Our Stuff and Spiritual Disillusionment

By Marie “Ree” Foster

“How, then, is it possible that Methodism, that is, the religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay-tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently, they increase in goods. Hence they proportionably increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.”
– John Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodism, 1786

Growing up in a Bible-believing, God-fearing, southern-American home, my experience of church was mostly a positive one. With my mom being a pastor and my dad a leader in men’s ministry, I had the opportunity to get to know church life in an intimate way from a young age.

When I turned 11-years-old, my family was sent to a small town south of Atlanta, where we were to plant a new congregation. We met many people who weren’t church goers or believers and we became quick friends. Soon there were about 10 people worshipping in our home on Sundays and having Bible studies at other people’s homes throughout the week. As we grew, our worship centers consisted of school cafeterias, gyms, and even a movie theater. The members of the church came from all kinds of backgrounds: Protestant, Catholic, and agnostic. We were an amalgamation of believers and honestly, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever experienced. I was in love with this community. We were family in every sense of the word. We laughed, loved, disagreed, and grew together. The first five years with this group was the most authentic experience I have ever had with a community of believers.

But in the fifth year, things began to change. Our congregation had the opportunity to merge with a church that was about to be closed. The transition was opposed by many and our community almost broke apart. We struggled with the new idea of being in a permanent location with a set sanctuary. In the previous years, it did not matter where we met; it mattered more that we met. But now we had responsibilities for a building and for certain material things that were considered valuable (i.e. pews, a very old cemetery, a leaking roof, a sanctuary, insurance, hymnals, a 1970s painting of Jesus and just about anything else in an old country church that comes to mind). Suddenly, our focus was not just on coming together as a community of believers to worship and serve; it was also on maintaining all the trappings of an institution.

As a 17-year-old, I had an interest to explore the world and begin to understand humanity. In the summer before my senior year, I spent three weeks in Mozambique, Africa, where I had the opportunity to worship with a small community of believers. Their make-shift building of sticks and a thatched roof was simple but their service was full of life and the love of God. There were no bulletins or worship books and only a few benches in the back, but God filled this space as we sang and listened to his Word. These people shared with us how important it was to focus on the simple blessings such as good health among members, loving relationships between each other, and enough food to share with the poor in the community. After returning home, I began to wrestle with the question of whether our material success in North America is having an effect on our culture’s spiritual disillusionment. Materialism is a well-known characteristic of Western culture, with consumerism being the driving force behind our economy, even infecting our church values.

The story is told of Thomas Aquinas once calling upon Pope Innocent II while he was counting out a large sum of money. The pope said, “You see, Thomas, the church can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” Aquinas replied, “‘True, Holy Father, but neither can she now say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”

As followers of Jesus Christ, we want more than anything to honor Him. If institutional responsibilities begin to consume too much of our attention, we can too easily lose sight of the reason God has called us into ministry in the first place. We must remember the foundation on which our churches stand. Possessions will break, disappear, and change, but we will never be without the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Marie “Ree” Foster currently resides in Central Asia as an English teacher with The Mission Society. In addition to teaching, her work focuses on the shift of cultural traditions through globalization as well as the role and practices of the local church.

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