‘It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.’     – Dallas Willard

I read that sentence quite awhile ago and immediately wrote it down. It says very simply and succinctly what I want you to hear: it’s good, even healthy, for you to be hungry, dissatisfied, searching for more of God. Without this inner sensitivity to our souls we have no motivation to question, explore, change, keep, cast aside, grow. People who have many answers or are overly confident spiritually are more likely dead.

Willard’s words describe so well what has keyed my own spiritual journey over the years – dissatisfied with ‘here’, uncertain where to go or what to do, but certain that I was going to follow God.

I have written recently about the large numbers of Christians who are ‘churchless‘ and I promised to list some common reasons why people make that choice (thank you for reminding me, LK :).

Of course it is not my intention to be negative about church but rather to help think about the issues that can suck the life, the Spirit out of it. In many places the task of doing church has replaced the life-giving reason why it exists. As an older pastor once told me on the subject of church migration, ‘People go where they’re fed’. This is reflected in dwindling church attendance that should concern church leaders enough for them to consider real questions and answers rather than re-wrapping old ones.

The author Phyllis Tickle reminded us a few years ago about something that most people familiar with church history will recognize – there is a seismic shift in the Christian church about every five hundred years. Interestingly, last year was the five-hundredth anniversary of the last shift, the Reformation.

Back in the middle 2000s Christian researcher George Barna stumbled on a phenomenon he hadn’t been aware of previously. In his book Revolution he wrote of a ‘… spiritual revolution that is reshaping Christianity, personal faith, corporate religious experience, and the moral contours of the nation.’ His guess at that time was that about 20 million Americans were living ‘… a first-century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, love, generosity, kindness, and simplicity’ and who were committed to ‘… zealously pursue an intimate relationship with God.”

As I’ve said before, this isn’t about ‘church-hoppers’ (people who regularly move between churches) or transfer attendance (single moves for personal reasons) but a completely separate category. As Barna discovered, the churchless are those who are seeking a more simple, intimate, pure, Christ-like way of living and they haven’t found it in a religious organization.

There has been quite a bit of research in recent years on the shifting views of the church. We would have to sift through it all carefully to distinguish between what are cultural morés and what are institutional faults but I am going to list them in no particular order or category. Some of these may apply to your setting, some may not, but these are the issues that people say isolate them:

  • Busy church life. This consists of over programming and over-scheduling. (There are church volunteers who are so busy that they don’t have time to enjoy the very life God gave them. A friend of mine was a lay person responsible for planning the first half of the weekly service at their church and calculated it took an average of 27 hours a week – on top of a job, children and marriage…). This turns toxic over time as people begin to resent what they do at church and the shallowness they feel in spite of their work;
  • Poor community. In spite of words to the contrary, friendship, sharing, caring and personal depth can be choked off by program-centric gatherings;
  • Teaching and preaching is one-way. There is little opportunity for questions or quality interaction which is the best way to grow;
  • Boring, shallow, irrelevant. In spite of surface innovations, many churches still provide spiritual milk rather than meat (as St Paul might say). ‘Worship’ consists of musical production and sermons have little new learning or stretching for the hearers;
  • Top down leadership. Strong, central leaders who rule with an iron-fist (‘touch not God’s anointed’) or guilt (re: attendance, giving, participation);
  • Politics is always a factor but some churches are more business-driven or popularity-driven than heart-driven. (Influential people maniacally chasing new projects and goals while the poor, the introverts and the humble are left dangling in the noise);
  • Politics 2 is where the majority are kept on the outside of participation, true costs, staffing, direction of the church, etc.
  • Politics 3 where there is a strong emphasis on nationalism and influence from the pulpit as to how you should vote or think about current events;
  • Antagonistic to science. Tension between the evidence of science and the stubborn refusal of the church to accept it;
  • Simplistic and judgemental. This applies across the board and can be damaging or ungracious. (Sexual issues are an example – gender roles, sexual struggles, purity culture, lifestyles can be front and centre in many churches);
  • Overprotective. Attitudes and systems that are territorial, ‘protecting’ us from outside beliefs by censoring and crafting the information and teachings;
  • Doctrinal close-mindedness. Related to the previous, it often seems as though Christians are in competition with fellow Christians, inferring or stating that ‘we are more right than you’;
  • Not a safe place to question or doubt. Some of the previous topics apply here – evolution, sexuality, ecumenism, biblical interpretation, etc. aren’t even up for discussion in many places;
  • Churches are expensive. How much of people’s tithe to God is used for maintenance, utilities, salaries, insurance, programs, equipment, advertising, entertainment, denominational infrastructure, etc. and how much really makes a difference for the ‘little ones’ in our community?;
  • Modern church practices are too easily heavy on overhead and low on substance. They have many moving parts and require organization and planning and in that way they are very different from what the earliest church practices. (The first Christians had no temples or synagogues or church buildings so ‘church’ was simply meeting together wherever they could to fellowship, read, share, pray and remember Him over a meal. Church ‘membership’ required simply wanting to follow Jesus.)

If that list means nothing to you, that’s great – carry on. Go in peace.

If you find yourself feeling defensive about some of the items in the list, I understand, but that is also an indication that you truly have not walked in those shoes.

On the other hand, maybe this is a needed reality check. Perhaps these are good lessons for churches who can listen and react to the feelings being expressed by more and more people both inside and outside our churches. Perhaps your vision and passion for something more, something deeper, can become contagious in your church circles.

Maybe you’re not in church but much of the list is familiar. You’re a believer who wants more but not like that. That’s okay too.

Whoever you are, if you have a dissatisfaction, a hunger, then I encourage you to keep God as your goal and continue searching.

You are the reason I write.

I wasn’t aware of the book, The Critical Journey by Janet Hagberg & Robert Guelich until researching this topic but it is worth noting for their insights on the stages of a healthy spiritual journey. You can look at a graphic here but suffice to say that, at some point it is perfectly natural (and necessary?) to hit a spiritual wall and begin to dig deeper to follow our spiritual hunger. Most formerly churched people will recognize this very well: they found that their church didn’t provide the deeply personal food and relationships that it was intended to build and they journeyed to a separate place than many of the brothers and sisters around them. Finally they had to move on for the sake of their soul.

Some of you will be wondering if I have any answers to these complaints and the answer is no. Well, actually the answer is yes, to a point. However I first want you to be on board with the knowledge that religious organizations are temporary and human but the larger Church of believers all over the world is eternal and it is what Jesus is building – with or without us. It isn’t about steeples or pews or worship teams or sermons or vision statements or Boards or budgets. It is so, so much more.

Regardless of where you are with church, ‘It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.’

Maybe a more romantic way of expressing it is you are on a quest.