My book club is reading John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden.” A passing description of a passing character caught my attention:
“Mrs. Edwards was persistently if not profoundly religious. She spent a great part of her time with the mechanics of her church, which did not leave her time for either its background or its effects.”
I see myself in the description: While I may care about the church’s background and effects, I direct my time, energy and mindshare to the church’s mechanics – to the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year programs, worship services, budgets and pastoral needs. I leave myself little time to consider the effectiveness of said programs, worship services, budgets and responses to pastoral needs. Do our adult discipleship programs truly help people move toward spiritual maturity? Or have we simply created an array of spiritual time fillers? Likely, the answer is somewhere in between these two extremes. But, I find that I have little time or energy left to think about the effects of our church’s ministry. Running from one program to the next consumes me.
Steinbeck’s description also leaves me wondering about members of today’s congregations. Not only are pastors busy with the bustle of churchy activities, but so are a shrinking percentage of church members. My temptation is to regard the people who actively attend the programs I plan, who agree to share in the leadership of those programs and who speak positively about those programs as more committed to their faith than those who may attend worship one or two times each month.
My puffed up ego avoids exploring questions with these “persistently religious” church members like:
- How are you experiencing life transformation through your involvement with the church?
- Are you becoming more compassionate, more honest, more generous or more loving through your involvement?
- Is your knowledge of God translating itself into life rhythms that continue outside of the church walls?
Time devoted to program development is time taken from the harder work of people development. Certainly, people grow through programs (or else we would not offer an array of programs for people in various ages and life stages). I have observed that these programs are most effective in changing people insofar as relationships of trust and accountability develop through the programs. Being persistently religious does not automatically lead to spiritual maturity. But, persistent religious involvement can shape people as long as the conditions are right – conditions such as the religious person’s openness to grow and change, deep spiritual friendships and margin for self-reflection and prayer.
I can allow myself to be consumed by the mechanics of my church. Or, I can choose to spend a portion of my mindshare and time as a pastor considering the effects of my church – to observing how people are growing and how God is nudging all of us toward transformation. Such an intentional choice is not easy. The mechanics generally feel more urgent than the background or effects. But, I would rather be profoundly than persistently religious. I would rather my congregation passionately pursue Jesus in everyday life than persistently pursue involvement in a program. And so, I must change my priorities, even if it means less perfect programs, worship services, budgets, and responses to pastoral needs.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.