During my tenure as a coordinator of Christian education, I heard a lot from people about their hunger to know the Bible, so I hired professors from a nearby seminary and offered regular courses on the Old and New Testaments. People told me the descriptions sounded like just what they needed, but that was usually the last I saw of them. The classes were small and sporadically attended…. Yet every quarter, people asked for more Bible courses. They said they wanted more; they were not getting enough. So I offered more Bible and still no one came.
Finally I got the message. “Bible” was a code word for “God.” People were not hungry for information about the Bible; they were hungry for an experience of God, which the Bible seemed to offer them.
— Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life
The above quote was so insightful and helpful to me. At my church, we’ve spent years hearing people talk about wanting more “meat” or wanting to be “fed” more. When they say that, they often are thinking they need to feel cognitively challenged and stretched by information about the Bible or Theology.
And yet, as with Taylor’s experience above, we have led Bible Classes and even tours of our local archaeological museum to give insight, context, and content about the Bible to our people; we’ve held lectures on Reformed Theology, Worship, Justice, Social Issues, Women in Ministry, etc. And yet, few people come (in fact, no one at all came to the archaeology museum tour). What’s more, the people that do come to these sorts of things tend not to be the most vocal people crying out for “more”.
And yet, I completely understand why. What these people want is not so much the knowledge or the classes in general; they want these things specifically during the worship service, or more specifically, from the pulpit.
On one hand, this instinct is right on. The weekly gathering of the scattered people of God is indeed a holy space and time which intends to be the collision of mind, heart, soul, and body. To disconnect the deepest truths of our faith from the worship of God’s people is a danger we would do well to avoid.
But, on the other hand, two things come to mind.
First, “missionality” is not about lessening truths as much as it is making those truths comprehensible to those without the vocabulary to integrate the ideas into their everyday life. One can be faithful and “challenging” while not being academic.
Secondly, and more to the point, in our Western world full of podcasts, blogs, YouTube, and books, I don’t know that our truest hunger really is for more information. When people say they desire “more” in a worship service or sermon, I wonder if, after having spent lives immersed in a culture that equates self-growth and development with “more” (knowledge, books, exercise, conversations, information, and techniques), we’ve got the wrong idea about what we’re longing for.
The Christian idea of personal development is not so much about doing/being/learning more, but rather less. The hardest Christian discipline to cultivate is that of stopping, not necessarily going.
As Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”
But subtracting what? Not necessarily sin. Not necessarily ignorance of theological ideas. What Eckhart has in mind is the subtraction of self, noise, distraction, and all the good things in your life that tempt your heart away from your soul’s home.
It’s the subtraction of thoughts that you’re further away from God than you actually are.
So do “meaty” sermons really produce that kind of soul growth? Or is it more of a mental growth? Does it fill our heads with specialized knowledge that can make us feel like we have special “insight” or “ideas” about life and the divine that are unknown to those around us?
Could our desire for long, doctrinal sermons and worship services actually be a grab at privilege? And isn’t Christianity more about a denial of one’s privilege rather than grasping at it?
The Christian vision of growth and maturity is more about self-denial and self-giving. So when our souls are crying out in hunger as we go to Church services week-by-week (or hardly at all), I hope we can diagnose it well. What our hearts are really longing for is not more knowledge, bigger words, or even necessarily to feel “challenged”.
Our hearts hunger to be stripped away of all that stands between their own communion with God. They hunger to know the Ground of their Being. They hunger for grounding, wholeness, rest, and a fullness in life that is found in Christ and the Gospel in mission for the world–the very same Christ and Gospel that welcome people’s very first steps into the Kingdom of God.
What would churches look like if we started evaluating them on those terms, and not how “challenged”–intellectually, emotionally, or even morally–we might feel?