Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Spiritual Narcissism


The North American church is thoroughly enculturated. In other words, it is little more than a mirror image of the dominant culture that is governed by market economy, consumerism, and individualism. The market driven consumerism is necessarily self-centered. Consequently, much of North American Christianity is self-centered.

Evidence of this may be found at a typical worship service on any given Sunday in a typical Protestant church. It doesn’t matter if you visit a main line or independent evangelical congregation. You’re likely to hear prayers, hymns, and a sermon that are much more about who the people are, their needs, and what God wants for them. It is a rare congregation that focuses its worship on the holy, triune God. Rather, enculturated worship focuses upon making the people have a good, pleasant experience that “feeds” them and leaves them feeling good about themselves and their church.

One of my favorite writers, Mark Galli, has written another excellent article that addresses the unfortunate and challenging reality of “spiritual narcissism” that permeates much of North American Christianity. You can read it here: “Am I Growing Yet?”

Accompanying Galli’s article is an online survey provided by Christianity Today asking people how satisfied they are with how their congregation helps them with spiritual growth. The vast majority of people of poll respondents express dissatisfaction with how their congregation helps them to grow spiritually.

I’m convinced that if we took a similar poll among only United Methodists we will find a similar result. And yet, we have at our disposal today the very best resources for Christian spiritual formation in the history of the church. We have the most educated clergy and laity in the history of Christianity. And yet, people are dissatisfied with how their church helps them to grow spirituality. What does that tell you?

It tells me that while we have great resources available, we don’t know how to use them. Very few congregations offer a systematic process of catechesis. They do not require all members to participate in a catechetical process as part of their membership responsibilities. In fact, most congregations have such low requirements and expectations of membership that there spiritual growth is a benefit rather than an responsibility. I’m convinced this unfortunate reality is a consequence of the North American Protestant church being a dispenser of cheap, rather than costly responsible, grace.

7 Comments:

Blogger PamBG said...

Two sincere questions:

1) Isn't saying 'My church isn't giving me spiritual growth to my satisfaction' somewhat narcisstic in itself?

2) I'd like to understand what people mean when they talk about 'God-centred worship'? To me, it draws pictures of taking a biblical text and expounding on that text and counting as irrelevent the events going on in people's lives outside of church. When an elderly person is trying to come to terms with his or her life and is struggling honestly with what he or she believes in God, is that 'narcsisstic'?

People use these code-phrases without fleshing them out and I sometimes wonder if we could be saying 'Amen!' to concepts that are actually 180 degrees in opposition.

Thanks for your consideration.

5:50 PM

 
Blogger Steven Manskar said...

Pam,

Thanks very much for the comments. I'll try to respond to your excellent questions:

1. Yes, the statement you refer to is narcissistic. That is, if its context is that of a self-centered spirituality. If, however, it is made from the expectation that spiritual growth is derived from service with others as witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world, then it may be an expression of real disappointment and a genuine desire to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The problem most churches face today is they do a poor job at meeting the expectations of spiritual narcissists and meeting the needs of those seeking genuine discipleship.

2. My understanding of "God-centered" worship is worship that is focused on the living, triune God revealed in Scripture. This is, after all, what worship is intended to be. When "God-centered" worship is well planned and lead it can't help but help the congregation experience the intersection of their lives with the divine. Such worship must make clear that the God who is creator, who took on human flesh and blood, and lives in us as Holy Spirit is active and real in the world, and in the lives of real people, seeking to reconcile, heal, and make whole. The God we worship is not out there at a distance, but is active in the world inviting us (the church) to join with Christ in his work of preparing this planet for his coming reign.

Well, that's my stab at answering your questions. I hope that helps. Thanks for your interest and for your ministry.

Steve

2:16 PM

 
Blogger PamBG said...

My understanding of "God-centered" worship is worship that is focused on the living, triune God revealed in Scripture.

I think that this is where I get lost. Maybe it's a cultural thing; I don't know. I have no reason to think that UK churches are any 'better' than US ones.

By all accounts, we in the UK are worse and more apostate because we have lost so many more members than US churches. And we've lost members - I am told - because we have stuck to our old ways of worshipping. If we were worshipping the triune God in the 1960s and we're not now and nothing about our worship has changed (which it hasn't and I'm not sure that's a good thing), how did it happen that we stopped worshipping the triune God? We think we're worshipping the triune God. How does one accidently stop doing that?

I feel confused by all these formula. Tonight at church council meeting, I heard a story about how 20 young people (in their early 20s) left the church about ten years ago because they were told 'join and accept the responsibility of membership or leave', so they left.

5:41 PM

 
Blogger John said...

I'm a little more skeptical. I sense a lot more "Lord, make me chaste -- but not yet!" Christians may want more spiritual maturity, but many of those who say that they do, I think are not interested in the hard road there.

I've learned a bit the hard way that people may want sermons against sin, but they might not want sermons against specific sins.

8:02 AM

 
Blogger PamBG said...

John, I'd actually agree with you. I think people want to hear sermons against sins they aren't committing.

In the UK we are beating ourselves up for having stuck pretty much to traditional liturgy and we're blaming our decline on not having adapted to post-modern culture. Which suggests to me that Trinitarian worship isn't a magic solution.

House groups have always been a feature of UK church life and, as both you and Stephen imply, there is less and less enthusiasm for meeting in these smaller groups. This is now a minority sport.

Our churches are also a lot smaller than US churches and if I kicked everyone out who didn't participate in a house group, then there would be no-one left. Stephen might say that's good for the Church universal and the faithful remnant, but is it really a good thing for people to be kicked out of a church? I was kicked out of one myself and it took me over 20 years - by the grace of God - to come back to the church.

I'm not claiming any easy answers. But this is a complicated question. I have to convinct myself too; I'm not living Jesus' commandments to the full either, because of my own weakness.

8:40 AM

 
Blogger Beautiful Feet said...

I believe that we cannot eat meat until we have our fill of milk - we cannot mature until we are able to be immature in the face of a loving and gracious God, and often, there are stumbling blocks (sin) that keep the milk from filling and nourishing us. We have issues with being small, needy and childlike so never get our thirst for grace quenched. Without that, we remain starved and in need, seeking that which lies readily available for us. We cannot offer the good news of grace until we have become broken and received it from God first.

The mustard seed is small and immature - when it is planted, it is not peaceful - it upsets the status quo. Y'shua explained this when He says that when the truth comes, we will proclaim hatred for our own family - we begin to see the difference between the Way God loves and the way that we have been taught. How many times does this truth get punished and driven down when it is brought to light? But, given the proper dose of grace, we grow and progress to love (truly love) even our enemies. When the truth is safe we grow to love by God's Spirit and embrace it without fear - it becomes the foundation. Without it, one cannot punish, goad or criticize people into growing.

Thanks.

7:51 PM

 
Blogger Dave's Bible Blog said...

Hi Steven,

Good article. I relate it to an excellent book I've recently read again. Bonhoeffer's "Cost of Discipleship". Your entry reminds me of his treatment of "cheap" and "costly" grace.

I found your site while searching for images that would work well with my blog post yesterday. I love the picture above "It's All About Me". I placed it on my blog at www.wordtraveler.org. Are you the artist or do you know who is? I want to give credit to the right source.

You can reach me at dave.scriven@verizon.net or post on my blog.

Thanks, brother.
Dave

9:42 AM

 

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