Focus for September 2021

Over-spiritualizing Church 

There is a reason Jesus referred to himself as “son of man”. 


Quite a number of years ago, I was asked by my district pastoral leader (DPL) to move to Cincinnati, Ohio, to pastor a church. I said “no” because I had just moved my family to pastor another congregation. Over the course of several weeks, several different people from the Home Office also asked me to move to Cincinnati, and I kept saying “no.” Finally, my DPL called again and said, “I don’t understand, Rick, every time we talk about Cincinnati among the church leadership, your name comes up. Every time I pray about this, again, your name comes to mind. Have you been praying about this?” I said “no,” and he chuckled and asked me why. I told him because I already knew God’s answer, and I also knew if prayed about it I would have to make the commitment, and I was afraid to tell my family we were moving again.

I didn’t have to “wait to hear from the Lord.” I knew immediately it was what God wanted, and I knew I was going to end up in Cincinnati; I was simply putting fear of family reaction ahead of what I knew was inevitable.

What does this have to do with over-spiritualization of church? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen pastors and leaders hold a church back from growth and reaching out to the community because they are “waiting on the Lord.” They are waiting for a special sign, a special message, or for certain things to fall into place before they are willing to make a move forward. This is called the false dichotomy of spiritual and secular. It is being unwilling to acknowledge that God is in us through the Holy Spirit guiding us daily. It is believing that when God wants us to do something, the Holy Spirit will come and give us a special message — in contrast to believing that the Holy Spirit is already present in us, and we don’t need to have a special prayer or some kind of spiritual experience in order to know his will. In many cases, it is a spiritualization of an excuse. If God doesn’t give me a special handwriting on the wall, I don’t have to act.

Now let me be clear, I always pray for guidance, and I often ask others to pray and share their thoughts with me. I am always in prayer — never ceasing in prayer — which doesn’t mean I am praying all day long. It means I am walking with God all day long — not just in special times and under special circumstances. I’ve been praying about this article, for example, and sought the advice of others. But my prayer isn’t, “God, give me something special that is going to change everything.” Rather, it is a prayer for God to clarify and organize the thoughts he’s been having me dwell on for weeks. In other words, I trust God to guide me all the time, not just during special moments or after a special spiritual formation exercise. I seek the advice of others to further clarify that I am in line with the Holy Spirit more than with just my own thoughts and desires.

So let’s go back to this “waiting on the Lord” statement I often hear. Do we need to wait on the Lord to tell us to love others in action? He’s already told us to do that. Do we need to wait on the Lord to tell us to reach out to our communities and share the gospel? He’s already told us that. Do we need to wait on the Lord to determine if we are called to minister or to serve? He’s already made that clear.

Here’s an important key: because the Holy Spirit is in me — always — I can trust that for the most part, I already know God’s will, and it is always good. His will is for us to allow Christ’s love to compel us to love and serve others. His will is that we be peacemakers. His will is for us to live in his image. Because he calls us beloved, his will is for us to be loved, and to share with others that they are loved.

In his book, Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr said, “Remember, Jesus said ‘follow me’ and never once said, ‘worship me.’ The sad result is that we have many ‘spiritual’ beings when the much more needed task is to learn how to be true human beings” (p. 77). I believe this is one of the reasons why Jesus most often referred to himself throughout the Gospels as a “son of man.”

As the son of man, Jesus took on our humanity, declaring, “I’m one of you. I came to be one of you in your world.” Rohr points out that forgetting this leads to keeping the gospel otherworldly. “We could all imagine its possible connotations while ignoring its clear denotation.” As son of man, Jesus told us to follow him. This leads to an important question: Is our calling to imitate Jesus as Son of God, or as son of man? I believe the answer is clear. The Christian group Casting Crowns sings the answer in their song “If We Are the Body.”

If we are the body…
Why aren’t his hands reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is his love not showing them there is a way?

Many use the phrase, “We are called to be his hands and feet.” There is truth to that, as long as we realize we aren’t there to replace his hands and feet, but to join them, to participate in what he is doing. This leads to healthy church.

Let’s make sure we never become so engrossed in spiritualization and spiritual formation that we become so focused on trying to imitate Jesus as the Son of God (which we can’t do) and neglect our calling to live in his image as the son of man? Let’s never forget that Jesus asked us to follow him — to join him in ministry and to participate in his mission, which we find in Luke 4.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)

Without ever neglecting our personal spiritual formation and growing in grace and knowledge, in our pursuit for healthy church, may God lead us into never over-spiritualizing our churches, but to encourage our leaders and members to join Jesus by participating in the work he began and still does in us through the Holy Spirit as the son of man.


by Rick Shallenberger 


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top