The church of the practical atheist


I was lamenting with a pastor friend about the decline of Christian spiritual discipline. The Church fathers embraced fasting, silence, vigils, and alms-giving with zeal. They prayed for hours at a time. They devoured whatever Holy Scriptures they could obtain. They enjoyed corporate worship---where they were free from vigorous persecution---several times a week.

We've lost that. Many of us are too busy to pray even half an hour when rising and retiring. We're surrounded by music and television and talk radio. We think fasting is going without lunch, or maybe food altogether for a slender 24 hours. When we keep a vigil, likely as not it's because one of our kids has an earache.

Many of us console ourselves with the notion that these are works, and that not practicing them is its own form of righteousness. We're saved by grace through faith, after all. Let the Catholics and the rest of them go without meat on Fridays and dab their foreheads with ashes. We're operating at a whole different level of spiritual growth.

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But even the staunchest anti-Catholic Reformers practiced spiritual discipline. They understood (as do, incidentally, most Catholic and Orthodox Christians I know) that we don't gain entrance to heaven by virtue of our works. The spiritual disciplines are instead a gift from the Lord, that we might labor in some and partake sweetly of others, and draw near---by virtue of His grace---to the Living God.

And here's the irony---when we forsake the spiritual disciplines and only gather corporately for 90 minutes a week, we roll into church on Sunday desperately hungry, expecting our pastor to feed us. Having abandoned nearly all serious effort to commune with God during the week, we behave exactly like the caricature of the medieval Catholic who believed his priest was the mediator between him and God.

It's too much for any one man to bear. A pastor can't "feed" us in that brief time slot on Sunday morning. He wasn't ordained to do so. Yet how many people do we know who grumble about how the minister's sermon wasn't "uplifting" enough, or how they don't feel "fed" in this or that church, or how they're looking for a place where the preaching "speaks" to them?

Here's a bold idea: If a person isn't spending more than a few minutes a day in prayer and Bible reading, and can't remember the last time he fasted, kept silence, or poured himself out for someone in need, then there is no sermonizing in the world that is going to fill him, because he is living---for all practical purposes---as an atheist.

So he blames his pastor. And then the church shopping begins, as he looks for that special speaker who can tickle his fancy, bring a tear to his eye, give him the illusion that he is really "connecting" to something.

I'm increasingly convinced that a good portion of the dissent and malaise we find in churches could be solved if more of us would shut our cakeholes and zealously pray for an hour each day. I believe many in the Emergent Church are right that we need more action in the face of social problems, but as Simeon the Theologian observed, a man who is grounded first in spiritual discipline will find it easy to do physical works, whereas a man who neglects the spirit for the sake of works "is like someone who holds in his hands tools and materials to build something but does not know how to go about it."

And what are we to make of the manner in which infidels shame us with their zealotry? Consider how devout Muslims prostrate themselves several times a day. How Mormons almost without exception devote two years to missionary work. How Buddhists pour themselves into meditation. They are all of them captive to deceit, but what does it say of Christians, who are living in the light of truth, that so many of us don't even come close to their level of commitment? I can't presume to know the mind of God, but I'm struck by the spiritual laziness He must see in so many of us, and perhaps in me most of all.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.


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