Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Can Church-Going Be Spiritual?

There’s an oxymoron for you: “Church-going” and “spiritual” in the same sentence? Nevertheless it’s a real question, and for many the obvious answer is, “of course not!”

Our culture has come to drive a sharp wedge between what, for want of better terms, might be called “religion” and “spirituality”.

The “religious” types are characterized as those (usually older) folks to toddle off to church on a Sunday, and make their way through whatever formal liturgy is set before them.

The “spiritual” ones are (usually younger) people who are not likely to be seen in church on Sunday, but even so consider themselves God’s children and constantly seek, by various means, a stronger connection with the Almighty.

Before you start filing yourself and everyone you know in one folder or the other, please understand that these are not “never-the-twain-shall-meet” categories. All of us, if the truth be known, and if we take our faith seriously to almost any degree, will find ourselves shifting to and fro, and often settling on a blend of the two.

For one thing, setting oneself to the task of worship, even in a church building with a group including strangers as well as friends, is in itself a spiritual discipline. It may not be the most thrilling or profound experience, but that’s beside the point that worship is a way for people to seek an encounter with God.

Where the church often fails, is in corporate worship that is unrecognizable as a spiritual discipline. If the liturgy is lifeless, the prayers pedestrian, and the scripture stammered out, then it becomes an activity to be endured rather than to be entered into.

What needs to happen is that we catch on to the fact that in order to worship in any fashion or tradition, we will need to claim various insights and means that can only be defined as “spiritual”.

Each of the various acts of worship in a given service reveals where “spiritual disciplines” come into play. For right now, however, let’s focus on one.

The Prayers of the People is a relatively new term for most of us older folks. In my youth and early ministry, the term was The Pastoral Prayer. The idea was, I suppose, that the pastor was qualified to write and then speak the prayer by virtue of being the pastor—the one who shepherded the congregation and cared for the spiritual, and sometimes physical, needs of the people.

As a result of being a good pastor, she or he could take a quiet hour or so in the study to contemplate the people’s circumstances and the grace of God, and then craft an appropriate prayer. When the pastor read the prayer during worship, if done with sensitivity, the people would hear it as their own.

The Pastoral Prayer, then, was really the Prayers of the People. The format changed, however, so that the people were not allowed to be so passive in prayer. Forms of bidding prayers, guided prayers and congregational refrains led to more involvement vocally, and, it was hoped, spiritually, in each petition.

The prayers themselves became more generic in order to cover more territory, and required more thoughtfulness on the part of the people. Prayer book prayers, written long ago and far away by strangers, don’t always cut it, so it’s still necessary for pastoral editing and writing to take place to make them fit “this congregation, today”.

The most important thing to remember, of course, is that these are the people’s prayers—not the pastor’s or anyone else’s. So in offering the prayers, in presenting them with and for the people, time and care must be taken to encourage the worshippers to engage in spiritual disciplines.

For example, the discipline of silence. Too often pastoral and people’s prayers are rattled through. Without meaningful pauses, such prayers will go by in a flash, unused by those in the pews.

When there is quiet time in prayers, the spiritual disciplines of meditation and reflection can take place. Each person has the opportunity to make the prayers their own, to fill in the blanks and add their own petitions, and to have their souls open to the touch of the Holy Spirit.

Elsewhere in a worship service similar spiritual opportunities are available: quiet centering at the beginning of the service, celebrating the grace of God, a silent prayer of personal confession, quiet contemplation following Scripture readings, rejoicing in the community of faith, pausing to reflect on the mystery of it all when receiving the elements of the Lord’s Supper, thoughtfully accepting the charge and benediction—all are ways of seeking and being open to the presence of the living Christ.

Going to church should not be devoid of spiritual experience. On the contrary, that’s what it’s all about.

How would you define “spirituality”? Where do you find worship in your church to be “spiritual” for you?

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