Beware The Spiritual Tourists

Pastors and leaders can usually pick them at forty paces.  It often comes as a hunch backed up by some simple observations.  Evasive answers about their last church, a gentle refusal to give away too many personal details, often an absence of personal warmth all convey a largely hidden agenda.

Now this is not to suggest that whoever turns up on the church doorstep next Sunday is a liability.  Far from it.  Most first timers come for good reasons: perhaps they are new to the community and are looking for a spiritual home; others may be on holidays and are looking for a place to worship; some may be there at the invitation of family, friends or neighbours; ideally a few will be there out of a deep need hoping the church will be able to help them. There will be others who, having been hurt elsewhere, are looking for a place of healing and renewal.  All such newcomers offer enrichment and an opportunity for the congregation.

Who Are the Spiritual Tourists?

But the spiritual tourists (SP’s) are another breed altogether.  They are on a restless merry-go-round looking for the perfect church and (just in case you are wondering) yours will almost certainly be just another disappointment.  They may stay for a service or two; they may linger for months or even years.  Even if they do stay for a while, it will not be with any clear statement of long-term commitment.   There are a number of common traits:

  • Their view of what the church should be and do is based on a narrow focus. This will vary from a rugged conservatism, to chandelier swinging pentecostal hype, to a longing for liturgical grandeur. There are almost always private, predetermined doctrinal hobbyhorses which are used as benchmarks to determine if the church is truly spiritual.  These may include fixed views about the Lord’s return right through to whether certain spiritual gifts are being exercised or not.
  • Tolerance for alternative understandings of church and ministry is minimal. Your average SP is heavily into the making of judgements, usually snap ones, based on little evidence. Their self-appointed role of judge and jury all too often demonstrates a critical spirit and an absence of grace coupled with an overt righteousness displayed with great fervour.  This incapacity to be tolerant and understanding of other views of church marks a rigid people for whom flexibility is a sign of weakness and an absence of biblical certainty.
  • Behind their travels from church to church there lurk pressing ego needs. This pressing desire for power and influence often masks a thinly veiled hostility, if not arrogance. This unhappy bundle is directed towards the Christian community at large where they see genuine devotion to Jesus to be in short supply.  This means that the pastor is in immediate trouble since SP’s usually believe they could outperform most pastors.  It is all part of an emerging vendetta against the congregation, a preoccupation which defines them as wolves roaming among the sheep.
  • In essence SP’s are all too often spiritually disturbed, mostly unhappy people. Their whole desire for control and perfection is a profound handicap. Sadly, their families are often in pain and are dysfunctional in one way or another. Their bitter spirit signals internal confusion and a monumental lack of real peace.  It is not too tough to wonder at times if they are truly redeemed people given the obvious lack of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.  Joy is notably absent.
  • Their inability to love and tolerate their brothers and sisters in Christ is obvious. This suggests much about their own personal relationship with God which they clearly profess but which increasingly appears as a delusion given their angst directed towards the church, His Body. Coupled with this is a tendency to gossip and deal lightly with the truth.
  • It is not at all uncommon for an SP to announce that they have at last found a “good” church. In their new setting, the Gospel is faithfully preached and the pastor is duly affirmed. It will be but a short time, however, before a perceived heresy emerges and the dust will be shaken off their feet as they depart for a new congregational destination.
  • The extraordinary characteristic of many SP’s is their uncanny onboard radar system. This leads them unerringly to others in the congregation who may also be less than happy with the way the church is functioning. SP’s, especially those who stay around for a while, are then able to destabilise and discourage with economy size impact.

How To Cope with the Spiritual Tourists….

There is no simple system but keep the following in mind:

  • Do not assume that the SP’s are converted people. It is easy to be deceived by an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible and a wonderful facility to navigate the church culture with all the right turns of phrase.  They can often pray like angels and at great length in prayer meetings.  But their powerful albeit subdued push for doctrinal perfection signals that they have never known for themselves the generous grace of God.
  • Don’t be surprised when they arrive. Some you will not recognise straight away.  Since Jesus warned us to be on the lookout for the wolves among the sheep, we are foolish indeed to imagine that we will not have to deal with them. Remember that some will arrive solely to keep the pastor honest and vet the sermons to ensure biblical purity.
  • Be clear in your own mind about the vision, direction and theological stance of your church. Be able to explain with clarity, precision and brevity what you and your people are about in your worship and witness.  Be competent in describing your church in terms of its understood mission, not in terms of where your stand on specific issues which can quickly become points of unexpected tension.  These latter include: end times predictions, creation science, tongues, healing, inerrancy, women in leadership and many others.
  • Take care when differences do emerge particularly in regard to the issues identified above. SP’s generally love a debate; they feed off it and are good at it.  They have also marshalled a formidable array of bible verses to support their view.  This reliance on the Bible (to be commended, of course) does not, however, always leave room for other interpretations which will probably be described as liberal or misguided.  If there is no give at all on their part, the value of continuing engagement is suspect.
  • It is wise to hear them out at least once so that you can fix a bearing on where they are coming from. This does mean that you need to engage in great dialogue.  But it does mean that you should be willing to help them see that your church is not able to meet their needs (if this is the case) and to consider other congregational environments which may be much closer to their ideals.
  • Unfortunately, many SP’s exhibit a profound irrationalism coupled with a perverted piety. Acting with pastoral fairness may be seen by a SP to be a sign of weakness, a lack of conviction and vacillation. There is a need for firmness in responding to what may become unreasonable demands for recognition and participation on their own terms.
  • Certainly it is wise to acquaint your leadership with your anxieties about those who appear to be SP’s. They need to know in order that adequate support can be offered. It is not clever to attempt to handle SP’s on your own, especially if they are proving to be a handful. If unhelpful alliances are in the making, your leaders definitely need to be aware.
  • Not surprisingly SP’s are usually thick skinned people who can cope with just about everything. But there is one thing they cannot bear: it comes as a great shock if their spirituality is seen to be lacking. If it is appropriate, it will be necessary to indicate that a loveless attitude, a bitter spirit, prolonged criticism and intolerance are signs of an unredeemed heart; that it is time for confession, repentance and the seeking of forgiveness. This will probably not be received well with the rejoinder that it is the church which should be in sackcloth and ashes.
  • SP’s in small churches can appear as angels in light. They appear as welcome additions to the congregation and a pastor may willingly open many doors for them to engage in the life of the congregation only to see the danger signals too late.  Further, in a large congregation SP’s usually have minimal influence since the sheer weight of numbers is a handy insurance against too much untoward influence.  Not so in a smaller setting where havoc can be accomplished much more quickly and easily.

Wisdom and Courage will make the Difference….

The need is always for wisdom.  There is no point in being suspicious of all who arrive on the doorstep for the first time. Jesus brings all sorts of people in our direction and most of these are good souls who have gifts for service or needs to be met.  But it does mean that we be alert to those who have come to “check us out.”  This may be a genuine endeavour to find a spiritual home or it may be just another sortie to prove once more that God’s people have got it wrong.  There is no need to panic.  As you receive the promised wisdom from above, you will also receive courage and strength sufficient to deal with the wolves who so often parade as super saints.  Yes, they are out there and you will be equal to them!

Rev John Simpson