Shopping for Spiritual Growth

I recently read that a Gallup poll says 82% of Americans desire to grow spiritually and 66% don’t think the church is effective at doing that.

Not surprising.  Likely both numbers should be higher.  It seems likely to me that close to 100% of people desire spiritual growth.  Those who say they don’t probably just aren’t thinking seriously about it.

And it is completely unsurprising me to me that a signficant majority of folks don’t find churches effective at giving them the spiritual growth they want.  Those who say they are getting their spiritual growth at church probably have very modest “growth” expectations.

The problem, as I see it, is the implied linkage between spiritual growth and church attendance.  In our consumer culture folks want to be able to go to a big store and buy whatever they desire.  To get “spiritual growth” they go to a church building on Sunday mornings.  It’s as if they file in, sit down and say “Good morning.  I’d like some spiritual growth please.”

Of course the consumption-model church tries to meet their expectations.   Just as the consumers are there to get “spiritual growth,” churches sell them entertainment.   No longer is the nice old lady down the road banging out old hymns on the ancient piano while the small congregation whose families have gathered there for years belts them out.  Now the megachurchs have professional caliber rock bands, light shows, coffee shops, book stores and hip pastors on stages with power point presentations.  By and large the folks in the large crowds who assemble there on Sunday mornings don’t know each other, and don’t really want to.  To be “relevant” to suburban consumers, these churches have ditched liturgy, the church calendar and the lectionary.  But, as the poll shows, this model doesn’t seem to be any more effective at providing “spiritual growth” than traditional worship services.

Jason Fowler at Sustainable Traditions wrote a good blog post on this subject recently, which I recommend.  Read it HERE.  He quotes Alan Hirsch on the consumeristic model of church, as I have before on this blog (HERE for example).  Hirsch argues that when churches behave as if they are selling a consumer product, they shouldn’t be surprised when folks treat them that way.  He argues that when folks “tithe” or give money to churches, most to the time they are buying religious entertainment.  To prove his point, he challenges churches to dispense with sermons for three weeks and see what happens to the amount of money they collect.

So back to the Gallup poll.  Almost everyone wants spiritual growth but most say they don’t get it from church.  Maybe that’s because churches, no matter how hard they try, aren’t able to deliver “spiritual growth.”  Bill Hybels pioneered the megachurch model with Willow Creek Church and did a great job of drawing folks (particularly upper middle class suburbanites) into his church.  His success in greatly increasing the size of his congregation (and the church’s revenue) led to the proliferation of the megachurch model around the country.  But an internal study at Willow Creek confirmed that while the model is great at getting folks who might not otherwise attend to come to church, it was failing to produce discipleship–spiritual growth.  Hybels candidly admitted that for all the outward appearance of success, Willow Creek was a failure in what really mattered.

But the bottom line, it seems to me, is that we ought not judge or measure churches by whether they are able to deliver a product (spiritual growth) to the consumer seeking it.  Spiritual growth is not something that can be picked up at church, like a loaf of bread at the grocery store.  There may be ways churches can facilitate spiritual growth, just as there are plenty of ways they can impede it.  But I suspect genuine spiritual growth is a lifelong journey which is more dependent upon self-reflection and community engagement, than upon attending church services.

Love Wins