Thursday, March 31, 2022

Why Are We So Unsatisfied?

A few days ago I offered readers a chance to comment on the subject of their level of satisfaction with their church experiences. To say the least, response was underwhelming. We had plenty of readers of that post, but none who took us up on our offer.

Two possibilities follow: (1) readers are so content with their church experiences that they have no point of contact with the article, or (2) readers do not feel comfortable speaking on this subject.

I’m guessing it’s (2). The chances of (1) don’t seem great to me. I say that because I’ve probably been in more local congregations than most people will ever see in their lives, and everywhere I find a common level of discontentment — not a boiling resentment or simmering rebellion, mind you; rather an ongoing willingness to stay attached to the church coupled with an underlying restlessness, a sort of nagging dissatisfaction with the status quo that never rises to the level of anxiety but rarely allows believers to feel entirely fulfilled. Nothing horrendously wrong, but nothing much really right either.

A sort of luke-warmness, if you will.

The Necessity of Participation

Well, don’t say I didn’t give you your chance. You might know I’d have a take on this. I’ve never been one to leave a stage, a pulpit or an unclaimed stump free for long.

The problem for our “postmodern” evangelical situation today is that having a living, vibrant Christian faith actually requires personal participation. In contrast, denominational religion, which relies on clergy, is ever obliged to create artificial systems of ritual and religious performance in order to encourage individual engagement with the religion. But personal Christianity by definition cannot include such stratagems, because those things undermine personal engagement. The individual Christian must himself be employed in a personal spiritual mission — ideally according to his particular gift, but in any case a focused effort to serve — live in private obedience, study the Word, pray, witness and worship.

Now, the minute he allows himself to rest without such a mission he begins to find abatement of his ability to absorb, process and assimilate theology into his worldview and practice. He has no reason to pay attention, and no structure around which to organize his spiritual learning. He is adrift on a sea of vague religiosity, with no destination for the voyage and no way to separate the urgent from the peripheral.

Doctrine, then, becomes intellectual distraction rather than needed information, and the manner in which he processes doctrine is more akin to the way he processes television shows than the way he finds the knowledge he needs in daily life.

Get This

Here’s the key principle for today’s evangelical Christian: the more closely his learning is tied to his own lifestyle and his own personal practices, the more he will truly absorb and the more urgent his learning will seem to him. The more they are separated, the vaguer, the more pointless and unsatisfying the whole exercise of being a Christian will become.

Where We’ve Come From

Historically, all evangelical churches have presumed a high degree of personal involvement on the part of the individual Christian. Many have resisted interposing clergy and ritual for theological reasons: neither clergy nor ritual is a New Testament concept. Even the Lord’s Supper, which is a biblically-essential collective activity, is not a ritual but rather a sort of minimal, symbolic reminder devoid of “special magic” and given to the disciples in common (at a time when no church yet existed) as a memorial for all Christians, in groups of any size. It is collective, it’s true: but responsibility for joining in it devolves purely on the obedience of the individual believer, who is also charged with examining his or her own conscience and commemorating the Savior accordingly.

As for other matters, such as the nurture of Christian children, exercise of spiritual gifts, knowledge of the Word, personal obedience and public witness, right-thinking Christians have always emphasized the personal, individual responsibility to attend to all of these; and anyone who substituted some formal or bureaucratic alternative for any of these has deadened his own spiritual life and slid down into spiritual lethargy. And, as I once heard the illustrious Shawn A. wryly observe, when such unfocused individuals assemble for any church purpose, they are really more like the congregation described in Acts 19:32 — “some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together”.

Where We’re At

Serious practical consequences also devolve upon the abandoning of the battle against clergy and ritual. Today, having yielded territory in significant ways — appointing clergy and allowing practices to become ritualized, if not formally declared as rituals — we Christians no longer find either the energy or opportunity for actions of personal piety, worship, service and evangelism. In consequence, a good many come to have no meaningful spiritual lives at all.

Of course, not everyone knows this is the bargain they’ve made. Those evangelicals who do not hail from any sort of Christian background but were rather saved out of another or even a secular context tend simply to be immensely grateful to the Lord and happy to be among Christians. In the absence of either teaching or modeling to the contrary, these believers are not well taught enough to even recognize that the church is not what it should be. Usually they are comparatively content despite the current state of general spiritual weakness, and feel less restlessness than long-term Christians do, simply because they have no idea of how much better things ought to be. They accept things like rituals, programs, clergy and the separation of spiritual life from actual life as necessary, since they know no other way of being Christian. In fact, they sometimes bridle at the very suggestion that anything is wrong with the church, and would rather “shoot the messenger” than believe that their spiritual lives are less fulfilling than they could and should be.

