We moved because we were not being fed. How many times have you heard similar conversations about worship and spiritual nurture? Comments like these may be heard across the country, across denominational lines, and across generational lines. Sadly, our youngest generations are not as likely to go from church to church in search of bread. They often just leave altogether – and they freely share their reasons for leaving!
The complaints of the hungered have spilled out of the church house and onto the bookshelves of major booksellers to become bestsellers: Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor (2006), Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner (2007), Unlearning Church by Michael Slaughter (2008), Begging for Real Church by Joseph Daniels, Jr. (2009), and, perhaps more familiar, Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus but Not the Church (2007). This seeming epidemic of spiritual hunger forces us to ask ourselves if something has gone awry with the way that we disciple our members into mature Christians.
Bethlehem meant house of bread. Bethlehem was the birthplace of the Bread of Life who feeds our hungry souls and it was once an adage that a Christian was just one beggar, showing other beggars where to find bread. The Christian faith is replete with so many images of bread and much conversation about the empty being filled.
If this is true, why are so many people in our churches complaining of hunger?
Flaws in our present thinking
I have come to believe that many churches and church members have come to this crisis through flawed thinking in at least two significant areas:
- One area of flawed thinking lies in the assumption that just attending church will give us everything that we need, spiritually. Subsequently, a significant number of people have lagged behind in attending to their personal spiritual disciplines because they regularly attend church. The popularity of Wesley’s class meetings demonstrates that the same spiritual hunger that has risen to the forefront today existed in the 1700s among churchgoers. Wesley’s solution was to give attention to spiritual practices in such a way that the tenets of the Christian life and the rituals of the church became more meaningful to those who attended class meetings. Wesley and company pursued an inward holiness of heart that resulted in an outward holiness of life by meeting to pray, study their Bibles and hold one another accountable to godly living. Similar things could be said about the renewal movement that Phoebe Palmer led a generation or so later and of the notable Christian leaders that God sends to renew the faith of each generation. The leaders who have had the greatest impact upon our collective spiritual lives have frequently been those who have called us back to the basics of personal spiritual practices.
- A second area of flawed thinking is rooted in our reliance upon other people to do spirituality for us. Could it be that we have come to rely too much upon others for our spiritual wellbeing. Explain the Bible to me, feed me! Somebody pray the prayers for us, (for pewdwellers do not know how to pray such pretty words…). Sing to us; sing for us (your voice is so much better than mine!) So many people have relied on “the people up front” for worship leadership and to actually do all the spiritual work in worship that they have forgotten how to enter into private or personal times of worship when they are alone! Yet, we take hope in the reality that many of our young people want to be spiritual for themselves. We hear it in their attempts at new songs or when they pray sincere heart-felt prayers about things we have stopped talking about in church.
The way forward
So what is the way forward? This blog post is an attempt to spur new conversations about ways that worship and Christian formation intersect. To indict the handful of pastors that are leading cotton candy worship services is not the answer. It would be more productive for each person who designs or leads worship to begin to construct a mental checklist to use when designing worship. Your checklist might include questions like:
- How many times are we modeling prayer in our worship services? The question is not such so much how many times do we pray, or who is praying, but what are our prayers teaching new members (and old ones) about prayer?
- Do our prayer concerns communicate that God is concerned about everyone, and not just the few who attend our services?
- Do our prayers teach the timid how to pray at home? Do our prayers unwittingly communicate the message that praying is for “super” Christians, or do we model conversational prayer in ways that the even the timid might use for an example?
- Do our prayers teach the strangers visiting in our midst that God is concerned about them?
In addition to learning about the Bible and how Christians should live through the sermon, liturgical scholars remind us that worship is one place in the church where we also learn how to practice several of the Christian disciplines like prayer. I invite you to engage in or initiate conversations with other worship planners in your congregation and in your networks to consider the formational aspect of worship. Begin by replacing my questions with more contextual questions of your own.
In my next blog post, I would like to take a similar look at the formational potential of church music.