Three Signs of the Church’s ‘Spiritual Disorientation’

By Bob Perry Published on September 22, 2018

It is a scary thing to be disoriented. At best, it means you’re headed in the wrong direction. But if you’re flying airplanes, it means you have no reference to the ground. You can’t navigate. You may not even know which way is up. In other words, being disoriented is not just an annoyance. It’s dangerous. But there is something even more dangerous than being disoriented — and that is not knowing you’re disoriented.

I hate to say this, but I believe many people in the church are becoming spiritually disoriented. And many of them don’t even have a clue. Let me explain what I mean.

Spatial Disorientation

On the evening of July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy, Jr. crashed his private airplane into the Atlantic Ocean near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. I remember that night well, because I was the First Officer on a Delta Boeing 767 descending into New York’s LaGuardia Airport at exactly the same time.

The visibility over the water that evening was horrible. The haze, humidity, and sun angle combined to turn the sky around us into a giant, yellow-gray blob. There was no horizon. No way to tell which was up. Between us, the Captain and I had nearly 40 years of combined flight experience. Even so, we were uncomfortable. New York air traffic control was allowing airplanes to use visual flight rules. But we insisted on using instrument procedures for our approach and landing.

Spatial disorientation occurs when a pilot loses his reference to the ground. With no visible horizon, his inner ear and eyes begin to give him conflicting signals.

John Kennedy, Jr. had no business flying in weather conditions like that. He was not an experienced pilot. Sadly, the plane he was flying did have the instrumentation he needed to operate in those kinds of conditions. But Kennedy wasn’t trained to use it. An investigation of the accident revealed the cause. JFK, Jr. had “failed to maintain control of the airplane … as a result of spatial disorientation.”

Unable to Recover

Spatial disorientation occurs when a pilot loses his reference to the ground. With no visible horizon, his inner ear and eyes begin fighting with each other. They give him conflicting signals. He gets the sensation he’s turning when he is actually flying straight. What he sees and feels don’t match. Making the correction that feels right actually exacerbates his problem.

Experienced pilots know how to recognize the symptoms of spatial disorientation. When they do, they are trained to trust their flight instruments. A failure to do so can quickly become a matter of life and death.

Kennedy didn’t understand what was happening to him. Inexperienced pilots rarely do. By the time he realized something was wrong, it was too late. His lack of training doomed him. His attempts to correct the situation only made it worse. Within a matter of seconds, he was plunging toward the ocean in a “death spiral.”

It probably went something like this …

Three Signs of Disorientation

There are three elements of spatial disorientation to be aware of:

  1. You can’t see the ground.
  2. Your sensations lie to you about your alignment with the world. You think everything is fine.
  3. When you realize something is wrong, your attempts to correct things make them worse.

Spiritual Disorientation

I share this story for a very specific reason. I believe that many in the church have become “spiritually disoriented.” They are flying through this life in a way very similar to the way JFK, Jr. was flying over Long Island Sound.

I don’t say this to be provocative. I say it because I have evidence to back it up.

Media research pollster George Barna makes a living studying the beliefs and behaviors of the Christian community. He has published several findings about how evangelical Christians think and act very much like the world around them. He also looks at their actual beliefs and attitudes. The parallels between spatial and spiritual disorientation are fascinating to see.

They Can’t See the Ground

What grounds the Christian worldview? What is our reference point? I submit that it is no different than what grounds reality itself.

The truth.

This is a topic for another discussion that I will engage more completely later. For now, let me say that for thousands of years, thinking humans have seen truth as an objective feature of the world. It is something external to us. We don’t invent it. We discover it. For that reason, truth is as real as the ground we walk on. And truth is what should ground our thinking.

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But today, we have come to believe that truth is up to us to decide for ourselves. As one example, Barna discovered that only 59% of Christians said that there are moral truths that are unchanging — that truth is not relative to the circumstances.

In other words, we have lost sight of what should ground our thinking. We have no firm reference to the truth.

