There was a time, within the memory of many of us in The United Church of Canada, when a congregation could count on the culture around it to assist in the spiritual formation of its members.
For children, weekly Sunday School classes and mid-week groups were supplemented by daily prayers and devotions in school. Even those adults who did not participate in Bible study groups were immersed in a culture that largely operated on the premise that there was consensus about morals and attitudes and that those morals and attitudes were shaped by the Christian story. Magazines, radio and television shows, community leaders, and politicians, often assumed and promoted a “Christian” value system. Even stores and sports teams left Sunday morning free for participation in the church’s worship and formation activities! Then the culture shifted. Congregations are realizing that, if their members are going to be formed spiritually, it will be up to them to attend to that — creatively and compellingly.
There was also a time, within the memory of many of us, when “spirituality” was not considered interesting enough or important enough to warrant the attention of the majority of people. “Faith without works is dead!” was the mantra in many congregations, with the underlying message that “works” of service, public witness, and social justice were the more important focus for Christians. Again, the culture has shifted. Now, spirituality in many different forms is popular, especially among younger generations. People are looking for practices, disciplines, and guidance that will help them attend to their spirits.
That means that congregations that do want to attend to spiritual formation more intentionally can talk about it with greater freedom — in worship, in governance, in their ongoing activities. I know of one congregation where the leader began introducing a variety of types of praying in all aspects of the congregation’s life and ministry. The people were introduced to lectio divina at council meetings; they made prayer flags in their social groups and hung them in the sanctuary; in worship, they told their stories of people who had had a role in their own spiritual formation; they used various forms of art to engage the stories of scripture and filled the hallways with those works of art. After a while, somebody said to one of the leaders, “It’s interesting: it’s all right to talk about prayer again.” Somehow a congregational culture had developed in which there was an underlying message that matters of the spirit were not an acceptable part of their life together. Attending to a variety of spiritual practices began to shift that culture.
There are rich resources available for introducing and integrating spiritual practices and disciplines into congregational life. The pivotal action is to make doing so a priority among all the other demands on our attention and energy.
Many years ago, I was introduced to the work of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. It is a church that boldly and energetically lives into the statement “Faith without works is dead.” Its small groups are engaged in a number of challenging ministries and missions that transform the lives of the people in its neighbourhood. Elizabeth O’Connor was a member of that congregation and wrote about its work. One sentence has stood out for me over the years and has been a signpost that has guided me away from a significant danger in the work of the church. In the midst of living out the gospel, the members of the church learned again and again: “If you do not attend to the journey inward, you will burn out on the journey outward.” She wrote, “the renewal of the church… will not come to the church unless its people are on an inward journey. It holds with equal emphasis that renewal cannot come to the church unless its people are on an outward journey” (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, Elizabeth O’Connor. San Francisco; Harper Collins, 1968, p. 9).
It is not an easy time to be the church. As we witness to the creative, life-giving, work God is doing in our world, we face many challenges. Often, we shall be driven to our knees, needing help beyond our own strength. We dare not venture into that life-transforming work unless we are deeply grounded in the practices and disciplines of our tradition: disciplines that form us in Christ’s way and that open us to the gifts and action and energy of the Holy Spirit.
Make spiritual formation a priority in your congregation. Obviously, what has worked for decades will not work for new generations. Try out various methods of attending to the Holy Spirit’s work in your midst. Keep at it until you find ones that fit your particular congregation. A great adventure awaits!
— Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett is Animator for New Ministry Development, Rural & Small Town Churches and Co-ordinator for Ministry Renewal for EDGE: A Network for Ministry Development.