A Dead Stick

Either way, the reality is that the inactive and impersonal “spiritual” life is simply a dead stick. Since it lacks all of the normal functions, opportunities and experiences that produce authentic spiritual nourishment and growth, it’s just not fulfilling. Being a Christian becomes draining, not inspiring or energizing. And the only way to compensate for the shortcomings of such a life is to supplement it with a whole lot of artificial human arrangements.

So to service this dead stick we have institutionalized the church, substituting clergy for individual giftedness, programs for personal involvement, professional evangelism for witness, singing sessions for actual worship, buildings for churches, and mass-management techniques for personal commitment. And I suggest this is the source of our current angst-ridden drifting, which many of us now accept as a permanent spiritual condition.

Compensating for our basic spiritual emptiness induces us to produce greater and greater clerical fireworks, more disciplined ritual obligations, more elaborate administrative structures and more impressive feats of pseudo-spiritual entertainment, all to substitute for personal spiritual life. However, such measures have the unfortunate property of demanding high levels of effort and yielding very little spiritual nourishment. So we drain ourselves in the service of these efforts, never quite finding adequate benefit to restore the energy we have expended.

Hence the “vampire” effect.

Any Hope?

This is the bind the churches are presently in. Today, there is some cry for renewal of a deeper and more satisfying spiritual life, but I observe that there is still little practical readiness to respond. Few people are making their spiritual lives genuinely personal. In consequence, there is a general malaise, coupled with a seemingly inevitable drift toward denominational forms of religious behavior.

And when will we ever become tired enough to do something about it? When will we care enough to rise up and kill the “vampire church” and genuinely renew ourselves in obedience to the Lord?

Only when that vague sense of angst and misery becomes intense enough are we actually likely to do something about it. And the starting point is admitting what our real problem is.

We are not making our spiritual lives our real lives. We’re not taking our faith personally.


  1. Often, when I experience a lack of satisfaction with my local church, it's because of my own low spiritual state. No, I'm not saying this is true for everyone; just saying that it is true for myself.

    My own emotional state can also affect my perception of the local church. It could be true that there are some things which are sub-optimal, but looking around at the ecclesiastical wreckage that defines many churches, there isn't much that is wrong. But it *feels* like the sub-optimal is hard to bear with.

    But even the sub-optimal comes back to me. I want my local church to be a "gospel saturated" church, where the people are constantly involved in evangelistic activities, joyfully and naturally sharing their faith. And yet I myself do not live up to the standard by which I judge the local church.

    You were underwhelmed by the response to your original article. I'm underwhelmed by me.

    1. Aw, Shawn, that's a kind and generous-spirited sentiment, one that does you credit and is a good example to us all.

      At the same time, though, would it be true to say "I" am flawed but "we" are perfect? If it is humble and reasonable to have a critical eye to oneself, does that mean we ought to give the church a free pass?

      I can't see why. If the individual needs to examine himself, I think he needs to examine the collective as well. I'm thinking of the messages to the churches in Revelation: there we find some remarks to individuals, but mostly critical statements about the conditions of the church as a local collective. And the Head of the Church appears to exhort believers there to be aware not just of their private faults but also of the shape of their collective life, and to be responsible for both.

      To be sure, repentance should begin at home, with self-examination, just as you so humbly propose. At the same time, I think it must not stop there. We need to ask not just "How am I doing?" but also "How are *we* doing?" and to do both for the sake of Christ, as I'm sure you agree.

    2. Yes, the local church should examine itself. We should do so as a congregation, our Elders should also engage in this exercise, and those who are gifted by the Spirit to exhort might have a special word for the local church. Ultimately, this could lead to revival. Dare we hope?

      However, examining ourselves as a local church can degenerate into a couple people sitting around Starbucks complaining about everything they don't like about their local church. Looking inward and judging ourselves first helps prevent healthy examination of the local church from becoming a judgmental exercise. Also, when we judge ourselves, we should be more strict with ourselves, while bearing with the faults of others.

      Again, just my two cents.

