stewart cutler

What spiritual practices do you do?

Eh?  What’s a spiritual practice?

I wrote in my chapter of Inside Verdict that the church isn’t very good at helping members keep the promises they make.  I promised to read the Bible, to pray and to join with other believers in worship.

Reading the Bible is difficult.  So it’s nice that someone explains it for 15 minutes once a week.

Praying is hard.  So it’s nice that the same person prays on my behalf for a few minutes once a week.

Joining other believers in worship is ok.  So long as I’m able to get there at 11am on a Sunday and I’m ok with ‘joining’ meaning sitting in rows looking at the back of someone’s head (if it’s busy enough that there is someone sitting in front of me).

It’s easy to criticise, but I think one of the most profound failings of the church with all age groups is our failure to help people develop spiritual practices.

Most people reading this won’t know what I’m talking about.  We don’t even use the phrase in our churches.

Christianity has a rich tradition of spiritual practice.  Prayer is one of them.  Meditation.  Fasting.  Walking the labyrinth.  Prayer beads.  Retreats. Lectio divina.  And yet we don’t talk about them, much less promote and practice them.

In fact, the very opposite is sometimes true.  We are suspicious of spiritual practices.  They are things that other religions do.

We have been shaped by the Enlightenment to such an extent that we now have an almost entirely cerebral faith.  God lives in our heads, not our hearts.  Except that’s not really anyone’s experience of God, is it?  We feel God.

I quoted a passage from Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple on Sunday:

Shug Avery asks ‘Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church?’

Celie’s answers ‘I never did.  I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show.  Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me.  And I think all the other folks did too.  They come to share God, not find God.’

God doesn’t live in church.  God lives in everything.  We say it, but if we really believe that then how do we equip people to see God in everything and meet God everywhere rather than coming to church expecting to find God there and leaving disappointed?

Spiritual practices are a key to helping us have a deeper faith (and better mental health!).

The reason the Enlightenment left us with a cerebral faith was literacy.  People can read.  The church is only just catching up with this remarkable development.  Before mass literacy (that’s not a theological pun!) people needed someone to read to them and explain what things meant because they had no access to books.  That has changed.  Completely.  Our style of worship hasn’t.

So, what is worship for?

Someone once told me it is how we show God his worth.  I like that answer but it lays down a challenge.  If God means everything to us then shouldn’t worship be about everything we are and all that God means?

I think at some level worship needs to do three things; connect, engage, inspire.

Connect

Worship has to connect with people.  Deeply.  It has to help people connect with themselves, each other and God.  A sermon can do that.  Singing can do that.  Prayers can do that.  But so can other things.  Connection is one of the things Xers and Yers need.

Engage

Worship has to be engaging.  It has to draw people in and create a space where people feel able to engage without fear.  But it also has to engage with the world.  Worship can’t be a nice, safe spiritual bubble.  It has to reflect the joys and the struggles.

Inspire

Worship has to inspire change.  I’m fed up being told I fall short.  I know.  I get it.  Help me to be better.  Inspire me, don’t blame me.  We talk about forgiveness but it feels like someone keeps a list, and the list gets added to each week.  Worship needs to encourage us to be more and to make a difference in the world.

I keep returning to these arrows.

The balance and focus of spiritual practice and of worship is vital.  These are like chair legs.  The story is the floor (backwards and forwards).  If we neglect ourselves (inward), our church/fellow travellers (together), our community and world (outwards) or God (upwards) then we end up on a chair with uneven legs and we spend all of our time wondering why it is so hard to balance.

So, what spiritual practices are you engaging with?  What is worship for?  What should it look like?  And who should do it?

9 Responses to “Missing Generations (part 5)”
  1. Now this is more like it! You are right, this is something our Sunday worship lacks. Fortunately our church at the moment has a number of things running outwith the regular Sunday worship. We have an evening event which is looking exactly at this, spiritual practice. We recently covered Lectio divina and this practice is helping me engage with the word of God, especially the old testament which I sometimes (most of the time) struggle with. We are also doing a monthly event looking at the works of Jean Vanier and how we can use this to inspire and grow as a community. This session often hits your three levels of worship; connect, inspire and engage.

