When Sociability is Mistaken for Spirituality

In an extroverted world and church it happens as easily as thinking that “enthusiasm” is next to godliness—which is understandable, since the etymology of the very word reveals that it has something to do with being possessed of divine attributes (go ahead, look it up). Or as easily as naming the All-Purpose Room in a church Fellowship Hall, as if something just as spiritual if not more is happening over chat, cookies and coffee as it does over gospel, bread and wine.

Pastor, author and card-carrying introvert Adam McHugh responds to a study published in the December American Sociological Review by two eminent researchers, Robert Putman of Harvard University and Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin. They studied the relationship between church attendance and personal happiness, a project that should make those more theologically inclined than psychologically gird their loins: religious detractors love these things because it bolsters the case that religious devotion is more a product of mere mental need or psychological craving than anything else.

But for those of us who still see the value of the psychological despite the haters, Hugh begins by carefully describing introversion not as something to do with “shyness, timidity or antisociability” (traits extroverts can have, by the way) but rather a natural temperament that enjoys people and measured doses of social interaction but also needs solitude and retreat.

Then, for those more ecclesiastically inclined than culturally and who have noted how much more plugged into programs than each other our churches seem to be,  he offers some interesting insight into what studies like this one can end up suggesting:

Second, I am disturbed that the church portrayed by this study sounds like little more than a social club. The study subordinates personal devotion to friendship, but, in my view, the two are inextricably linked. I am concerned that the church too often encourages socialization at the expense of spiritual formation. It reminds me of what psychology professor Richard Beck said about church culture: in many cases “sociability is mistaken for spirituality,” that is, the more social you are, then the more spiritual you are and the closer you are to God. As a result, extroversion is rewarded in many churches, especially those in the evangelical tradition, since those who participate in the most church activities and are acquainted with the most people are thought to be the most spiritually mature. And now, they may come to be viewed as the most happy.

Third, I am wary that this study on happiness will result in churches adding even more activities to an already crowded church agenda. The researchers suggest that, in light of their findings, church leaders should devote more time to the social aspects of church life. I fear that will mean more programs, more small groups, and more social events, and our model of pastor will inexorably move towards church cruise director. While I understand and value the intention behind these social structures, too often we in the church have treated joining as a shortcut for belonging and intimacy. Filling our calendars, however, does not guarantee these things and in fact can move us farther away from what we truly want.

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One Response to When Sociability is Mistaken for Spirituality

  1. Pingback: Maundy Thursday | The Confessional Outhouse

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