Most Americans consider themselves spiritual, yet less than 20% attend religious services regularly, and more than 25% do not identify with any religious tradition. As religious affiliation decreases — includingin church membership, less participation in religious activities, the size and health of religious congregations, and the financial shortfalls affecting programming — traditional religious institutions sense the discomfort.
It comes down to this: Something is changing. Something in my church, cathedral, temple, synagogue, mosque feels different.
Despite the declines occurring in religious institutions, interest in the practice of spirituality is growing. People identifying as spiritual seekers hunger for spiritual growth and depth, pursuing various opportunities for spiritual practice. They are searching and seeking to develop their inner lives and experience connection with the transcendent. Most of it doesn’t happen in church buildings, nor in cathedrals, synagogues, temples or mosques.
Upheaval and awakening
A growing number of spiritual teachers/directors are now available in response to a growing movement of people seeking spiritual deepening. According to Diana Butler Bass, the trend is clear. In her 2012 book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, she says, “Traditional forms of faith are being replaced by a plethora of new spiritual, ethical and nonreligious choices. If it is not the end of religion, it certainly seems to be the end of what was conventionally understood to be American religion.”
Butler Bass discusses the radical shift currently under way and suggests that a changing American Christianity may be part of “forming the contours of a new kind of faith beyond conventional religious boundaries.” She also points to the ways in which religious and spiritual change is part of a larger transformation.
“When a spiritual and religious upheaval and transformation twins with political and cultural upheaval, it often results in what we call periods of awakening.”
Among her most profound thoughts are these words from a May 19, 2012, interview with Welton Gaddy on : “When a spiritual and religious upheaval and transformation twins with political and cultural upheaval, it often results in what we call periods of awakening: these times in which American history actually changes. And an awakening is not just like a revival meeting, where individuals might get changed; but instead, an awakening is a time when American society, as a whole, is transformed.”
Bad news and good news: upheaval and awakening! “Transformed” is the sacred space to which we aspire, but how? And where do we go from here? Perhaps it’s a matter of the institutional church getting better acquainted with the term “spiritual formation.” Spiritual formation is the deliberate attending to the process of growth, maturation and learning on the spiritual journey. This developmental process is grounded in relationships, personal devotion, sacred stories, spiritual disciplines and practices, rituals and faith community.
We’re not so good at this
The spiritual practice of contemplation is a rich but neglected legacy in the Protestant tradition. Yet worshipping communities throughout the world have developed 21st century ideas about contemplative practice. We borrow the spiritual discipline of contemplation from a Christian heritage that relegates it to desert mothers and fathers, monastics and anchorites. Even so, many modern-day seekers are increasingly exploring a life of contemplative practice.
As for us Baptists, well, we’re not that good at it. We simply don’t practice contemplation much. And for the most part, our faith communities don’t embrace contemplative practice at all. We pray, we study Scripture, we worship and, for Baptists in particular, we do missions and we sing. All these practices change us and mature us, but the practice of contemplative spirituality may well be the most transformative practice of all.
Who are we now?
Now, indulge me in proposing why this matters. During the isolation time of COVID-19, faith communities contemplated many questions, including the question, “Who are we now?” As brick-and-mortar buildings closed, worship and learning took to cyberspace. The experience was, to say the least, a very different way of doing church, cathedral, temple, mosque and synagogue. Whatever the faith tradition, the forced isolation of members of faith communities took its toll. It messed with our minds and spirits.
“Whatever the faith tradition, the forced isolation of members of faith communities took its toll. It messed with our minds and spirits.”
One important and overlooked example is the emotional toll on young people. During the COVID-19 isolation, the youngest generations reported higher levels of isolation and loneliness than ever before, according to a nationally represented research project conducted in 2020 by. The study found that during COVID isolation, young people lost their sense of belonging, self-reporting that they most needed to be “noticed, named and known.”
Also during the isolation, almost often happens in isolation, not within a person’s traditional church building and not among the important relationships of faith community.(13-to-25-year-olds) tried a new spiritual practice. This information reveals a great deal about the currently emerging spiritual quest. Spiritual seeking is happening everywhere, but it
Long COVID of the soul and spirit
We are now dealing with the after-effects of a “long COVID of the soul and spirit.” It is the innate sense that, although we tend to label COVID as over, we are still struggling to settle into the emotional and spiritual normalcy we expected but have not found. As Langston Hughes wrote in his poem ’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” Re-entry after COVID has been a difficult, no-crystal-stair experience., “I
During the lengthy isolation period when the buildings of my church were closed, the leaders opened the sanctuary for a worship experience during Holy Week. The worshippers came — one by one, family by family — returning to their sacred space of prayer and worship, but burdened with prominent signs of ample distancing, mandated masking and various other safety measures. The additional rules for attendance were palpable. That evening, the worship experience felt different than the worship we were accustomed to. Although happy to be there, the people had feelings of nostalgia, sadness, isolation, confusion. And they had questions, lots of questions.
