Being a pastor, or any kind of church leader for that matter, is a tough job (which I know from 18 years experience). And in light of the ongoing effects of COVID (emotional, physical, and otherwise), I've continued to ponder the future of the church in America.
This has led me to consider the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religious life (or in more technical terms, "religiosity").
What has led me to this? I've been asked recently to find resources in preparation for a podcast interview on whether scientific research backs up the idea that faith in God (or religion, more generally) is good for us.
From what I'm learning it's about how we approach our faith, or in the literature, our "religion."
Extrinsic or intrinsic religion?
The first, intrinsic religiosity, you do because you want to, and the second, extrinsic religiosity, because you're trying to please others. (By the way, I think this is what a lot of people are getting at with the "spiritual, but not religious" moniker.)
For a bit more clarity, I'll quote the article "Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Religiosity" that I recently read:
"The intrinsically religious see religion as valuable unto itself. Instead of religion serving another motivation, religion provides the master motivation.
The extrinsically religious go to church with another end in mind (although likely subconscious). It may be making that new business connection or finding a spouse. Or it could be psychological security, solace or self-justification."
Some mighty powerful words from the God-Man
If this sounds like Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels, it should.
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth." Matthew 23:27
Jesus is en fuego in this passage--he really undoes the "Jesus meek and mild" thing. This topic must have meant something to him. And so it should to us. (Because it's so good, you might want to read all of Matthew 23.)
Something for the church today
So far I've presented the conclusion from the research that we need to be together. But what do we do in light of the current pandemic?
At some point, we are going to emerge from COVID-19 protocols, and as I've argued before, we're not "going back to church" as a culture. That ship has sailed.
And yet... We do know that, overall, religious life is good for us. I'd be happy to use Christian "spirituality," if that lands better, but just remember that it's the social connections, the "sociality," involved in our lives that makes church so potent for psychological and physical health.
So, we'd better figure out a way to keep the connections, but also grow in our vision for God.
A coda: notes on a way forward
My solution in brief: Outsource the teaching, insource the discussion and hang out.
In other words, from the scientific research the most important contributions the church can offer is physical co-presence, i.e., being together in the same room. Yes, virtual community can give us something, but we are designed to be together. So, what if not worried less about the content we deliver and let other worldclass thought leaders do that via YouTube et al., while we create more intimate places for discussion? Or at least shoot for 50-50?