Are You Longing for More in Church?
Eventually, someone looking for a church home will ask some variation of this question: “So, what kind of church are you?”
While signing books at a conference on spiritual formation a few years ago, a sharply-dressed, middle-aged woman approached who seemed to have no interest in purchasing a book. She marched right up to me and asked, “I have given up on church. Completely. What do you have to say to someone like me?”
All I could think to say was, “I don’t blame you. I get it.” Because the truth is, I do.
At that point I, too, had gotten to the end of my faith that churches could be communities where spiritual transformation takes place regularly and routinely… I, too, had gotten so desperate for spiritual transformation in community that I started something that I insisted was “not a church” … and yet, in all the ways that counts, it kind of is.
But even as I resonated with what she was saying, my heart broke one more time to acknowledge that the very thing that could and (I would argue) should be central to what the Church is all about—spiritual transformation together in Christ’s presence for the sake of others—is so absolutely missing in many people’s experience of church that they no longer even expect to find it there.
Telling the Truth About Church
Let’s be honest…these days when authentic community and real life change is what people are looking for, they routinely turn elsewhere—to a yoga class, a retreat or spirituality center, a runner’s club, or an informal gathering of like-minded friends who want to “go deeper” than what they think a church would offer. And who can blame them really? Today’s spiritually savvy seeker seems to know intuitively that calling something a church or letting it become a church has the potential to doom the whole endeavor from the get-go. We can judge the “spiritual but not religious” folks all we want, but spiritually-minded people today have no problem voting with their feet.
To be fair, churches are good for a great many things. But the church as a place where people are routinely experiencing spiritual transformation? Not so much.
Observing this one has to ask, “Does church really make a difference when it comes to the transformation of human beings into the image of Christ?” Are good Christians even allowed to ask such questions?
Desperately Seeking Transformation
Truth is, I have experienced some transformation in the church. But I can also say that church has contributed to the care and feeding of my false self almost as effectively as it nurtured my true self. As I passed from the early stages of basic Christian discipleship into some of the more challenging stages of faith, there came a point when I had to admit that even though I’ve been in church all my life (both as a lay person and a pastor) there was something seriously missing. In times of greatest brokenness, awareness of sin, spiritual longing and questions, I have had to look outside the church (local, not universal) to discover next steps for my own spiritual transformation.
And that’s not even to mention the layers of Christian busyness that have, at times, contributed to a pace of life that is completely unmanageable. That fact alone has, at times, caused me to run from the church rather than run to it. This is disheartening, at best.
And that’s not all. Another layer of complexity got added a number of years ago when, as a leader in the church, I realized there was no place to go to attend to my own ongoing need for spiritual transformation. And yet I needed it so badly.
At that time, some of us who were leaders in a variety of churches were beginning to acknowledge that since there was a profound performance orientation attached to the “job” of working in the church it was simply not wise or safe to talk about what was or was not happening in our own spiritual lives. After all, a leader’s spirituality was a part of what was being evaluated as “successful” or not. And that’s not even to mention what was going on in the lives of those to whom we ministered and whether or not real transformation was happening in their lives or not.
At one point this intrepid little group of leaders said to each other, “Ok, we love the church, we’re committed to serving in the church but we’re going to have to set up a community outside the church for attending to our spiritual transformation. Otherwise we will never ask the questions we need to ask, we will never be able to be honest about what’s really going on inside, we will never really take next steps on our own spiritual journey that require risk and vulnerability.”
We were spiritual seekers on a stealth mission to find that “pearl of great price”—real spiritual transformation—hidden in the field of our life together in Christ.
The Best Thing We Bring to Leadership
Taking it one step further, we also believed that if we as leaders could actually take some next steps spiritually—toward greater intimacy with God, toward real change in our trust structures and core motivations, toward an increasing capacity to really love and be present to people—it would be the best thing we could do for those around us as well. After all I had seen in churches, I was pretty well convinced that the best thing any of us can bring to leadership is our own transforming selves.
You may have already guessed that that little group of seekers who were also leaders became the Transforming Center. Over the last 15 + years, as we have gathered on the basis of our shared desire to open to Christ’s transforming presence, we have actually experienced transformation together. Despite real losses (as in, we almost lost our faith in the very thing that had brought us together) and dark passages (where we almost lost our way), those pastors and leaders whom God brought together and kept together have become different and better people.
Our conviction that spiritual transformation for the sake of others is central to the message of the Gospel and therefore central to the mission of the Church has only deepened. And our dream that churches might somehow actually become centers of spiritual transformation has been purified and clarified. Our shared experience has confirmed the great truth we knew on some level had to be true: that our transformation really is for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives, AND for the sake of others. How could it not be? If the heart of Christ is really being formed in us, how could it not result in a heart for the world that Jesus gave his life for?
For This We Toil and Struggle
And so it has been the most natural thing in the world for pastors and clergy who are on a transforming journey themselves to want to initiate transforming communities built upon and shaped by a commitment to spiritual transformation; without fail, that commitment to transformation increases our capacity to discern how we are called to be in God for the world. Those at the helm of already-existing churches have felt compelled to become more intentional about reorienting their life together around becoming communities of spiritual transformation that discern the will of God. How could it be any other way? For this we toil and struggle with all the energy he so powerfully inspires within us.
©Ruth Haley Barton, Becoming a Transforming Church, 2019.