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The Shelf Life of God

The Shelf Life of God

Matt loved Jesus, you were supposed to believe. And you would have. The very moment you first see Matt, all round, wide eyes that are set deep just above an adorable smile, Matt convinces. But he was full of it.

“I thought that by satisfying my flesh, I could escape from my head.”

He devoured a steady diet of girls and booze. In an odd inconsistency, Matt hid his secret life, though he hoped it would free him. “I know that I believed in the Lord and loved Him, but … I guess the easiest thing to say is that I didn’t understand grace.” In sin he tried to banish the God he couldn’t connect with, and separate from the unsustaining spirituality he had known as a child.

Here, insert the standard sinful sequence: bad choices, problems with alcohol, smatterings of drugs for fun and drugs for downtimes, when no sense of peace could be found. Then came Rick Warren. Yeah, that Rick Warren.

Matt took himself to Saddleback Church. “Do I remember what they were talking about at the time? Nope.”

His spiritual development had entered a progressive phase. He says he doesn’t remember what was preached when he returned to church, but Matt remembers knowing he needed to return again. The next week he gave himself to God, claiming a spirituality born of his own intention.

Of the conversion, or reconversion, you could call it, I ask Matt if he feels he was a Christian prior to the night he drove home, knowing God changed him forever. When he answers, Matt says perhaps he was.

And then he adds, in simple truth, “But I may not have chosen Him until [that] time.”

It was theologian Paul Tillich who asked whether or not Christians could identify the values that had centering power in their lives. Can you? On that day, Matt did.

The Barna Group, the go-to Christian research organization, confirmed in a 2006 study what most of us already know—a lot of Christians experience spiritual drift during their 20s. We put God on the shelf. “The levels of disengagement among twentysomethings suggest that youth ministry fails,” vice president David Kinnaman says.Bible-study Wednesday gets replaced by poker or Pilates. WOW 2002 gets replaced
by Arcade Fire.

But here’s the catch: Barna statistics suggest religious habits get the boot, not religion itself. Many of us are finding that we want God. The debate is whether or not it’s normal, and a necessary part of psychological development, to shelve God and go do something else in order to know, when we get back to God, that we want that relationship for life.

It’s All In Our Head

A pioneer of human development, psychologist Erik Erikson assigned a number to the act of putting God on the shelf. It’s No. 5 in the stages we have to go through in order to mature. You and I know stage five by its other name, though: adolescence.

The central conflict during adolescence is identity. We’re confused.

Pastor Phil Wyman directs The Gathering, a Salem, Mass., church operating in the heart of a town made famous for witchcraft. He compliments the Neo-pagan community in Salem for the focus they place on every person as a creative individual. “I know many Christians who have not left the faith, but left their former church experience in search of something deeper,” he says. “They were in search of deeper relationships, deeper service to the community and the world, or a deeper sense of wonder.”

Wyman was profiled in The Wall Street Journal last year. He says he’s seen Christians migrate to Neo-paganism during times of spiritual drift, but also from Pentecostal and Evangelical Christianity to Orthodox and Catholic Christianity.

Speaking about the limits of evangelicalism, Wyman offers, “Perhaps in the name of unity we have created a legalistic standard, which is a subpar spiritual experience.”

Matt knew this judgment. He kept his searching to himself. “They judged people so harshly for what they did—I didn’t want that.”

Achieving adulthood, however, remains an imperfect science, and Matt—and many Christians—is still putting God on the shelf well beyond age 18, the cutoff for adolescence in Erikson’s model.

This is where the psychological model of development joins a spiritual model.

“We have to question, examine and reclaim the values and beliefs that we have formed to that point in our lives,” writes James Fowler in Weaving the New Creation: Stages of Faith and the Public Church. Fowler is a Methodist minister who has written on spiritual development since the 1980s. His ideas loosen the boundaries of Erikson’s basic model.

He offers seven stages of spiritual formation, developed after completing interviews with thousands of people about life and pilgrimages, journeys and particular ways of making meaning.

If spiritual drift is a confrontation of our “lifestage issues,” to quote the Barna report, it’s a confrontation that cannot be skipped or battled back with better church programs. It is in our twenties that many of us, for the first time, are curious—and, frankly, brave enough—to let God slip down the priority rung, regardless of whether we are conscious of the fact we have put God on the shelf. We’re not, technically, adolescents. But we might still be very young spiritually.

