Recently as a part of my morning devotions I’ve been reading a new book by Ray Waddle, the former religion reporter for the Tennessean, and one of the finest observers of American religion that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Undistorted God: Dispatches of Faith Amid the Cultural Noise is a collection of essays Waddle has written on the nature of faith, the practice of religion, and the place of church in the world.
This morning I was struck by Waddle’s observation on the place of the church in the world:
Churches disagree on a thousand points of theology or worship or politics. But they share something more important than any difference, an unspoken charter with a precise message: you have a soul, and this is it’s guesthouse. Come on in, If you want it, you can sign up for good works down the hall. If you want it, silence awaits through those double doors over their by the sanctuary. Don’t be afraid.
For many today the church or congregation has become a purveyor of programs rather than a guesthouse for the soul. In the consumeristic, “church has to compete with the secular culture” world, churches focus on the next big thing that will attract people inside our doors, whether that is the best band, the dynamic preacher, or the cast of Duck Dynasty making an appearance in Sunday morning worship. And yet what Waddle recognizes is that our attempts to keep up with the Jones’s mentality of programming is ultimately doomed to fail for it ignores the unique claim of the church to be a guesthouse of the soul.
All this might sound excessively otherworldly, but if it’s true, then it is as practical as it is mystical. It embodies a wised-up counterculturalism that a person needs for surviving the swindles and self-deceptions of modern life. Congregations are the last places in America, the very last, where time is set aside for values and motives that don’t promote relentless ideologies or monetized product placement or the law of self-interest or the digital Fear of Missing Out. Church says we will honor things that might well embarrass everyday society — reverence, prayer, vulnerable emotion, the arc on invisible mysteries, the eruptions of gratuitous giving, the setting aside of ego, and the pledging of thankless acts of mercy that defy materialistic advantage. If these things are an embarrassment, bring it on.
What Waddle is suggesting (and what I agree with) is that being the guesthouse of the soul must be at the center of everything we do. We offer a meal to our neighbors not simply because they need to be fed, but also because we understand that serving others allows us to experience the Divine in those who Jesus called “the least of these.” We come to worship not simply because there will be good music, but because that music stirs our emotions to experience God’s presence in deep ways. Our ministry with children and youth is not about offering alternative entertainment, but about being the agents by which our kid’s souls are formed, lifting up the importance of love and forgiveness, service and compassion, and the ability to be vulnerable in a world which lifts up vulnerability as a weakness.
My hope and prayer for City Road is that we can begin to see our church as a guesthouse for our souls, and the souls of those who live around us. May our desire for programs never outweigh our task of caring for our spirits — in all sorts of ways.
How is City Road caring for YOUR soul, and if it isn’t, what do YOU need to help you better be formed in the image of Christ?