Is Christianity a ‘choose your own adventure’ religion?

Do you want the villain to live another day, or die in a fiery pit of lava near the remote village of Cholula, Mexico? Or maybe your lifelong enemy should live the rest of his days in solitary confinement in an inner city prison? It’s your choice, because it’s a “choose your own adventure” book.

I remember reading these books as a kid, loving the sense of power and control that comes with having the freedom to choose where the story goes — even if 90 per cent of the time my character would die by dragon fire or poisoned sword or wizard magic.

“Choose your own adventure.” The mantra has expanded into our post-modern understanding of the world; it has seeped into every orifice in our culture and sensibilities, including how we view spirituality. People want options on this journey towards self-actualization. We want to determine our own course, our own pathway towards the transcendent. The idea of our spiritual path being dictated by something other than our own desires is unpalatable. Spirituality is product to be consumed, a product “I” control. And this ethos affects the church more than we would like to admit.

I’m not saying we can’t have preferences regarding our personal spirituality, or styles of worship that we enjoy more than others. It is wonderful when a particular style of worship connects deeply with us. I also don’t want to write off the missional benefits of various expressions of church.

But I do want to push back on the rampant consumeristic, individualistic spirituality that seems to be as much a part of church culture as it is part of popular culture.

In a world that is set on hyper-individualized spirituality, the church is called to be a radically diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-generational community of people who are hesitant to define ourself by our differences, because we are unified by our common allegiance to Jesus. Christian spirituality is less about “choosing our own adventure” — an adventure that suits me — than it is about submission to Christ and journeying with His peculiar people.

God is dead

In the 1960s, philosophers prophesied the “Death of God.” Bryan Wilson and Peter Berger (among others) formulated a hip theory called the secularization thesis, arguing that because of the rise of modern science, globalization, and the spread of knowledge, people would eventuality throw off the constraints of religion and spirituality. Many other philosophers and sociologists then hypothesized that as a result of secularization, we would soon live in a world with no need for the transcendent. God would soon be understood as an antiquated concept of primitive thinkers. One day the majority of humanity would wake up to the fact that we are material girls in a material world, and it’s time to get on with our lives. God is dead.

Turns out, they were wrong. We don’t live in a world that has given up on spirituality.  Today, becoming a mindful-zen-hindu-Buddhist-gluten-free-coffee worshipper adds a certain mystique to your persona. Spirituality is all the rage. Choosing one’s individual spirituality has become an ordinary part of our quest at self-definition.

In the Project Canada survey, over 70 per cent of those surveyed identified spirituality as important in their lives, and three out of four Canadians claimed to have spiritual needs. 50 per cent of those who never attend religious services and have no religious affiliation still rate spirituality as important. In the Newsweek/Beliefnet poll in the United States, 79 per cent claimed to be spiritual and 84 per cent claimed that spirituality was important in their daily lives.

Spiritual but not religious

Though spirituality is not in decline as predicted, there is no doubt that what it means to be “spiritual” in the modern world is different than what it meant a couple hundred years ago.

Western society used to be dominated by the Christian faith. Options for personal spirituality were limited. The difference today: a plethora of options. In the global community everything is within arms reach. A quick search for meet-ups in the Vancouver area reveals such niche groups as the “BC Rosicrucians,” “Bnei Baruch Kabbala Society,” and the “Diamond Way Buddhist Meditation Group.” There is something for everyone. We are a long way from monolithic Christendom of the medieval world.

Instead, people are “spiritual but not religious;” we believe there must be a higher power or something out there, but do not feel the need, or see the logic, of submitting our lives to an outdated, outmoded institution. We no longer rely on historical institutions (churches, mosques, temples) as trustworthy guides on well worn paths. Structured or dictated spirituality is not appealing.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes modern spiritual people in these words: “The religious life or practice that I become a part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand [it ].” The key word here is “I.” In a world of skinny-extra-hot-caramel-americano-misto-with-chocolatesprinkles – a world where life pivots around our pleasures — why should spirituality be anything different? The spiritual life, for secular-spiritual person, is without a doubt a “choose your own adventure” story with “I” as the hero — and sometimes villain — but always the centre.

Spirituality in the post-modern world is defined by the individual, and this individualism is in the air that we as Christians breathe.

