One of the biggest challenges facing contemporary progressive spiritual communities is that a major paradigm shift has to take place around our reasons for and methods of gathering. When we move beyond the notion that we have to worship in order to appease and angry God who is just waiting to zap us with a lightening bolt from on high it doesn’t take very long before we begin to question why we are worshipping. The answer that religion has proposed is that we need to worship for ourselves, that human beings have a need to worship. If church attendance is any measure of the truth of that proposal it seems to indicate that it is false – but perhaps failure to identify with worship isn’t the only problem. It may not even be the biggest problem.
Do we need Church in the way it exists today in most places? Do we need the building with the parking lot, the committees, the collection plates, the building fund, the building maintenance fund, the payments to the regional office, the board meetings that mimic the worst of office politics, and the family dysfunction that almost always plays out in congregational life? Do we need the power and control game that is so contrary to the life, teachings, and example of Jesus but always manifests in religious gatherings? Are these things even a part of the practice of ones religion, or are they human games that we pile on top of religion?
In my visits to faith communities of various types and in various settings, I have come to realize that the much of the less than desireable behavior that those of us raised in the Christian tradition have seen also occurs as groups of Western Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, Jews, and Native Spiritualites gather. The negativity is a function of the systems we have established and our expectations within them, not of the spiritualities themselves. In other words, we Westerners have taken our toxic behavior within Christian Churches and carried them to other religions as we have left Christianity for supposedly greener pastures. That means that, to a certain extent, we can do all of the great work we want to do in reshaping Christianity but that it will fail if we don’t redefine business as usual in spiritual community. In fact, the very word “business” may be the heart of the problem.
A healthy spiritual community engages in stewardship, but stewardship is not the primary reason a spiritual community exists. A healthy spiritual community has to transact some business such as paying the rent and utilities, but transacting business is not the primary reason a spiritual community exists. A healthy spiritual community may well worship, but worship is not the primary reason a spiritual community exists. The primary reason a spiritual community exists is to facilitate the spiritual growth of its members. In fact, I would say that if you aren’t doing a good job of nuturing the spirituality of your members you either need to find a way to do so or else disband your community.
The reason that people behave so poorly in the church is that the church has allowed its focus to shift from spiritual growth to a business model. Under such a model people will naturally bring behaviors which may be considered appropriate in business and start using them in the church, where they aren’t. When we succeed in making spirituality the center of community life then our practices will change as well.
It is one of the primary tasks of an effective spiritual leader to continue to call the peoples’ attention back to the the truth that all people with who we interact are beloved of God and deserve to be treated as such. The sad truth of most spiritual communities is that they have allowed models and motivations other than spirituality to drive their behavior. When people protest that treating people ethically and with due love and consideration isn’t efficient or effective they are reflecting the lack of spiritual focus in the community. To those who continue to complain that such a vision isn’t practical, we need to redirect them to Jesus and remind them that Jesus didn’t care about efficiency or practicality, he cared about loving God and loving our neighbor – something there is precious little of in most churches today. Perhaps that’s why they are so empty.