We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. Now that we do have some time, and know it, I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important.
Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. Te desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.
Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
I am rereading these two books, sort of in tandem. Pirsig’s book was written in 1974; Foster’s in 1978. The problem has not changed in the intervening thirty years. We have more information now, more resources, more access to facts and ideas, but in a way that’s the problem. There is so much that it becomes almost impossible to process.
Personally I’ve been trying to use Lent to balance things. I’ve stayed off twitter and t’interweb in the evenings and read books (hence the Pirsig quote). It’s not been entirely successful, but it’s a start. I’m quite good at knowing a little about a lot of things. Processing that information, developing it, using it to dig deeper foundations; that’s a skill I always need to work at.
When I worked in social marketing I was always banging on about the difference between output and outcome. Charities tended to measure success by output – the number of leaflets printed, column inches in the newspapers, radio interviews, packs distributed. But the real success is outcome: whether or not things have actually changed and made a difference.
Churches also have this issue. We worry about numbers: bums on pews. But that’s output. You can have mega churches of thousands of people, but what’s the point if they’re just living the same lives as everyone else? We mistake width for depth. We think that if there are lots of people it will make a difference.
Often you hear this expressed in the idea of Britain as a Christian country. Well, historically the peak of churchgoing in the UK was probably around 1904. And what happened then? Britain was a colonial power engaged in exploiting people on a worldwide scale. Two years earlier we’d had the Boer war, during which we invented the concentration camp, killing an estimated 28,000 people. We still had child labour at a massive scale. Ten years later we colluded with the other European imperial powers to plunge the world into a terrible war. All of which shows that output is not the same as outcome. A churchgoing nation is not the same as a Christian one.
The challenge remains the same. It’s the challenge to really think about things. And thinking is done best in community. For churches that means we should be focussing on discipleship. We should stop obsessing about numbers. The nation doesn’t need width but depth; deep wells are more useful than big, shallow lakes.