Spiritual Isolationism

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by Andrew Yeager

We live in an individualized world. I think back to Church History IV, a class I took at the seminary, where our instructor, the Rev. Dr. Lawrence Rast introduced us to a book Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam.[1] Putnam examines a major cultural shift that has taken place in modern Western society. To put it simply, people have stopped joining things. Membership in social institutions—whether the PTA, political parties or church—have disintegrated, leaving us more disconnected and isolated from one another than ever before. Once we bowled in leagues; now we bowl alone.

The spirit of individualism has crept into the Church as well. Postmodernism, the prevailing worldview of our time, seems to have lent credence to our spiritual isolationism. Since there is no such thing as universal truth or morality, each individual has the freedom to decide what’s true for himself or herself. What’s true for me might not be true for you. Faith then becomes a private matter, something shared only between me and God, and everyone else is required under the doctrine of “tolerance” to see my private beliefs as equally viable and valid as their own.

Spiritual but not religious

It is widely believed that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. Spiritual isolationism gave birth to the tired old cliché, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” This is really just another way of saying, “Christianity has sentimental value for me like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, and I’m perfectly fine with my nominal status as a Christian, but ultimately I’m just too lazy to drag my carcass out of bed on Sunday morning and practice the faith I give lip service to in the company of other Christians.” At the end of the day, it’s a cheap, lame excuse for the deadly sin of sloth.

The fact is, you can’t be a Christian without the Church. Perhaps there is no better resource that militates against spiritual isolationism than Luther’s Small Catechism. Consider the Explanation to the Third Article: Who is the Holy Spirit? He is the Spirit who gathers. The Holy Spirit is not just the calling Spirit, the sanctifying Spirit or the enlightening Spirit. He is the gathering Spirit. He gathers the whole Church on earth to Jesus Christ and keeps her with him in the one true faith.

What does this mean?

It means he is not a Spirit of isolation. He’s a Spirit of koinonia, communion. He is not a Spirit who spreads people out, hermit-like, to live separate, isolated spiritual lives, but a Spirit who draws people in—into Jesus, to His living voice and into communion with one another in the Church.

It also means He is not a Spirit of secrets. The Holy Spirit doesn’t take us away from others to walk and talk with Him in the garden alone. He doesn’t whisper His Word to you in the quiet of your heart as you are cloistered up alone in your bedroom at night—unless of course you are meditating on an external Word of God. The Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer says, “Those who want to search for the Holy Spirit deep inside themselves, in a realm too deep for words to express, will find ghosts, not God.”[2]

The Holy Spirit is not out to get you alone. He is out to gather you, with His Church, around the Word. And where is that Word heard? First and foremost, in the corporate setting together where His Sacraments are administered—the Divine Service. “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14). And second, in Bible Study, catechism, confirmation classes and family devotions at home.

The Holy Spirit gathers. And when He does, He knits us together into the body of Christ, so that we are never isolated individuals, but always members of one another (1 Cor. 12:27). And—perhaps we don’t talk about this in the Church enough—as the body of Christ, we need each other. Loneliness is a harsh cross to bear. Empty churches are a discouragement to the saints. But when we look around and see other Christians confessing and singing—no matter how off key!—we are edified by their faithful witness.

Building up the neighbor

Your attendance at church is actually a great work of love and helps your neighbor, probably more than you know. Maybe the man in the pew next is suffering under the weight of addiction. Maybe the woman next to you is carrying the cross of barrenness. Singing and praying alone has become too painful for them. But they hear your Our Father, your Te Deum, your hymns of praise to God, your public, corporate confession of faith builds up your neighbor and bears them up in faith, all without you realizing it.

In the Smalcald Articles[3], Luther talks about the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren as one of the ways Christ’s Gospel comes to us. All this phrase means is Christians encouraging one another with God’s Word. It’s all a way of saying we need each other. It was not good for Adam to be alone, and it is not good for God’s Christians to be alone.

Therefore, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).

The Rev. Andrew T. Yeager is pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Garrett, Ind.

[1] Putnam, RD. Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2000.

