Chapter OneSOUL HUNGER
From the bestseller list to the growing number of stores featuring self-help
books on meditation, yoga, and centering, it's obvious that the last few years
have brought a dramatic increase in spiritual curiosity and hunger. Even those
who are loath to assign themselves a religious label are exploring the spiritual
realm with increasing passion. And yet there is a sense in which the Christian
church is failing to meet this hunger with a real, meaningful response.
Consider the movie Dogma. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon play fallen
angels who are trying to find their way back to heaven by way of a moral loop-hole.
In one scene, Affleck's character talks to a young woman, Bethany, who is
on a pilgrimage she doesn't understand. She doesn't realize she's speaking with
a fallen angel. She's been drinking, which prompts her to speak more plainly
than she might normally have done. Listen to what she says:
Angel: You still go to church?
Bethany: Every Sunday.
Angel: Does it do anything for you?
Bethany: It gives me time to balance my checkbook every week.
Angel: See, that's what I'm saying. I mean, people don't go to church to
feel spiritual anymore. They go to church and feel bored. But they
keep going every week just out of habit. When do you think you
lost your faith?
Bethany: I remember the exact moment. I was on the phone with my
mother. And she was trying to counsel me through this thing.
And nothing she was saying was making me feel any better. She
said, "Bethany, God has a plan." I was so angry with her. I was
like, What about my plans? You know?
Bethany: I had planned to have a family with my husband. Wasn't that
plan good enough for God? Apparently not. What about you?
When did you lose your faith?
Angel: A long time ago. One day God just stopped listening. I kept
Talking, but I got the distinct impression that he wasn't listening
Bethany: How did you know she was listening in the first place?
Angel: I guess I don't.
Bethany: I hate thoughts like that. You know, they come to you with age
because when you're a kid, you never question the whole faith
thing. Um-um. God's in heaven and he's-she's always got her
eye on you. I' d give anything to feel that way again. Guess that's
why I got talked into this pilgrimage.
These characters ask the crucial question, "Does the church do anything
for us?" There is a sense that both Bethany and the Angel wish the answer
were yes. This conversation reflects the longing found in the hearts of the faithful
and the faithless alike. Faith is lost not because there is no need for it, but
because we believe God's plans don't make any sense. In fact, Bethany notes that
not only do they not make sense, but they seem cruel and arbitrary as well.
In essence, these characters are saying the church doesn't meet us. It
doesn't meet our needs, our desires, our hopes, or our hunger. The church
doesn't connect with us. And when we sense that the church doesn't connect,
we move on to the belief that God can't connect with us either.
When I first saw this scene, I was convicted. I have likely said to
someone in pain, "God's going to take care of it," or "God meant it for good."
But notice how Bethany connects that sentiment with the moment she lost
her faith. Yet she hasn't lost the desire for faith; this scene bears evidence
that a hunger for God exists even when belief seems to fall away. We glimpse
Bethany's heart as she says, "I'd give anything to feel that way again." That's
I don't believe the church has intentionally ignored this soul hunger.
The church has used education to teach us about matters of faith. It has created
communities in which we can learn the ways of faith. It is a source of
fellowship so we can journey with others on a path of faith. But there must be
something more we can offer to invite these spiritual seekers to Christian community.
What would be required to meet that woman on the train, to meet her
There are large segments of the population that are dissatisfied with the
church, wounded by the institution. They are trying to find room in their theology
for the questions and doubt that have surfaced in the course of their lives. It
is a critical time for the church to honor the seekers, to invite them to God and
community in the midst of their wanderings, not once they get it all figured out.
The spiritual hunger of this age presents an opportunity for us to offer a seat at
the table and a cup of warm soup to those who know they are in need.
Contours of soul hunger
Of course, addressing this spiritual hunger means understanding the ways in
which this hunger is lived out in the lives of seekers. There are several common
markers that we as the church need to recognize as we look for ways to invite
people like Bethany into the church.
The first marker is what British theologian Dave Tomlinson calls a
"pick and mix" belief system. It can resemble a fast-food convenience store-get
a little of this and a little of that. That's why many seekers are comfortable
mixing principles from Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism into the basic
expressions of Christianity. It is just as easy to read the latest news on the Dalai
Lama as it is to find out what the Bible says on an afterlife. This challenges us
to redefine what is essential to being a Christian rather than assuming the only
legitimate expression of faith is one that adheres to all elements of the Christian
A positive effect of this pick-and-mix mentality is that seekers are relatively
comfortable with ambiguity. Mark Yaconelli, a spiritual director, notes
that with Generation X-ers, "there's a whole aspect to their spiritual life that the
Christian faith will have to be experiential, anti-institutional, address suffering,
and be ambiguous which is the word for mystery." Gen X-ers can hold two
opposite concepts of something with equal validity, not either/or but both/and.
Reality needn't be defined in black and white.
In many ways, this frees the church to embrace the mystery of God, to
allow for God to be expansive and awesome rather than some definable entity.
No longer is there a need to "prove" the un-provable that is faith. Now there
is more room for the experiential and supernatural. There is room for God to
work in ways that are outside of our understanding. Faith can therefore draw
people not by propositional argument but by lived invitations to share stories
and appreciate each other as fellow travelers on the faith journey, not objects of
A second marker is the importance of relationship. We are in a state
of near-constant change. New technology, transportation, information, and
mobility ensure that today will be different from yesterday. Ironically, even as
the world gets "smaller" because of technology, the pace at which we travel and
function brings with it a profound sense of isolation for Postmoderns. There is
a felt estrangement from others, particularly as we become more hidden behind
our Wi-Fi networks and iPods.
This sense of isolation brings with it a kind of spiritual unrest. Despite
our unprecedented consumption of goods and resources, rest and contentment
remain elusive. Most spiritual seekers have experienced dissatisfaction, even
disillusionment, with our consumerist culture. With so many options they find
that even choice itself becomes meaningless.
Henri Nouwen spoke to where we find ourselves: "Traditional ways of
living are breaking down. And we are more than ever thrown back on our own
personal resources." Yet, we know we can't survive on our own. So we seek out
community, relationships with others who we believe will somehow join their
stories with ours so that together we can create something meaningful.
What an opportunity for the church! We are at a point in history
when the longing for faith, for meaning, is on the rise. We are faced with a
population hungry for connection, for relationship, for a sense of belonging
to something bigger than themselves. If we are willing to rethink our assumptions
about faith and the church, we can offer the hungry masses a faith feast
of unimaginable proportions.
Obviously, there are numerous ways for the church to tap into the
need and desires of this seeking populace. Some will demand we make radical
changes; others may call for only minor tweaking. I believe one of the most
effective tools the church has in hand is the small group.