They Think Everything is Fine

No longer grounded in the truth, most Christians think and act just like the world around them. For example:

At the same time, this little nugget ought to jump out of Barna’s data and grabbed you by the throat: 92 percent of self-described evangelical Christians view themselves as being “spiritual.”

We think and act pretty much like the world around us. But we overwhelmingly believe ourselves to be “spiritual.” How is that possible?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that society has lured us into redefining what it means to be “spiritual” by dissecting our heads from our hearts. We have let the culture convince us that the heart is the most important thing about us. Feelings and emotions guide us. When those feelings and emotions are positive, we are on the right track. Those who have perfected this search are considered society’s most “spiritual” people.

Their ‘Corrections’ Make Things Worse

Once feelings and emotions replace truth as the most important point of reference, we use them as our primary means of engaging the world. In our efforts to avoid making people feel bad, we dodge the truth. Feelings become more important than reality itself.

Grace abounds, but truth is dying in the streets.

A church that avoids the truth by honoring feelings above truth is a church that has lost sight of the meaning of love.

As an example, imagine an anorexic girl who is nothing but skin and bones. When she looks in the mirror, she thinks she is overweight. She diets and purges. Her weight continues to decline.

Would it be loving and kind of us to tell her she’s looking great? Should we encourage her to continue down the path she has chosen? After all, telling her she looks like death warmed over would certainly hurt her feelings.

Obviously not. We have a duty to tell her the truth, no matter how much it hurts her feelings. Playing along with her delusion would only make things worse. It wouldn’t be loving. It would be dangerous.

Spiritual Readiness Logo - 400One doesn’t have to think very hard to see the parallels going on in our culture with all forms of sin and rebellion. Yet we have prominent church leaders and spokesmen demanding that we do just that. A church that avoids the truth by honoring feelings above truth is a church that has lost sight of the meaning of love.

Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is tell someone the truth.

Overcoming Spiritual Disorientation

The culture has infiltrated the church. As a result, the church is becoming more and more spiritually disoriented. Many prominent church leaders deny the core principles of our faith. They promote a disoriented Christianity that allows the culture to critique the church instead of leading a biblical critique of the culture. And too many in the church have accepted what they’re saying.


Originally appeared at True Horizon. Reprinted with permission.

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  • John A.

    You are correct in this analysis. Much that goes against Scripture is accepted within the church. Further, those that choose a Christian worldview are disparaged. Sadly we (I’m bad about this) try to fight these spiritual battles with worldly techniques and “wisdom”.

    • Considering you think everything your ego desires is scriptural, I suppose whatever you don’t desire isn’t scriptural.

      How can the Church that wrote the Bible be against the Bible? Where in the Bible does it delineate which books are valid?

      • Andrew Mason

        I suspect you’re conflating Roman Catholicism with the Church, or perhaps more generally the whole of Christianity as defined by the World. Naturally much of what the World defines as Christianity will agree with what the World says.

        John, care to define what you mean by church? 🙂

        • Who is john?

          The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. The Universal Church.

          • Andrew Mason

            John A. started this tangent with his comment “much that goes against Scripture is accepted within the church”.

            I’m fairly certain that by church he is not referring to Roman Catholicism no matter how you personally use the term.

          • There is only One Church.

          • Andrew Mason

            And as I said I’m pretty sure John wasn’t talking about Roman Catholicism when he referred to the church.

          • There is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

            The term “roman” was invented by the Anglican heretics who were in too much of a state of despair to admit they were heretics.

    • tz1

      The problem (supra) is scripture is ambiguous and/or contradictory. You can state something “goes against scripture”, but you really mean it goes against those specific verses you’ve highlighted, but ignores other scriptures you ignore.

      I wish is were not so. Even so, Abortion isn’t really considered some kind of abomination that is a deal killer to be eliminated, nor is “no-fault” divorce (man-fault or “frivorce) though you can just read the Gospels that condemn Divorce is extremely strong terms.

