Not so great expectations
In conversations about spiritual growth, how it happens, what gets in its way, here’s one of the challenges I’ve run across. It’s the absence of an expectation that such growth could or would or should happen. I’ve heard people say: “I don’t expect anything to happen at church.’ Maybe it’s complacency or fatigue. Maybe it’s discouragement or disillusionment, insult or injury. Maybe it’s a matter of being busy with other stuff. Maybe the church these days offers what people don’t want, poses questions people aren’t asking. For many reasons, I’m finding many people expect little from church. I’m not sure why. When I inquire about the “so-what” factor, the intersection of faith and every day life, I often am met with reverential Episcopal silence.
Elizabeth Drescher is a scholar who focuses on shifting patterns in religious affiliation. Her latest book, which comes out in March, is entitled Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Life of America’s Nones, which explores spiritual practices among America’s fast-growing religious demographic: the religiously unaffiliated. As I thought about expectations, I recalled an interview Dr. Drescher gave in which she spoke about why Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and Mainline congregants were leaving their churches. I was particularly interested in what she said about Mainline folks since Episcopalians fall in that category.
For Mainline Protestants, we know that the data tells us that about 55 percent now of young people raised Episcopalian will leave the church as adults. About 20 percent of those will become “Nones.” For Mainline Protestants, the theme is neither hurt nor anger, but a sense of ennui. They got it. They get that they’re supposed to be good to people, share what they have, do good in the world. If I had a nickel for how they love, love, love their youth group, or what a great time they had on their mission trips, I’d be a very wealthy woman. What tends to happen with Mainline Protestants is that they are deeply affirmed in early formation and then they “graduate” from church. And we let them have that model. One young woman told me, “I learned everything I needed to know there, I get it. I don’t need this in order to be a good person or in order to make sense of everyday life.” I hear this when I interview parents as well: “Our children will learn good values. Check. They’ve learned this, we can move on.”
In other words, there seems to be little expectation for a deeper life in the church, a deeper life with God, a greater love of God and neighbor. Absent such expectation, such hope, such sense of possibility, I wonder why one should bother. I’m both puzzled and troubled by that, since my own interest in life in the church is the hope that participation will make a difference in my life, will make me a more centered person, a less selfish person (a big task), which I believe will make a difference in the church, in the hopes that the life of the church will in some way make a difference in the world.
Advent is a season about waiting, quiet and contemplative for sure, a counter-cultural invitation to slow down. It is also a season to elevate expectation, out of the conviction that things might actually be different, that there is more to learn. Something is going to happen. Something big. Christ will show up. That advent, that arrival can happen in all kinds of ways. Scripture tells us that when it happens, we’re probably going to be surprised by it. But we’re meant to be looking for it.
So what are you waiting for this Advent? Do you have any expectation that life could be different, better, transformed? If you wish for that, is it at all possible that the church could be part of that process, or does the church impede the process? As the season of Advent begins (today is day two), invite God’s spirit to be at work in you, helping you grow, and where needed, helping you to change. Get ready for Jesus to show up. Expect it.