By Rev. Ken G. Crawford, 31 October, 2011
There are intersections of life and faith where clarity becomes chaos, direction becomes distraction. We find ourselves in between, in transition. To some this feels like a death, while others experience the emergence from adolescence into adulthood. For still others, like me, it is a time of midlife crisis – an undercurrent of dis-ease that says the old ways of doing things will no longer suffice. “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” as the title of Marshall Goldsmith’s book proclaims. A process of discovery ensues, sometimes with blind and anxious experimentation like the restless husband who gets a new wardrobe, new hair, a new convertible, and a new girlfriend (who looks remarkably like his wife!) all in the hopes of freeing himself from this disquiet. Had he read Ignatius, he would have known that a period of desolation is not necessarily a bad thing, a thing to be avoided, shunned or eliminated. Rather, this desolation may be a gift from God, a stirring in the soul of a person or group, shaking loose entrenched thoughts and habits. Good or bad, Ignatius says, we honor a season of desolation by not making any changes, but rather wait till we experience returning consolation regarding a particular direction after long periods of prayer, study, meditation, and conversation.
I experience churches living in the midst of this struggle and grasping at anything that might settle the anxious soul. Surely God has something better in mind for us. Perhaps the church in the second decade of the 21st century finds itself in such a midlife crisis. “What we were” is no longer enough, but we are unsure of what we might become or how to get there. In what follows, I look at two studies that describe for us where some vibrant churches are headed. Later I will identify three practices that are, I believe, essential for the clergy and laity as they seek to live through this season of crisis into the fullness of God’s dream for us, that which Jesus regularly described as “the kingdom of God on earth…as it is in heaven.”
WHERE WE MAY BE HEADED
Diana Butler Bass, in her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, explores some of what is happening, and how congregations are managing to live vital, faithful lives during this period of becoming. After describing what was in the first two chapters – “The Vanished Village” and “Remembering Christianity”, she offers a word of hope in the next – “”The New Village Church” and “Finding Home.” She summarized a frequently heard critique of the church experience of our young adulthood – “These mainline congregations…paid little or no attention to people’s spiritual lives.” (Bass, 42) Those people, like so many at mid-life, said “Isn’t there more?” and they began to wander. In fact, she starkly states: “Nomadic spirituality, that sense of being alien in a strange land, is almost a given of contemporary life.” (23)
What she proceeds to describe are congregations who have found ways to live Christianity incarnationally, to live their faith existentially – rising organically from the experience and meaning of their existence. She found in these churches three shifts in attitude and focus – “from traditionalism to tradition,” “from purity to practice,” “from certainty to wisdom” (45). These shifts seem to be true of congregations who are experiencing freedom from the frozen thoughts and habits alluded to above. After outlining what she calls “Ten signposts of renewal”, Bass describes transforming lives, congregations, and the world. What she does not offer is concrete guidance for how clergy and laity may live into such ways of being. She identifies alternatives to the shallow acting out of a midlife crisis, but doe not help us navigate those dangerous waters.
So, where can we find help for the next steps in “Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures”? This subtitle to Emerging Churches (Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, both of Fuller Theological Seminary) offers hope in the gerund verb form “creating,” suggesting a process to be followed. But this is no documentary or “Idiots Guide to the Postmodern Church.” Rather, they suggest that emerging churches who seriously and effectively respond to this midlife crisis of contemporary Christianity are marked by nine distinct practices; the tone is more descriptive than instructive. The first is “identifying with the life of Jesus.” (Gibbs, 45) They illustrate that these emerging churches began to look at Jesus differently, stating “95% of the unchurched [in Seattle] have a favorable view of Jesus, so… the church needs to be trained to look at Jesus” (48) with new eyes, those of the culture. Perhaps then, they argue, the church will be able to have conversation about Jesus with people in the culture. So, I say, one thing to do is learn to ask a new set of questions, such as, “If we like Jesus, and they like Jesus, then why don’t they want to be with us (and why aren’t we more with them)?” We should not presume that we, the church, can answer that question in isolation. Rather, in prayer, reflection, study and dialogue with the community around us, we explore together who Jesus is. This sounds like a risky proposition, one that may stir anxiety on the part of the church. We prefer to read Matthew 16.13-16 and just parrot Peter’s answer rather than asking the question and seriously considering the range of answers. Could we even answer Jesus’ question? Do we even know “Who people say that [Jesus is]”? And then we are faced with whether we received from God an inner light revealing to us who Jesus is for the world today, or do we simply say what flesh and blood have told us (cf Mt 16.17).
