Few of us are ready for a death—whether it’s our own, someone’s we love, or the death of an institution like our church. When we see death on the horizon, we tend to clutch at whatever we can, blaming others for our loss and strategizing about how to postpone or prevent the end. But in our effort to avoid suffering, we may be disregarding some deep truths of our faith—that nothing created lasts forever, that fear and worry may be natural but are not necessary, and that letting go is possible.
I love being a Protestant minister. I believe in the “priesthood of all believers” and I’m deeply committed to my own Presbyterian denomination’s way of doing things “decently and in order.” But now, in the midst of this pandemic, I am increasingly concerned that, as good as we are at some ways of being the church, mainline Protestants have not sufficiently prepared believers to be religious at home.
The key is helping all of us to unplug from our devices so we can plug into the realm of God.
I needed something like Will Strunk’s Elements of Style for spirituality—pithy rules like “use the active voice” or “omit needless words,” to reorient my life the way Strunk’s book has sharpened up my writing. Here’s what I came up with.
As a baby boomer, I am disappointed by church members in my generation who, all too frequently, dismiss millennials and others who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” It is a theme I hear constantly in my consulting practice. “Why focus on them when they have already told us they are spiritual but not religious?” or “They have no desire to join or even attend a congregation because they are spiritual but not religious” are comments I hear every single time I work with a congregation.
In what is surely a gross overgeneralization on my part, I want to assert that the mainline denominations have, for the most part, not taken spiritual formation seriously—for decades. We take social justice seriously. We take pastoral care and worship seriously. But spiritual formation? Not so much.
However, that is changing. In my consulting practice, congregation after congregation is making spiritual formation a strategic priority. Progressive, centrist, and conservative congregations are feeling a call—a mandate even—to help their members grow spiritually, and are using intentional strategies to that end. To me, the change feels Spirit-driven.
In the last 50 years, much of our new understanding of congregational life emerged from the social sciences, while less attention has been given to the spirituality of congregations and their leaders. Social science has contributed a great deal, but some questions remain stubbornly unanswered. Why can some leaders provide principled leadership for decades while others succumb to ethical lapses? Why are some congregations resilient in the face of setbacks while others fail to bounce back?