Now that the Oscars have been handed out at the recent Academy Awards, many moviegoers are trying to catch up on watching the winners, grabbing popcorn, reclining in comfortable seats or streaming, ready to be entertained by this year’s lauded films.
In the same way, millions of American churchgoers select their pew seats every Sunday, ready to be moved by what’s happening on the pulpit stage.
From rock band style worship at Hillsong Church, to charismatic and enthralling speakers elsewhere, megachurches around America put on Sunday services that can rival any music concert or entertainment stage.
However, church leaders need to be asking themselves if they are sacrificing slow-developing but lifelong, faith-building discipleship rooted in core theological beliefs, for ephemeral, emotion-filled experiences for the sake of increasing attendance numbers. Oftentimes, it feels like churches are competing with other media for Sunday morning attention.
Understandably, church leaders are trying their best to attract new parishioners as the alarm bells for the downward trend in Christian-identification have been ringing for some time. The Pew Research Center found that less than two-thirds of Americans now identify as Christian, which is down 12% from a decade ago.
The trend is even more obvious when it comes to younger generations. Over one-third (34%) of Generation Z identify as religiously unaffiliated, an identification that is almost double their baby boomer grandparents at 18%. Estimates suggest that by 2070, the number of those who are not religiously affiliated could be above 50%.
But if American churches rely on entertainment value to emotionally draw in participants, faith leaders must also remember that once the show ends, so do the emotions, and the crowds leave in search of the next big draw. Attendance is an easy metric to use but it only measures how many people show up. It does not measure what is happening on their inside: spiritual transformation.
Emotion-based experiences can be an introduction to faith, but they are not the final destination because faith is not an ancillary or optional add-on; it is a voluntary decision to surrender oneself to a lifelong journey. And part of any authentic pursuit of faith must include, at some point, the transformation from emotional experiences to spiritual growth.
In key events in Christian history, important figures experienced the inexplicable that all included strong emotional reactions. In the New Testament, the emotions that Saul endured on the road to Damascus moved him toward a transformative life – it was not merely an emotional moment; he transformed into the venerable apostle, Paul.
Paul’s transformation process follows a familiar trajectory that is encapsulated by a little-known model found in the halls of academia – transformative learning theory. This theory, which has been used to describe various personal change phenomena including religious and sociopolitical transformation, posits that any long-lasting change begins with a ‘disorienting event’. This is an event so out-of-the-ordinary that it is emotionally jarring and it challenges one’s fundamental basis of logic and understanding. In short, one’s world is turned upside down.
Then, the individual has a choice: to further investigate the event and its implications, or simply to ignore it. Those who ignore it see this event as a blip on their life radar and move forward in the same oblivious way, as if nothing happened.
Those who investigate it open themselves up to an introspective process that challenges their default cognitive and emotional equilibrium as they seek explanation for their experience. Emotionally and intellectually unsettling, they engage in question-asking, self-study, and often, inner turmoil, ultimately arriving at a new and vetted worldview.
And this is what the church is trying to do: to have people challenge their old way of living, and adopt and live out a Christian worldview. But the process to get there often does not feel good. It is challenging and even agonizing at times. Spiritual transformation is a personal reckoning where one takes a deep look inside, humbly confronts personal shortcomings, and makes a life-altering decision to pursue a different pathway by letting go of the previous one. This is not an easy sell.
What is an easy sell? Stirring music and inspirational messages heavy on self-help and self-validation. Too often, these experiences are simply a pat on the back. Perhaps this is why certain megachurches are so popular – they simply reaffirm what people want to hear and make them feel good. Unwittingly, these church models are creating a cycle of consumerist dependency. People return to refill their emotional tank, unconsciously mistaking it for spirituality.
Because transformative processes require such introspection and reflection, it is best done individually and in smaller groups where one can ask tough questions and practice vulnerability. Smaller bible study groups, or Torah or Quran groups for that matter, that focus on text study, practicing faith disciplines, and struggling with theological meaning provide a safe space needed to wrestle with and then claim a faith.
And because the journey of spiritual transformation is so arduous, there is no time frame to accomplish it. In fact, there is no guarantee that the process will even lead to an adoption of faith. What, then, can be measured to determine spiritual transformation? Perhaps nothing. Some have developed instruments but these are self-reported internal processes. While others examine external expressions of faith, there is risk judging, often incorrectly, the behavior of others.
Perhaps the decline of Christianity identification in this country is not such a bad thing. It might allow the church to look inward, re-center its belief and relevancy, and focus more on being a light on the hill, guiding people toward spiritual transformation, rather than a copycat of other institutions focused on entertainment.
The church is a significant institution in America but it may be undergoing an evolution. One in which it may need to get smaller in order to transform more lives. Because in smaller church settings, we are better able to intimately know others and witness, firsthand, the transformation process and its fruits.
There is also an uncomfortable truth that churches need to consider: spiritual transformation may not be so popular to the masses but only meaningful to those close few who see it unfold.
Faith leaders in the American church need to decide what they want the church to be. If they choose to focus on emotional appeal, they can definitely put on a great show. But once the music stops, the message of commitment to spiritual faith and transformation may be quickly forgotten, just as the many films that were once viewed with awe become distant memories.