Updated: Mar 8
“For my people have committed a double evil: They have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, and dug cisterns for themselves— cracked cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13, CSB)
Many people are longing to experience God in their lives as active, relevant, and transformative. However, what they often experience in church and the activities offered isn’t translating into the fulfillment of this desire.
I have this intrusive and reoccurring thought, creeping into my consciousness: "You have a rich religion but a poor spirituality." The two don't have to be at odds; often, they are. I'd like to believe I could have a rich religion and spirituality.
Time for definitions: religion and spirituality. It’s good to define our terms. It helps us to not misunderstand each other and keeps the conversation under the same assumptions. For me, my definition of “religion” is a system of stated beliefs and organizational practices that define a faith community. The term “Christianity” is also used as a form of religion. I do this later. Next, I define “spirituality” as the seeking of a personal engagement with God which brings about a transformative experience in a person’s life that progressively conforms them to the will and ways of God.
With the above definitions in mind, here is what I’m headed toward: There are people, and I may add, I believe a growing number of people, longing to experience God but they don’t or can’t see any value in attending church meetings where a non-experience of God is presented.
“Wait a minute!” You may say, “Our church doesn’t present non-experiential meetings.” Maybe so, but in most of the churches I attend, and I attend a lot, the approach is more religion that spirituality. The message we send to our members and attenders is: Decide for Christ, join the church, be baptized, attend small group, attend worship, give tithes and offerings, be a moral person, have the right set of beliefs, support the Cooperative Program. Friends, this is religion, and it is not enough anymore. It never was. But in our troubled, digital, connected and disconnected modern world it is really standing out.
Please don’t hear what I am not saying. I’m not saying that we don’t need religion nor all of the things I listed that go with it. In fact, we do. We need them desperately, but we don’t need them for religion; we need them for spirituality. We need them for the transcendent reality that they should be pointing to. Religion that ends in itself will end itself. It should point to something more. It should point to Someone more. If we forget that, we as well as our churches, will end up empty of meaning and irrelevant. Friends, we may have entered into a crisis of relevance.
Perhaps what I have written doesn’t resonate. But please keep on reading to humor me if you would. I believe we are in or at the very least, moving into a spirituality crisis in Christianity which precipitates a relevance crisis. People increasingly do not see church as a place to grow spiritually. How could they with some of the behaviors of our top church and denominational leaders.
What I want to do in the remainder of this blog is to list five factors that have contributed to the relevance crisis of Christianity. I didn’t come up with these. They are the work of Christian A. Schwarz and come from his book God is Indestructible: NCD Media, 2020. Christian has had his hand on the pulse of the worldwide evangelical church for decades through his Natural Church Development (NCD) ministry. To date, more that 90,000 churches worldwide have participated in his church health surveys. More than 47,000 of these are in the United States. This is the largest database on the church in the history of the church. Over the decades this information has become invaluable for recognizing trends.
From this rich resource of data, interactions with church, business, and community leaders we can with confidence list at least the five most significant factors that have brought us to this relevance challenge. Here they are:
New communication technologies based on digitalization and globalization have resulted in new decision-making patterns.
The advance in education and social security in vast parts of the world has resulted in a diminishing need to cry out to for God’s intervention.
Increased individualism, particularly in Western societies has resulted in seeking spirituality without involvement in an institutional church, or even entirely without religion.
The shift from heteronomy (a dependence on something else, i.e. authority, tradition) to human autonomy has resulted in skepticism toward everything that is perceived as authoritarian or paternalistic.
The failure of Western Christianity to understand and communicate the full biblical image of God as being both personal and transpersonal, both immanent and transcendent, both divine will and divine energy, has contributed to an increased dissatisfaction with one’s own spirituality on the part of Christians, and to the feeling that Christianity is irrelevant from the perspective of non-Christians. (pp. 12-13)
A basic question is posed by Schwarz: “Is Christianity bound to the forms of church life practiced in the past or can we undertake the challenge of relating the unchanging essence of the gospel to ever-changing situations, even if that may result in painful reform?”
If we cannot do that, then the experience of God will be outside the church, at least outside the churches that will not use their religion enhance their relationship with God, besides those outside the church who are seeking a life-changing experience of God. We will become like the religious Jews who confused the Temple made of stone, nationalism, and their interpretations of Scripture to be as important as God himself. God had to get rid of all that in order for people to find him. Not only once but twice. He will do the same to us. He must unless we also repent. Jesus said so.
We have the same gospel of Christ that the early church had, but we do not have the same Christianity they had. We have the same gospel that the church of the reformation had, but we do not have the same Christianity they had. In my lifetime we have had unprecedented shifts away from institutionalism and segmentation to individualism and globalism. It is time for us to understand the times and to take the insights of church history into our present challenges. We cannot go back to a form of Christianity of the past. We must go with the new thing God is doing. He is always doing a new thing: A new birth, new wine, new wineskins, a new hope, new name, New Testament, new song, new heavens, and a new earth. He’s making all things new.
Personally, I plead with God almighty to help us to be free from our blindness to our pride, ideologies, and perspectives. May we see ourselves as he sees us, and may we experience him in a way that changes us to be more like Jesus every day. Don’t let your church (religion) be a hindrance but help to that end.