More Than Meeting Our Connection

posted by R. Fowler White

The excesses of the Great Awakening appealed to those who lived for emotional highs. Arguably, that appeal has mutated and grown over generations into a degrading decline of the visible church. What do I mean?

It seems that lots of folks still look at church as a place to go to satisfy their desire for a weekly high, and we gravitate to speakers who get us or keep us inspired or motivated. Don’t get me wrong: inspiration and motivation are not bad, unless the inspiring and motivating content sounds like little more than a fix to get or stay high. What I mean is that it’s arguable that, especially since the 1960s, the fix being sought and offered has become linked with maintaining either or both of two emotional states. There’s the high of what has been called personal peace, an anxiety-free state in which “I’m ok” is combined with “It’ll all be ok.” But there’s also the high of what we could identify as constant outrage, an anger-stoked state in which “I’m ok but you’re not if we disagree on anything.” It seems useful, then, to listen to folks to learn why they come to our church gatherings, if and when they come at all. Do they come to recharge or alter their emotional state?

To be sure, not everyone gathers at our churches to satisfy these desires. There are certainly listeners and speakers who have determined to do something different. They’ve carefully chosen to make sure that the whole of their souls is engaged: that is, for our purposes, they’ve recognized the need to have their mind, affections, and will addressed. In fact, they’ve also been careful to see that the will and the affections are engaged through the mind. Whether hearers or speakers, they never bypass the mind; the whole soul is engaged.

Now, of course, we might ask, what is the effect of deliberately taking a detour around the mind? When we take a shortcut around the mind to appeal directly to the emotions and the will, what happens? Well, in a manner of speaking, the excesses of the Great Awakening happen. More specifically, that detour creates souls that are unhealthy and weak, unable to withstand winds of deception and error, even disabled from resisting waves of temptation. It’s like trying to get to adulthood by living only on pablum and baby formula instead of solid food. Maturing to adulthood requires a diet of solid food, so that we develop the capacities to recognize, desire, and choose what’s true, right, and good. Spiritual adulthood won’t happen any other way.

So, I ask myself, am I shaped by the conviction that I must (note: must) do something other than stay free of anxiety or stoked on anger, do something other than alter my emotional state? Do I have ears to hear speakers whom God uses to renew, transform, sanctify—dare I say, change—me by engaging my whole soul? Is my church seeking to placate, defend, or attract people who are seeking only to recharge or alter their emotional state? If we ask why our churches would do this, conceivably, it’s because they’ve slipped into conceiving of a local church as little more than a commercial enterprise. We can hear it in words like, “We’ve got to make sure that those in the pews are satisfied with the product we’re making available. After all, it’s the only way to achieve and maintain the critical mass of attendance and giving that’ll pay the bills and keep us open.” Arguably, such sentiments reveal that we’re still in the grip of, even addicted to, the excesses of the Great Awakening. “Church” has become degraded into a connection that sells folks a weekly fix, whether it gives them personal peace or stokes their outrage.

If our churches would gather and grow the saints, however, we have to do better, particularly in these evil days. Scripture offers a different vision of our church gatherings, doesn’t it? It’s more than meeting our churchly connection to get our weekly fix to sustain our anxiety-free or anger-stoked emotional state. Scripture offers a truly inspiring, motivating vision of renewal, growth, and edification. Converted as we are through hearing the elementary truths of the gospel, we gather to get our beliefs and behaviors in order according to the whole counsel of God. We gather to get transformed—even re-formed—with new habits of holiness, the better to know God and His will, to hear God’s gospel of forgiveness proclaimed, and to hear His law of love declared and applied to family, church, workplace, and society. Sign me up.

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