What is a mystic? Theologians have tried to define mystics for centuries. Unfortunately, most mistakenly define mystics according to their ascetic lifestyles, prayer practices, or mystical experiences and visions. These are not what define mystics. They are a by-product of what mystics seek in their lives, which is to live according to Luke 10:27 by seeking to love God with everything they have and to love others as themselves. Their pursuit of a loving relationship with God defines them. They devote their lives to the quest for God and God’s love, and this quest leads them to live, pray, and experience God. It is a mistake to think of a mystic only as a person living a cloistered, contemplative life, for many mystics live busy, active lives, but in a way that is centered in God. Whether we are talking about the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the confessions of Augustine, the medieval musings of Bernard of Clairvaux or Meister Eckhart, the theological explorations of Martin Luther, or the stories of C. S. Lewis, mystics have continually pointed out that God can be encountered, experienced, and united with through love, prayer, and the cultivation of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
How do the experiences and writings of the mystics intersect the life of the church? Mystics reside at the center of every major Christian movement. Point to any true renewal movement within any denomination, a movement that actually leads people to encounter and experience the triune God, and you will discover mystics at their core, proclaiming their message that God can be tangibly and passionately sensed, discerned, and embraced throughout life. Mystics have always led people to follow their example of surrendering to, uniting with, and serving the Trinity. Unfortunately, the church hasn’t always listened. In fact, many of these mystics were criticized and sometimes even persecuted (like John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Martin Luther, and George Fox) for preaching this message of a personal experience of God.
Church Resistance to Mystical Tradition
The people of today yearn for much more than just a functional, routine set of rituals and practices. They want to encounter the Trinity in deeply spiritual ways, but their churches and denominations seem blind to their yearning. A 2003 survey conducted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) Research Services reveals this blindness.1 The survey found that spiritual formation was an integral part to a “very great extent” (42 percent) of church members’ lives, which suggests a deep spiritual hunger among our laity. Yet only 6 percent reported that spiritual formation was to a very great extent an integral part of their congregational life. Less than 2 percent reported that it was to a very great extent an integral part of the life of the larger judicatory bodies or the denomination as a whole. This survey certainly has its flaws, and represents only one mainline denomination. Still, the findings suggest that there is a serious disconnect between the spiritual lives of individuals and the openness of congregations and denominations as a whole to a more spiritual approach.
Fanning the Mystical Embers of a Church
So how do we lead a church to become a community of mystics? There are specific practices and techniques churches can adopt, such as offering spiritual retreats, classes on prayer, and programs on the spiritual disciplines. Adding these to a church’s program may promote greater spiritual awareness, but they can also become more of the same-functional programs that now have a spiritual bent. Congregational transformation requires more. It requires a new way, a more spiritual way, of doing church.
The transformation of our congregations requires that we call forth leaders, both pastoral and lay, who are open to the mystical and the spiritual. This means that the pastors of a church must have a passion for encountering and experiencing God the Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit in everything. When the pastors of a church have this passion, it allows them to lead a church to move in a more spiritual direction.
Still, the pastor cannot do it all. A pastor can set a course, but lay leaders must move the congregation toward its destination. What the pastor can do is lead the church to seek lay leaders who share a passion for God and prayer, are willing to listen for God’s guidance, are aware of Christ’s continual presence all around them, and can walk in faith, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to bless their work and the congregation. Pastors can also train lay leaders to connect their faith with their leadership.
Inviting Leaders and Members to Seek God’s Will Rather than Their Own
One of the biggest impediments to creating a congregation of mystics has to do with how we decide issues within most mainline churches and denominations. There is nothing in scripture that suggests that God’s will is inherently found in the majority. What scripture does say is that the will of Christ is to be our aim. Unfortunately, our system of bringing forth issues for discussion, debate, and vote emphasizes the will of the people rather than the will of Christ.
As Charles Olsen and Danny Morris have demonstrated in their book Discerning God’s Will Together, there is another way that entails framing issues in terms of what Christ is calling us to do.2 It encourages leaders and church boards to discuss issues, ask questions, and then prayerfully seek God’s will for the church. In voting on an issue, the board votes on what they sense God’s will is for the church. Simply by leading a vote with, “All who sense this may be God’s will say yes,” rather than “All in favor say yes” (which is a vote based on the majority, not God) dramatically changes the church because it emphasizes the pursuit and discernment of God’s will rather than our own.
From Reactive to Proactive to Spirit-Active Ministry
Throughout my ministry I have read many books and attended many conferences with a compelling message: we need to move from reactive to proactive ministry. I believe this wholeheartedly. Too many churches spin their wheels trying to react to the whirlwind of life around them. It’s much better to be proactive, to gain a sense of what is coming, to plan ahead, and to be prepared. The problem with proactivity is that it is rooted in rational analysis and careful planning rather than in discernment, faith, and service. When rationally analyzing needs and problems becomes more important than discerning God’s will, God gets left out of the decision making.
To be Spirit-active means to act on a foundation of prayer in a way that trusts the Holy Spirit to work through us. A mystical congregation understands this. No matter what ministries they attempt, they resist the temptation to program for program’s sake. They don’t look at the needs around them and say, “Let’s start a program to deal with this need.” They see the world around them and ask, “God, how are you calling us to respond?” They then let the Spirit guide them to develop and form unique ministries.
Openness to Mystical Experience
Some members, and especially leaders, of many churches distrust and fear mystical experiences. As a result, they are skeptical of people who have numinous experiences—experiences of God that transcend normal human experience—such as discernments, visions, near death experiences, or supernatural events. Often, when people share their experiences among church members, they are treated as though they are a bit weird, and their experiences are dismissed as being “just their imagination.”
The truth is that many church members have had mystical experiences, and it is a mystical experience of God’s call that led most pastors to become pastors. Encouraging members and leaders to share their mystical exper
iences opens the church spiritually by making spiritual seeking and experience the norm rather than the exception.
Becoming a mystical congregation means becoming a place where mystical experiences are both accepted and expected. To nurture this kind of acceptance, leaders have to create a culture and ethos of church in which stories of God experiences are valued and shared through sermons, newsletters, Web sites, groups, and conversations. Ultimately, creating a congregation of mystics means creating a culture of mystical experience.
To Become a Congregation of Mystics
The path to becoming a congregation of mystics is not necessarily an easy path because it requires that we overcome resistance from members and leaders who are skeptical of the mystical. How do we make this transition? It all begins in prayer by asking God to lead us. Leaders must become gentle guides, recognizing that this path is a scary one for people who are used to believing that God is distant. This kind of transformation takes years of gentle guidance that continually calls people deeper into the mystical life.
Finally, we leaders have to be sure that in creating a congregation of mystics we don’t try to create God or the church in our own image. We must look for opportunities to move the church in God’s direction, even when it is different from our direction. Ultimately, to be a congregation of mystics means to be a congregation that grows in Christ to become Christ’s body in our own unique places.
1. Hungryhearts, Winter 2004, Vol. XIII, No. 4 (Louisville, KY: Office of Spiritual Formation of the Presbyterian Church (USA)).
2. Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen, Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church (Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 1997).
Excerpted from A Congregation of Mystics: Reigniting Our Passion for Encountering and Experiencing God, copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
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