Every follower of Christ has experienced times in which God feels a million miles away due to our wandering affections. But does spiritual drift occur in organizations or even churches and how can someone avoid it? The first realization must be to lay hold of the reality that institutions are not immune to drifting away from God. Tragically, we have scores of prominent examples of institutions that, over time, moved from passionately pursuing the cause of making Christ known to ignoring His teaching to eventually even opposing Jesus Christ. Examples?
Harvard was founded to train pastors for the “church in the wilderness.” In 1636, the session of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony voted to support an institution of higher learning to provide spiritual leadership for some 17,000 Puritans migrating to New England. However within 65 years after its founding, liberalism had crept into the faculty and Harvard had drifted from the original vision of raising up Godward pastors.
Today, Harvard not only rejects any semblance of its original mission, it actually promotes various belief systems diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christ. For example, the Divinity School at Harvard sponsors nearly two dozen religious and spiritual organizations on campus. Religious expressions touted by the school that range from yoga classes to meditations in the Buddhist tradition to Unitarian Universalist services are just some of the offerings that Harvard Divinity School supports today.
Within 65 years of its founding, the pastors of the area noticed the spiritual drift that was occurring at Harvard and this led to the formation of another collegiate college by the Congregationalist ministers. Again, the objective was clear: that
“Youth may be instructed in the Arts and Sciences who through the blessing of God may be fitted for Public employment both in Church and Civil State.”
In 1745 the school moved to New Haven and was renamed, Yale. Yale recast its purpose:
“To plant and under ye Divine blessing to propagate in this Wilderness, the blessed Reformed, Protestant Religion, in ye purity of its Order and Worship.” Students were required to live religious, godly and blameless lives according to the rules of God’s Word, diligently reading the Holy Scriptures, the fountain of light and truth; and constantly attend upon all the duties of religion, both in public and secret.”
Yale was seemingly impervious to spiritual drift as one faculty member wrote to a friend in 1800 (99 years after its inception):
“It would delight your heart to see how the trophies of the cross are multiplied in this institution. Yale College is a little temple: prayer and praise seem to be the delight of the greater part of the students.”
However, gradually, the spiritual mission of Yale was blurred through merely focusing on the the mind of the students who attended. The unyielding commitment to Biblical fidelity gave way to the amorphous conviction of Yale today. For example, in 2012 Yale Divinity School was hosting lectures by “spiritual” leaders such as Chris Stedman, an interfaith social justice advocate—and avowed atheist— who was asked to lecture to the Divinity students regarding his journey to atheism. Stedman’s address was part of an ongoing interfaith discussion at Yale Divinity School that has grown to include atheist, agnostic, and multi-religious voices. Amidst a variety of Christian denominations, the Yale Divinity School community now includes members from Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish traditions as well people who identify with multiple traditions…or, such as atheists, no faith tradition at all.
The school that was first founded to cultivate the spiritual understanding of God in the lives of its students now supports the questioning of the very existence of God. Someone may say, yes, institutions can drift given competing interests that rise to leadership over time. However, if there was a clear and compulsory vision or ethic, certainly it would be possible to have a group of people withstand the allure of cultural forces? We only have one example that fits in this category in the history of the world.
The early years in which Israel (scribe and spiritual leader of the people of Israel) returned from exile in Babylon (538 B.C.) were incredible. Along with the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, the people were filled with a renewed commitment to drink deep from the well of the soul-satisfying worship of God at the Temple in Jerusalem. However, over time, a spiritual drift occurred within the ranks of the religious leadership … from seeking the Lord through worship according to the Scriptures to seeking advancement through the use of the Scriptures to manipulating the people in spite of the Scriptures.
By the time of Jesus, the spirit of the scribes and Pharisees was completely out of harmony with the worship of God as shown by the fact that they didn’t even recognize Jesus as the Christ sent from God. The toxic nature of the spiritual leadership in Israel was so bad that Jesus takes his last few hours before going to the cross to specifically point the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees (see Matthew 23). Jesus dismantles the claim of “spiritual leadership” by the scribes and Pharisees as being hypocritical. As a matter of fact, the spiritual drift was so bad that the remedy God chose to apply was to smash the Temple – the hub from which the leaders in Jerusalem wielded their authority and power.
How do we insulate our lives from spiritual drift?
Given that spiritual drift is a historical fact for every institution, organization, or people group given enough time, what can an individual do in order to guard himself or herself from becoming a spiritual castaway?
1. Know who is leading you
Make sure the leadership you follow is both personally qualified as well as passionately committed to live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only person in the history of the world who lived a consistent Godward life as the Christ. Therefore, he is not only our model, He earned the right to be both our Savior and Lord. Given that Jesus told His followers to make disciples and if you are following a leader(s) who is not making disciples or has no plan to fulfill Jesus’ command to make disciples, you have already entered into a pattern of drift.
Any leader that deviates from the Lordship of Jesus in their lifestyle of making disciples will necessarily lead to organizational drift and eventual apostasy or, given enough time, a falling away from Christ. While it may be hard to believe, history is absolutely crystal clear: An organization that deviates in the quality and commitment by its leadership to the mission of Christ will eventually deviate from all of the mandates Christ has given. If making disciples is not a clearly articulated mission of the church you attend, you have entered a process of spiritual drift.
2. Be a self-feeder
Actively encourage and model for those in your community of faith, a regular time of personal devotions with the Lord. Personal time in which the reading and meditating on God’s Word along with prayer will necessarily insulate an individual from the cold influence of both the world and drift-prone churches being championed by secular marketers. In writing to a church being swamped by the waters of spiritual drift, Paul gives us insight into how we might resist the pull of the world:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Did you notice the dynamic Paul employs? As the church at Corinth meditates on the glory of Christ (His character and priorities expressed in both his life and message), they will necessarily be insulated to resist spiritual drift. The transformation that they will experience will effectively anchor them in Christ.
3. Be part of a healthy, God-centered church
Aim at making much of Jesus in any and all ways even when that passion may seem to be counterintuitive in reaching those who are far from Christ. Too often churches feel the need to limit their Godward expressions given it might confuse non-believers who attend Sunday service. These same churches would find themselves downplaying words like, “sin,” “hell,” “judgement,” and the like given their controversial and uncomfortable nature in our culture. Is this the stance of the early Church? Did the early church moderate its message to allure lost people to attend? No. For example, embedded within instructions that Paul is giving to correct the abuses related to speaking in tongues and prophetic gifting, we see that Paul encouraged the Church at Corinth to passionately pursue Christ in front of non-believers who attend their gatherings as a church. Why? The Church gathered provides a powerful witness to the authenticity of the message of the Gospel.
If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you (I Corinthians 14:23-25).
To Paul, effective evangelism can occur when the church functions with non-believers in the room. The implication is that as people who are far away from Christ observe disciples of Jesus in the setting of the church service, these non-believers may come under conviction of sin and their need for Jesus. It may seem counterintuitive today with churches programming their Sunday morning “experience” to the felt needs of non-believers, but Paul’s methodology was driven to make much of Jesus and let THAT be the mechanism in which the lost are compelled to repent and trust in Christ. To those who find themselves cringing at the notion of boldly and unashamedly celebrating Jesus in the Sunday morning assembly for fear of how that might drive away “seekers,” could it be that this is a sign that you are already waste-deep in the comforting waters of spiritual drift?