In Ian Morgan Cron’s book Chasing Francis, (reviewed below) burned-out pastor Chase Falson calls his Uncle Kenny- A Franciscan priest- to begin his path of rediscovering his faith. His pilgrimage takes him through the world of Saint Francis and into a discovery of the faith-tradition of Catholicism. Falson returns to his evangelicalism with a rich appreciation for what that tradition offers to all Christians.
Falson is a product of the evangelical movement. The evangelism explosion of the s. Inter-Varsity. Baptist Seminaries. Church growth models. Purpose driven spirituality. Apologetics and theology with a rational answer for everything.
The accidental death of a child in his congregation exposes the cracks and deadness in his soul, and he falls apart. Looking around for a place to begin again, he remembers his uncle, who lost his family to tragedy and began again as a Catholic, and eventually as a Franciscan.
As Falson journeys back, he becomes a pilgrim: one who is going from place to place where God has met people in the past; where the echoes of God reverberate in the present. It is Catholics who mark such places and remember such stories. And it is catholic spirituality that many of us turn in similar circumstances.
One of the reasons I liked this story is I completely understand it. When my experience with Jesus “runs out of gas,” as Falson says, I also consider where I can go. Where in my evangelical, conservative Baptist tradition can I go for spiritual renewal?
I must admit to you that the thought of going to a revival or a conference most always seems like a wrong turn. One of the seminal experiences of my conversion was a “vigil,” where I spend two hours alone with God. It was difficult then, and it would be difficult now. Difficult, but extremely fruitful. It was a continuing clue that it would be among those who value silence that I would find spiritual resources for the journey.
That is not to say that preaching is of no value to the spiritually dry person. While I am not as sacramental about preaching as some Christians, I believe the Word proclaimed has power and that God often finds me out through it. Similarly, music has an uplifting and renewing power. I frequently turn to music when my soul and spirit are empty. Many times God speaks to me. These paths of Protestant spirituality are often, however, more encounters with the theological states of mind of the communicators than with God by way of the Holy Spirit.
The Lord’s Supper? Evangelicals are in a state of total disarray. Finding the Lord’s Table on a given day is a challenge for most of us. In my situation, it’s impossible.
The revivalistic tradition of spirituality has not lost all contact with my own journey, but there is clearly a reason, a difference that matters, between evangelical spirituality and the broader catholic tradition. It’s not entirely easy to explain this difference, and I realize all of the differences may not be good.
Still, it seems to me that the picture Cron paints of evangelicals is devastatingly on-target. (This will be proven by the number of theological watchdogs who will be shaking their fingers at me for writing this post and for not having the right theology. Yawn.) We are distinctively unspiritual people, by and large. Individualistic to a fault in many ways, yet looking for our churches and pastors to provide spiritual experience as a commodity. We criticize Catholic rosaries and visual spiritual aids, yet have a multi-million dollar chain store stuffed with Christian trinkets and merchandise in every mall. We buy and sell spiritual experience shamelessly.
If our Catholic friends were charging $50 to come to a mass at the local stadium, we’d all be shocked, but the major CCM groups make millions from tours and record sales. Even Osteen sells seats to hear his vapid talks. Tetzel was the bad guy in the reformation, but it’s among evangelicals that Paula White, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar and Joyce Meyer proliferate and profit from the devotion of the Christian public; all because they promise genuine spiritual experience.
I haven’t seen any Catholic teachers openly promising a dollar return on your financial giving lately. Evangelicals have enough such con-artists posing as ministries to fill several television channels. I loathe indulgences, but I’ll take them over the promise to get rich by way of Jesus.
It is among evangelicals that one can write literally endless books promising more, more, more and more spiritual experience. We are Experiencing God, but we still want Our Best Life Now and our Purpose Driven Life courtesy of the Prayer of Jabez. We all know the next 7 easy steps to Being a Better You is in the mail.
Christian consumerism is just one witness to the state of our spirituality. There are many others. Ministerial burnout. Pornography addiction. Divorce. Prayerlessness. Church hopping. Sexual promiscuity. Rampant materialism. Pastoral turnover. Addiction to fashion, sports, pets, opinions. Hours spent in front of video game screens, staring at web sites, reading MySpace, talking to our friends on the cell, saying nothing.
And then we’ll go to church on Sunday and hear the minister say the LOST are living empty lives and don’t have the joy of the Lord. It’s a good thing the few lost folks in our churches are too polite not to laugh out loud.
I often stand in the presence of my Asian students, whose culture sees spirituality as the way of the monk, and I wonder “What must they think of the American claim to be ‘spiritual?’”
In Catholicism, the saints preserve the path of spirituality. Yes, there are some whack jobs and grevious errors in the story, and the Truly Reformed can throw darts at Catholic spirituality all day. Some of those darts are on target. But let’s be honest for a moment, shall we? Evangelicalism’s individualistic, spiritual illiterate consumers and fans are, by and large, not much of a product statement for our spirituality. Nor are its ministers, scholars or bloggers (to be sure.)
This isn’t a competition. It’s a confession. When I go to St. Meinrad or Gethsemani I’d not admitting that I agree with the infallibility of the Pope. Far from it. What I am doing with an Anglican rosary, a copy of Celebrating Common prayer and an appointment with a spiritual director at a monastery is trying to reclaim the power of a deeper spiritual tradition than my Baptist community offers me. Walking the aisle; praying harder; witnessing more; doing more church work; going to another conference or revival: These have not proven to be the path of spiritual rootedness and fruitfulness for me, and I suspect for many others.
Perhaps many evangelical friends will use the comments of this post to point us in directions of what has been helpful to them. I hope so. But I must conclude, from my perspective, that recent evangelicalism is, as Ian Cron says, excellent at introducing people to Jesus, and extraordinarily deficient in showing us the Christian life in terms of helpful spiritual practice.
This is the reason many of us who are post-evangelical shake our heads when we are accused of abandoning the faith. What we are abandoning is the starvation and deprivation of faith. What we are looking for is the soil where faith will take root, grow deep and bear much fruit. We seek nothing more or less than what Jesus meant when he invited us to abide in him.