    These are the things that are going to encourage and retain the Xers and Yers like myself. Really showing how we can become ‘people of the way’ and live and breathe God. This is the stuff that puts things into perspective and really helps make sense of what it is to be a Christian.

    Thanks for the article, sparked some thought!

  2. Missing…
    Think there needs to be something about celebrating.
    Worship is about celebrating the gift of life and being alive, and the call to be fully human.

    Inspire…
    We had a really good discussion last week based on a chapter from Marcus Borg’s book: The heart of Christianity. The chapter was about exploring our Christology. There are so many tiles / metaphors for Jesus in the NT, but we tend to give greater important to the ones about atoning for our sins, hence the dominance of sinfullness / forgiveness in thinking about our relationship with God and expressed in our worship. Borg offers a really helpful exploration into this. I think we all left the discussion feeling liberated! I wondered, during our sunday worship, how many other members of our congregation would benefit from this liberation?

  3. Stewart says:

    I agree Fionna. Celebrate should be in there. I suppose for me that’s part of ‘engage’, reflecting those joys and struggles and ‘celebrating’ those together.

  4. Sue Fender says:

    Christianity has a rich tradition of spiritual practice. Prayer is one of them. Meditation. Fasting. Walking the labyrinth. Prayer beads. Retreats. Lectio divina. And yet we don’t talk about them, much less promote and practice them.

    Can I say – some Ministers don’t, some churches don’t. You make it as a statement that nowhere are they any churches engaging in these practices and helping their congregations develop a deep spirituality and practice. That simply isn’t true and is unfair on those of us who strive to make our worship and church life a real experience of meeting with the Divine and of being welcomed by God in to a meaningful and purposeful relationship, which in turn leads us to be challenged and to be inspired.
    I think you make some very fair points but you need to recognise that these are simply the experiences you have had or sadly not had and not that there are no churches taling about them, promoting them or putting them into practice.

  5. Stewart says:

    Hi Sue. I’m sorry you feel that I’m saying that nobody does these things. That wasn’t my intention at all and I’m glad to hear that you and others are promoting greater spiritual depth.

    I start the post by saying that most people won’t have heard of most of these things and that is indeed my experience.

    I worked as youth development officer and then section head of Adult Ministries for the Church of Scotland for 8 years and have worked with the URC for 7 years and in all of that time I can honestly say that most of the congregations I have worked with don’t engage widely with these practices, if at all. Some will have a prayer group which is attended by a small number of people. Some have bible studies. Both of these tend to be group activities, not support for individuals to develop their own practice.

    It would be brilliant to hear more about what you do, how it works and the benefits to your church community.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this and comment on it.

  6. Rachel says:

    Hi Stuart I wondered if you take me through a real dummy’s guide to the arrows and what they mean – I just think that this would be such a neat way of moving some of the people in the church forward if we could all get our heads around this…thank you. Blessings Rachel …love the Advent sermon btw from a few years back on waiting…

  7. Stewart says:

    Hi Rachel. The arrows are ‘borrowed’ from Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, USA. I’ve explained them more in Part 3 (http://stewartcutler.com/archives/2822):

    Backwards – where have we come from? What is our ‘big story’? How do we fit in the story of faith?

    Forwards – where are we heading? Who are we travelling with?

    Inwards (one we almost always avoid) – Why are we here? Do we value the wholeness of people? Do we value their mind, body, soul, emotion and experience?

    Withward (community) – How do we as a group of people live together? What are the rules and expectations of our community?

    Outward – Who are we serving? Who are we fighting for? Who’s lives do we make better?

    Upward (celebration) – What does God mean to us? How do we show that? How do we share that in our community?

    I think they give a great framework for thinking about the balance of who we are and what we are about as a church.

    Is that enough or would you like me to say more?

    Glad you liked the sermon!

    Stewart

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