Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Source of Spiritual Growth

There is a real confusion out there about the source of spiritual growth. This week I attended a conference where one of the speakers talked at length about the mission of the church, the changing of the human life, vision, goals and such, and never seemed to grasp the central place of Word and Sacrament. He did mention these 'means.' He gave them lip service. Yet they seemed too often merely incidental to his overall view. One statement on a handout demonstrates this confusion: "We need to begin to change the culture from 'come to church so we can grow you up spiritually' to 'here's how to grow up spiritually, now go do it and be church in the world.'" The next statement seems to clarify and correct this a bit: "How can our congregation help? As the church gathers weekly we provide the balm of God's grace for healing, ignition, teaching, aiming and releasing for another week of following Jesus into the world." So what is it? What is central? Where does the believer find the life he needs?

I do not want to argue about whether the Christian goes "into the world" as part of being a Christ-like witness. Obviously we give testimony to Christ as we live out our vocation in a godly way, and share with others the reason for the hope that is within us. The point here is that the church - the place where the community gathers around the Word and the Table - is not incidental or merely one component among several in the area of spiritual growth. This is where we find Christ. This is where our sins are forgiven. This is where we experience genuine fellowship. This is where we sing with angels and look to heaven and remember that we are only "strangers and pilgrims" on this earth.

Peter Berger, a Lutheran sociologist, once made a helpful comparison of the Christian with the cultural anthropologist involved in field work. There is a danger that when the anthropologist leaves his own culture he might truly forget who he is and "go native." To prevent this the field worker makes sure that he stays "in the company of or at least in communication with fellow outsiders to the culture...and best of all by going home from the field after a relatively brief period of time." We remember who we are in Christ and remain in the company of the community of saints by returning to the Table of the Supper and to the Word of the Living Christ. This is our culture. This is the culture we must return to weekly to survive.

The confusion of the source of spiritual growth was probably demonstrated best in an article from what is known as The Parish Paper, edited by Herb Miller and Lyle E. Schaller. Again, the author seems to get it right when he says: "Christ is the foundation of 'Christian spirituality.'" But then he misses the point when he begins to talk specifics. Like many in the Church Growth Movement (CGM) he turns to the views of the people to define his terms: "....the majority of Christians identify the following seven experiences as their primary source of spiritual growth: 1. Worship...2. Music....3. Prayer....4. Fellowship....5. Preaching....6. Service....7. Stewardship...."

This is a confusion of the means with the fruits of faith. #1 and #5 are on target, if one understands that spiritual growth comes through Word and Sacrament. But prayer is not a means of grace, and neither is fellowship or service or stewardship. These are fruits of the Christian life. Still, I am not surprised that many believe this to be the case.

In a section entitled "Spiritual Growth via Small Groups" the author continues to compound the confusion once more. He seems, however, to be heading the right direction when he mentions Bible study groups, Sunday School classes, etc. But then down in #4 we read about "Serving Groups" which include "Helping Hands Groups and Weekly Property Groups." Weekly Property Groups? So as not to leave out AA from the list he also includes "Twelve-Step Groups" as well. It has been a popular belief in the CGM that real ministry and growth occur best in "small groups." The fellowship itself then becomes the "means" to growth, not the Word or Sacrament.

Churches time and again are directed the wrong way when they search for life and hope and strength in an increasingly hostile and difficult world. They are counseled to change their worship style to attract outsiders, offer 'upbeat music' and increase the number of programs and services. They are funneled into small homogeneous groups so that they can "share" their feelings and commiserate together. They are directed to their own faith and efforts, reminded that everything in life must demonstrate obvious results and be appropriately measured. But the last place they seem to be directed is the Table of the Lord and His Word where they are fed the Bread of Life for eternal life.

This Sunday I will return to the Table and be fed again. Maybe it will also clear my mind of this confusion I have been having to sort through......

1 comment:

Rev. Shane R. Cota said...

Thank you for these comments. I was at the same conference. Not only is this confusing, but also the same sort of stuff that often makes its way into the district newsletter. Perhaps if we could actually think theologically about things on occaison there wouldn't be so much confusion (of both methods and theology).