A woman sitting next to me in the pew stood up and said with feeling: “I don’t want just to believe in God; I want to know God.” In this heartfelt exclamation during the sermon feedback time at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, she spoke for many people. Like many parishioners of the church I attend, four out of five Episcopalians who answered one typical survey said that what they most needed from their church was food for their spiritual hunger. It seems increasingly clear: more people are bringing with them that longing for what is ultimately trustworthy as they venture through our church doors today.
In order to feed these hungry folk, the 300,000 religious congregations in this country need to find ways to respond to this longing and restlessness in people’s hearts. What isn’t so clear to mainline churches is “How can we do this spiritual work?” Most seminaries have taught pastors little or nothing about guiding people spiritually. In Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders (Alban Institute, 1995) Chuck Olsen found that, although people volunteered to serve on their church boards with the hope of enhancing their spiritual growth, at the end of their terms they often went away disappointed because they had experienced only a secular Robert’s Rules of Order mentality. And many of those who left with disappointment will no longer expect churches to meet their spiritual needs.
Researching Congregational Spirituality
The split between the spiritual search and the daily ofie of a congregation has existed for centuries. Although monastic communities tried to recover the church’s spiritual purpose, their reforms seldom made their way into the parish church system. So we have inherited a Mary/Martha split, in which the spiritual few offer their gifts to individuals, and most congregations seem busy about many other tasks. But unless “Martha” churches can make room in their busyness and survival anxiety for a rediscovery of their spiritual center, they will keep losing energy and relevance.
So, realizing that yes, the congregation needs to be a good place to do spiritual work, but no, it often isn’t, I felt impelled to try to find some ways around the “no.” As I gathered advisors for the Alban Institute’s Congregational Spirituality Project, we searched for ways to reunite people’s cry for help on their spiritual search with the life of the local congregation. While spirituality is often presented as an individual, inward enterprise, people need community. And churches today face the constant challenge of keeping the daily “church work” transparent to God and dedicated to people’s spiritual growth.
As I interviewed people in five congregations, it became clear that not only individuals but churches have a spirit, often hidden, that can be uncovered. Here are stories about two ways we found church work can remain transparent to God when it is grounded in a congregation’s spirit. One way centered around diversity—the ordinary fact that parishes are made up of “all sorts and conditions” of folk; the second focused on nurturing the ministry of the laity.
Diversity and Social Change as “Being”
The Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, Maryland—which reflects the racial variety blooming in this suburb-becoming-city—has seen tough times. When a leadership lock was opened up, committees headed by the same people for decades needed new leaders. Suddenly, a very diverse group of people emerged in leadership positions across the parish and several retired leaders left. Interviewees said they experienced this diversity as “a sign of a healthy church.” Participating in an inclusive community is “exciting” and “adds to life’s beauty.” People said, “God is revealed” through this diverse community gathered. Annie, an African American interviewee, sees Ascension’s diversity as an important calling for the church: “Ascension is a very inclusive church, respectful of difference at the same time as we try to be the one community. With the changes in the demographics of American society, where people are going to have to accept leadership from all kinds of folks, Ascension is a good example of how this can work.”
Next, let’s take a look at St. Thomas’ Parish in Washington, D.C., where the interviewees told me how they experience the corporate spiritual energy in their gay/straight community. With surprised delight, a gay visitor exclaimed: “This parish accepts us . . . embraces us!” A straight leader told me the experience of the gay/straight community “really has broadened my humanity. And dealing with these people as human beings, and seeing their strengths and their humanity, and their sameness and differentness with me, has been a very moving spiritual thing.” People see this experience as a transcendent reality that is not simply of their own construction, but a gift. And this gift becomes a call: as one leader said, “I think we’re being called upon to be a model.”
Here is a spiritually grounded way to embrace the social action that mainline churches cherish. Social action is not a “cut flower” when it springs from the ground of the congregation’s spiritual life. I see Ascension and St. Thomas’ showing forth a more incarnational social activism—flowing naturally from the being of the congregation in a way that’s deeper than a principle, plan, or task force. The church can be a redeemed community that incarnates diversity as a model for a world that needs to know how people can live and work together in spite of their differences. “We’re called to be this place where diversity works” is a statement about the spirit of these churches.
Nurturing the Laity
A second more incarnational way we found a church can engage in changing the world is throughnurturing laity. I see that positive impact on society shining forth most clearly in members’ individual stories—when they walk out the church door and go to work and live their lives in their families and communities. I have heard many people say, “The hour of church is the one hour where I can just be!” As one member of my own church, St. Mark’s Episcopal, put it, “I go to church to be patted back into shape.” Many of us at St. Mark’s have experienced being “upheld by the everlasting arms” in Sunday worship and sent back to our Monday world empowered “to engage boldly in the struggles of life . . . and to serve Christ where we live and work.” 1
We can see an example of that empowerment at Ascension, where ministry springs from the corporate spirituality of the congregation, and is expressed not only in church but through the individual ministries of the parishioners outside the church doors. Ascension trusts lay people to be in ministry where they are instead of the church setting the agenda.
Of a time when her responsibilities left little time for church work, Annie reflected: “Just the experience of being able to pull back was an important thing to be able to do to come and sit and to be a member. And to be strengthened and to experience church in another way.” Keeping the church work transparent, encouraging lay people to look at their congregational participation in the context of how it affects their spiritual growth, the way it nourishes them to meet other demands—this is hard for church leaders to see as the pearl of great price, but vitally important.
In our research advisory meeting, Richard Chiola distinguished different ways of “equipping the saints for change in the world. One is pragmatic and functionalist: to bring them together and then aim them at specific changes. The other way is to gather them together so they become one loaf and then send them back out as
pieces in their own diverse settings where they are equipped to be leaven in the dough of the world. This way you don’t achieve specific ends so much as you nurture people to be where they need to be in the midst of the world.”
Is the congregation the best place to do spiritual work? Both my own experience and my research convince me that it can be, when a church discerns its hidden spirit, and lives its life out of that holy, given ground.
1. From the mission statement of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capital Hill, Washington, D.C.