Thursday, May 01, 2014

Three Types of Church Reformers

Regular readers are aware that I'm training to be a spiritual director through the Ignatian Spirituality Institute. As the name implies, I've been spending a lot of time with Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises and all that they entail.

The Exercises are centered on the life of Jesus and feature quite a bit of meditation on Gospel texts to that effect. In addition to scriptural contemplation, however, Ignatius also included a few other meditations meant to help those journeying through the Exercises consider Christ's call in their lives.

One of these additional meditations is known as the Three Classes, or the Three Types of People. The basic setup, or first prelude, is to envision three people who have been given a large sum of money. They find this gift an obstacle to their growing closer to God, so they consider ways to remove the burden.

Each does so in a different way, and to varying effect. The first thinks and talks over what to do, but ultimately never acts. The second knows he or she should really get rid of the money, but comes up with ways to justify keeping it or working around having it. The third is truly indifferent to whether he or she has the money or not and can let it go because he or she is focused on more important divine things; if God wills that he/she keeps it, great, and if not, okay. Truly, whatever God wants, he or she will do.

To lift out Ignatius' points from the meditation, we end up with these three types of people: the procrastinators, the compromisers, and the indifferent.

The more I have considered this meditation over the past few months, the more I hear it being analogous to various types of people who want to reform the church. At different points, depending on circumstances and specific scenarios, I have been each of these. In a sense, I still am each of these. And I've seen them at work elsewhere in the church as well as we collectively attempt to move the church into the future in faithful response to new cultural norms, technology, generational shifts, and all the rest.

Here, then, are the three types of church reformers, with apologies to Ignatius:

1. The procrastinators love to think and talk. They think big things about what the church can be; big radical amazing ways that the church can be faithful in the world if we just get out of our own way, leave behind a bunch of old and tired practices and mindsets and theology. They talk about this new grand vision just as often, whether on social media or during church meetings. "If only," they say over and over, "if only the church could just act on these tremendous thoughts and words, how much could we transform the world!"

There's just one problem: these reformers never get beyond those thoughts and words. They'll share Big Ideas all day, talk a big game about what the church should be, max out their allotted posts on Twitter...but that's where their hard work ends. Actually testing these ideas out? I'll do it eventually. But man, once I do, the church is going to be so different, you guys!

2. The compromisers are a pretty sizable group. In fact, I'll fess up to being in this category most of the time if I manage to get beyond procrastination. The church in its institutional form is a mixed bag of anxiety, hopefulness, self-interest, and occasional forays into trying new things. Big Ideas can make it out of the Big Idea stage, but perhaps in smaller, slower, and more frustrating increments than some may desire due to the complicated mix of factors and dynamics at play in any typical congregation.

So the compromiser works within this system, perhaps attaining small victories and at some level accepting the limitations placed on those Big Ideas by available resources, systemic anxiety, wanting to maintain some semblance of peace in the community, and, if one is a church professional, the desire to keep doing things like "eating food" and "supporting one's family." The compromiser learns to live in between the here and the not yet, for better or worse, and not without some degree of disappointment and shame.

3. Wouldn't we all love to be like the indifferent? The ones who just venture forth disregarding everything but what awesome and radical things God is calling them to do and be? The ones who have declared a moratorium on procrastination and compromise; that the time is NOW to embody God's kingdom regardless of what society and church bureaucracies say? This, after all, is what Ignatius implies in his original meditation we should all be striving to be. It is perhaps no different for we dreaming Big Ideas for the church.

The truly indifferent are probably the smallest group. Most who manage to live in this way are most likely not connected to a formal church (and in my experience, just as many formerly affiliated seem to be in the procrastinator group). Maybe they once were, and maybe they've found a different collective that is more efficient at following God's call. Or maybe they're a part of newer church plants that don't feel the burden of keeping with established and embedded traditions and practices.

Whatever the case, being truly indifferent is likely a common aspiration across all three groups, but life circumstances, rationalization, and the imperfect nature of existence itself may hold us back from achieving it.

I think it's worth being honest with ourselves about where we really are across these three categories. All of them mean well and envision the church doing incredible things for God's kingdom, but whether consciously or unconsciously, we have different ways of spending what we've been given, so to speak.

What could each of us do, wherever we find ourselves, to truly move the church forward, paying closer attention to God's call and less to our own interests?

2 comments:

Luke Lindon said...

I feel like i'm in the impatient category. Don't feel like that one get's mentioned. This is the one who feels like there's no time, things should have happened 5 to 15 years ago.

The tendency here is to put all the weight on their own shoulders, bring no one along and slam things through. This isn't helpful to the community nor to the individual.

Is there an allowance to this? In the money metaphor, this group would spend it and others would be mad about how the $ was spent or didn't feel included on the decision.

Maybe this isn't a spirituality deal... the impatient. No room for them? Or am I missing something?

Rev. Jeff Nelson said...

This might be the limit of the metaphor's adaptation, since Ignatius used this in terms of one's personal response and indifference in light of God's call. Of course, people can be impatient regarding their own sense of call. I've certainly seen that. So it's probably just that Ignatius didn't include or consider this when he wrote the meditation. But he definitely cautions against being hasty in discernment elsewhere, so he'd be on board with what you're saying.

I've also been the impatient one regarding reforming the church, and it's a very real "fourth type." Thanks for raising it!