In 2003, Christianity Today ran an article by David Goetz called Suburban Spirituality
“The land of SUVs and soccer leagues tends to weather the soul in peculiar ways, but it doesn’t have to”.
I remember reading that article till this day..it has always stuck out in my mind for several reasons. But recently I have been in a lot of conversations, and more specifically with students about the importance of committing to a “church community.” It’s not just college students who hop from ministry to ministry, and more than likely are involved in like 3 to 4 at the same time. It’s part of our consumer culture and it pervades every aspect of our life, whether it’s how we shop, how we interact with our friends and neighbors and how we go about church.
And I understand their reasons, because I have many of the same reasons they have. “This church is too big.” Or “That church is too flashy.” Or “That preacher is better.” I get that. But over the years I have learned the importance of being in a constant community and of wrestling with them. Of bumping up against them. Of aruging and laughing and sometimes not getting along. That is the pathway to growth.
So though many of my students don’t get my thoughts on this, I will keep talking to them about this issue.
So I leave you with this long quote which I thought was beautiful:
For all of its foible–which at its worst include lousy preaching, political infighting, self-centeredness, stagnation, a gaggle of special-interest groups–the poky local church in suburbia is still the most fertile environment for spiritual development there. Genuine spiritual progress doesn’t happen without a long-term attachment to a poky local church. I’m all for improving the organization of a local church to make it more biblically effective, but the maddening frustration that prompts someone to leave one church for another may be the precise thing that holds great potential for spiritual progress–if one stays. “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”
Disillusionment with one’s church, then, is not a reason to leave but a reason to stay and see what God will create in one’s life and in the local church. What I perceive to be my needs–“I need a church with a more biblical preacher who uses specific examples from real life”–may not correspond to my true spiritual needs. Often I am not attuned to my true spiritual needs. Thinking that I know my true needs is arrogant and narcissistic. Staying put as a life practice allows God’s grace to work on the unsanded surfaces of my inner life. Seventeenth-century French Catholic mystic Francois Fenelon wrote, “Slowly you will learn that all the troubles in your life–your job, your health, your inward failings–are really cures to the poison of your old nature.”
I would add “your church” to his list; that is, all the troubles in one’s church are really cures to the poison of one’s old nature, or, as the Apostle Paul put it in Romans 7, the “sinful nature.” The biggest problem in any church I attend is myself–and my love of self and my penchant to roam when I sense my needs aren’t being met.
Staying put and immersing oneself in the life of a gathered community forces one into eventual conflict with other church members, with church leadership, or with both. Frustration and conflict are the raw materials of spiritual development. All the popular reasons given for shopping for another church are actually spiritual reasons for staying put. They are a means of grace, preventing talk of spirituality from becoming sentimental or philosophical. Biblical spirituality is earthy, face-to-face, and often messy.
In a congregational meeting, two young male professionals made a presentation to update the sanctuary sound system. There was some tension in the air, because the system was pricey. They delivered their pitch well and then began fielding questions. A retired man, a former physician, challenged one presenter’s use of a technical term. I don’t remember the exact phrasing that sparked the fireworks, but the young presenter and this retired doctor began to quarrel about who was right, as if they were the only two in the room. I felt embarrassed for the older man, since his comment and persistence provoked and sustained the interchange. The discussion ended awkwardly, the congregation voting to upgrade the sound system, and the meeting came to a close. Afterward, I saw the elderly man amble toward the presenters. Later I heard that the retired physician had apologized for his conduct and asked one of the young professionals out for breakfast to discuss the sound system.
At its best, the local church functions as an arena in which conflict and hurts among participants who choose to stay can open up possibilities for spiritual progress. Where else will people still accept me after I stand up in a church meeting and harshly criticize something? “Ah, that’s just Dave,” they say. They know me. I learn about the Christian virtues of acceptance and graciousness even as I am not accepting and gracious. By not taking my toys and playing elsewhere–that is, finding a church that connects with my spiritual journey–I move forward in my spiritual journey. I give up control. I forfeit my options, in an environment of choices.