Last Sunday a visitor at our church mentioned her frustration in another congregation, her feeling that “I’m not growing deeper with God.” I wonder how many people in our churches share that sense of need? There’s much talk about the missing millennial generation (18-29 year olds) in our churches. Indeed, a 2013 Barna survey titled “Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials” confirms that more than 50% of persons in that demographic have dropped out of church. But the study goes deeper than that, placing these leavers into three categories, and the biggest category of church dropouts is what the Barna survey calls “Nomads.” “This group is comprised of 18- to 29-year-olds with a Christian background who walk away from church engagement but still consider themselves Christians. “ So they consider themselves Christ-followers but aren’t finding what they desire in church.
I wonder if the problem for these “Nomads,” at least to some extent, might be our failure to advertise or facilitate ways to genuinely experience and grow deeper in God? When the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Ephesus in the first century, his greatest desire for them was “that the God of our savior Jesus Christ, the God of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation, to bring you to a rich knowledge of the Creator” (Ephesians 1:17, The Inclusive Bible). The same need may be truer today. Amos Smith, pastor of Church of the Painted Hills UCC in Tucson says “People in our time think scientifically, we need practical verification that something is true or not. If I don’t experience something in my nervous system, there’s a lack of verification.” Smith then refers to the positive example of psychologist Karl Jung who was asked by an interviewer if he believed in God? Jung replied, in a modest voice, “I don’t believe, I know.” Such faith, grounded not in rote propositions but in experiential reality, may be the deepest need for Christians in a Post-modern age.
Could it be that the political polarization of society has pushed both Conservative and Progressive faith communities to emphasize things other than experiencing God? I expect this is true more in terms of public perception than of actual congregational life—but what the public perceives has significant impact on churches. Conservative churches, associated with the political right, can be characterized as rule-focused. They offer the do’s and don’ts of morality, based on hyper-literal Bible interpretations, as the focus of spiritual life. But by the same measure, Progressive churches may so emphasize justice and peace that they can also reduce the Christian life to saying and doing the right things.
I sometimes wonder, as we offer extravagant welcome, what are welcoming people to? One person seeking a church—a lesbian who is politically involved in liberal causes—told me “I visited several UCC churches in my area, but they only offered confirmation of my social and political beliefs. I need a church where they’ll help me deepen my relationship with God.”
A decade ago Richard Peace and David Schoen, two of the most prominent UCC thinkers on spiritual formation and evangelism respectively, wrote an article titled “Listening for the Still Speaking God: Contemplative Evangelism” (you can Google it and read the pdf online). In that article they emphasize the importance of “classic spiritual formation … birthed in silence, shaped by the spiritual disciplines, and guided by a knowledgeable spiritual director.”
I am glad to say that we have all of that in the Southwest Conference. There are SWC churches where the pastors and lay people are pursuing contemplative prayer and integrating spirituality into their everyday lives. We also have Teresa Blythe with the Heysechia school and Amanda Peterson with Pathways of Grace both offering venues for seekers in the Southwest to grow deeper in contemplative and experiential faith.
But do we emphasize such opportunities for spiritual experience when we invite people to our faith communities? Schoen and Peace, in the aforementioned article, draw a picture of “Contemplative Evangelism.” They write, “What if prayer were the central component of evangelism? By this I mean, what if the very desire to reach out to others was born in the fire of contemplative prayer where the presence of God was so palpable that one could not help but want to share this reality with others?” Imagine a faith community where the message “Whoever you are, you are welcome” is followed with, “We will explore spiritual practices together with you, experiencing the healing presence of God.” Peace and Schoen further explain, “This would be evangelism out of the silence rather than via the loud proclamation. It would be evangelism of companionship—as both evangelist and seeker reach out to God. It would be evangelism of the retreat and the small group conversation, rather than evangelism of the large meeting and forceful challenge. It would be evangelism of spiritual direction (in which the voice of God is sought) rather than evangelism of the witnessing monologue.”
Church of the Painted Hills offers a practical example of such “Contemplative Evangelism” with their Friday Centering Prayer gatherings. They advertise via flyers at local Yoga studios, and half the people who attend their gatherings are unaffiliated with the church. They come driven by a desire to experience God.
Theologian Karl Rahner said “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or will not exist at all.” In a time of declining church attendance, perhaps we should more openly advertise that our faith communities offer ancient and effective spiritual practices, trails inviting those who wish to walk on such mystical paths.