I have a beta fish. His name is Fish. He sits on my bathroom counter in a little bowl with moss covered white rocks on the bottom. He’s been there since my daughter went off to college in the fall of 2018. When she left, and his care fell into my hands, he went through a stage of depression. He wouldn’t eat very much and his bright, iridescent colors faded. I told my daughter what was happening and she said it was important to play 80s music for him. So each morning when I was getting ready, I would bust out the 80s play list and he would swim around, coming to the surface to gobble his morning pellets and little bites of air. For a time, he was a happy fish. His color looked good. His eyes were clear. He swam around in his space and ate beta fish pellets twice a day.
All was well until last October when he slowly began to eat and swim less. As Christmas approached, he took to not eating at all. Everyday I kept expecting him to be dead in his bowl, and everyday, with a tap on the bowl, he would give a little twitch and flare his gills to show me he was still alive. My daughter told me to add bloodworms to his diet, thinking that would tantalize his fish taste buds. Sadly, that hasn’t prompted him to eat more food. I suppose he is living by osmosis right now, soaking in nutrients from the water as he lays motionless upon the rocks, a mere shadow of what he use to be.
Having visited a number of churches over the past 8 months, I’ve noticed that often times the congregants look a lot like Fish. Maybe when the pastor first arrived, they brought with them a new energy and people were growing spiritually. The messages were vibrant and people were excited about taking next steps in their faith. They were swimming strong!
But as the years pass, the pastor continues to feed them the same food, little pellets that should be nutritious and good, but are missing something to spur formational growth of the people. Bright lights, fancy power points, professional musicians, and slick sermon or bible study series are added. Conferences are attended and “best practices” experienced at other churches are implemented to hopefully continue to feed the people and facilitate discipleship.
But such efforts are effective to a point.
I recently read a post that highlighted James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. The author, Paula Stone Williams, succinctly reviewed Fowler’s stages, while also renaming each faith stage: Magical, Literal, Conventional, Questioning, Mystical, and Extraordinary. She noted how many people grow into the Conventional stage and never advance. Often these individual fall into more fundamentalist or non-denominational, evangelical camps, where questions and mystery are not welcomed, or even worse, feared, and thus, silenced. She went on to observe that many Millennial and Gen Z-ers leave their faith traditions when they hit the Questioning stage, especially if the tradition of their upbringing fails to give space to ask the hard questions that come in the spiritual transformation process. It is only by working through the Questioning stage that individuals are enabled to grow into the Mystical stage. In the Mystical stage, paradox and mystery are both welcomed and embraced. Few people reach this stage before mid-life, which consequently is when the survival tools people have been utilizing to navigate life often become ineffective, and new ways and methods are needed to engage with God, others, and self. For many, the Mystical stage will be where they camp for their lifetime, because even fewer people reach the final stage of Extraordinary. Individuals such as Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Mother Theresa, Dallas Willard, and Eugene Peterson would all fall into this category. The Extraordinary are the ones people seek out for wisdom and guidance, the ones who live lives filled with an abundance of love and grace and extend tender empathy to all.
Three things happen when churches and leadership are ill equipped to facilitate spiritual transformation past the Conventional stage:
- People leave to search for a richer worship experience and a place to continue growing,
- People remain in their faith community, but seek outside helps through spiritual directors or formational experiences to enrich their faith walk and draw closer to God,
- Or people stay and become like Fish, residing in a stagnant state of faith, content to absorb whatever is dropped in the water, hoping to just get by another day; living but not really living.
As a Church, I believe we must do better. Having a large population of Jesus followers living off small, somewhat nutritional pellets has produced a Christian community, and some could argue a Christian nation, impotent to reveal the transformative love and grace of God. Apathy and complacency are normalized, and when challenged, divisiveness happens in combative conversations.
Few are willing to take a hard look at their communities and bring about real change through a broader discipleship model. Community groups, bible studies, and service opportunities are all valuable pieces in effective discipleship. But incorporating some of the following would also be helpful in encouraging growth in our faith communities:
- Facilitate spaces of silence, stillness, and solitude.
- Practice communal lament.
- Introduce the Christian mystics of the past and present.
- Host book clubs that discuss ideas not typically affirmed within your community so as to better understand others.
- Teach the complexities of the Biblical Canon organization and implementation.
- Explore Christian Church history.
- Implement historical Christian practices that embody the senses, such as art, music, and dance.
- Step outside and give people space to breathe and experience God in new ways as a community.
- Be creative in celebrating Communion.
- Seek ways to move outside the church walls and actually be the Church, encouraging people to see the Holy in all things, experiences, and individuals.
- Gain a better understanding of how dualistic philosophies have impacted our belief systems.
- Study different atonement theories.
- Visit a variety of Christian denominations, especially those that might have different doctrinal beliefs as yours.
This is but a few ideas. What would you add to the list to encourage more robust spiritual growth in the life of your faith community?
Jesus doesn’t call us to be lifeless like Fish.
He calls us to follow him, to learn his ways, and to love others with his love. How do we do that well if we settle for small, tasteless pellets, rather than eating the diverse and rich foods provided by Christ?
As leaders we must model this transformational growth.
As congregants we must request or create spaces that facilitate this growth.
As a Church, we must embrace this often really uncomfortable growth to more fully live the life of freedom and abundance our Savior gives.