Measuring Our Faith

I’m mad at my iPhone right now. Siri and I are barely even on speaking terms. I use an app to track my running progress, and lately it’s been seriously short-changing me. Because of the cold weather, as much as I don’t like it, I’ve been running on the treadmill. I enjoy running but I’m not hardcore about it; I prefer to run without snot-sicles dangling from my nose. When you run outside this app uses GPS to calculate your distance, but when you’re inside it relies on the phone’s built-in accelerometer to measure your progress, much like a pedometer.

The problem is my accelerometer must think I’m going in reverse. The last few times I’ve used it, I’ve only gotten credit for about half the actual distance I ran. I run four miles, my phone says I’ve run 2.2, as if it doesn’t believe I’m actually capable of running four miles. OK, it’s skepticism may be valid, but the fact is I DID run four miles. Take that, Siri! Now, let’s all pause and recognize how absurd this next sentence is: “I’m upset because the accelerator on my smart phone won’t accurately record how far I’ve run.” First-world problem? Most definitely.

But there’s a deeper issue here for me. In the grand scheme of things, why should this upset me? It’s not like my body is penalized for my faulty accelerometer. I don’t have to add back on the calories or fat layers because my phone doesn’t believe my treadmill. I still get all the benefits of the exercise (I’m still not sure those outweigh the pain), even if the numbers on my phone don’t add up.

But I’m still mad. Why? Because I’ve been conditioned to believe that numbers matter, and something only counts if it helps you to get closer to achieving some goal. When my running app tells me I’m approaching some milestone (“You’re getting close to your target distance!”) I feel a little surge of adrenaline. Yes! Mission accomplished! And if I somehow fall short, whether in reality or by accelerometer fail, I feel disappointed…even if I ACTUALLY met the goal. My running app has become the barometer of my self-worth. I text, therefore I am.

Am I too competitive? Probably. But that’s good, right? We need to be motivated by something that keeps us moving forward. Even in our faith, it’s good to have goals. To quote the esteemed theologian “Weird” Al Yankovic, “Think you’re really pious? Think you’re pure at heart? Well, I know I’m a million times more humble than thou art!” Or to quote a slightly more reputable source, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (James 2:18). In other words, “My faith is bigger than your faith!”

OK, so maybe being goal-oriented isn’t so great when it comes to matters of the spirit. I once encouraged a congregation member to write new lyrics to old hymn tunes as a spiritual discipline. She did, and the end result was beautiful. But she was devastated that I wouldn’t use the hymn in worship. My response was, “Why does it have to be sung in public to be validated as worthy? Isn’t there an intrinsic value to doing something, whether or not it is deemed ‘useful’?”

Kory, mirror. Mirror, Kory. Too often, I determine value only by the bottom line. The worth of a worship service is determined by the number of people who attend. The value of a program is calculated (a word that doesn’t fit in church outside of a Finance Committee meeting) by the number of people who participate. I used to make the argument that a program was worthwhile to all those who came, even if that number was low, but inside I was secretly lamenting, “Where WAS everyone?” I suspect I’m not the only pastor who lets their mood be swayed by the number of tushes in the pews.

I’ve seen the negative effects of this thinking in my ministry. I know in my soul that value is not determined by numbers, and some of the most important, meaningful things we do for God simply cannot be measured. But I daily battle my own nature and the world’s conditioning to count, compete, and compare. I want more people, more dollars, more acknowledgement that I’m doing something “important,” because all of those things will help us reach more people and change more lives. Plus, it feels good.

But maybe the life that most needs changing is the person who made the effort to show up for the poorly attended worship service or Sunday School class. I keep reminding myself that church is about quality, not quantity, and the quality is determined by the work of the Spirit through my imperfect leading and preaching and serving. There is always something to be gained for nurturing our faith, even if the only person who hears the song we sing is God. That is enough.

I promise I’m going to keep working on this…as soon as I get off the treadmill.

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