Cookie-Cutter Spirituality

Two books that I have enjoyed are A Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God: Spirituality for the Rest of Us by Larry Osborne (Multnomah 2007) and Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God by Gary Thomas (Zondervan 2000). Both books, in their own way, attack the one-size-fits-all spirituality so prevalent in religious circles, including Christianity. Over the years, I have grown disenchanted with the cookie-cutter Christianity approach. I tried hard to fit the mold when I was a younger Christian. My semi-neurotic approval-seeking desire to please others fed into my hard working attempts at conforming to a standard of what a “good” Christian looks like, talks like, acts like, and think like. Then I start realizing that different Christian circles have different expectations or standards or slightly different cookie-cutter shapes. And I tried to conform to those standards too. And failing.

One of the most prevalent Christian spiritual discipline that was drilled into my youth is the daily “quiet time” where you spend a certain amount of time every day, preferably the morning, to read or study your Bible and pray to God. How fervent and regular you are in keeping your “quiet time” is often a barometer of how close you are to God. Throughout my whole Christian life, I have struggled with keeping this daily morning routine. And I constantly felt guilty about it. I tried almost everything, from using devotional books to simplifying it to set prayers, to cutting down the time, to trying different time slots, etc. And I fail. I have always kept it a secret that I struggled with this discipline, especially as I rose in the ranks as a spiritual “leader” among my peers. And, now, I am a pastor. Yet, I have deep biblical knowledge and a deep passionate commitment to Christ. The daily quite time was definitely not a source of that growth. I grew more from short, intense periods of critical studies on the Bible and reading/researching books, and writing and/or teaching from it. I grew from learning from others, in reading and hearing. I grew from bursts of intensive prayer times, even ones that went through the night, where I pour my guts out to God, even arguing with him. Though few and far in between, their effects last me a lifetime. In recent years, I have come to abandon my guilt feelings of not having a regular “quiet time” and embrace the fact that this is how God has wired me, and this is how I relate spiritually to God. (And I am beginning to suspect I might have some form of ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder – too that may explain the difficulty in keeping the quiet time!)

Larry Osborne (A Contrarian’s Guide) attacks the notion of cookie-cutter spirituality as a fallout of religion that “places a major emphasis on rules and rituals that are supposed to either manipulate God or earn his favor.” (27) Religion emphasizes a one-size-fits-all approach. Whereas relationships are different and can never be one-size-fits-all. Osborne takes evangelical Christianity to task when he points out that even though evangelicals like to parrot the phrase that Christianity is a not a religion but a relationship, yet, its many books, seminars, workshops, sermons, programs all emphasize practices and disciplines that a “good” Christian must do or have in order to have a “relationship” with God! In sum, we “do religion in hopes that it will produce a relationship.” (27)

But if we actually take the relationship paradigm seriously, we would realize that no two relationships are the same because no two persons are the same. Even when two sons or daughters are relating to the same father or mother, their relationships will still differ based on their different personalities. As a father of three daughters, I can attest to that fact. But the reality is that so much of Christianity only pay lip-service to that relationship metaphor and serve up huge doses of rules, disciplines and practices, and don’t forget dogmas, to cut Christians into the same mold. As Osborne says, “our one-size-fits-all discipleship and spirituality recipes … [are] mere religion in the guise of relationship.” (33)

As a contrarian, Osborne interrogates some conventional Christian practices and thinking about spiritual growth, such as linear spiritual growth, seeking “balance” in life, fulfilling our potential, focusing on results, accountability groups, and putting God “first” – whatever that means – among others. Osborne honestly challenges these conventions and suggests alternatives that lower the bar – which Christians have unwittingly raised – on what God expects from us. I may not agree with all of Osborne’s insights – for instance, I’m not sure if he defines religion correctly – but I am clearly on his side in challenging the one-size-fits-all approach.

While A Contrarian’s Guide attacks cookie-cutter Christianity as disguised religion, Sacred Pathways takes a more positive approach and suggests how God has wired each person differently and how one can discover your spiritual pathway. Gary Thomas describes nine different pathways to God:

  • Naturalists – Loving God Out of Doors (in Nature)
  • Sensates – Loving God with the Senses
  • Traditionalists – Loving God through Ritual and Symbol
  • Ascetics – Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity
  • Activists – Loving God through Confrontation (activism)
  • Caregivers – Loving God by Loving Others
  • Enthusiasts – Loving God with Mystery and Celebration
  • Contemplatives – Loving God through Adoration
  • Intellectuals – Loving God with the Mind

He devotes a chapter to each one and gives questions to help you discover which pathway may be yours. Thomas suggests that we may each be hard-wired differently so that we feel closest to God in different ways. What works for an intellectual, like reading or intensive studying of the Bible, may not work for a caregiver who needs to roll up her sleeves and get to caring for others. Someone who loves the outdoors and feel closer to God when surrounded by nature wouldn’t fare well trying to keep a regular quiet time closed up indoors and trying to sit still.

