A couple weeks ago, in an article titled “Psychology Isn’t Enough, but It Sure Helps: The Need for Personal, Spiritual Growth in Christianity” I talked about a book by Gary Thomas called Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path To God. I originally read it back in 2017 and I’d planned to write about it here on the blog but for some reason (which I don’t remember now) I never got around to it. So I reread it, and now I’d like to share some thoughts.
Thomas proposes nine “sacred pathways” — spiritual temperaments that describe how we’re most inclined to worship God. In the first chapter, he discusses that in the Christian churches we often expect everyone to worship God the same way. The example he uses is the “quiet time” that became a staple of church training and discipleship programs in the 1970s and ’80s. It involved spending 30 to 60 minutes each morning in prayer, personal worship, and Bible study, then having an accountability partner to check-in that you were keeping up with your routine. Prayer, worship, and study are all good things, but it’s not good if we reduce worship to “rote exercise” or assume everyone has to worship in the exact same way all the time (p. 14-15).
I’ve heard the idea that everyone else should worship “our way” voiced more or less directly by a variety of people in churches I’ve attended. Some think churches that don’t encourage dance are not worshiping Biblically; others worry about the people who aren’t committed enough to follow their example of reading the Bible through every year. I’ve voiced my own frustration with song services that have all the enthusiasm of a funeral dirge, saying we need more life in our worship to make it meaningful. Complaining about those who don’t worship the way we think they ought is a common thing. But perhaps it betrays a wrong attitude.
“Excited about meaningful (to us) approaches to the Christian life, we sometimes assume that if others do not experience the same thing, something must be wrong with their faith. Please don’t be intimidated by others’ expectations. God wants to know the real you, not a caricature of what somebody else wants you to be. He created you with a certain personality and a certain spiritual temperament. God wants your worship, according to the way he made you.” — Gary Thomas, Spiritual Pathways, p.17
Of course, as Thomas himself points out, there are limits to individualized spirituality. For example, “It is neither wise nor scriptural to pursue God apart from the community of faith” (p. 17). We need to link our individual faith walks with corporate worship as well, for we are all part of the body of Christ. And it almost goes without saying that the way we choose to worship must align with what the word of God says about how He desires to be worshiped.
The Nine Pathways
Thomson’s nine pathways are rooted in scripture examples and church history. Most of us have several preferred temperaments, though there’s often one or two that are particularly strong. These temperaments can also change over the course of your life as you grow, develop, and change as a person and as a Christian. The nine pathways are:
- Naturalists: Loving God Outdoors
- Sensates: Loving God with the Senses
- Traditionalists: Loving God through Ritual and Symbol
- Ascetics: Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity
- Activists: Loving God through Confrontation
- Caregivers: Loving God by Loving Others
- Enthusiasts: Loving God with Mystery and Celebration
- Contemplatives: Loving God through Adoration
- Intellectuals: Loving God with the Mind
When I first read this book in 2017, I scored highest on “Contemplative” followed by “Intellectual,” with “Traditional” also being fairly high. Over the next three years, “Enthusiast” also joined my top spiritual temperaments and I now score slightly higher on “Intellectual” than “Contemplative.”
There are some online versions of the temperament assessments, but they’re not official resources shared by the author. To discover your own spiritual temperament, you can click here to get a copy of Sacred Pathways. (Please note this is an affiliate link which means I’ll receive a small commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.)
My Thoughts on The Book
I love the premise of this book and I think it can be immensely helpful. The only thing that holds me back from whole-heartedly recommending it is that I think sometimes Thomas is a bit permissive in bringing in extra-Biblical ideas. In some of the chapters for individual temperaments, for example, he makes suggestions that are based on early church writings rather than the Bible. This is not necessarily an issue in itself, but I would argue some of the suggestions are contradictory to Biblical writings (and that makes them problematic at best).
More specifically, I take issue with Thomas’ suggestion that because certain temperaments are naturally disinclined to care about rules and regulations they need not bother with strict obedience to Biblical commands. We need to obey God whether or not we feel like it and regardless of our temperament. These problems with the book do not negate its positive messages, but I encourage those who read it to do so with a healthy amount of questioning and having their Bibles open to double-check what’s scriptural and what’s suspect.
One thing I can fully agree with is the final chapter’s encouragement to tend your spiritual garden instead of just plant it (p.231-32). It’s not enough to begin Christianity and then stop, hoping for spiritual maturity to just happen. God means for us to grow and produce much fruit that glorifies Him. That does not happen without our active participation.
I also appreciate Thomas’ final note regarding church unity. There’s a danger when we talk about temperaments or personalities that we’ll sort ourselves into groups of people who are like us. In fact, we do that even when we don’t know about temperaments. We switch churches because the worship style isn’t what we like best, or because everyone else isn’t excited about our favorite causes, or because the conversations aren’t intellectual enough. But if we accept that God created these different temperaments then it follows they each have something valuable to contribute to the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12).
“I believe we would seriously impoverish God’s church if we created ‘The First Church of the Activist,’ ‘The Second Church of the Traditionalist,’ or ‘The Outdoor Chapel of the Naturalist.’ We need to learn from each other rather than segregate ourselves within our own confining experiences.” — Gary Thomas, Spiritual Pathways, p.239
Churches should welcome people of all personality types and temperaments, but it’s also unreasonable for each of us to expect that a single church service once a week will fill all our spiritual needs. We need to take responsibility for tending our own spiritual gardens and find ways to contribute to and engage with the church body as a whole. Learn how to add to church instead of criticize it. “Develop a life of faith, prayer, and worship that feeds into the life of the church” even if your perspective isn’t well represented yet (p.240). In that way, we can feed ourselves and nurture our own walks with God as well as contribute our own unique gifts and perspective to the church as a whole.
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