The Primacy of the Spiritual
by Paul Hazelden


Introduction

Over the years, I have lost count of the number of sermons in which this was the message: "As a Christian, my most important priority must be my spiritual life - my personal relationship with God."

The sermons usually go on to talk about the other things which, wrongly, become priorities for us, and conclude that none of these things matter if we don't make our relationship with God our number one priority.

I have come to the conclusion that most of these sermons are true - in the sense that the theology is correct - but unhelpful. They end up misleading people.

There seem to be two main problems.

In, Up, Out

Many churches recognise three aspects of church life. They go by various names, but often have these three directions acting as a simple reminder: In (relating to each other), Up (relating to God), and Out (relating to the world). My present church calls them "Family, Faith and Community".

Of these three aspects, it is clear that 'Up' is the most important in this sense: the relationship with God makes everything we do distinctively Christian. We can build strong friendships and do lots of good within the local community without being Christians.

(In passing, I would like to note that almost all the teaching I hear on the other two areas would work whether or not there is a God, whether or not you believe in Him, whether or not He is recognisably the Christian God and whether or not you follow Him. This disturbs me, but it is not what I want to talk about right now.)

So, without the 'Up' dimension in place and working, the othe two areas are rather pointless from the Christian perspective. But that does not make them unimportant.

Priorities

Most of us are very bad at setting and working with a set of priorities. Or, perhaps, we are very good at it, and very bad at modifying our priorities in the light of rules and instructions other people give us.

This is why some people make so much money from teaching time management techniques. The courses don't say anything we don't already know, but we are very bad at applying what we know in this area.

So I rather suspect that most people mis-hear what is being said in these sermons. What is (or should be!) being taught is that we should give the spiritual dimension the greatest priority because it is the most important aspect.

What is heard, very often (and what, too often, is actually taught), is subtly but significantly different.

Sometimes, it gets even worse. In sermons about our priorities, the advertised message is often fine: "My most important priority must be my spiritual life". But the actual content is often quite different. There are two common messages.

I believe all three of these messages are profoundly wrong, and deeply damaging, both to the individual's Christian life and to the congregation.

We need to make it clear that all three areas are important. We need to state it and re-state it, over and over again. We often manage to give a healthy message in our teaching on 'the big picture' - the "In, Out, Up" sermon, but we usually fail in the "My most important priority must be my spiritual life" sermon.

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