Help Wanted! A Critique of DIY Spirituality

Sometime around 1410, Andrei Rublev painted an icon of the Trinity. The image depicts the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gathered around a table. As they are seated they are positioned with an openness to the viewer inviting each person who reflects on the image into the communal moment they are sharing together.

Thomas Merton reminds us that “when we find the truth that shapes our lives we have found more than an idea. We have found a Person.” Rublev’s Trinity captures beautifully the dynamic Personhood of the God who shapes our lives.

The Person who shapes our lives is essentially a community of Persons.
The Person who shapes our lives invites each of us into that community.
The Person who shapes our lives gives to each of us the image of Himself, which is community.

What does it mean then to bear the image of God? It means, fundamentally, a spirituality shaped by communion.

DIY Spirituality

Despite this communal image we are given, our church communities are still, on the whole, oriented towards reinforcing practices of DIY (Do It Yourself) Spirituality.

What is DIY Spirituality? This is the mentality that I have the knowledge, resources and capacity to maintain and improve my own spiritual wellbeing without the help of others, and most certainly without the assistance of a “professional.”

When it comes to DIY projects like home maintenance or auto repair, the DIY’er attempts to fix or install whatever he or she can and only calls in the professional when things get too complicated.

I know this attitude all too well. I was taught from a young age “never pay someone else to do what you can do for yourself.” A dear friend of mine is an electrician. He and I have a standing agreement. I will start a project and do as much as I can until I get in over my head… and then I will give him a call to bail me out. Sometimes I can pull it off. I save our family a few dollars and enjoy the satisfaction of figuring something out on my own. Other times, not so much.

The Toxicity of Self-Reliance

While self-reliance is a virtue in many cases, in the lifelong journey of faith, it is toxic for the soul. If, in search of the truth that shapes our lives, the person we find is our own reflection, as in a mirror, what have we gained?

One might have the false sense that the journey is me and God, when in reality I am traveling along with myself. Without the community of other venturers and the guidance of “professionals” this lamentably lonesome trip is inevitable.

Introducing the language of professionals and experts into our dialog on spiritual formation may be foreign (and even offensive) to some, but professionals are critical to our community. Just as a master electrician has spent much of her life developing her craft, so too have the pastors, theologians, biblical scholars, sociologist, counselors and the many other spiritual guides that help shape our community. A robust Christian community is filled with “professionals.” We should neither hesitate to identify them as such, nor hesitate to seek their counsel in our personal journey. At the same time, these voices in the Christian community should be treated with charitable equity and mutuality.

Apart from the influential input of others, we only hear the echo of our own limited perspective. The counsel we seek should be diverse. If we only listen to voices we agree with, then aren’t we still just listening to ourselves?

The complex challenges of life require complex, nuanced responses. The DIY spiritual journey is positioned for failure because it is not equipped to respond to this complexity.

The anxiety we experience when we allow new input into our faith journey is an expression of our fear that we might be challenged to change. However, when we relinquish our preoccupation with being “right” and pursue a life that is faithful, our fear will fade, and a spirit of hospitality will soften our defenses.

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The Most Terrifying Moment

For many, there is nothing more terrifying in the spiritual journey than the moment we lay ourselves bare before another brother or sister in Jesus. This is exactly what the community of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, invites us to do. We are invited to lay bare our lives before a person, not an idea. Ideas can be pondered in isolation. Knowing people requires community.

We all have something to learn from one another. We will listen after we have learned something about one another. Our shared humanity and our shared mission create solidarity that will support our vulnerability.

For leaders of Christian communities, it is our responsibility to model this openness to journeying with others. Who is pastoring the pastors? Who is teaching the teachers? Who is counseling the counselors? The most isolated among us are those who are perceived by others to be the “experts.” If we are going to stop teaching DIY spirituality, then we need to stop practicing it ourselves.

Hear again Merton’s words “when we find the truth that shapes our lives we have found more than an idea. We have found a Person.”

We are challenged to continue to pursue this Person, a Person whose very essence is community. It is only when we find ourselves surrounded by the community of God that we can begin to see ourselves enjoying the abundant life that is shared at the communion table in Rublev’s icon of the Trinity.

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Welford Orrock
Welford Orrock is the Coordinator of the Kairos Initiative where he helps equip and encourage young adults through connected, vibrant collegiate and young adult ministries that are Developing Leaders, Building Community and Moving Missionally.
Welford Orrock

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