Gatekeeping and Contemplation: Is the Church Its Own Worst Enemy?

Gatekeeping and Contemplation: Is the Church Its Own Worst Enemy? November 2, 2019

A friend of mine posted the following fascinating observation recently on Facebook:

I am easing out of parish ministry because there are too many gatekeepers and not much interest in contemplative prayer.

The writer is a Catholic lay minister — but I have heard or read similar words from Protestants as well as Catholics, from clergy as well as laypersons.

I think this points to a serious problem within the institutional form of Christianity. The church gets so wrapped up in gatekeeping — in deciding who’s in and who’s out, and in policing one another — that we basically choke the contemplative spirit right out of our faith communities.

No wonder young people are leaving in droves, while mindfulness is now big business.

Is your church empty? Contemplation could be the key to its revival.

If the church’s only (or main) purpose is to be a moral watchdog, dealing out shame to those who don’t measure up to some standards (usually involving sexuality) while giving others a free pass (usually when it comes to economic injustice), then the church is going to die.

I know I quote Rahner all the time, but it’s so obvious that what my lay minister friend was referring to is precisely the problem that Karl Rahner predicted when he wrote, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.”

Let’s be real: “gatekeeping” is not a very good expression of Christianity. Sure, every organization has to have its boundaries, and Christianity is no exception. But if the organization is only about boundaries, then that means it has no center. In other words, its reason for being no long exists.

Religion without mysticism is religion that is dead or dying. A church without a vibrant culture of prayer, meditation and contemplation may just as well be any other kind of service organization. And if you had to choose being a Christian and joining the Moose or Elks or Rotary, well, most people are going to choose the organization that doesn’t shame them.

When Christian communities return to their true reason for being — their mystical heart and spiritual center of gravity — then there is little or no need to circle the wagons or keep an eye on the gates. Instead of worrying about who’s saved or who’s not saved, who’s committed a mortal vin versus who is in a state of grace, a church that keeps its eye on its own mystical heritage becomes oriented toward giving God’s love away, any way it can. It becomes a community pulsating with vibrant, joyful worship. The preaching and teaching is oriented toward joy and hope. The compassionate care of others is not a duty, but a natural outgrowth of a community oriented toward a shared of sense of being loved by God.

Think of your church as a circle. What is the strongest element of your church: the circumference, or the center? If your community is filled with gatekeepers and functionaries who obsess over doctrinal correctness and dogmatic formulations, insisting that the only people who really “belong” or those who think or speak or act a certain way, then yours is a community with a strong circumference, with an empty center. If, on the other hand, your focus is on cultivating a meaningful and living relationship with the God who is Love, and letting that community-wide relationship direct your style of worship, orientation toward hospitality, and shared commitment to prayer, then your community is truly defined by its center — God. And when that’s the case, then the circumference (the boundaries, the “gates”) will take care of themselves.

Please search your heart. If minding the gates matters more to you than cultivating a contemplative heart, I hope you will prayerfully consider how fostering a more intimate relationship with God might be the most important thing you can do to grow as a follower of Jesus. Meanwhile, if your church is more gatekeeper than contemplative, consider what you can do to help call the community back to its prayerful center. That may be a big job that will take years, if not decades, to make an impact. So be patient: God is more interested in sustainable long-term growth and in flashy quick fixes. But also: don’t delay! More and more disillusioned people are abandoning institutional Christianity every day. Help Christianity to have a future in your neighborhood: embrace the mystical life starting right now!


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