      But you will find verses…

  • Trilemma

    A pilot flying by what he sees out the window is like a Christian living by what he sees in the Bible. A pilot flying by what he sees in instruments is like a person living by what he sees in science.

    • JP

      Even science has been proven wrong many times. Science can’t tell you what right or wrong is. It can’t tell you what is important in life.

      • Trilemma

        Science has been proven wrong many time by what?

        • GLT

          By science.

          • Trilemma

            Science is the pursuit of knowledge. How does the pursuit of knowledge prove the pursuit of knowledge is false?

          • GLT

            Science is merely a tool, a method of investigation in the pursuit of knowledge, it is not the pursuit of knowledge itself. As such what scientific study once declared correct later study may prove incorrect. Thus science can disprove science, it’s quite simple logically.

          • Trilemma

            How is a method of investigation in the pursuit of knowledge proven wrong if it corrects past error and results in more knowledge? Seems like the method of investigation is working quite well.

          • GLT

            “proven wrong if it corrects past error,…”

            If you’re going to use Rodin’s The Thinker as an avatar it would be a good idea to think, don’t you think?

            If something corrects an error, by definition that error is wrong, is it not? If it was not an error it would not need correcting. As such, in correcting an error in scientific research scientific investigation is proving earlier scientific investigation wrong.

            Seriously, Trilemma, arguing in this way you are simply flogging a dead horse. Move on.

            “Seems like the method of investigation is working quite well.”

            Correct, science is a method of investigation, just as I said. Now you’ve got it. 🙂

          • Trilemma

            If a man is using a claw hammer to drive in nails and suddenly a nail is flattened sideways, is the hammer wrong or the man using the hammer? If a woman comes and uses a claw hammer to bend the nail upright and drive it in, did the second hammer prove the first hammer wrong? No, of course not. The tool works just fine. Same thing with science. Science, as a tool, does not prove science wrong. One researcher can use science to correct what another researcher got wrong.

          • GLT

            I see you’re into flogging dead horses.

            “If a man is using a claw hammer,…”

            You just don’t get it. A hammer is a physical entity, a solid object, science is not. Science is also not a repository of knowledge waiting for man to open the cupboard doors. Science is simply a tool, which like a hammer can be used incorrectly resulting in incorrect results. As such, science used by one man can show the science used by another is incorrect.

            You seem to have forgotten your original argument. You claimed science was the pursuit of knowledge while I pointed out science was only a tool used in the pursuit of knowledge. As an entity science is neither right or wrong just as the hammer is neither right or wrong, the errors come from those using the tool.

          • Trilemma

            You seem to have forgotten your original argument. I asked what has proven science wrong. You said, “Science.” Now you say science is not wrong.

          • GLT

            I never said science was wrong, I said science is a tool, not an entity. A tool can be misused, therefore science as a tool can also be misused and science well done can expose that misuse and the resulting error. I am not contradicting myself at all, you are simply failing to grasp the logic. You’re functioning under the erroneous view that science is the fount of all knowledge and cannot be wrong. Science is only a tool and as with all tools is only as good as the individual using it. If the individual using the tool uses it improperly the results will be ‘wrong’. Science, properly used, can expose the error of science improperly used. That has been my point from the beginning. That you fail to grasp that is not my fault.

        • By itself. By common sense.

          In the modern day, science is little more than gnosticism trying to self-justify itself with pseudo-scientific “theory.”

        • JP

          Other theories and observations. At one time science thought that the universe was eternal until other theories and observations proved it false.

          • Trilemma

            What you’re talking about is science falsifying a theory. Scientists come up with theories and then use science to confirm or falsify the theory. That’s how science works. It’s not science proving science wrong. The science that makes things work such as air flight, atomic power or computers is not going to be proven wrong.

          • JP

            That example I gave you shows you that science is not infallible and cannot always give you the truth about something. Its very limited in what it can tell us as truth.

          • Trilemma

            Your example shows that humans are not infallible. Humans come up with theories. Science will either prove or disprove those theories.

