly over time, one discovers that Christ is for them. One discovers grace, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. Something at the core of one’s being comes alive. The bible literally refers to it as being born again. There is an awakening. What matters most in these early days, and what is most encouraging, is that God is for you, and if that’s the case, well who can be against you? This season of faith can last days, weeks or months, but normally not years.

Over time, the enthusiastic follower of Jesus finds themselves connected to other Christ followers in the community of the church. Here one finds significant spiritual energy through being part of something bigger than themselves, and often through the example or inspiration of a charismatic leader or personal mentor. One’s spirituality is relational and all about discipleship. One learns to be like Christ. Most of this happens through participation in a local church and the various programs and ministries of the church. It tends to be very event or meeting orientated; camps, conferences, mission trips, prayer meetings, guest speakers, worship parties, small groups etc. This stage of the faith journey can last for a number of years.

Eventually, the disciple that has been learning how to be like Christ finds themselves given the responsibility of some sort of ministry for Christ. Here one spends time praying for others, encouraging others, supporting others, teaching others, serving others, leading others. Faith is about doing. One finds that their spirituality (the rhythms, practices and habits that sustain, energise and connect them to God) are largely found in the service of others. One studies in order to find answers for others, one intercedes on behalf of others. There is a keen sense of being the hands and feet of Jesus and of the responsibility that comes with this. All of this serves as a catalyst for growth in the journey of following Jesus. It is an energising and rewarding stage in the faith journey. Some Christians spend decades in this stage of the faith journey, some perhaps their whole life.

Throughout these first three stages of the faith journey, one of the main driving motivators, whether acknowledged or not, is the focus on figuring out how it all “works.” As Westerners we live in a culture of pragmatism, efficiency and “progress.” For something to be worthwhile it should add value, it should improve, it should help us in life. The assumption is that surely faith, Christian spirituality, the church, following Jesus will add great value to our lives. Faith without works is dead, but in these stages it would also be considered true that a faith that doesn’t work for you is dead. And guess what? One tends to find a faith that does work! Life goes from strength to strength. Things get better. Marriages and families and relationships improve. Doors of opportunity open up at work as one faithfully follows Jesus. And why wouldn’t things improve? Over time following Jesus brings wisdom, humility, characteristics of love, joy, peace, patience, self-control, a sound mind and so on. These things add incredible value to one’s life.

In many ways faith in these stages of the journey is largely transactional. Sin and brokenness is exchanged for the righteousness and forgiveness of Christ. Not only that though, prayer, fasting, giving, service, worship tend to become techniques by which to engage God’s presence and blessing in one’s life and are turned into principles and keys through which to “unlock” whatever one supposedly needs to “unlock” and ultimately to “move” God. Great effort is put into figuring out how it all works and great comfort comes from the sense of accomplishment one feels as they figure it all out.  

Until suddenly it doesn’t work.

Something unexpected happens. Maybe something big. Maybe something small.

Maybe a personal crisis or family crisis of some sort. Something you just didn’t see coming. Something that seems unfair. Something where it seems like God has let you down. Maybe it’s that the church or a church leader lets you down. Maybe you have a burnout.

Maybe you go away on holiday, you disengage from the usual cycle of enthusiasm, community and responsibility that fills your Christian life. Maybe you find some space to consider some of the deeper questions and doubts you’ve harboured for a while. Maybe you read a book, or listen to a podcast, or have a conversation with someone that opens your eyes to some things you’ve never seen before. Maybe one book, maybe one podcast, maybe one conversation leads to another, and another, and another.

Do you love your faith so little that you have never battled a single fear lest your faith should not be true? Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth. – George MacDonald
Whether a major crisis or something small you suddenly realise you have questions, you have doubts, you’re suspicious. What seemed so life giving in terms of Christian faith and practice and culture suddenly doesn’t seem to work for you anymore. It all seems a bit broken and you find yourself face-to-face with “The Wall.”

Now the wall isn’t the crisis or the questions. The crisis or the questions are simply what brings you to the wall. The wall is a distinct experience of disenchantment. It’s where the formulas and techniques of faith that you had all figured out, simply stop working. You realise you’ve figured out far less than you thought. You realise that you had boxed God but that God won’t be boxed.  

At the wall you discover that, your pragmatic, efficient, techniques to master the Divine and bring about the God-transactions you want don’t always work.

At the wall you discover all sorts of things about yourself that aren’t always pleasant. How much you like to be in control. Your addictions to people pleasing, or success, to being needed, to having all the right answers.

At the wall you discover that the rhythms, habits, practices and disciplines that have sustained you for so long in your Christian journey need revising, revamping, replacing.

At the wall enthusiasm wanes, community seems annoying rather than helpful (unless they are on the same journey as you), and there is normally a real reluctance take responsibility in leadership or ministry.

But at the same time, face-to-face with the wall, there is usually deep sense that there has to be something more, that there is life beyond the wall if you could just work out how to get there. There is an awareness that God is doing something, though it is a mystery. It can be excruciating and exciting at the same time!

For those that are at the wall, questions, doubts, suspicions and uncertainty have now become their primary motivation for spiritual growth. Trite answers, one-liners and cheesy Christianise won’t suffice. Uniformity and conformity won’t be an option. Here is where it becomes problematic if questions start to be seen as a “lacking faith,” “a bad attitude,” or “divisive.” Here is where the church doesn’t always do as well as it could.

Firstly, it is problematic because when questions, doubts and a sense of uncertainty are shut down, stifled or rebuked it leads to disengagement. And so, despite sensing that God is doing something unique in terms of their Christian journey, the conclusion of many at the wall come to is that the church is unlikely to take them any further in their faith journey.

