Why Bother with Church?
by Mark Gutman, April 16, 2015: In 1958, Lawrence Kohlberg proposed a theory of six stages of moral development, with stages divided by how people dealt with moral dilemmas that he proposed.1 His six stages are evenly spread through three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional autonomous (or principled).
In 1981, John Fowler, in Stages of Faith,2 also described six stages of a developmental process in “human faith” that people pass through. For example, stage three: (synthetic-conventional) individuals tend to have conformist acceptance of a belief with little self-reflection on examination of these beliefs. Most people remain at this level. Those individuals who move to the fourth stage of faith (individuative-reflective) begin a radical shift from dependence on others’ spiritual beliefs to development of their own.”3
You get the idea. We start out as infants doing (mostly) what we are told to do and what we see others do. As we get older, we start to think more for ourselves and follow some of our own rules. But, according to Fowler and Kohlberg, we quit our development too early, as they place most adults in levels 3 and 4.
As you can imagine, those of us who have reached level 6 in Fowler’s and Kohlberg’s stages4 struggle trying to deal with the quitters, who, of course, make up the majority of the community and the church. We’ve been through the lower levels ourselves at one time, so we understand why people can be down there.
But when it comes to going to a church filled with members of inferior, er, lower levels, we level sixes often have a time. Preachers’ primitive reasoning and Sabbath School classes’ illogical and irrelevant observations can be hard to put up with. You might remember hearing that “It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded with turkeys.” That’s what it feels like to mix with people who haven’t read the deep theological and philosophical works I have. Imagine asking Novak Djokovic, currently the world’s number one tennis player, to spend his time practicing with high school tennis players! It would weaken his game. Don’t expect me to lower my standards!
There’s another kind of level six. Not a brain kind, but a morals kind. You know – doctrinally and lifestyle-wise, they dwarf their peers. When it comes to the sanctuary doctrine, how to dress, what to eat, how to keep the Sabbath, they “have it all together.” They are able to detect when the preacher or elder is slightly heretical (which leads the congregation downhill), when the potluck or social doesn’t comply with Counsels on Diet and Foods, and how the church’s toleration for sin is increasing.
Level sixes of the intellectual or moral kind often separate themselves from lower-level people. Why taint themselves or waste time (to quote Jesus) throwing their pearls before swine? Besides, they can get a much better church service by watching certain TV channels. Better music. Higher quality of sermon. Less contamination.
But before you toss church because the members aren’t up to your level, keep in mind that churches (congregations) offer friendships that may be hard to find elsewhere. The world is full of lonely people. “Loneliness is a serious health risk. Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely. The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking. And loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity.5 “Having social ties is the single best predictor of a longer, healthier, more satisfying life.6
Church members work together in social events and sharing events. Churches where I have held membership feed the homeless, provide a free medical clinic, and take Sabbath afternoon walks together. Many who feel lonesome or unwanted would feel better if they spent more time with a church group.
It’s hard to improve spiritually in isolation. In a chapter titled “Religion Is a Team Sport,” Jonathan Haidt reports that research by Putnam and Campbell found that “[t]he only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people.”7
Then there’s the record of Jesus. Luke 4:16, Message, tells us, “As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place.” If Christianity is a matter of believing the right doctrines, I can stay at home and build my ivory tower even bigger. If Christianity is a matter of following the teachings and actions of Jesus, meeting with other less devout or less informed human beings seems to be part of the program. In fact, the people that he met with in Luke 4 tried to kill him! OK, so he needed to start meeting with a different group. I doubt if he stopped his practice of going to a meeting place on Sabbath.
If Jesus, who must have ranked as (at least) level 7, could meet with others who were scattered through the lower levels, who am I modeling when I keep my distance? Jesus told one of his parables specifically for “some who were complacently pleased with their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people” (Luke 18:9, Message). Alternate “moral performance” with “intellectual level” and you’ll get a picture of self-ranked level 6’s.
Ellen White describes how Jesus mixed. “Our Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’”8 You might say that his focus was (with apologies to John F. Kennedy), “Ask not what your church can do for you; ask what you can do for your church.” The least you can do is help those poor folks.
When I go to church and meet with human beings who aren’t as smart, logical, or devout as I am, I’m following in the footsteps of Jesus. Isn’t that what Christianity is all about? Only I, unlike Jesus, might discover that my smartness is pretty narrow. That my logic has some holes in it. That some members are more loving or sympathetic than I am. That my braininess or spiritual eliteness can benefit from my mingling with others.
Paul urged liberals and conservatives (or the “weak” and the “strong”) to work together “for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). Getting together with others to help a family recover from a fire or a flood can help more than just that family. As I work together with Level 3 and 4 people, I may discover that they have some traits that I wish I had, some experience in life that has taught them lessons I’ve never thought of. By the way, levels 3 and 4 can look askance at Level 6, so Paul’s counsel applies to them just as much as it does to the Level 6’s.
In short, attending church and mingling with others often provides an antidote to loneliness, more opportunities for service, and growth from being around others different from us. The advantages of keeping away will probably be outweighed by the advantages of associating with others who can help us even as they challenge us.
1See, for example, https://www.qcc.cuny.edu/SocialSciences/ppecorino/INTRO_TEXT/Chapter%208%20Ethics/Reading-Barger-on-Kohlberg.htm For an example of a moral dilemma used by Kohlberg, see https://psychology.about.com/od/developmentalpsychology/a/kohlberg.htm
2James Fowler. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (Harper and Row, 1981). Fowler and Kohlberg were both building on work by Jean Piaget.
4I have no idea what level I am. I am writing, tongue-in-cheek, from the standpoint of a Level 6er to make a point. Most of us probably rank ourselves as Level 6 in one way or another.
6Winifred Gallagher. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), p. 84
7Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), p. 267. Haidt is an atheist. He is reporting on a benefit of church that he has to look for elsewhere.
8The Ministry of Healing, page 127