The late Mike Yaconelli spent much of his life worried that he wasn’t spiritual enough. Despite his many efforts to be a better Christian, the best he ever seemed to manage was “a stumbling, bumbling, clumsy kind of following.” Spirituality remained an eternally elusive state of being that was always just out of grasp.
Most churches reinforce this perfectionistic line of thinking, setting high standards for how their members should look and act and offering countless formulas for “godly” living that never quite work as well as advertised. The end result is pews full of people with smiles permanently in place who know all the right things to say to hide the disarray and dysfunction that lie just below the surface.
Yaconelli’s epiphany came when he realized that spirituality wasn’t a matter of having one’s life perfectly sorted out or of fitting into the mold of what a “good Christian” is supposed to look like.
Spirituality is not a formula; it is not a test. It is a relationship. Spirituality is not about competency; it is about intimacy. Spirituality is not about perfection; it is about connection. The way of the spiritual life begins where we are now in the mess of our lives. Accepting the reality of our broken, flawed lives is the beginning of spirituality not because the spiritual life will remove our flaws but because we let go of seeking perfection and, instead, seek God, the one who is present in the tangledness of our lives. Spirituality is not about being fixed; it is about God’s being present in the mess of our unfixedness.
Messy Spirituality (recently re-released by Zondervan Publishing) is Yaconelli’s challenge to a church that values conformity over authenticity, perfection over compassion and formula over relationship. Most evangelical churches would argue that they uphold a vision similar to Yaconelli’s, yet in practice few allow people the freedom to be where they’re at without pushing them to strive toward some fixed standard of perfection. Uniqueness is sometimes praised but more often condemned.
Similarly, many ex-gay ministries teach what appears to be a grace-filled message that encourages participants to share openly about their struggles while growing at their own pace according to God’s timing. In practice, however, only a handful of these ministries genuinely leave room for individuals to engage directly with God; the end result of that engagement has been predetermined according to a particular interpretation of a select set of biblical passages, and anyone who reaches different conclusions is automatically deemed unworthy of membership in the body of Christ.
Yaconelli (perhaps wisely) does not address the issue of homosexuality in his book, aside from including GLBT individuals in a list of various groups that churches commonly ostracize (to his credit he uses the term “gay or lesbian” rather than the various euphemisms that evangelicals typically substitute). As a result, readers will bring their own conclusions with them as to how homosexuality should be addressed by the church.
Yaconelli’s vision of “messy spirituality” does, nonetheless, suggest a framework that we can use to live with fellow Christians who disagree with us on this (or any other) issue. Having been granted the freedom to be where we’re at as individuals, we can in turn extend that same grace to others, encouraging them to pursue God (and to be pursued by him) without the need to dictate to them what that must look like, or what conclusions they have to reach.
It’s an imperfect solution, but then again, it’s an imperfect world.