    3. And yet also good cents. :)

      The two things...the state of the individual Christian and the state of the congregation as a whole...are often linked. But sometimes they're not. I'm thinking again of Revelation 3:20 -- "if anyone hears...and will open the door...I will come in and dine with him." Apparently in Laodicea there could be individuals who were in a state for fellowship with the Lord, though the assembly as a whole was in a very sorry state, and the Lord was looking for those individuals capable of discerning what was wrong to step up and do the right thing.

      I agree we don't want to crab about the local church unnecessarily, and we certainly would be hypocritical to crab about it when we were contributing to the problem ourselves. Still, there are such things as genuine corporate or systemic problems that are not the fault of every individual.

      We're not told whether the discerning, obedient individual Christian can, by himself, do enough to remedy such a situation; but if the congregation as a unit is going to change its course I am not sure how it would happen another way...unless, perhaps, we are to expect a sudden corporate spiritual miracle of repentance and renewal without any particular person saying anything.

  2. "In contrast, denominational religion, which relies on clergy, is ever obliged to create artificial systems of ritual and religious performance in order to encourage individual engagement with the religion."

    As a Catholic guest on this site I am deliberately staying out of being engaged in what I perceive to be uniquely protestant (evangelical?) concerns. Sometimes I think though that clarification should be added when there may be misconceptions (from my perspective) concerning aspects that also involve Catholicism. My, and my wife's, background here is that we are practicing Catholics, for many years were CCD teachers (after church religious ed. program) and published an ecumenical news bulletin and attended and arranged ecumenical functions for local churches (all Christian denominations) in our community. These times have petered out now and we are retired from this activity for quite a while. On occasion, my wife still takes part time work in local Catholic schools.

    Now, you can see that ecumenism is one of the reasons why I am hanging out here, and the other is simply a personal interest of mine in what I consider to be a great peculiarity of the human situation. This is that, in spite of the fact that humans are capable of logic and developing logical and rational arguments, they seem to be unable to come to similar conclusions even when logic dictates that the argument with the greater truth value (greater probability of correctness) should be accepted. That led me to participate in philosophical arguments (in a philosophy forum) where I met IC, then this blog, and where I like the intelligent and well-mannered discussion of a variety of topics with the emphasis on Christian living and perspective.

    Now, with regard to the quote at the top, I would like to suggest that it seems to be a misperception on part of the Protestant community about how, for example, the Catholic sees and practices their faith. Firstly, most all peoples are born into or have grown into a religious practice and, due to simple inertia and complacency, do not find their current environment something they question or think about to any serious extent. The fact that priests officiate the religious service and are the lead in the Catholic mass is thought to be natural and appropriate. The Catholic mass has been around forever, and except for slight changes in verbiage (and I love that Latin is gone) is not seen as an "artificial system of ritual and religious performance" that constantly needs to be recreated. The idea, as proposed by IC, that this, to the true Christian, should be a concern would simply be met with astonishment by the Catholic. And, of course, given the historical differences this attitude should be apparent to anyone without having to think twice about it. To me, to the Catholic, the reverse, and the greater likelihood, would be the case that a priest should be present to officiate the mass and act as intermediary AND IMPLEMENTER of the transubstantiation of communion into the body of Christ, which is the central purpose of the Catholic mass. Heck, otherwise anyone can appoint themselves to be a priest and claim to perform that function, but by whose authority? It is perfectly logical that the authority cannot be usurped and must be passed on through the chain starting with the apostles as priests (they are that when performing that function).

    So, I would fret a lot less about the fact that priests play a role in a religious community setting. I would agree with the concern about modern apathy and distraction to the religious community (in all Christian denominations), which, in my opinion, is due mostly to our current environment of the modern society. It is that environment, now shaped more and more by the secularist, the repudiation of which, on a private and public level, needs to be addressed by the commitment of the believer in Christ.

    1. Qman, I'm very intrigued by your post and the way you describe aspects of the Catholic church in relationship to IC's post.

      First, let me say that my church background is/was originally Southern Baptist (not reformed) and has moved to 1st Assembly or full gospel, for lack of a better description. My questions for you in trying to understand the Catholic faith, I have several catholic friends BTW, is to try and square what Jesus came to do and what he tells us to do.