          • JP

            Nor is science infallible.

          • Trilemma

            Nor is the Bible infallible. But, over time, science is corrected.

          • GLT

            “The science that makes things work such as air flight, atomic power or computers is not going to be proven wrong.”

            It’s not ‘the science’ that makes these things work, the science only explains how they work. The laws of physics do not create the physical, they only explain what is observed.

          • Trilemma

            The science engineers used to make things work such as airplanes, atomic power or computers is not going to be proven wrong.

          • GLT

            How does this demonstrate science is not merely a tool?

          • GLT

            “The science that makes things work such as air flight, atomic power or computers is not going to be proven wrong.”

            Those things are not science, science is simply the discipline which investigates and explains those objects. Science did not create the computer, man did using the tool of science. Science did not create the computer anymore than a soldering gun created the computer.

    • So you are advocating for living blindly by natural measurements?

    • Andrew Mason

      I think you have that backwards. Scripture is the instrument by which Christians ought measure. Science is akin to studying what’s outside the window.

      • tz1

        Except that Scripture is often ambiguous or contradictory so requires philosophy – reason – to determine the truth within.

        For example in 1929, contraception was considered a grave, sodomic sin. Today it seems to be considered a blessing. Whence the 180?

        • Andrew Mason

          Not as often as Atheists and the like claim. Most apparent contradictions can be reconciled when you take into account all factors.

          Is contraception a matter of Scripture, or a matter of imposing worldly values onto Scripture?

          • tz1

            See Charles Provan “The Bible and Birth Control” – which documents that from the Reformation to 1930 that EVERY protestand theologian and leader including Luther, Wesley, Calvin and Zwingle said that Contraception is a grave sin.

            It is like asking if “gay marrage a matter of scripture”…

          • Andrew Mason

            Except that homosexuality is explicitly rejected in Scripture. No such rejection exists in regards to contraceptives. Further there are numerous scenarios where a ban on contraceptives would force Christians to decide how they will sin – to refuse to share their body with their spouse, or refuse to marry their virgin (depending on their stage in life) versus imperiling the life and well being of another. This is something of a personal issue as I have friends with various genetic conditions and family histories that mean they will never have children, but have married.

          • tz1

            Did you read (or listen to) Provan? Or heard of Onan?
            If they have some condition that renders them sterile or otherwise unable to have children, it is sad but miracles do occur. The way Humanae Vitae (also lists the history of the doctrine) puts it, the act must be “open to life”. It is different leaving the door open and expecting nothing will happen than to slam the door in the face of God so he cannot create a new soul. What is the value of a soul v.s. sexual pleasure?

          • Andrew Mason

            I’m familiar with Onan and I have previously looked up Provan but I’m skeptical about his worth. Onan’s sin was refusing to do his duty by his wifebrother’s widow yet treating her like a prostitute.

            Actually for the couples I’m thinking of sterility would likely be a blessing – hence contraceptives. Naturally I don’t know all the details but think children who will likely be born with both muscular dystrophy and early onset Alzheimers to parents without permanent work, or children who will be born to a mother likely to succumb to extreme postpartum depression and whose mother’s struggles with it shattered the family unit and resulted in said woman spending time in foster care.

            I never said the divide was between the value of a soul and sexual pleasure, but rather obedience to God in marriage versus imperiling the wife’s health and wellbeing. In the examples I mentioned the couples are forgoing children, but presumably not intimate relations. If your contention is that such relations may only be enjoyed at the risk of children, a risk they cannot take, and refraining from such relations is sin, contrary to what God commands, what are they to do? Are you suggesting they ought to divorce or something?

          • tz1

            1. The penalty for not doing the levirite duty is losing your shoe and dignity, not your life. See Deuteronomy 25

            2. In the first examples did they know BEFORE marrying there would be these problems? Marriage is a vocation, and a hard one, and Divorce is also forbidden. There is the possibility both could remain celibate in marriage – foregoing relations.