To take just one more example from Gibbs and Bolger, this emerging church moves from a focus on “gospel of salvation” one of “gospel of the kingdom,” (91) a shift from focus on the teachings of Paul to those of Jesus in the Gospels. The focus becomes more communal, more holistic, more outward focused, more God focused. This seemingly small change has dramatic impact on how the church thinks about God, itself and the world. A few pages later, though, they make a disturbing observation: “Emerging churches may not appear as legitimate forms of church to those who are not wrestling with the ideas of church practice” (95). This seems to suggest an inevitable split between those of the church that has been and those of the church that is becoming. Bass offers a hopeful vision of mainline congregations who are making the transition, though perhaps they too have left aside others “who are not wrestling” as Gibbs and Bolger say. Neither work explains what the people of God are to do, how we are to make this move, if at all. I will now offer three suggestions.
HOW WE CAN GET THERE
The questions I am asking are, “How do we love the place from which we came and those who raised us (the modern, traditional, mainline or evangelical churches that are struggling today) while living into the new work of God in the church and world? How do we love and serve the former while giving birth to the latter? We recognize that not all will make the journey to the new land (cf Num 32). Yet we all can still support and be supported, still understand and be understood as one people serving one God. How do we love and remain a part of the existing communities as they make the slow journey of transformation “by the renewing of [their] minds”? (Rom 12.1)
I suggest several categories of thought and practice. Any one of them may help, but I envision all of them together, forming a “cord of three strands that is not easily broken” (Ecc 4.12). They are spiritual formation, theological reflection, and personal growth. Each of these will help individuals and congregations move toward discernment, development and deploying of ministry. This brings us back into the cycle of formation with our experiences of ministry to be nurtured, challenged, edified, equipped, and sent for further ministry (cf Mark 6.6-13, 30-32).
Spiritual Formation Spiritual formation starts with the self as the active agent. One who is aware of the need is also capable of making change and progress in the spiritual life, even if the presumption is that “those others are the immature ones.” My personal ongoing spiritual formation is grounded in the work of the Jesuits. I appreciate their intellectual rigor, their pragmatism, and at the same time their wonderfully creative and expressive poetry and use of imagery. Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits (edited by Michael Harter) is a wonderful collection of poem prayers linked with the four ‘weeks’ of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. As I pray with the Jesuits I find my heart opening and becoming increasingly tender towards the people I serve. I move from being impatient with them, through impatience for them, and finally to peace with where they are, knowing that God is at work among us, which is enough for today. This peace leaves me no less hopeful for our full transformation and reconciliation as together we grow, one body, toward maturity in Christ. The shift taking place in my heart through study and prayer then allows a peace to open around me, one in which others may experience similar grace from God. As I experience these transformations, this new life emerging in me, I practice vulnerability and transparency. I talk with the congregation about what is unfolding in me, and I endeavor to share some of those prayer habits that have been helpful to me.
The framework of spiritual direction is useful in spiritual formation, even if not practiced in a traditional one-to-one relationship. Frank J Houdek, S.J, provides guidance from a Jesuit model that I would apply to congregational leadership. A starting premise is that good candidates for spiritual direction desire to grow “in awareness and responsiveness to the living God” (Houdek, 17). One might wish or even assume (as at times I have) that everyone in a church does or at least should feel this way. The reality is otherwise. Not all people in churches (including some leaders) are interested in growing spiritually. So, how does one discern among these, and how does one serve the whole congregation, not just those who actively want to grow?
Houdek indicates three traits present in those who are “ready” to begin spiritual direction. The leader might also look for these in individuals, among groups, and in the community as a whole system. They are: 1) a sense of awareness of experience – “what is happening”; 2) the ability to reflect on these experiences; 3) verbal communication skills. (16-17) As leaders, when we find these traits lacking, we can intentionally work with others to develop them throughout the congregation. We see in Jesus’ teaching ministry a focus on reality – on what is really going on, not just what appears to be. Jesus presses the disciples beyond easy answers “You give them something to eat,” “Let the net down on the other side,” “Roll away the stone.” Jesus then asks questions of meaning, often in response to questions asked of him. This habit frustrates and annoys his listeners, but pushes some of them to deeper levels of thought. Then, Jesus calls on them to articulate – “Who do you say that I am?”, “What is written?”, “Which is the true neighbor?”
Chapter four goes into greater detail on the traits necessary in the director, and some things that can be done to develop them. Clergy and lay leaders would do well to study this chapter and pursue the characteristics described there. We are called upon to model these and other practices of spiritual formation and theological reflection. We are aided in this by our own study of these two disciplines, and by working with a spiritual director ourselves.
Theological Reflection Theological reflection as a learned skill brings together two elements: 1) an experience, and 2) a faith tradition, and moves to a third: 3) an action in the world. This work is best done with questions.
What is happening? This is not as obvious as it seems. We first need to begin with our perceptions, because that is what we have. We then need to look beyond our perceptions, ‘as close as we can get’ to an objective description separate from our emotional reactions to what is happening. At this point we also want to avoid making value judgments about the speech and behavior of others or ourselves.
What does my faith tradition say about what is happening?
This includes several elements: a) The theology in my head – the stories and ideas that come to mind that seem immediately relevant and are a composite of ideas from my own faith development over time (embedded theology). b) Scripture – are there texts that seem to speak either directly or indirectly to this situation or experience? c) Tradition – what has the church taught about this subject? Often there exists a variety of teaching on a particular topic, so it is worth being aware of and open to this variety, so that we might gain new insights and not simply rely on what we ‘think we know.’ d) Revelation – As I pray (speak, but mostly listen) do I receive any new thought on the subject that does not seem to arise directly from one of the above sources? If so, how does it square with them? Even when God does ‘a new thing’ it will be consistent with some underlying spirit or intent present in the ‘old thing (understanding)’.
What insight do I now have into my experience and my tradition? As I think and talk through the above, what insights and understandings arise? What does God seem to be doing? What clarity is brought by allowing the ‘light of faith’ to shine on otherwise clouded and shadowy experiences and thoughts?
What am I or others to do with this increased insight?
So what? Theological reflection is incomplete unless it results in something concrete. What am I (are we) called to be or not be, say or not say, do or not do? How am I to love God and neighbor as self in the midst of this experience and in the light of this reflection? “What does the LORD require of me?”
We learn these skills of theological reflection by working with peers and trusted guides, and then we live them out, day by day, in the midst of our faith community. We think and speak in these ways. We reframe conversations along these lines. When people rush toward certainly, we slow the pace with questions. When anxiety begins to build, we ask for faithful reflection. Stone and Duke’s book How To Think Theologically is a great introductory resource for people learning these skills, as well as those who seek to model and teach them to others.
Personal Growth The third area of formation is Personal Growth – clearly a broad terrain filled with any number of challenges and opportunities. For the purpose of this paper, I want to suggest that developing a working knowledge of Family Systems Theory, and the techniques that currently fall under the broad category of ‘coaching’, can go a long way toward helping leaders grow personally, and then equipping them (us) to help others. By ‘personal growth’ I have in mind transforming those mental, emotional, habitual and relational patterns which cause problems in our lives. Intentional practice of spiritual formation, theological reflection, and ministry often shine light on these aspects of self, inviting us to think about them and seek growth. Some are so dramatic that we really need counseling or psychotherapy. Many, however, can be worked through in individual or group coaching using systems theory as a frame of reference. The works of Edwin Friedman and Roberta Gilbert have made Family Systems Theory more accessible.
Crucial Conversations give us tools for better understanding ourselves and aiding others in the journey of self discovery. A “crucial conversation” is one in which “the stakes are high…opinions vary….and emotions run strong” (Grenny, 3). The book helps us understand and address those situations and relationships of conflict with calm reason, skill, and humility. The authors lay out various specific techniques for leaders – things we can understand and do, and over time, with support, even do well. One such technique is to “start with heart” which includes answering three questions: “1) What do I really want for myself? 2) What do I really want for others? 3) What do I really want for the relationship?” (34) Asking these questions helps us move away from short sighted reactive behaviors that undermine our real goals and hurt others. Later they lay out a technique called “STATE” – Share your facts; Tell your story; Ask for others’ paths; Talk tentatively; Encourage testing (140). This skill teaches us to have a difficult conversation while reducing the risk that others or we will become defensive – a particularly good skill when working with a group on the journey through a liminal space from what no longer works toward something yet to be discovered. On that journey, anxiety abounds and any skill that helps reduce or manage it is useful.
Working in a coaching model – asking questions rather than telling information or opinions, also helps reduce defensiveness, and allows people the space to live with their anxiety while trusting in the ultimate safety of the relationships. Thomas Crane’s book The Heart of Coaching methodically describes his understanding of “transformation coaching” in three phases: Foundation, Learning Loop, and Forwarding the Action (Crane, 44). He then outlines steps within each phase, so the reader knows specifically what to try – some are optional, others are presented as necessary. One great value of this book for the transformational leader is the ability to work through the perennial questions, “What’s going on? AND What do I do now?” Along with systems theory and the work of Grenny and others, Crane’s book can help us understand what’s going on. More importantly, it then helps us think through what to do. A leader, or group, can sit down with this model and begin to get a handle on the complexity of a congregational system, which is a web of systems within systems within the system – all of which are made of triangles, and all of which are then connected to innumerable external systems. What do I do now? Indeed! Working with a coach, and developing coaching skills, are vital tools for transformational leaders, those who wish to remain fully committed to the existing communities of Christian faith, while walking the long road with them, either from Egypt to the Promised Land, or back to Israel from Babylonian captivity. Either, or both, are long, slow journeys. Along the way many, including the leaders, will say, “Let’s just stay here,” or “Let’s go back.” The Hebrew Scriptures tell us this story repeatedly, and we see it mirrored in the gospels as people struggled with trying to believe that the promise of a coming kingdom was real. That freedom, peace, joy, and new life were real. That who I have been does not have to define who I can become. This is Good News.
As we engage these three processes – spiritual formation, theological reflection, and personal growth – we will be better equipped to serve the church, to equip Christians for the work of ministry. The church, on its better days, wants this from us. We, on our better days, want this for the church. God, every day, wants this for and from us, for and through the church, for the sake of the world Christ came to save. This is the work to which we as ministers, as disciples of Jesus Christ, have been called.
Bass, Diana Butler. Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith. New York. Harper Collins. 2007. ISBN 9780060859497.
Crane, Thomas G. The Heart of Coaching: Using Transformational Coaching to Create a High-Performance Coaching Culture. San Diego. FTA Press. 1020. ISBN 9780966087437.
Gibbs, Eddie and Ryan K. Bolger. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids. Baker Academic. 2008. ISBN 9780801077154.
Grenny, Joseph, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. New York. McGraw Hill. 2002. ISBN 0071401946.
Goldsmith, Marshall. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. New York. Hyperion. 2007. ISBN 978-1401301309.
Harter, Michael. Hearts on Fire: Praying With The Jesuits. Chicago. Loyola. 2005. ISBN 9780829421200.
Houdek, Frank J., S.J. Guided By The Spirit: A Jesuit Perspective on Spiritual Direction. Chicago. Loyola Press. 1996. ISBN 9780829408591.
Stone, Howard W. & James O. Duke. How to Think Theologically. Minneapolis. Fortress Press. 2006. ISBN 0800638182.