Spirituality of Place vs. Journey

Since my early adult years, I’ve been on a journey to find significance, to figure out who I was and why I was here. I found myself seeking to find God. I did not grow up going to church, and in my early adult years, I could not see Christ for the Christians. I saw people get dressed up and go to church on Sunday, but could not see changes in their lives as a result of their church-going. I found people in church to hold the same beliefs, to pursue wealth and material goods in the same way as the unchurched people around them. I could not see evidence of life-changing faith in them. So, I rejected church for years.

God Is in the Building

People acted as if God was in the sanctuary on Sunday morning, but He never seemed to leave the building. It seemed to me that to be a good Christian meant to dress up and go to church on Sunday, to make a donation, and to hang around with church friends. Dealing with social justice or the inequities of our system did not seem to be on the radar screen for many church-going folk I knew growing up in the Bible Belt of the South after World War II. Neither did personal evangelism or witnessing, even to friends and family.

So, I studied other pathways to God. I began with Native American belief systems, progressed through a look at various Eastern religions, even studied the Koran seeking truth. I found the Bible nearly impenetrable back then, so I didn't spend much time there. 

Upon coming to Christ through the life and ministry of a faithful follower, Pr. Vernon Luckey, I entered into Christian community. Yet for years I still felt like an outcast, wandering through the halls of the American Protestant Church, wondering why my churched friends did not care more for my unchurched friends. I yearned for so much more than my fellow pew-sitters. I wanted to experience the life I heard about in the time of Acts. I wondered why people did not seem to really believe Jesus’ promises of power and kingdom flowing through his disciples. I did not even know what a disciple was, and no one I knew seemed too keen on finding out.

Robert Wuthnow’s book, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s, introduced to me the twin concepts of "spirituality of place" and "spirituality of journey." Wuthnow demonstrates an oscillation, as the people of God have moved from the notion of spirituality of journey to spirituality of place ever since the Exodus.

When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they entered into a 40-year spiritual journey, seeking the promised land. Once they arrived in Israel, they built the temple. They then moved to a spirituality of place, with the focus on God’s presence in the temple. When the temple was destroyed and the people went into exile, they were once again a Journey people.

Then they rebuilt the temple, then it was destroyed again.  Back and forth they went along this continuum. Wuthnow says this trend continued right up into present time.

For the Last Half a Century, Spirituality of Place

He brings us to the present by saying that for the last 50 years, the American church has practiced spirituality of place. All the church-building since World War II has brought an emphasis on church as building and the implication that God was in the building.

Postmoderns Are a Journey People

Wuthnow concludes that the postmodern generation in this country has embraced the idea of spirituality as journey. This is why the attractional model of church is struggling. Mike Breen in this video presents these percentages of each generation who are in church worshiping on Sunday morning:

Builders: 65%

Boomers: 35%

Gen X: 15%

Gen Y: 4%

He also points out that the oldest Gen Y’ers turned 30 in 2010. They are done with school, they are marrying and starting families, but are not coming to church. I’ve read that up to 40% of people under 40 have no church background. So, these people are not coming back to church, they’ve never been there.

I’ve come to believe that God planted me as a Journey person a generation ahead. I’ve struggled my whole life to understand how the modern church matches up with the discipleship communities I read about in Acts and Paul’s letters.

Shifting Paradigms from Place to Journey

As we brought a class of younger Lutheran pastors together in a three-year learning journey, a major emphasis in the first year was helping their congregations understand the idea of spiritual journey. It was a completely foreign concept for most of their people. We used the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey to measure the current reality of spiritual maturity in these congregations, and the results were below norm. Until you get the idea of Spiritual Journey, it is hard to wrap your mind around creating a pathway in the congregation towards spiritual maturity.

Pastors, if you want to begin transformation towards authentic discipleship community, I suggest you consider planting this important concept in your leadership and your congregation. You will miss the great majority of the postmodern generation if you allow the idea of spirituality of place to continue to hold sway in your church. May the Spirit move you and your people to a Journey to deeper spirituality and maturity as a Christ-Followers.

1 Corinthians 3: 1-3

The Church and Its Leaders

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?