So much guilt, pain and anguish can be avoided if we do not impose one pathway as the ideal or correct pathway for all. Or conversely, we start to covet our neighbor’s spiritual walk, as Thomas puts it. Thomas, briefly but provocatively, suggests that a good deal of denominational differences might be attributed to different spiritual temperaments or pathways being dominant. Traditions or denominations that are highly intellectual tend to frown upon those that are highly enthusiastic, etc. Sacred Pathways opens up the possibility of seeing such diversity not as conflicts but as complements.

Allowing for the diversity of Christian spiritual relationships with God opens up space also for those from a variety of differences, e.g. gender, culture, ethnicity, disability, etc. No one need to conform to a particular spiritual pattern. A plant analogy might help here. Even though most plants need the basics of light, water and nutrients to live and grow, the amount, the frequency and the source(s) of those basics differ for various plants. Some grow better in desert-like conditions while others require swampy wetlands conditions. Similarly, Christian spirituality may require the basics of Biblical nourishment, Prayer and Worship, and Service – how often, how much, and how they do it might vary depending on one’s pathway or creational design.

How have your spiritual walk been? Did you struggle with specific spiritual disciplines, feeling like it is “just not you”? Do you struggle with guilt at not practicing spiritual disciplines like you should? Have you found a non-conventional spiritual practice that helps you grow spiritually?

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
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8 Responses to Cookie-Cutter Spirituality

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  4. Michael Feir says:

    I guess I’ve come at things from a slightly different direction. When I finally gave the bible a chance one saturday night, God showed me enough to know that my walk with him would be a different one. Rather than being one of those people who know the bible inside out and have a quote in their quiver for every occasion, God wants me to learn from people. It’s all about relating with people, being the best friend to believer and non-believer that I can be. My struggle was more with how the world just wouldn’t let me conform to its cookie-cutter mold of success. I used to be so frustrated that, as a blind person, I couldn’t get that steady job despite my BA in English. It’s taken years to realise that I’ve always had that job, doing what God guides me to do and being where he wants me to be. As I work on my creative projects, relate to people, etc, I always try to be open to anything God might want out of whatever it is. I also read different pieces of the bible as the notion to do so strikes me. I don’t read them intending to memorise, but more to reflect on whether they speak to whatever is going on in life. To me, God and Jesus have been the ultimate wise and fatherly friends who jently nudge me, blind as I am, in the right direction. You keep an interesting blog, Mr. Chong. I’ll be keeping an ear on you.

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    • Shiao Chong says:

      Thanks Michael for your comments. So much of the cookie-cutter Christianity is also based on typically-abled people’s perspective too.

      You are right that the world also doesn’t make it easy for people to conform to the mold, even when folks, like you said, want to conform! I think this is part of the “system” so to speak. It sets up a one size fits all standard that asks people to conform to, and it doesn’t make it easy for people to do that – it raises the bar very high to ensure that many, if not most, cannot conform or achieve it – especially those who are “different” somehow – and creates guilt and feelings of inadequacy, which then can be exploited with various self-help or magic bullet answers via books, workshops, seminars, to help people to reach that bar or standard. Alright, maybe I’m being too cynical here.

      Thank you for sharing how God’s closeness to you helps you navigate your frustrations with the cookie-cutter system.

      I just read your last blog entry by the way and if you are interested in my take on the rapture, you can read it here: https://3dchristianity.wordpress.com/2010/07/02/the-rapture-a-mistaken-belief/

      Thanks again and I am honored that you will be keeping an ear on me! I will keep tabs on you too!

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  5. Shiao Chong says:

    Thanks Kinita for sharing your journey with us!

    You are so right about seasons as well – there are times/seasons in my life when it is easier to follow certain disciplines than others.

    Your lessons from your experience will be helpful to many!

    Blessings,
    Chong

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  6. kinita schripsema says:

    Hello there,
    I really value what you’ve said about getting away from a cookie-cutter Christianity. Over the years, I’ve gone to so many conferences where the women speakers have gone on and on about those lengthy ‘quiet times’. Even though it was a conference to encourage my spiritual journey, I often left very discouraged because they would portray a standard that I couldn’t achieve. During those times I had small children in the home and sometimes getting a shower would be the challenge of the day.
    Through various attempts (and failing often…I too struggle with symptoms of ADD :)) a couple things dawned on me. First, the fact that I was in the Word at all, was a positive step. How I was getting in the Word would determine how well it stuck (radio, devotionals, smaller passages, etc.,).
    Secondly, it really depended on the season I was in. Learning that the seasons end and start quite quickly. Some seasons would allow me for greater study, while others smaller portions.
    As a woman and mother of four (now in school full-time), I’m truly thankful for the extended time with the Lord I enjoy.
    Finally, GRACE!!! Giving ourselves grace in those times we ‘fail’ (checking whose standards we are going by).
    Once Christ is in us, we journey with Him always. He will never leave us or forsake us. I also liked what you said about the different ways we experience God.

    So this was longer than I had hoped. Thank you for addressing this and sharing your heart with us readers.

    Serving Jesus with you.
    Kinita

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