            Christians these days don’t know or want ANY sacrifice. 11 of the apostles died a martyr and it was tried on the 12th but failed. But they demand to be Married like they deserve it or God owes them a partner, and then allows divorce, and they are owed sexual relations even if those relations are dangerous.

            This trivializes Marriage, or whatever you call this business relationship for pleasure that is carefully managed and too easily dissolved. The sense of having to get a participation trophy would embarass a millenial.

            What happens if the wife or husband is seriously hurt or gets a disease and becomes a huge unattractive burden? Divorce?

            Speaking of entitlement:

            3. The husband pastor and wife foreign missionary are selfish and proud. Both of their vocations would be easier if they both stayed single which should be obvious. Why do they think they are entitled to be married at all, much less an intentionally sterile marriage where they are sacrificing the children they would have on the altar of their worldly success?

            I quoted our Lord where he agreed that because of all the potential and actual burdens it is better not to marry. Marriage is a vocation, not a right.

          • Andrew Mason

            Thanks for the Deuteronomy reference. While that’s shown to apply to Ruth – the relative who didn’t want to marry her, it doesn’t apply to a man who agrees to take his brother’s widow, but takes steps to ensure that she cannot conceive a firstborn to inherit the brother’s name. One is a refusal to fulfill one’s duty, the other is to treat his brother’s widow as a sexual plaything hence the difference.

            Yes all those I mentioned were aware of the familygenetic issues prior to marriage, and were honest with their spouse-to-be. I’d contend divorce isn’t forbidden, merely constrained – Jesus gave one example of permitted divorce in Matthew 19. Celibate marriage is contrary to Scripture i.e. sin. I refer you to 1 Corinthians 7 which states that husbands must fulfill their duty to their wife, and a wife to her husband, that spouses are not to deprive each other of their bodies except by agreement for a short period of time during which they devote themselves in prayer. To not enjoy each others body is to invite temptation, and sin, into your life. Note, I’m making a distinction between couples that desire each other’s company, but not physical intimacy and couples where at least one partner does crave physical intimacy. While celibacy can exist in both situations, where neither desire physical intimacy there is no deprivation and no risk of temptation or sin.

            I can’t speak of those you know but the Christians I’m thinking of didn’t demand to be married. My belief was that one of them was not interested in marriage, and another was focused on God. God’s plan appears to be for them to be partnered, which is certainly in keeping with God’s Eden design.

            I can’t comment on the specific vows taken but I believe a line in the vein of in sickness and in health ’til death do we part is common. In the case of the early onset Alzheimer couple they went into the marriage knowing it may be fairly short – death rather than divorce, and that there may be a period of burden at the end.

            I can assure you that the pastormissionary couple are not selfish or proud, in fact they’re the kind of Christians that we need more of!!! I also disagree that their vocations would be easier single. You cannot be a pastor without a wife, at least not most ministries. And having a native husband allows the wife far greater connection to her adopted homeland. I don’t think either would talk of marriage in terms of entitlement, but rather God’s purpose for marriage, and perhaps that they were apparently meant for each other. On a slight side note God has an amazing sense of humour – years ago the wife listed things she didn’t want in a husband, and yet she married someone who ticks most of those boxes. Neither is enjoying worldly success but rather engaged in sacrificial service, and winning converts for Christ.

