Stuck in the shallow end


Can we learn to grow deeper before the dawn?

Many times, when I’m backpacking with friends in the backcountry of West Virginia, I’ll wake up just before daylight while my companions are still snug in their tents.

I can’t say that I do it on purpose. But it happens often enough that it’s begun to seem intentional.

It’s still too dark to see clearly without a flashlight, but there’s just enough of a glow as the sun begins to brighten the sky behind the eastern ridgetops to illuminate the outlines of the forest around me in monochromatic tones.

It’s always a contemplative time for me. There’s something about existing in that tension between nighttime and daybreak, breathing in the crisp, clean air, nursing the previous evening’s campfire back to life, sipping the day’s first cup of hot coffee made from filtered mountain water.

There’s space in those moments for deep thinking. Some might call it prayer, but I’m honestly not sure if there’s really a difference.

And inevitably, if I sit with it long enough, and as the dawn begins to break, there might come some new realization about how things are.

Some insight that had been hidden in plain sight.

Maybe it will be some kind of newfound clarity around something I’ve read or something I’ve heard in a podcast or sermon.

A new illumination of some piece of scripture I’ve been wrestling with.

A way of interpreting an experience that I’d missed in the moment.

In many ways, it’s where growth happens.

Maybe more, it’s where transformation happens.

And I wonder if we might be missing an opportunity in our current situation for the kind of meaningful transformation that both people and our society so desperately need.

Dawn in the wilderness

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what I saw as an opportunity during our time of pandemic social isolation to embrace our collective dark night of the soul as a way of learning more about ourselves and our relationships with the divine.

It’s funny how, as time goes on, we can sense ourselves moving through different stages of awareness.

What less than a month ago seemed like a growing darkness has—perhaps predictably if almost imperceptibly—begun to fade into that kind of pre-dawn emergence of light I so often encounter in those early morning backcountry camping experiences.

And I say “we” because a lot of my friends and colleagues seem to be sensing something similar.

It’s not clear enough or universal enough to put any specific language to it yet. To call it a light at the end of the tunnel seems somehow too immediately immanent.

We’re still a long way from putting this situation behind us.

But there’s this notion that at least the initial wave of darkness has passed.

Maybe the dawn will break into clouds and storms more terrifying than the darkness itself ever was.

That’s the way it is when you’re in the wilderness…either literally or metaphorically. You don’t know what’s coming next.

You only know where you are right here, right now.

And that’s where opportunities for growth and transformation almost always present themselves.

Drowning in the shallow end

I’ve long been a critic of the kind of consumeristic Christianity that keeps people content in their pews with rituals and routines designed to make them feel good about themselves without also challenging them to move outside of their comfort zones to love others in tangible, meaningful ways.

I’ve been pretty vocal about churches that not only allow but, in many ways, encourage people to remain in the shallow end of the theological pool.

I’ve even been fairly outspoken about ministers and leaders who themselves appear unwilling to stretch beyond their current level of knowledge and experience.

It’s been said that if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that many of our churches are taking their last breaths.

Where we get stuck

Twentieth-Century American theologian and researcher James Fowler postulated that there are essentially seven phases of spiritual growth through which people might progress.

[For more on Fowler’s theory check out Episode 7 of the Accidental Tomatoes Podcast on Spiritual Trauma.]

To paraphrase, the stages begin before language development with learning the world is safe and secure (Fowler calls this Stage Zero) and then progress into a period of growing awareness of experiences through stories and people (Stage 1), followed by the “mythical-literal” stage (Stage 2) where deity is anthropomorphized and metaphorical symbols are taken as literal.

Those early stages generally parallel the mental development of early childhood and are fairly predictable.

They are also pretty easily controllable.

The next stage of spiritual growth, what Fowler calls Stage 3, generally arises in adolescence, although it also happens to people who come to faith later in life.

Stage 3 is marked by immersion in some kind of community, a deep reliance on authority, and mistrust of conflicting or competing narratives.

It’s a phase where people tend to become comfortable. They get a sense of belonging from their community. They depend on religious authorities to tell them what to think, say, and do. Their identities become formed around their particular tribe’s narrative.

Stage 3 lends itself very nicely to the consumer church construct. We don’t really need to take any responsibility for anything.

It’s no wonder that so many people—some might even say the vast majority—become stuck there.

Because there’s no compelling reason to move beyond it.

Until something happens.

Toward transcendence

Whether it’s triggered by some kind of trauma or just a deeper yearning that there’s something more out there, some people will push beyond Stage 3 to a place where they begin to take ownership of their belief system. They become more open to complexity and nuance while at the same time becoming more aware of the conflicts that are inherent to all belief systems (Fowler refers to this as Stage 4).

It’s often a time of struggle and anxiety (akin to what I’ve referred to before as deconstruction) because it requires not only leaving the comforts of community and authority, but very often risking alienation and even rejection from the people within those structures.

But it’s only going through those struggles that allow people to reach what Fowler describes as transcendence (Stage 5) and, ultimately, enlightenment (Stage 6), where we are finally able to universalize principles of love and justice.

The milk is spoiling

The temptation is strong right now to just work hard at keeping Stage 3 people at Stage 3. To continue feeding them spiritual milk—even if it’s spoiling—for fear that if they get a taste of something more substantial we’ll lose them.

Or maybe the fear has more to do with not knowing how to feed them anything else.

Either way, it’s a missed opportunity.

Because until people move past a consumeristic model of faith, the old paradigms will never give way to the new ones. Better ones. Healthier ones.

All of our cries for a “new normal” will be in vain.

But if we can sit in that tension before the dawn, if we can let it speak to us in our solitude, if we as leaders can resource and equip people and support them as they grow, something might happen.

We might actually transform the world.

2 thoughts on “Stuck in the shallow end

  1. Well, I can’t help but think of the vulnerability in that transitional time between dark and daylight; the uncertainty of what the daylight will bring and that maybe the Box we keep God in is what holds us back as churches from moving the feeding schedule from milk to applesauce and oatmeal as it is in a parenting model. I also can’t help but think of what it’s like as parents – in this case or God- when those same children have moved on and are graduating not only from school but from the spiritual diet we have had them on, to what they can forage for themselves to thrive and grow. We are terrified and maybe God is too. We fear that we have not properly equipped them to become the adults that will challenge life’s chaos and make it a time of tranformation and even transendence. Might be how God felt when he booted Adam and Eve from the Garden???

    So, we as the church and leaders do need to be willing to push the fledglings out of the nest and if we think we aren’t preparing them for that, if we worry they can’t take flight, then we as leaders in the church need to get out the grill and teach them to chew on a big slab of steak so they can move on to satisfy their own appetites. Or is that what we really fear??? Is it their failure or ours we fear? This is a time when we can continue to explore new ways of feeding and new MENUS if you will for those searching for a different experience of the Holy. We can continue to offer different ways to worship and not be threatened because our church “members” keep up with more than one church on Sunday morning for instance… or Monday night. Let it be ok to let God out of the Box we put Him in that fits our belief so others can see him from all angles… because how He fills someone elses needs will depend in large part of what angle they can see HIM from.. and how they see Him thru us…. Have a Blessed week…

  2. Pingback: What do we say when we don’t know what to say? | joewebbwrites.com

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