While chatting with a friend the other day, the subject turned to how things were going in our respective churches. As we spoke, it gradually became clear that my friend wasn’t entirely happy with his church life. A number of complex, overlapping issues had made his involvement in this church challenging- so challenging that he believed going elsewhere might be what’s best for him and his family. For at least half-an-hour I listened, acknowledging that many of the issues he had with his church were indeed understandable. Towards the end of our conversation, though, he said the phrase that I have heard a number of times before, usually from the lips of churchgoers of an evangelical bend who have grown dissatisfied with their Sunday morning experience. He said, “I’m not being fed.”
When people say, “I’m not being fed” in the context of their church involvement, they usually mean that the preaching isn’t quite satisfactory. Speaking more broadly, however, the phrase could also mean that the churchgoer just doesn’t find that her needs (or the needs of her family) are being properly met in her place of worship. There could be any number of reasons for this: a sloppily run youth program, music that is either too traditional or too contemporary or liturgy that seems bland and irrelevant. “I’m not being fed,” is often code for “My church isn’t delivering what me and my family need right now.”
By now, you may have figured out that this phrase troubles me. It troubles me, firstly because of the spiritual immaturity and passivity that it not only reflects but engenders. Indeed, the phrase is passive even in a grammatical sense, written, as it is, in the passive voice- “I’m not BEING fed.” At least when we go to a restaurant we go TO FEED. We go TO EAT. These words imply that, even though we’re not actually cooking the meal, we’re at least taking the fork and knife into our own hands and actively putting the food into our mouths. When we go to church, however, we somehow expect to “BE fed”- words which conjure up the image of a parent spoon feeding a small child.
Furthermore, the phrase “I’m not being fed” suggests that the church is an institution that simply exists to meet the needs of its members- a church that is, in the words of Pope Francis, “in itself, of itself and for itself.” It suggests that the church exists merely because there is something that we, the members, can get out of it. Depending on our needs, that could be a quality Christian education program for our children, a rich, emotionally rewarding experience of worship, a sense of belonging or good, biblical preaching. And, when that institution fails to deliver what we expect (that is, if we’re “not being fed”) then we have every right to move on to another church.
Naturally, we see the opposite of such an attitude at work in the heart of Christ. On one occasion, the Lord seems to have become so engrossed in his labour of preaching and teaching that he skipped a meal (or two or three). Noticing this, a couple of his disciples start pushing food into his hands: “Rabbi,” they say, “Eat something!” To which Jesus enigmatically replies, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” Knowing that the disciples would probably drive themselves crazy trying to decipher what he was saying, Jesus tells them plainly, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” What Jesus is saying here is that his life and his vitality- his sustenance and strength- has nothing to do with what he passively consumes but what he actively gives out in obedience to His Father’s will. Indeed, for Jesus it is his Father and his Father’s will that is at the centre- certainly not his own self. All that Jesus says and does is anchored in Him.
If our experience in a particular church community seems utterly empty and unfulfilling then it may very well mean that its time to move on. However, before doing that, we need to wrestle with a question that is far more valuable and relevant than, “Am I being fed?” That question is, “Is there work for me within this church that feeds others and, as an indirect consequence of this, feeds me?” In other words, “Is the Father calling me to a kind of life-giving ministry here in this place?” If so, then our food will be the very same food that sustained our Lord, day-after-day in his ministry’; namely, to do the will of Him who has sent us. It is this food that will truly satisfy us- far more than the music of the world’s greatest praise band or the sermons of an outstanding preacher.
By Terence Chandra