“Choose your own adventure” and the Church

To be sure, “choose your own adventure” spirituality is not just a trait of “them”  (the-big-bad-secular-world) but it is deeply inside “us” (Trinity-Bible-loving-church-attending-saints). I mean, look no further than the variety of sub-culture churches on offer. There are now goth churches, metal churches, man churches, café churches, vegan churches, and just about any other style that you can imagine. Not to mention the 33,000 Christian denominations that exist today. We no longer go to church with the flesh and blood that live in our neighbourhood, we travel across the city to get our custom-made fix.

In my work as a university chaplain in a multicultural, pluralistic city, students new to the city often ask my advice regarding churches they can “test-drive.” They often have their hopes and desires set on a particular style of church and spirituality: “I am looking for something with contemporary music,” they say. “But, not flashy loud music, not the kind with lights and smoke; I need something more simple — maybe just an acoustic guitar and a jambe; maybe a little Taize on the side? Also, I like a “thick” sermon, lots of content, but not more than 15 minutes. I need a preacher that really applies the Bible to my life, but not all the time. Sometimes I just want to sit and reflect without being told what to do. Oh, and, I am a liberal, not a conservative (or vice versa). What church do you think I should I try out?” Of course, I am being hyperbolic to some extent, but this conversation has occurred in different forms, countless times.

This need or hope for tailor-made Christian spirituality creeps into our lives in subtle ways. Like when we say, “I just can’t get into that kind of worship, it’s just not me.” Is this thinking evidence of an assumption that we only worship Christ when the stars of spirituality are aligned in a way that fulfills our desires? But let’s not beat ourselves up about this. After all, “pick and mix” spirituality is in the air — we breathe it in without knowing. This is the world we inhabit. But, we cannot deny that even amongst  Christians — like our “spiritual but not religious” counterparts‘ — there is a proclivity to demand a custom spiritual experience.

What grieves me is when I hear stories of people not attending, or begrudgingly attending, a church in their town or city because they could not find one that suited them. Either it was too traditional, too Catholic, too Protestant, too Pentecostal, too hot, too cold, not enough young people or not enough old people. At the end of the day, the options for church were not attractive to their spiritual palette.

I don’t want to make light of the struggle it can be to find a church; but does this tendency towards seeing our individual spiritual desires fulfilled divide us from others who do not share our desires? In Galatians, Paul says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The fundamental reality of the church is that we are different, but part of the same family. We are one in Jesus. If we define ourselves by our cultural nuances (age, race, income level, gender, music styles) and personal spiritual tastes, and if we allow these things to become the reasons why we do not “feel comfortable” or “happy” in a church, does this not lead us to divide from people who don’t have similar preferences?

The church is not a place defined by spiritual preferences of individuals, but by diverse people coming together under one Lord. It seems to me that St. Paul would be rolling in his grave if he heard how some of us talk about the finicky reasons we decided not to attend church.

Is it possible what we want from church is not what we need? Maybe we, like the culture around us, want a spiritual experience that fits our unique shape. But what we really need is a spirituality that rubs against our radical individualism. Maybe we need to get out of our cultural bubbles filled with folks just like us and bump and grind with a more diverse body. And maybe we need to commit to journeying with them.

In my church there is a man named Charlie who routinely shows up to church unshaven (not in a homeless-hipster way, just in a homeless way), and emanating body odour. He also drinks too much. Sometimes there is wine offered after the Sunday service and I notice he always goes for seconds. Charlie is not firing on all cylinders, and the fact that he has usually had a bit to drink before attending the service means he is not the greatest conversation partner, to say the least.

Charlie is the guy in the church who I would feel much more comfortable avoiding. I would rather chat to the people who are just like me, taking Ellen-style group selfies and telling inside jokes. But the truth is that what I need most is not people like me. To become more like Jesus, I need Charlie. I need to feel the selfish pride welling up within me when I look down on Charlie for the things he has done in his life. In the deepest parts of me I need to feel that sinful urge to walk away when Charlie comes close. I need to bump up against Charlie to better understand the depths of sinfulness in my own heart.

This is the kind of radical community that happens in Christ’s church. We cross cultural boundaries and embrace each other in the name of Jesus, and in the process we are changed. Christianity, in many ways, offends our post-modern notions of “choose your own adventure” spirituality. It calls us out of ourselves. It calls us to others.

If I was able to “choose my own adventure,” I surely wouldn’t bring Charlie along. But, this adventure is not about me, it’s about us; and fundamentally it is about the work that Jesus is doing to make one humanity out of the many nations on earth.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Nathan Penlington.