      The bible tells us that Jesus became a God man to take the place of the law and all the ritualistic arrogance of the tent/temple/tabernacle. Jesus' main theme was to have all men to "follow me." Any time Jesus spoke to the "priests" of that day, he made an example of them to teach us to reject that type of worship. My bible tells me that when Jesus went to the cross, the veil was torn so that I didn't need any human intermediation any longer. I can approach the Throne of God anytime and any where I choose to worship. I'm stating my point terribly, but my point is that as you state it's not, I believe the Catholic church IS an "artificial system of ritual and religious performance. They instituted within the last 500 years, if my memory serves my correctly, some sort of money collection system based on having an intermediate/priest pray a lost soul closer to heaven. Am I wrong about this practice? If I'm not, where does Jesus speak of this phenomenon?

      Secondly and lastly, I've always wondered when does the Catholic become "born again'? I'm sure you're familiar with Jesus' teaching that to see the Kingdom of Heaven we must die once and be reborn. When does that life changing experience happen to the Catholic? Please don't insult me by stating the infant baptism in some way accomplishes this. I seriously want to understand how we can read the same verses and get such an acutely different understanding of what Christ died for and how we worship.

      Thanks in advance for your response.

    2. My thought has never been to address the Catholic experience here, Qman.

      I recognize that the differences between the evangelical world and it are substantial. If any part of what I have been expressing as the common experience of contemporary evangelicals is "met with astonishment by the Catholic," I am not surprised. The whole suppositional framework upon which their church activities is based are quite different, as I am happy to concede.

      I also could have been writing about how evangelicals could look to have an impact on the secular world, as you suggest at the end. But again, that was not my concern of the moment.

      It is quite possible that the phenomenon that is described in the "vampire churches" article is entirely undetectable outside of evangelicalism. In fact, it would be unlikely to be a problem anywhere except where a) the Bible is regarded as an exclusive source of authority, b) there is a belief in the equality, giftedness and priesthood of all believers, and hence c) the welfare of the church is dependent on the extent to which the "priests" in question, i.e. the believers, actualize their priesthoods by actively pursuing obedience to their Authority on an ongoing basis.

      Admittedly, this does limit the relevance of my comments to evangelicals. But in this case, I was not really anticipating making any statement about anything beyond that realm.

      Your comments, though, are helpful. In light of them, I accept at face value that Catholicism does not perceive the problem the same way.

    3. Hi Micah, I certainly appreciate that you are committed in your faith and it is not my intention to even try and change that.
      Also, the internet is a much better resource concerning some of the fine points that separate the various Christian denominations. See my comments along those lines in the link below, where one of the links I provided gives more detail concerning the differences between Protestants and Catholics.

      The way I see it, we are both confronted with a very significant problem, or challenge, and also puzzle, that seems obvious to me and that I am curious about. Namely, it occurs to me that the main player in this Christian denominational scenario is really God himself, isn't he? My interpretation is that he could, with the stroke of a pen if you will, simply clarify everything to everyone's satisfaction. Our responsibility here is to figure out why he is not doing that and obviously try to solve that puzzle that he has set before us. In other words, he expects something from us concerning all this and he probably thinks that we should be able to do that and in a way that would be for our greater good and meets his approval. Now, I am trying to do some figuring here by examining of where human logic can and should take us and what the reasons might be why it very often does not seem to do that. By redoing the arguments that resulted in the Protestant reformation we will probably not be able to accomplish that. Do you have any suggestions?

  3. I actually don't have any suggestions because when I ask specific and pointed questions such as the one about being reborn, Catholics invariably ignore or obfuscate the subject. It's only the central tenet of all of Christianity, bar none. Christ teaches us to be obedient and insists that we be reborn spiritually by way of that touchy 3rd description of God, the Holy Spirit to enter the Kingdom.

    I believe Luther has a valid point and I also think if anyone reads Bonhoeffer's teaching about true faith and obedience, they will have to realize something doesn't compute between the Sword of the Spirit and the RCC.

    Qman, have you been born again?

