A formulaic faith is yet another form of the kind of “little faith” that Jesus’ disciples practiced and that Jesus condemned.

Symptoms

The disciples had seen Jesus cast out demons. They watched His bodily movements and listened to the words he spoke. Surely this is what you do when you want to cast out a demon and return a person to good health?

Jesus, of course, condemned their merely formulaic approach to practicing faith in God.

How can we know when we are slipping into a formulaic kind of faith? The symptoms are easy enough to spot. While the motives leading us into this form of little faith are typically well-meaning and sincere, a formulaic faith can become a tar baby which leads to more entanglement in methods and means and less freedom to know the liberating power of God’s Spirit.

We may be tending toward a formulaic faith, in the first instance, when our primary approach to determining the health of our church is to count noses and smiling faces. Paul is clear concerning what constitutes a healthy, growing church (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16), and he does not seem to put much stock in such criteria. The people who already attend our static or declining churches probably are not as “spiritual” as we wish they were. They are, however, the product of our ministry to them. Why should we think that adopting means to draw more people in will bring any more vitality to the congregation than already exists?

We have begun to operate out of a formulaic faith, secondly, when we convince ourselves that growth and renewal will come if only we change this and that or begin to incorporate more of whatever into the life of our church. New buildings or programs, additional staff, changes in the form or order of worship – all these and more are methods and means we turn to, hoping that one or more of them will prove to be the key that trips the tumblers of renewal.

We are trapped in a formulaic faith whenever we allow ourselves to believe that simply changing a few things will make a difference in the liveliness of our church. We look for programs or other means that we think might be agreeable to our leadership and congregation – as well as our budget – and then begin the process of selling these ideas to the congregation as the church’s hope for a new lease on life.

We might, in fact, realize some of the indicators of growth that we’re seeking by such means: new visitors, happier members, and a higher profile in the community. But we are called to seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, not the kind of results we hope for from adopting church growth or mega/church methods and means.

A dangerous form of unbelief

A formulaic faith is very close to being little more than a dangerous form of unbelief. Like Simon, we want the means to be in our power for getting God to do our bidding, according to our preconceived notions of what constitutes a healthy, growing church. This is not what we set out to do; it’s not what we intend. It is, however, the practical effect of investing the Lord’s time and money in various means and methods which, adopted, we believe the Lord must honor if our church is to be renewed.

It’s not that we should not use means to build and grow our churches. We should – but only those means which God Himself prescribes. Yet these are the very means – shepherding, disciple-making after the pattern of Jesus and Paul, church discipline, house churches, serving the community – that we tend to set aside in favor of the latest cleverly-named program or liturgical innovation.

God has instructed us, as He did Moses, to build His tabernacle according to the pattern He has revealed. We fall into formulaic faith when we give lip-service to God’s instructions and means and invest our time, strength, and resources in programs, protocols, and practices based more on a consumerist, entertainment, and individualist model of human life and the church, rather than on the image and temple of God which Scripture teaches.