When communities of faith began the journey of COVID-19, they never dreamed the experience would be both a journey and a seemingly perpetual space that remained. Both the journey and the lasting state of COVID have been disconcerting and have led faith communities into certain uncertainties.
“When communities of faith began the journey of COVID-19, they never dreamed the experience would be both a journey and a seemingly perpetual space that remained.”
Certain uncertainties have appeared in various ways: Pews that are not as occupied as before, programs that need to be restarted or replaced, finances that need to be increased to previous levels, members who need help reconnecting with the community, young people who have not been able to reclaim their lives, rhythms of worship and study that need to be restored, personal feelings of stress and anxiety around re-entering the faith community.
The certain uncertainties that brought faith communities to their current state of being have created a kind of liminal space that feels a little uncomfortable. Yet the uncomfortable, liminal space might just be a threshold. In fact, “liminal space” is often defined as a threshold, derived from the etymology of “liminal” that comes from the Latin word limen, which means “threshold.” Liminal spaces are frequently called the waiting areas between one point in time and space and the next.
Embracing liminal spaces
Finding ourselves and our faith communities in liminal spaces means we have the feeling of just being on the verge of something. More often, liminal space is a physical space that feels liminal, like an empty church sanctuary that is normally filled with singing, praying and laughing people.
The present time is this kind of liminal space, particularly spiritually and emotionally. This liminal space is a time between “what is” and “what’s next.” It is a place of transition, a place of not knowing, and it is a season of waiting. It’s a space that might make us feel uneasy with the feeling of something being “off,” but we can’t quite pinpoint what or why that is. It also can be the uncertainty in the future created by a significant change.
“Faith communities have discovered that even once-familiar rooms can seem foreign, even a little uncomfortable.”
Together again in familiar places such as the church sanctuary or the fellowship hall, faith communities have discovered that even once-familiar rooms can seem foreign, even a little uncomfortable. With COVID “gone,” and yet still here, even once-familiar places feel transitional. And they are transitional. It may help to remember that congregations have moved for centuries from places that were comfortable to places where they are suddenly and unexpectedly forced to transition, remake and restore. That can be a positive thing for a congregation, because transition can include transformation.
Transitional or transformative
The good news is that liminal spaces can be transitional and/or transformative spaces. Faith communities get to make that call, moving ever closer to transformation by reaffirming a calling as the Christian faithful.
, an author and professor emerita of systematic theology at Georgetown University, was the first African American woman to earn a pontifical doctorate in theology. In her book , she writes about the never-ending dance of giving and receiving that moves us into our calling as Christian faithful: “to recognize the Christ in everyone, to reach out a hand of hope, to speak a word of love, to sing a song of happiness, to share a tear of joy or pain, to speak a word of praise, to murmur a prayer, to stand together against those forces that would divide us, isolate us, and block our flow toward home.”
Might faith communities consider the return to our more normal rhythms and to our customary buildings as an opportunity to bring spiritual formation and contemplative practice with us, anticipating the transformative change that we just might experience. Change — good change or bad change, COVID-change or any other life change — can most assuredly create transformation within us as we seek to become the righteous of God. This spiritual journey of ours lays before us “athat is neither short nor easy, but rock-strewn, obstacle-laden, sometimes even seeming to flow backwards and uphill.”
Communities of faith, we have access to more — more than our usual practice and practices. The sacred path of spiritual contemplation can transform both our rock-and-mortar buildings and our sometimes rock-hardened spirits.
Kathy Manis Findley is an ordained Baptist minister with Greek Orthodox roots. Now retired in Macon, Ga., she spent her 38-year ministry serving as a pastor, hospital chaplain, trauma counselor and missionary to Uganda. She is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is certified in victimology, trauma intervention and child forensic interviewing. She is the author of two serious books, Voices of our Sisters and The Survivor’s Voice: Healing the Invisible Wounds of Violence and Abuse, and just for fun, one Kindle novel.
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