I visit a lot of churches, having attended (more than once or twice) numerous churches of many denominations.
And I read about churches. “Church life” is one of my strongest interests.
I served as consultant for two editions of Abingdon’s “Handbook of Denominations” and I will be giving lectures about denominationalism at a Christian college in November.
I have spoken at churches as diverse as Episcopal and “Church Under the Bridge.” I communicate regularly with friends about their church experiences.
Here is something I notice about churches: They tend to focus either on the “horizontal” or the “vertical” in terms of spirituality.
By “horizontal” I mean relating to God through having healthy relationships with other human beings.
This might be an emphasis on “koinonia,” fellowship or social attitudes and actions, or just loving people.
By “vertical” I mean relating to God more directly, personally (not necessarily only individually) through worship, spiritual practices focused on prayer, meditation, devotional life and so on.
How this difference plays out can appear very different.
For example, in a liberal-leaning church, the “horizontal” focus and emphasis might be sermons, songs and books read together in “life groups” that mostly encourage and facilitate having the right social attitudes toward the weak, the oppressed, minorities and so on.
The “vertical” focus and emphasis might be sermons, songs and studies that mostly encourage inward spirituality: meditation, contemplation and use of tools such as the “Enneagram.”
By contrast, in a conservative-leaning church, the “horizontal” focus and emphasis might be sermons and songs and so on that mostly encourage accountability in discipleship, community in like-mindedness and so on.
The “vertical” focus and emphasis might be sermons, songs and so on that focus on glorifying God, giving God praise, extolling God’s greatness and so on.
I notice a tendency in most churches to lean one direction or the other – either toward the horizontal dimension of Christian spirituality or the vertical dimension of Christian spirituality.
Sometimes there appears to be balance on the surface, but I seem to detect imbalance in the energy put into one dimension or the other.
What I think is the case is that pastoral staffs often develop a certain one-sidedness with regard to spirituality and discipleship.
Over time, either the horizontal or the vertical dimension, both of which are important in Scripture and Christian tradition, gets emphasized to the neglect of the other dimension.
I’ve noticed other types of “ruts” that pastoral staffs (or a single pastor) tend to fall into.
One hymn gets sung much more frequently than others or one theme dominates preaching, to offer only two examples.
Many years ago, my wife and I attended a Presbyterian church where I served as a part-time minister of youth and Christian education.
The pastor, educated at Yale Divinity School, preached almost the same sermon every Sunday – with a different text and title.
He followed the lectionary in terms of biblical texts, which were read as part of the liturgy, and his sermons had different titles, but the theme and main point of every sermon was the same: “You are of meaning and value to God.”
Most churches don’t fall into quite that deep a rut. But most I’ve gotten to know well do tend to fall into a rut of one-sidedly emphasizing either the horizontal or the vertical dimension of Christian spirituality and discipleship to the neglect of the other dimension.
Insofar as I’m right (and I’m sure many will disagree), what’s my proposed solution?
One solution is for every pastor and pastoral staff to invite discerning members to form a “kitchen cabinet,” an advisory group.
These folks would meet with the pastor and staff once a quarter to give feedback about what is being overemphasized and what is being neglected in terms of the church’s ethos.
And the people selected must not all be “yes people” – people the pastor and staff can count on to tell them what they want to hear.
In my experience, however, this is very rare. What I have observed, both as a church staff member, interim pastor, board member and ordinary lay “pew sitter,” is that pastors (including pastoral staff) do not appreciate criticism – however gentle, appropriate and constructive it may be.
In fact, what I have observed and experienced is that often anyone who criticizes, however appropriately, gently and constructively, is automatically and immediately labeled a troublemaker by the pastor and staff and is marginalized.
Generally speaking, pastors and church staffs only want support and encouragement for whatever they decide to do.
Of course, this is not unique to church contexts; leaders of organizations in general want unquestioning support from those under them, including customers. It’s human nature.
However, the Bible is filled with examples of the opposite – of people of little or no particular status correcting spiritual leaders.
Think of Nathan and David, Jeremiah and the prophets and political leaders of Judah, Paul and Peter at Antioch and so on.
Every church staff needs to think about finding the balance between the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of Christian spirituality, worship and discipleship and beware of falling into a rut of promoting only or even mostly one dimension.
Perhaps the only way to accomplish that in most churches is to have such a diverse group of constructive critics to advise the pastor and staff on a regular basis.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”