            You said you quoted the Lord where He agreed that because of all the potential and actual burdens it was better not to marry. Where? I’m guessing you were thinking of something like Matthew 19:10-12. It is the disciples who suggest that it is better not to marry, and Jesus neither agrees nor disagrees. Instead he states that some are eunuchs – some born that way, some made so by men, and some who make themselves that way for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. I take eunuch to mean those who choose not to marry rather than a reflection on their capacity to father children. At the same time though 1 Corinthians 7 provides another view on the subject. Paul taught those free of a wife oughtn’t to seek one – marriage isn’t a right as you say, but that marriage is not a sin. Paul’s language is a little cryptic but men behaving improperly towards their betrothed, whose passions are strong, can marry without sin – perhaps should marry. Conversely those who do not desire marriage, who have their desire under control, and who choose to not wed their betrothed do equally well. In that culture parents arranged marriages for their children. Betrothals are something modern Western ‘children’ arrange for themselves so the verses don’t directly correlate with our current culture. If betrothed is read as ‘girl a guy is interested in’ or some comparable contemporary jargon, the instructions work equally well. I’d also note that while Jesus and Paul both give different criteria for marryingnot marrying, they don’t conflict. I’d also point out Genesis 2:18 where God says “… it is not good that Man should be alone; I will make him a helpmate …” I agree some are called to marriage, and some are good at being married, but that not all should or desire marriage. The question of who should and should not marry is a slightly different question though.

            Thanks for the response. Obviously I don’t agree with all your thinking, and obviously I haven’t given all the details in the scenarios I mentioned – not that I know them all myself, but it is interesting to see a different take on things.

          • tz1

            Thanks for your long, detailed and thoughtful response. I think the debate is good at least in that even if we don’t agree, others can consider the issues more seriously and think about the telos, not the moment.

      • Trilemma

        I think I have it right. Science measures things such as temperature, velocity, altitude, etc. just as the instrument panel in the airplane does. What the pilot sees outside the window can sometimes be misinterpreted and he sees something that isn’t there just as what people see in the Bible can be misinterpreted and they see something that isn’t there.

        • Andrew Mason

          I still disagree. The Bible provides set measures, and allows judgments to be made about a variety of things. We may make mistakes because of our viewing angle, but it doesn’t mean the instrument itself is wrong. By contrast science continually gets things wrong. To a large degree it is a matter of consensus. Over time a consensus may change and scientific claims corrected, but it is equally possible the reverse will occur.

          • Trilemma

            You said, “We may make mistakes because of our viewing angle, but it doesn’t mean the instrument itself is wrong.” I agree with that statement.

            You said, “By contrast science continually gets things wrong.” Can you give an example?

          • Andrew Mason

            Past or present? Anything present will be controversial, but as regards past try geocentrism, phrenology, social Darwinism, basically any scientific theory or concept which was once accepted as gospel, and with which disagreement constituted heresy.

          • Trilemma

            Humans are continually getting things wrong. Thanks to science those errors get corrected. When science started to correct geocentrism, theologians resisted because they believed the Bible taught geocentrism.

            If you believe science continually gets things wrong, how would you treat a child who swallowed something poisonous? Would you take the child to a pastor and treat the child using prayer like Christian Scientists would or would you take the child to a hospital like an atheist would where a doctor would use science?

          • Andrew Mason

            it’d depend on what you mean by poisonous. You also assume it’s one or the other.

          • Trilemma

            Let’s say it’s the contents of a laundry pod and you only have time to choose one or the other treatment.

          • Andrew Mason

            Again you assume it’s one or the other. And I’m not familiar with pods so I’d probably have to delay to look at the packet and see what it says.

  • tz1

    The perception of Truth (including the Way, the Truth and the Life) is in itself a grace.

  • Up_Words

    Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. . . .” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:4,6)

    Thank you so much for this article. For most, I judge your message to be, “Don’t enter that cloud bank that removes your normal reference point!” Yet for others, who have no choice (in college, for example) it means a greater and more intensive devotion to the Word & prayer. The greatest danger I find is in the “innocent” entertainment offered through the media, wherein foul language (and thoughts) creep in, with just a “tad” of witchcraft in the story line. The temptation is to look away from the “Instruments” (the Word of God) and to fly by the “seat of our pants” into danger. This is what our Lord was speaking about, no doubt (Matt. 5:28) and what Joseph had discovered in Potiphar’s household, regarding shielding one’s heart from the seductions so available all around us: seductions that the “mature” and “sophisticated” wade through without realizing that we should never make a playground of spiritual quicksand (1 Jn. 2:15-17, James 4:4-10)!

  • Ray

    I miss the reading of scripture in Church.

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