How does one measure an experience? Is there a scale or a spectrum we can place our experiences on that would allow us to compare with one another? What if my experience of faith is different from another person’s experience of faith? Is it less valid? Is it more valid? Let’s at least be honest that the idea of measurement always means we intend to compare what is measured.
In a continued effort to examine the merit in measuring what we do in the church, I want to ask: can we measure an experience of faith? Before we attempt to answer that, perhaps we need a couple of caveats to begin the discussion.
Much of 20th Century spiritual formation tended to be individualistic and information-oriented. If a person sought to be formed in a spiritual community, it was generally emphasized that formation came down to a matter of the individual’s relationship with God. If you had any hope of growth, then it was expected that information about God and faith would eventually form you into the Christian you were meant to be. Knowledge is power and, therefore, it has the power to form the individual.
On the contrary, if you were not growing it could be assumed that you were not receptive to the information provided that would naturally form you into the Christian God called you to be. Surely there was nothing wrong with the basic knowledge presented in the narrative of faith.
I think there are a couple of problems with this type of outlook on spiritual formation.
First, a community of faith is not simply a collection of individuals gathered in a common space. It is not simply the sum of its parts. Instead, the community itself carries a certain flavor based on the collection of people gathered, a shared history together, and a shared context in which it exists. The community itself inevitably shapes the individual who encounters the community just as much, if not more, than the individual will shape the community. There is an implicit faith found within the community that continues to form an individual, even if they’re stunted in their possession of their own personal explicit faith.
Secondly, faith is not just something we agree with intellectually, but rather it’s something we experience together. To treat spiritual formation as simply an intellectual endeavor would rob it of the existential value that faith in God naturally carries. We live in a society where freedom is the ultimate good in life. The problem with taking this approach with faith assumes that faith is similar to consumer or political choices. The truth is, if we profess a belief in the Risen Christ, faith will naturally have a active and embodied quality that transcends intellectual freedom. This comes through the active presence of the Holy Spirit. You can’t think your way into being transformed by faith you have to embody and experience it enabled through a power beyond your own.
Thirdly, a community of faith is called a community that shares more than just ritual. To simply worship together falls short of what it means to be a community o faith. A community must find ways to grow through shared experience that touches the life of a disciple beyond just worship. Communities must learn how to risk together. After all there is more to the life of a disciple than just ritual observance. A community must be innovative enough to allow space for the entire life of disciples to be shaped together.
All of this is to simply ask: How do we measure an experience? Is it theologically correct to measure arbitrary categories by the individual or should w emphasize the priority of the community—even if this means we can’t measure as easily?
The Rev. Ben Gosden is associate pastor of Mulberry Street UMC, Macon, GA.