Alan Jamieson in his book, A Churchless Faith, looks at the alarming numbers of people that are leaving churches because they find them unhelpful in their spiritual journey. These people, often seen as “slackers” or “backsliders” are anything but that. They’re trying to be faithful pilgrims. On average those exiting church have been in church for 16 years. 94% have been leaders in the church and 36% have completed either part or full time theological training.

These aren’t prodigal sons and daughters running off to “sow their wild oats” and “squander the family inheritance” at the Bahama Hutt on a Friday night. They’re not slackers who’ve left because they got offended or had a fall out with the Worship Pastor. Jamieson writes that they leave because of “meta-grumbles” – deep rooted questions about the foundations of faith itself – that aren’t being addressed. I’d say because they hit the wall and found no help through.

New Zealand scholar Brett Knowles says, in regard to Pentecostal churches, that even though those that leave are affectionate about the church, they’ve largely found that the conformist nature of Pentecostal churches has taken them as far as it can in their spiritual journey. Which I’m suspicious is to the wall and then no further. It’s hard to get an accurate figure on the numbers in New Zealand, but the census data seems to indicate a 6.5% decline in Pentecostal numbers sense the last census. That’s thousands of Pentecostals moving on. It also seems that the greatest decline is in institutional forms of Pentecostalism.  

Secondly then, it is problematic because it likely means that our churches have become about organisational growth rather than the transformation of lives. Many too easily assume these things are the same. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are certainly not the same thing.

Thirdly, it is problematic because we’ve a generation of post-moderns coming of age. By very nature post-modern people are more likely to doubt authority figures, be suspicious of organisations, ask lots of questions and expect to get robust and well thought through responses. Churches need to champion this and make space for this not stifle it for the sake of momentum and alignment. Post-moderns will disengage and move on more easily than other generations if there is no space for questions, doubts and suspicions.  

Fourthly, it is problematic because there is so much life and vitality in the stages of faith beyond the wall, the church needs those that make it through the wall to the other side.

So, how to get through the wall? That will have to wait for another day. For now, it is important to remember that while enthusiasm, community and responsibility will at times be key to growing as a Christian, there comes a time where one is likely to find themselves standing face-to-face with “The Wall.” Here disenchantment with Christian faith and practice is actually key to growing as a Christian. It brings into question assumptions, un-thinking conformity and the prescriptions through which one supposedly masters matters of faith. If church communities can make space for this, aware of what is happening, then disenchanted pilgrims are likely to find the wisdom, encouragement and the space that is needed to begin a process of re-enchantment. And here, here is where it becomes an adventure, when the disenchanted pilgrim takes their first step. In my opinion they are on the verge of being born again, again. But here it isn’t about transactional faith and mastering how it all works. Here it is about transformative faith and the mystery of how God works.

Certitude is a poor substitute for authentic faith. But certitude is popular; it’s popular because it’s easy. No wrestling with doubt, no dark night of the soul, no costly agonizing over the matter, no testing yourself with hard questions. Just accept a second-hand assumption or a majority opinion or a popular sentiment as the final word and settle into certainty. Certitude is easy…until it’s impossible. And that’s why certitude is so often a disaster waiting to happen. – Brian Zahnd
Help is required in this adventure, this pilgrimage of re-enchantment. It is not an easy journey. But it is the help of doubts and questions not the help of certitude or bravado that is needed. Doubt makes space for faith, they are bedfellows. How can you have faith without doubt? Help is also needed in the form of guides and maps and signposts, but even these must be searched for. Not many know the way through inner wilderness and wastelands to the deep springs of Living Water. Not everyone has crossed through the wall. Don’t expect too much where the crowds are, crowds tend to be on a different journey. Beware also of quick fix, sure fire schemes; 3 steps, 7 keys, 21 laws, or 40 days of this or that won’t be what you should be looking for. It will more likely be dusty old books, wizened grey haired saints, prayers of yesterday, and pathways walked by many but almost forgotten that you’re after. It will be the unfamiliar, not the familiar, that opens new doors. Something ordinary rather than spectacular. And none will promise to be the answer, only to point you in the right direction. Blessed are those that hunger and thirst. Blessed are those that are born again, again. 

The next post in this series, Face-to-Face with the Wall can be read here.

Grace and peace. 

PS: The thoughts above are some of my reflections on life, ministry and the journey of following Jesus. They are informed by more than just my own journey though and a tip of the hat must be giving to Fowler's Stages of Faith, Hagberg and Guelich's The Critical Journey, Tomlinson's Re-Enchanting Christianity, Knowle's work in Global Renewal Christianity; Asia and Oceania, Lewis's Narnia and Tolkien's LOTR.  


Matthew Martyn said...

superb. I resonate with so much of this journey and what I am hearing and seeing in others around me.
I need to find those old grey saints to help others move through to born again - again-ness.

Thank you

Joseph McAuley said...

Thanks Matt. It seems to have struck a chord with a number of people. Next up will be "Vibrant Spirituality and Through the Wall." Not sure when I'll get a chance to write that up though. Peace.

Catherine said...

Wow Joseph, this is fantastically awesome and so true. I hit the wall a few years ago and am just coming out the other side. Everything you said resonated very deeply. If I lived in Tauranga again I would come along to St Lukes for sure.

Catherine Rivera (sister of Emily Collier and Aran Puddle)

Kay said...

Thanks for this. It helps to have something that feels quite complex articulated. Like Matt, for me and a lot of people in my world this is a pretty accurate description of their odyssey of late.

Joseph McAuley said...

Thanks Catherine and Kay. Feedback is always appreciated. I'm glad it was an encouragement in one way or another.Grace and peace.