Does your church think that it has everything you will ever need to grow in faith?
Some do, and I have been a member of churches that sound like what psychologist David G. Benner describes below—holding on to members for dear life, thinking a move elsewhere is a step down and away from God’s presence. I have also been a part of churches that do not make that claim.
A number of years ago, for several reasons that we felt were very important for us, my family and I decided to move on from our church home. The church we left didn’t take it very well, feeling that they could and should be responsible with addressing whatever our needs were and that we should not sacrifice their biblical, sound teaching for any reason.
By contrast, I remember the pastor of our new church, without prompting, taking me to the side and saying, “You know Pete, some here are lifetime members. For others we are an oasis for a time of healing and renewal before they move on. You might only be here a while, and that’s O.K.”
I can’t tell you how reassuring and refreshing that comment was. We wound up staying there through a season of our lives, about 6 years in all.
In my opinion, what drives churches to think that they are equipped to give its members “everything that they needed for every stage of their spiritual journey,” as Benner puts it, is the false notion that “correct” thinking and theological certainty are the core values and goals of the Christian life, and that their particular tradition is best (or solely) equipped to provide them.
When that is the prevailing notion of the life of faith, it is no wonder why some churches have such difficulty letting go of their members.
A few years ago I was asked to assist a large church in exploring how they might introduce a contemplative component to their communal life. I was surprised by the invitation because, from what I knew of them by reputation, their culture was quite distant from anything contemplative.
While spending some time with their leadership, I discovered that they were primarily interested in contemplative practices because they were losing significant numbers of their most spiritually mature adherents to liturgical churches that had a more contemplative tradition.
When I asked why they wouldn’t feel gratified that they had been able to help people move to the stage of their journey where they could now benefit from something a little different, one of the senior pastors said, “I hate to use business terms, but the short answer is that we are concerned that we are losing our market share.”
Covering for him, another quickly added that of course they were concerned about the continuing spiritual growth of their members, not just the market share, and that they really believed that they were in the best position in the city to give people what they needed—and to give them everything that they needed for every stage of their spiritual journey.
I was quite taken aback by the arrogance this displayed but on reflection realized how typical their possessiveness of adherenets probably was. Perhaps what made them different from most other churches was simply their success in keeping as many people dependent on them for as long as they did. But many other churches undoubtedly share their assumption that they have everything their members and adherents could ever need spiritually. . . .
Nothing is harder for communities than to support members who feel a need to move beyond the community.
The healthiest communities of belonging do this well and therefore always remain an important part of the person who needs to move beyond them. The unhealthiest are those who perceive as failure the fact that they do not have everything that members need at every stage of their journey.
But this is simply taking the matter too personally. It is tribal functioning rather than truly communal functioning. Such groups need to get over themselves and see that communities exist for the support of others, not their control. Like enmeshed families or codependent marriages and partnerships, such communities fail to see the other as separate from themselves and to celebrate this fact and then help people achieve this differentiation in a healthy manner.
David G. Benner
Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation