What is the engine that powers the church’s life? Harold Percy suggests it is something to do with our spiritual vitality—and tells us, from his long experience, how we can nurture it.
In my conversations with clergy a question that frequently arises is “How does one go about developing ‘passionate spirituality’ in a congregation?” The question often arises because many congregations that participate in the Natural Church Development self-analysis and development program find that they score lowest in this category. In fact, in the last five years, Passionate Spirituality was the lowest scoring category in 41% of responses from nearly 1000 surveys across 37 denominations!
This does not imply that the members of these congregations are not faithful Christians or that they are lacking in faith. It is just that there seems to be something missing that could bring more vibrancy to the life of the congregation and more, well, passion, to the spiritual lives of the members.
This is extremely important because in congregational life “passionate spirituality” is arguably the engine that drives the car. Without it, not much of lasting significance will happen; with it, every challenge and obstacle can be overcome.
So, if you find yourself thinking about this issue, here are five suggestions for your consideration.
1. Pray for it
In preparing his disciples for their future ministry Jesus cautioned them, “Without me you can do nothing.” We should not try to prove Jesus wrong in this. I have had enough experience in my own ministry of becoming so busy with good things that I overlooked the importance of deep, longing prayer. And in my conversations with many parish clergy over the years I have learned that this is quite common. Spiritual transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit and, if we want to see it in the lives of our people, we really do need to long for it and to pray for it on a daily basis.
Check out St. Paul’s prayers for his congregations in passages like Philippians 1:9-11 and Colossians 1:9-12 and pray them for yourself and your church. Include them in the prayers in your services and your various meetings. Get these prayers deep into the hearts of your leaders and your people. Encourage them to pray them for themselves and for one another.
2. Encourage Spiritual Conversations
Help your people engage more comfortably in “spiritual conversations” in which they learn to talk more clearly about their faith and reflect on their own faith journeys. Try to work this into all your existing groups and ministries.
I recently spent a full Saturday with a church where the minister was meeting with his newly elected leadership team to talk about the upcoming year and prepare them to work together. Interspersed throughout the day he asked each one of them to share their responses to these three questions:
How did you become a Christian?
Why does being a Christian matter to you?
How does being a part of this church matter to you?
These are deceptively simple questions, and I was deeply touched by what happened in the room as people shared their responses. Experiences of God’s presence and faithfulness throughout their lives, even at times when they were not aware of it, were recounted and re-experienced, and God’s presence in the retelling and in the listening was palpable. In this simple exercise, these leaders found their faith affirmed, and their assurance that God is still present and active in their lives and congregation was strengthened. They left that day with a keen sense of expectancy about what God will do in and through them and their parish in the coming year.
As people become more accustomed to talking with each other like this, the questions can be refined to help them to go deeper. Today I am more convinced than ever that in making space for conversations like this, and encouraging and coaching people in the process, we will be able to go deeper in developing passionate spirituality.
3. Invite People to Follow Jesus
This point is a bit sensitive for some, but it is very important. If we want people’s hearts to be touched by the gospel, we need to stress the very personal and intimate nature of the relationship into which Jesus invites us, and help them make a clear cut and intentional response to this invitation.
Although many liturgical texts express this commitment clearly and beautifully, somehow many people in our churches miss it for far too long. Maybe we simply assume too much. I have had countless experiences over the years where longtime church members have expressed astonishment at this, claiming, “I have been in church for years and have never heard this.” Of course they have heard it. Often. But somehow it was missed. If passionate spirituality is our goal, we need to go out of our way to help them with this.
We each need to find our own way of doing this. In my ministry of preaching and teaching, I found it helpful to say something like this on a regular basis: “Jesus knows your name; he knows who you are, he knows where you are, and he knows how you are. And he is inviting you to follow him: to make ‘follower of Jesus’ your primary identity, and to arrange everything else in your life around this. This is the beginning of the great adventure of faith.”
Frequently in courses, in conversations, in sermons, in the prayers, I would say something like this, “If you sense that Jesus is speaking to you today, whispering your name and saying ‘follow me,’ the simple word ‘yes’ in response to that invitation will be the most eloquent prayer you will ever pray.” Over the years in our small groups and other settings, many people, in speaking about their faith and how it became so important to them, would include something like this: “Saying ‘yes’ to Jesus was an important turning point for me.”
4. Emphasize Grace
We need to overemphasize the place of grace in Christian faith because, if we don’t, many people will assume that we are talking about “being good enough to deserve this,” or “finding a way to earn God’s approval.” Both inside and outside the church, many still see Christian faith through this lens. But when they get even a rudimentary understanding and experience of grace, it can set their hearts on fire!
One woman who had been active in church for years was moved to tears when this truth first dawned on her during Bible reflection in a small group. Weeping and dabbing at her eyes, she said, “If you only knew the sleepless nights I have had, the worries and anxieties about this; this is too good to be true.” Sometime later I heard the inelegant phrase “gobsmacked by grace,” and I thought of this woman and what happened to her in that group.
Philip Yancey in his book Vanishing Grace writes, “Herein is grace. ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’” The Christian faith is not something we try to live in order to be accepted by God. We live this faith because we have experienced God’s love and want to learn to live in the rhythms of this grace.
This is surely what the New Testament writer John had in mind when he wrote, “we love because God first loved us.”
5. Don’t Get Stuck in ‘Sin Management’
Many in our churches think of the gospel primarily as a means of dealing with their sins. It is so much more! We need to help them understand that sin is not the point of the gospel, but is rather the problem that keeps us from the point—the Kingdom of God, the kingly reign of Jesus, and the adventure of entering the kingdom and learning to live this new life.
Followers of Jesus are much more than people whose sins have been taken care of. We are a people, forgiven and redeemed by Jesus, who are engaged in the adventure of learning to live the life of the new creation that God has promised. And we do this in the context of a local church engaged in the adventure of learning to live as a sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s new creation.
This takes our faith and the life of our local church to a whole new level. This is something we can hardly help being excited—passionate—about!
These are my five suggestions. How about you?
What are your thoughts about developing passionate spirituality?
- What have you found effective in your ministry?
- What would you add to this list of suggestions?