[2] Bayer, Oswald. Theology the Lutheran Way. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2007. p. 55.

[3] Part III, Art. IV.

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8 Responses to Spiritual Isolationism

  1. John J Flanagan November 17, 2016 at 11:11 am #

    I suppose that the realist in me usually rises up when I read articles concerning topics like this, dealing with the issue of spiritual isolationism in our culture. Actually, with respect to church attendance, I believe the problem with most Christians who do not attend very often is not so much spiritual isolation as just laziness, indifference, work, or disinterest in getting up on Sunday morning to attend services. They are simply not committed believers, and the faith which they inwardly believe and follow, and unashamedly profess, becomes just one of many competing things in their life. Some men, for example, prefer the golf course during the warm weather, getting up early to play a few holes on Sunday morning. The priority of communing with other Christians and worship is less important. And the “option” of attending a Saturday service to avoid having to go on Sunday is something the church should never have adopted in the first place. Those who state categorically that they dislike going to church because religious people are usually hypocritical types, that the liturgy is boring, that the sermon too long or too short, that the music too contemporary or too traditional, that the pews uncomfortable, or that the worship times inconvenient ….well….they can resort to the excuse they are spiritually isolated by choice and design. Heck, they can worship God by praying on the golf course, or anywhere. This is true, you can worship God anywhere, but the fact is He did not create us to be isolated. We need to gather together, and if the person next to you is a known hypocrite, and the music not to your taste, just get over it. God commands us to gather with other sinners and worship together. No excuses are acceptable.

    • John J Flanagan November 17, 2016 at 12:15 pm #

      Actually, there are reasonable excuses, like illness, caregiving, travel or special circumstances which arise in our lives, but I think many times some Christians avoid attending church because they simply would rather do something else.

  2. Dr. Albert E. Jabs November 17, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

    If the Gospel stirs us…and it ought to…even the Bible mentions that…we may be numbed and dumbed down by the repetitive news resume, 24/7…and the hidden response of deliberate or inadvertently slipping in the unbelievers box of wanting meaning and solace from all the media and societal attractions which in many stances are simply junk food. If I feel compelled to seek great joy, fulfillment, and happiness from all the charged up advertisements that bombard us constantly…than we can be sitting ducks…for even minor crises to inflate into major crises. In my recent bout with a Triple By Pass heart surgery…I was compelled to witness with my own eyes how much we all need hope, help, and healing. Certainly, we have a good Lord who loves us, and gave His Only Son to suffer, die, and be Resurrected for each of us. Attempting to absorb the world’s pain and suffering is too much for any of us…and that is why what Martin Luther was moved to tell us…that each day is a day of grace…and that even with our limited life span and understanding…there are blessings in which we can be instruments of Jesus Christ’s healing, hoping, and helping powers. The hungers and thirsts of this world can be overwhelming even with a fraction which may come to our purview. Dr. Albert E. Jabs, Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Irmo, South Carolina

  3. Timothy Carter November 22, 2016 at 7:45 am #

    Excellent Article.
    Please see “LCMS: WITNESS AND OUTREACH” and “Lutheran Cathechism” Web site for suggested Lutheran responses to these very real issues.
    Timothy Carter
    Kingsport Tennessee

  4. Pastor Bob Alexander November 22, 2016 at 10:03 am #

    A similar but better analogy is golfing. When I golf with someone else they can give me guidance, encouragement, help me find my golf ball (which is too often) and keep me honest (accountability). If I make a good shot I have someone to tell me that. When I make a bad shot I have somebody who can empathize or allow me to take a mulligan (forgiveness). If I make a hole-in-one I have at least one witness. I have done a few weddings for people who golfed and I liked using a sleeve of golf balls. One ball for each person and one ball for Jesus and the congregation is the crowd that follows us and provides encouragement, etc.

  5. November 30, 2016 at 2:22 pm #

    Among people who don’t attend church at all, there is often a misunderstanding about what saving faith in Christ is. This article points out well that the Holy Spirit gathers us into the community of the Church of Christ, and this spiritual gathering also manifests visibly and physically when Christians gather around the Word and Sacraments.

