On Why Going To Church Is Not Just A Self-Improvement Project

I think it is fair to say that we are all, very much, works in progress. Everyone I talk to feels that way, whether they are ten, fifty, or ninety years old. We are never finished because there are clearly ways that each of us could grow. Maybe you think about improving your diet or relationships or finances or your prayer life - whatever it is, everyone has a list. I doubt there is a single person here who doesn’t feel like they have some work to do. There have been a few historical exceptions to this need for self-improvement - Jesus comes to mind. He was pretty advanced as a human being. Maybe the Buddha too, after his enlightenment. But for the rest of us, there is room for improvement. And if anyone tells you that they have completely arrived or reached spiritual perfection in some way, well, that’s more of a red flag than an inspiration. Watch out for pastors in particular, the ones who claim advanced states of perfection or insight. You know I love to drop the Kardashians into sermons from time to time. This week I’ll just say that Kanye West now runs a Sunday service and, not surprisingly, he’s the center of it. No judgment, but he might have a little more work to do on his ego. Truth be told, don’t we all. 

Self-Improvement is a worthy occupation, and I would also say it’s a bit of a cultural obsession. I have some new evidence for this. I’m a little late to the party, but I have just discovered podcasts. I had to get a dog first, and then I needed something to listen to on all those dog walks. You know, because that’s time I could be spending on bettering myself. And podcasts sure do deliver on advice for self-improvement. I have listened to episodes about being stress-free, plastic-free, bias-free, grain-free, and sugar-free, to name a few. We can talk about “slaying our sugar dragons” after the service if you’d like. I can also share some advice about good sleep habits, leadership skills, finding deeper purpose, and the importance of having a budget. And even about how to cleanse your crystals, which I learned listening to a podcast on a recent drive with the kids to a crystal mine outside of Hot Springs. I’ve learned about everything from the microbiome to the scripture readings for Sunday. Who knew there is such a world of information out there, at the ready for our self-improvement projects, from what we eat to what we preach. I’m lucky to have an active dog because it’s honestly a little hard to keep up with all of the advice. 

For the most part, I think it’s a good thing that we live in such a self-improvement culture. It can help us shed some bad habits and live life more fully. But there is a downside to this cultural obsession as well. And it has to do with the fact that we carry it right into church with us. It is easy to think of going to church much like how we think about going to the gym or any other good habit. For an hour a week, we come to work on our spiritual fitness. We hope to see certain benefits, like more connection, more love, more meaning, more comfort, and more empathy. All good things, but woe to us if we think church is only or primarily for self-improvement. In many ways, the life of faith is just the opposite. It’s about being improved not by self, but by God. 

Jeremiah had a vision about this that took him to a potter’s house. The potter was making a vessel, but the clay was spoiled. The potter reworked the clay into another vessel as seemed good to him. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah and said, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” It’s a stunning image. We are the human clay on a divine wheel, being made and remade into better vessels. God’s hands are literally shaping us. This insight could not be more different than our usual thoughts that we simply work on ourselves. 

Of course, this is Jeremiah we’re talking about, so a dire warning comes along with the vision. God will dispense goodness or disaster, depending on whether we turn from our evil ways. Even then, there is a certain grace to be found here. When a potter messes up, there are usually two options - overlook the mistake and make do, or start over with a new piece of clay. God chooses a third option, fixing the clay God already has (Alfie Wines). God will not overlook unrighteousness, like the stubbornness or sin in our clay-footed selves, but God also won’t throw us off the wheel altogether. God starts over, reworking us once again. 

Not long ago, there was a potter doing a clay demonstration at a state fair (as told by Melissa Myers). She molded a lovely vase on the spinning wheel and impressed the onlookers. Someone asked when she was going to fire it in a kiln and have it for sale. Never, she replied. She smooshed it down, to everyone’s disappointment. A pastor stuck around until the crowd dispersed and asked why. The potter explained that while the vessel might have looked nice, it was filled with imperfections that would just crack when fired. She had to rework the clay, making it into the vessel it could be, given whatever mix of goodness and imperfections it had. Sometimes, she said, you think you’re making a mug but the clay really wants to be a plate, or vice versa. You have to work with what you have, to make the clay into what it needs to be. If we take that wisdom from a real-life potter and return to Jeremiah’s vision, we find a God who won’t declare us finished just to let us crack under the weight of our imperfections when fired in a kiln of judgment. God will start again, working with the gloriously imperfect clay that God made in the first place. Our job is to let ourselves be reshaped. 

There is perhaps, no better image for a kick-off Sunday. Today we celebrate the beginning of another year of formation at Christ Church. Whether you are ten or fifty or ninety, we will all be formed in new ways: through things like prayer, music, service, study, conversation, joys and sorrows, downtown engagement, community building, and of course, eating together. 

This is a good time to ask about your expectations of a new year at Christ Church. To throw in a little podcast lingo/wisdom - Will you check coming here off some self-improvement list, along side going to the gym and eating better? There’s nothing wrong with that, and I think Jesus is mildly interested in our self-improvement projects, but that’s not the only reason to come here. The other option is to step into this community week after week and to let the divine potter reshape you. 

For this to happen, we do have to let go of a couple of things. The first is the idea that we work on ourselves by ourselves, without God in the mix, like any other self project. And the second thing to let go of is an idea that’s popular to talk about on podcasts these days, something called confirmation bias. That’s essentially when we just keep finding what we already think we know to be good or true, and ignore the rest. If we think church will only be comforting or pretty or friendly, then that’s what we will find. 

If, on the other hand, we think we will be changed here, the potter has a much better shot at reshaping us altogether, as individuals and as a downtown faith community. And that’s when we will see the truth, that we are not only self-improvement projects, but also God-improvement projects. So it’s back to the potter’s wheel we go. Jeremiah’s vision promises that the potter is eager to get started. 

Kate Alexander