On a beautiful fall Sunday against the backdrop of the Front Range of the Rockies, I was standing on our church grounds with a cup of coffee in my hand. Worship had ended and people were gathered in our grassy courtyard area, engaged in conversation with one another before heading off to their next activity. A very attractive couple approached me and introduced themselves and their two elementary-school-aged children. They were first-time visitors. Though they were dressed in the casual attire that is usual for churchgoers in our western suburban culture, their impeccable outward appearance suggested that they were economically affluent. After some exchange of niceties, I asked a question I frequently ask of first-time visitors, “What brought you to Abiding Hope?”
They were both very talkative. I quickly learned that they both were well educated, having attended prestigious undergraduate and graduate-level professional schools. They both held “great” jobs and lived in an upscale development. They were not native Coloradans but had moved from Minnesota a few years earlier. Their kids were enrolled in a private school and were involved in many activities. They told me that their lives were “great” and that they were “happy.” Their reason for coming on this Sunday morning, however, was because they were sensing that “something was missing” and were seeking a connection to a “spiritual community” that would be the “icing on the cake” for their otherwise wonderful lives.
I would have liked to explore more of what they were trying to say to me by the “icing on the cake” expression. Through the little exchange we were able to have in that setting they wanted me to know that they had everything that they needed in this world—prestigious degrees, well-paying jobs, good health, a fine home, children who would no doubt be successful, and the many other rewards that come with fruitfully pursuing the American Dream—but one aspect of their lives, the spiritual aspect, was not in place. They came to worship a few more times, then I never saw them again. I do not know if they found another congregation, moved away, or simply gave up their search for their “icing on the cake.”
Whatever their motivation for being in worship with us for a few times and whatever their reason for not returning, one thing is clear: they entered into the doors of our congregation as consumers. They had needs to be met, and they were searching. Whatever the reason, our congregation did not meet their needs. Maybe they were seeking something a little less chaotic. Maybe they had a bad experience with somebody—maybe with me! I am not picking on this couple as being especially spiritually impoverished; rather, I offer this as an illustration of my experience with postmoderns who speak in “success” language, and who yet feel spiritually confused, troubled, or incomplete.
A conundrum in the postmodern experience is that postmoderns are aware, at least subconsciously, that the modern world has collapsed, taking down with it the religious assumptions out of which they once lived, but at the same time they sense that clear replacements are not yet accessible to them. Because many norms of the modern world have been displaced, postmoderns are generally a spiritually seeking and searching group.
Postmoderns and the search for worldly success do not necessarily go hand in hand, but suburban postmoderns can speak in the success language of the day and at the same time be aware of their spiritual incompleteness. (However, one should avoid the assumption that spiritual incompleteness must necessarily be a byproduct of “success”—it’s not. The point here is that the pursuit of success as defined by our world today is often at the expense of spiritual wellness and wholeness.)
My assumption in this encounter with the couple is that their comment about “icing on the cake” most likely speaks to a deeper yearning for something that is more than simply “icing on the cake,” more than some form of bonus to an otherwise complete and satisfying life. Having all that one desires in terms of accomplishments, appearances, status, wealth, and lifestyle still leaves people wanting at a level that even icing cannot satisfy.
Often people are unable to express just how conflicted or troubled their souls are. This is not to say that folks are deliberately disingenuous. The pursuit of the American Dream is a well-embedded cultural script of our world. It promises the “good life” to those who successfully pursue it. At the same time, people who pursue the American Dream are often blinded or in denial to the realities of the depth of their own human predicament or dilemma.
Because of the cultural confusion over the identity and calling of the church, people often then approach the church seeking to address “that something that is missing.” People come to worship seeking God’s blessings on their lifestyles, thinking that experiencing some expression of reassuring affirmation might be enough to quell their sense of incompleteness or confusion. Or they come thinking that the addition of some spiritual component to their lives, not unlike membership in a health club, might be enough to make them whole.
Using the language of Ronald Heifetz, they are seeking a purely “technical” solution for “that something that is missing.” The idea that a complete reorientation of their lives might serve to address their dilemma is not likely even to be in their consciousness. Should such an idea creep into their minds, it would be quickly dismissed as an unacceptable thought. Reframing everything in the light of a sacred story—being put to death in order to be raised to new life—is anything but simply “icing on the cake.”
Often searchers and “faith shoppers” last only a few Sundays in our congregations because either they fail to hear what they want to hear or what they hear is just too much, perhaps requiring an adaptive journey they are not willing to make. They are not the first to walk away from the church or from Jesus and his claims. There was the rich young man in Mark 10:17-22 who approached Jesus with a technical question about what he needed to do in order “to inherit eternal life.” After all, he had everything he thought he needed—wealth plus a track record of keeping all the commandments. In his religious context, this meant that he did everything right. Surely Jesus would be so impressed with his résumé that he would simply be praised by Jesus. The worst case would be that Jesus would point out some minor little adjustment or oversight to which he could easily attend.
Instead, Jesus called him to a complete reorientation of his life. Speaking in the rhetoric of today’s world, he “rattled his paradigm.” He told him to get rid of everything that gave him his identity and which he held to be of ultimate importance. “Sell what you have and give it to the poor” and “follow me.” The rich young man could not do that. He left Jesus, “grieving.”
Excerpted fromA New and Right Spirit: Creating an Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture, copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
In A New and Right Spirit, Rick Barger argues for congregations to reexamine what it means to be an “authentic church” in a culture where authenticity is hard to come by. As the key to congregational transformation he reclaims and lifts up an ecclesiological vision of the church as a “witness to the resurrection.” Recognizing the spiritual needs of a success-oriented society, he exhorts leaders to turn away from the story of our culture and to return to the story of the church.
What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church by Anthony B. Robinson
Theology can be a loaded word for mainline Protestant congregations. It often suggests the dogmatic or implies fault lines for conflict. But when unleashed from its narrow academic sense, “theology” offers a powerful way to get at many of the issues that impact the health and vitality of congregations.Too many mainline Protestant churches are theologically “underfunded.” Congregations are strengthened when what they believe backs what they do.