    But there is another issue too. Saving faith in Christ is not something we have from ourselves; it is the gift of God. And this gift of God is given to us through the Word of God and the sacraments. Those who are seldom, never, or sporadically near to the Word of God when it is proclaimed are seldom, never, or only occasionally near the power of God for salvation–the Gospel–except in the rare cases of those who read the Bible regularly at home. They are not near the instrument by which God gives faith very often–they are not near the one thing that is able to create faith in the heart. It is also the instrument by which God sustains faith once it has begun. To quote the catechism again: “I believe that the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and KEPT ME IN THE ONE TRUE FAITH.” Those who are never in church and as a result, never near the means by which the Holy Spirit and faith are given–the Word–cannot be kept in faith in Christ. They are not able, in their flesh, to keep themselves in the faith, and they have divorced themselves from the Holy Spirit who does keep the members of the Church in faith.

    On the other hand, there are those members who do attend worship pretty regularly, but skip when they want to go golfing, to use the example above, about half of the Sundays during the summer. These folks in a way are doing something worse than the ones who never come, at least spiritually. They are of course sinning against their brothers and sisters in the church, who get demoralized when attendance is in the toilet all summer, because people are golfing and vacationing, and then all winter, because the roads are hazardous and people are vacationing.

    But they are also sinning against God. Although the synodical catechism rightly points out that God does not require specific days for worship in the New Testament, the essence of the 3rd commandment is that we are not to despise God’s Word but “hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” There may be occasions when it is not sinful to miss the divine service besides emergencies and being forced to work. But when you skip church to golf or what have you on a regular basis, what you are doing is saying, “I don’t need to go to church. My faith is strong. No big deal if I skip church.” That is doing exactly what Jesus warns against in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins–not receiving the oil for your lamp. It’s despising the Word, saying you can get by without it a certain percentage of Sundays every month.

    You may be able to do that without anyone in the church saying anything to you, because after all, you’re still there a lot. But doing it betrays a lack of humility, a lack of awareness of one’s own sin and the power of the devil, and also a disregard for the Lord’s Word. It may be that this kind of sin is hardly acknowledged as sin by many church members, but it is as truly a sin against God as never coming to church. It may well be that this kind of complacency and flippancy towards God’s Word that is so common among many “good church members” is part of the reason why so many others don’t come to church at all anymore.

  6. John February 14, 2017 at 10:12 am #

    I appreciate this application to the post-modern condition. I understand the point that is being made and don’t wish to diminish the need for membership. We must be willing to bear witness to our faith in this way. However, I think that the work of the Holy Spirit is a both/and rather than an either/or. We know His work occurs where the signs of the church are found and the sacraments administered.However, The Holy Spirit did lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted alone. He is there when we pray in private. He gives us the words to speak when called to give a defense of our faith. He was there when the Martyrs met their death as well as with those who were reached and gathered and strengthened by those deaths. He is active in the households and lives that don’t yet know Christ that the soil of their hearts will be ready for the seeds of the sower when they arrive. We can be “Christian” without the physical earthly church and yet still be a member of the invisible church. We need only Christ. The truths of faith found in the ecumenical creeds. The Ethiopian whom Phillip met on the road left a “Christian” but may not have had contact with “the church” afterwards. The devil no doubt wants us to be disconnected from our fellow believers and to feel disconnected from God and to rely on technology and the those things and individuals we can see and touch but we don’t want to down play that which is not seen either.

  7. February 15, 2017 at 12:07 am #

    To isolate yourself from the church is to be divorced from the church’s groom Jesus Christ. To isolate yourself from the church is to separate yourself from the marriage feast and eucharist. To isolate yourself from the church is to fall prey to the Lion who roars and prowls around seeking to devour. To isolate yourself from the church is to divest oneself the royal priesthood. To isolate yourself from the church is to separate yourself from where Christ promises to be present to give life. To isolate yourself from the church is to be cut off from the vine. To isolation yourself from the church is to wither and die.

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