August 2015 Feature Article
There was a season in world history when excessive confidence and trust was conferred on science, technology, and the place of the mind. At the same time, suspicion and cynicism was directed at spirituality, subjectivity, and the place of the heart.
The mood of that season has since given way to a new season where the resurgence of spirituality is evidenced. The age of globalization characterized by movement, change, disruption, and displacement has fueled spiritual thirst as well as increasing the number of options to satisfy deep spiritual longing.
In this article, I will present two growing stands of spirituality which have been observed.
The first strand which is readily discovered in popular secular culture affirms spirituality decoupled from God and religion. The second strand found in growing numbers of churches is shaped by consumer oriented desire to be culturally relevant. Both strands pose a challenge to historic Christian faith.
Finally, a third stand which focuses on the commitment to follow Christ is presented as the basis of authentic Christian spirituality and the aspiration which Christians should strive toward.
Spirituality decoupled from God and religion
The first strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form that is decoupled from God and religion.
Within this strand of spirituality is a yearning for spiritual experiences which exclude God and religious institutions. Both the growing secularization of society as well as the loss of confidence in traditional religious institutions have contributed to the move toward this strand of spirituality.
A significant aspect of this stand of spirituality lies in its commitment to a particular understanding of transcendence. The experience of transcendence is the sense of mystery and wonder when in union with something much larger that the human self.
While traditionally the experience of transcendence has been associated with union with God up there, this strand of spirituality gravitates toward union with the world down here.
Spirituality in this strand therefore celebrates without any reference to God, the exponential growth in understanding of the natural and supernatural world, the strength and tenacity of the human spirit, the breathtaking affordances and enablement of new technologies, the global diversity and multiplicity of human perspective, the awesome wonder at the universe’s mysteries, and even the angst of the world of complex human existence.
It presents a non-theistic vision of spiritual life and highlights the nature of the search for spiritual meaning in an increasingly secularized society.
Together with the secularization of society, the increasing lack of confidence in traditional religious institutions has also contributed toward the movement toward a spirituality which is decoupled from God and religion. The unfortunate reality about traditional religious institutions is that they often grow powerful, exercise authoritarianism, are slow to address issues of abuse and injustice, remain inward looking, and are slow to adapt to changes in culture.
Kinnaman and Lyon’s study of outsider perceptions of Christianity revealed six points of skepticism and objections raised. Christians were thought of as hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental (Kinnaman and Lyon 2007). Likewise Kinnaman’s later study revealed reasons why Christian youth were leaving the church. The reasons include the church being overprotective, shallow, antiscience, repressive, exclusive, and didn’t allow room for doubt (Kinnaman 2011).
While the studies were conducted in the United States, the sentiments are often echoed in many other parts of the world with deep implications for families, churches, schools, and Christians in the marketplace.
Both the secularization of society and a lack of confidence in religious institutions have thus fueled the growth of this first strand of spirituality. Faith, hope, trust, and wonder remain, but are arrived at without an appeal to God or religion. While skepticism toward spirituality has not been lost, a new skepticism toward Christianity is evidenced and proliferated within institutions of higher learning, in the popular media, and by influential cultural elites.
Spirituality shaped by cultural relevance
The second strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form within churches that enthusiastically and unreservedly seek to move with the times. In a fast changing world, the race toward relevance has resulted in significant changes not just of the external forms of church, but also in the inner nature and character of its accompanying spirituality.
A metaphor that aptly describes the church in a changing world is “a young person with white hair.” For the church to remain relevant in every generation, its external form needs to be renewed and adapted.
Equally, for the church to remain faithful to its roots, it cannot lose fundamental aspects of its character to the forces of change. In their quests for relevance however, some adaptive churches have began to take on a character that is best described as “young person with colored hair.”
The slowness to recognize the extent to which cultural influences have become mixed in and rooted in the church today is paralleled in the way coffee is served and drunk today. In its most basic and unadulterated form, coffee is served black. In many popular coffee chains however, coffee is served as flavored Frappuccinos.
In the contemporary consciousness, coffee is an appealing beverage only because of the sweeten flavors of Frappuccino, and not because of the coffee per se. Presented with the alternatives of a cup of black coffee and a Frappuccino containing only coffee essence, it would not be surprising if some insist that the Frappuccino was proper coffee while at the same time rejecting the real thing.
This muddle finds parallel in the church today and is observable in many successful, fast growing churches and their fan bases. In David Wells’ words, these churches “appear to be succeeding, not because they are offering an alternative to our modern culture, but because they are speaking with its voice, mimicking its moves.”
Quite unlike the first strand of spirituality described which challenges the church from without, this second strand and its growing popularity challenges the church from within and is rooted in a consumer-driven posture of the heart.
Spirituality shaped by commitment to follow Christ
If the first strand of spirituality is decoupled from God and religion while the second an embodiment of trending socio-cultural influences, a third strand is marked by a deep commitment to know and follow Christ. In a crowded, noisy world with a supermarket of spiritualities on offer, this strand stands apart and requires special attention and intentional cultivation.
The call to follow Christ is always issued amidst rival and competing voices.
In addition, when recognized, the call provokes differing degrees of receptivity. The call invites all to recognize the identity of Christ as king of the universe and head of the church. It bids all to enter into a discipleship relationship with the Master.
Finally, it summons all to appropriate the benefits of his sacrificial death on the cross, the power of his resurrection over sin and death, and the offer of hope both in this life and the next.
What animates a spirituality shaped by a commitment to Christ is the passionate desire to follow him and to imitate his ways. This deep yearning and ambition is clearly exampled in the life of the apostle Paul who modeled his life after Christ and called others to follow in the same spirit (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 2 Thess. 3:9).
Rodney Reeves comments on the core elements of this Christ-centered, life-altering spirituality embraced by Paul:
Since the gospel was more than a set of beliefs–it was a way of life–Paul believe his life revealed the gospel of Jesus Christ: he was crucified with Christ, he was buried with Christ and he was raised with Christ. Participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ was the template of Paul’s spirituality.
Spirituality shaped by commitment to Christ builds on the decision to follow him and grows toward maturity by pursuing the things Christ calls his disciples to become and live for.
Evidence of this strand of spirituality would include repentance from wrong doing, daily dying to self, embodying a spirit of service and sacrifice, demonstrating trust and dependence on God, and possessing a concern for the things that matter to the Master. It upholds its integrity by resisting dilution and domestication of the gospel and by understanding that following Christ is not like bringing a puppy back home for personal amusement.
Bringing a puppy home requires some adjustment in personal lifestyle but still preserves a person’s status as the puppy’s master. Following Christ however is better conceived as bringing a new master home.
That being the case, followers will need to note the adjustments in lifestyles, behaviors, and thinking that Christ demands of all aspects and arenas of life. Having it any other way would be tantamount to preserving the rhetoric of following Christ while failing to uphold the reality in practice. It would be to advance the great irony of following Christ on one’s own terms, not on His terms.
The world we live in today is a world of global flows, shifting boundaries, and porous walls. It is a world where our community, congregation members and children are exposed to different forms of spirituality. It is also in the context of this world that Christians are called to develop authentic Christian spirituality.
Perhaps the invitation to develop authentic Christian spirituality in such as world can be compared to how fish we eat is served to us. If developing Christian spirituality in an era past can be compared to being served fish with bones removed, developing Christian spirituality in the present age can only be compared to being served fish with bones on.
Eating becomes an exercise of wisdom and good judgment. Under such conditions, it is necessary to discern what is beneficial, to distinguish from what needs to be spit out, and to know how to aid casualties along the way.
Dr Calvin Chong is Associate Professor, Educational Ministries at the Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.