Once upon a time—before the Gutenberg printing press, 1450, the church patriarchs had it made! Week after week, an eager audience of people rushed through the church doors to hear the good news of the Bible that couldn’t be printed to the masses. The work of the church was synonymous with instruction. “Right-Believing 101” was the course to take and then pass it on to others. The premise was solid. Tell people what the Bible says and they will believe what they are told. It worked! People believed what they were told.
That was then. This is now.
Between then and now, an important change occurred within the human spirit. Human beings developed critical thinking skills and the human spirit began to exercise the spiritual gift of discernment. People are presently demanding the right to exercise spiritually autonomy like never before. Independence from authoritative, right-believing doctrine, is the common thread that binds together the spiritual but not religious community. These people are not necessarily abandoning Christianity. They are separating themselves from what Christianity has become.
People want the right to determine the nature of their own relationship with God, Jesus, Spirit, and the words of the Bible—whether the church approves of their thinking, or not! They want to experience their own journey of faith without being told how to think or what to believe. They want to develop a personal sense of right thinking, being, and doing.
Spiritual self-government is not a new concept. It’s just getting a lot of attention these days because the church is bleeding out and she can’t seem to stop the hemorrhaging. In a backhanded way, the person who declares spiritual independence from the traditional teachings of the church reveals to the institution that she no longer speaks with authority. If the church of today is wise, she will listen to her defectors and stop trying to speak with authority.
But here’s the irony: the institutional church was never given authority in the first place! Spiritual authority was assumed by those who demanded it long ago. At the same time, personal autonomy was relinquished by people who willingly gave it away. Institutional authority may have started as a well-controlled grab for power, but the church’s power to influence and control continues today because people give the institutional church its authority.
I see the quest for spiritual autonomy as a sign of good health and maturity. But where does the mass migration toward spiritual independence leave the traditional institution if people no longer voluntarily support the work of the church—financially or otherwise? Where does spiritual autonomy leave society? Does anyone really think society would be better off without the church? Or should we demand that the church improve her role in society?
I think the movement toward spiritual independence is forcing the traditional institution to seek a cure for her ongoing hemorrhaging. Spiritual autonomy is demanding that the church play a different role in people’s lives as she moves into the church of tomorrow. I believe that the church of today is suffering with her life-threatening condition as preparation for a future life that looks nothing like her present life. However, if she is to survive her ordeal, she must stop the bleeding!
Personally, I think the church should be given authority—not to preach, but to bring hope and healing to the world without telling people what to believe! This would mean that the church would move away from her image as an instructive authority and move toward an image that actually heals society.
Is the church of tomorrow willing to become an entity whose emphasis is not preaching the doctrine of right-believing regarding God, Jesus, Spirit, and Bible?
Will she be able to resist the temptation to incessantly sermonize on and on—far beyond the hour that people are willing to listen to her voice?
Will she muster up enough faith to simply reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, knowing that he, alone, has the power to first heal her?
The desire for spiritual autonomy is here to stay. The only way for the church of today to stop the hemorrhaging is to have a little faith! The church must learn how to embrace the concept of spiritual autonomy, praise the independent paths that people choose to take, discontinue the desire to rule Christians with self-appointed authority, and allow God’s Spirit to lead the way into the church of tomorrow.
Thoughts along the way,
Carol Wimmer is the author of the acclaimed poem When I say I am a Christian, and three books entitled: The Net—An Organizational Vision for the Church of Tomorrow; The Clock—A Timekeeping Tool for the Church of Tomorrow; and The Key—A Spiritual Language for the Church of Tomorrow