    1. Micah, let me be a bit clearer then. I am not interested here to get involved in arguments that have gone back and forth for centuries and I feel I would have little luck of reversing or influencing the outcome of what happened with Luther splitting from the Catholic church. The reverse applies to you as well, you know (probably) that Catholic teaching is different in many respects and I assume you understand that you will not change a Catholic's mind in that regard either. So, what I was asking you is, given your and my belief that God is real and that he is fully aware of human affairs, how would he want us to address these situations in a Christian, practical, and manageable way. Evidently, he is letting this thing go on. So ask yourself, what would he expect us to do? Obviously, I have some ideas, one of them being my participation in this blog so that we can get to know each other better. Another idea or thought I have is that God may not be pleased with a solution where we simply put people into two camps, those who are saved based on the Protestant notion of being born again and those who are therefore not saved. My guess (based on my probability estimate) is he would find usurping his judgment somewhat presumptuous. If you can agree with that, then, my question was, how does one proceed instead? Many people may have different answers to that. It is also fine if, as you said, you do not have one.

  4. Oh I definitely have an answer for the "what would he(God) expect us to do" question. How about this, obey what my Son says and since my Son says you must be "born again" then human common sense should tell you that's what I want as well.

    I'm also not interested in arguing about what men say or believe. I'm interested in discussing what Jesus said and why it is the RCC don't believe what he says applies to them. It's baffling really and based on your response I'm of the opinion that you don't believe the bible or doubt the words Jesus spoke or both.

    Also, it seems you have difficulty believing in free will. That's what God allowed all the way back to the garden. He "is letting this thing go on" because I believe He feels like it's a pretty simple prospect of reading comprehension. God sent His Son to clear up the confusion men caused, but you still insist on following men. Your religion insists on elevating sinful men into positions they can't possibly uphold simply because the are human men.

    Qman, listen to Jesus. Please. Don't expect what you think Peter built to get you to heaven. Expect the risen Savior to guide you.

  5. Micah, I appreciate your concern with regard to the state of my eternal wellbeing. I take you seriously, since I read some of your comments and I think you are sincere. As far as my being born again, you must realize that that it less prominent in the Catholic tradition, although it is there as a result of baptism. So in a sense, I can't go wrong here since I meet Protestant criteria (faith in Christ) and Catholic ones (baptism). I do not mean to be flippant here but I do have a sense of humor, and btw I absolutely know that God also has one.

    With regard to the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), I have not detected any significant bias on this Protestant site, which is in accord with my and my wife's personal experience as lay ecumenical organizers in our community for a number of years. As I mentioned in another comment, we published an ecumenical newsletter/bulletin distributed to all local Christian churches and denominations (Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian). We never encountered vitriol, indifference or unkindness, frequently organized social functions and meetings, attended their services and saw that there often was cheerful reciprocity.

    Here is some information and a resource concerning the fact that America was founded by Protestants for Protestants and the resulting conflicts, biases, maltreatment, and misunderstanding of Catholics when they arrived starting with the Irish.

    It is because of my experience therefore, besides loving the philosophical argument so well expounded by IC and, as I now realize, by Tom as well, that stimulates my curiosity and motivates me to hang around here every once in a while. There are of course plenty of Catholic sites to visit as well and I am beginning to notice that they are starting to address some very serious and unsettling issues of vital interest to all Christians mostly due to the kind of times we now live in. See this article for example in Crisis magazine.

    Who Will Rescue the Lost Sheep of the Lonely Revolution?


    Therefore, based on what I see and hear in the news I have come to the conclusion that Christians, if they want to survive as such, better start circling the wagons, rather than acting in a way that Christ recommended against, namely that a house divided against itself cannot stand or succeed. Or, would you suggest that today's atheist/agnostic should not question why someone would expect them to believe in a religion and a God that cannot even take care of their own affairs in a generous and effective spirit?

    Here is my suggestion on how to proceed. There is one basic Christian tenet and quality that is an anchor of the faith and that is the supreme moral teaching of the Bible and Christ. Christ is at the top of the moral information pyramid and no one is qualified to take his place. And this is true even in the secular sphere where Judeo Christian tradition dominates, even subliminally, whether atheists want it or not. This moral teaching can therefore be what the wagons can be circled around to defend. The procedural and bureaucratic material, which Christ was not in favor of, can then be left for negotiation and compromise to the various church leadership negotiators and compromisers.

    So, I will conclude now with one additional suggestion. I will not add to this thread any further, so that, if you choose to respond you will have the last word. I am not disinclined to discuss further aspects of Catholicism, if they interest you, in other threads but would suggest that a Friday Too Hot to Handle is used for that. The problem would be, of course, that I would be somewhat limited as a lay person in what I could contribute. So, the internet would still be your preferred resource.