Dr. Todd Hall, director of the Institute for Research on Psychology and Spirituality at Rosemead, an arm of Biola University, agrees that spiritual drift can happen well beyond the end of traditional adolescence. He too spent time in drift.

“I attended a Christian college, so I was attending chapel three times a week and taking Bible classes. I exerted all the will power I could muster, but it didn’t work. No matter how hard I tried, I was left feeling empty, confused, distant and not very available to love others well. I used God to keep emotional pain at bay.”

Not every Christian will need to banish God all the way to the back of the cupboard, though Hall notes, “When your spirituality doesn’t promote an experience of connection with God—when it is being co-opted for some other purpose—it’s natural and understandable that you drift away.” Spiritual drift, he says, must be diagnosed for what it is—a crisis of meaning.

In the absence of God, Hall believes our psyche drives us to replace that meaning. “We often find a new love—a new purpose to fuel our lives … a job or career, a hobby or a relationship; perhaps a marriage. If our spirituality didn’t work, then we naturally find something to fill that void.” He now uses his own experiences to direct others to the insights that can be uncovered during times of drift, when God is on the shelf.

Furnishing the Soul, a book project Hall is developing, guides Christians through five ideas that promote relational spirituality. “Drift from God is a normal and understandable result of this stage of life. We need to better understand the demands of these transitions.”

Never The Twain Shall Meet

If you don’t buy the necessity of shelving God, you may be involved in a very reasonable fight. There is an inherent opposition in psychology between humanism and religion.

Can we trust psychology to explain spiritual drift? Yes and no.

Psychology advances the individual as supreme. From the intimate inspections of our thought life, to the recognition that we control and choose our behavior, the focus of many psychological therapies is not upon us living in conjunction with a divine power. It’s just on us. Me, me, me.

Though without an admission that psychology plays a role in spiritual drift, Christians are left with a mass coincidence. Doesn’t it seem odd that so many of us, all during roughly the same era in our lives, have had the exact same experience? That so many of us leave God and then come back new later on?

The debate has no easy answers.

At, for example, skepticism of psychology remains. “The psychologist that is seeking to help you with your interpersonal problems often deals only with symptoms. The heart of the problem lies in your relationship with God.”

The comment isn’t confusing. Only two world-views are presented on the website: horizontal and vertical. Fix the vertical relationship, through the Church or on your own. Don’t fix the horizontal relationship.

Hemant Mehta sees a different landscape. He sold his soul on eBay to an evangelical pastor who asked Mehta, an atheist, to visit churches and report back on what Christian teachings felt and looked like to an outsider. To him, the vertical fix at times felt a horizontal pull for his heartstrings.

Of some churches Mehta says, “They make you feel good when you walk out; pastors know that to bring people into church, they have to appeal to the broadest masses, and the way to do that is to keep things as simple and optimistic as possible.”

At, Mehta regularly comments on Christian perspectives, preaching and ideology. About spiritual drift, he posits this guess: “If natural curiosity doesn’t push young people away from organized religion, the churches will often end up doing it themselves.”

Through under-informed responses to cultural issues, such as homosexuality or abortion, or by emphasizing horizontal gimmicks or a rejection of spiritual drift as anything more than rebellion, ministry can alienate rather than facilitate in times of searching.

Take a Christian like C.S. Lewis, though. He splits the difference. Lewis shunned religion, only to find his position reversed once he reached adulthood. He didn’t have a vertical relationship problem, so to speak, because as an atheist, he didn’t have any vertical relationships to speak of. What Lewis had, that a lot of us can give an amen to, is a horizontal problem within himself. Atheist-Lewis and spiritual-Lewis were failing to communicate.

He says of his own transformation, when it finally occurred, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God.” In Surprised by Joy, we learn Lewis made this choice with intention. In that act of consciousness he repaired the break on the horizontal plane inside of him—a solid repair that made it possible for Lewis to rise up and then get vertical with God.

In Fowler’s psychology talk, Lewis phased out of the individuative-reflective zone. To summarize the conversion a different way, it can be natural to wander from God, only to return to know God by choice.

Not everyone has to wander in order to travel back to God, but for those of us who have found ourselves growing distant from the trappings of religion and the traditions of our upbringing, there is hope. When the decision to follow God is ours rather than a decision made for us by our church or parents, it’s a relationship that’s stronger than ever before.

Originally published in RELEVANT Magazine issue 28. If you enjoyed this article, consider visiting your local newsstand to pick up the latest issue or subscribe online.

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