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?
—Kent Carlson

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.

It’s Complicated

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.

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
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As an alumna of TC9, a part of the ministry team for TC13 & 15 and a participant of TC16, I’m deeply grateful for Ruth’s writings, teachings & modeling of what being transformed into Christ’s likeness for one’s own best life & the sake of others looks like. I’ve been frustrated & unfulfilled as an associate pastor even though my church has been a wonderful family & has done great things in our community. Before I became involved with the Transforming Center I couldn’t have articulated why but now I know it was because there’s so much more that God wants for & from us. Being part of a Transformating Community definitely helped my spiritual health & growth but more importantly it showed me how good church & Christian community can be. Now that our senior pastor is retiring, I’m hopeful that our next lead pastor will be more open to ours becoming a Transforming Church. For too long we have focused on growing our church numerically, having closer fellowship & serving our community — all good things — but not true spiritual transformation in Christ. Without this there’s not much difference between a church and any secular social organization or community service agency. I’m so blessed & inspired by the Transforming Center & all those who are committed to being & helping others be transformed in Christlikeness for the sake of others!

This is a great articulation of some important distinctions. Thanks, Maiya!

This is a beautiful dream, but it feels unrealistic in the world these days. How can we build an authentic community of transformation when there is so much division in the body of Christ along political and social ideologies. Do we just not talk about things like abortion, evolution, immigration, and all the differences between the left and the right. Can I really be in authentic relationships with people whose ideologies are so opposed my own.

Judy, I admire your honesty and I share your frustration with a Church that is, in fact, fractured and splintered, because of a continued refusal to engage each other with love and respect, as we have these discussions. Truth doesn’t have to be compromised in displaying love to those with whom we disagree, and the solution can’t be to avoid subjects of potential controversy if we are to affect the culture we live in.

While acknowledging this frustration, I personally try to take responsibility for my own circle of influence, where I can hopefully do a better job than what is happening in the larger arena. I truly believe that each encounter we have with another person, is providential, and an opportunity to respectfully engage another person made in the image of our Creator. If I can remember to prioritize my need to be right, or show someone the truth, or change their point of view, to be 2nd place in importance to showing them love and respect, then I will be moving things in the right direction; and they’ll usually be willing to have another conversation with me in the future. Judy, I am holding you in prayer tonight, because I am expecting God to give you a renewed hope for what he can accomplish through you as you continue to engage those in your life who need the love of God to touch them.

Judy, I really appreciate this question and I am sure you are not the only one asking it! The vision for transforming church does feel unrealistic–even to me on some days. But when I observe what Jesus came to be and to do and I witness the emphasis on formation and transformation in Paul’s writings — I know there is something there that is possible for us. Here’s what I/we have experienced in leading what we call Transforming Communities all these years: our communities are diverse in all the areas you describe above. But when we gather on the basis of our desire for and commitment to transformation in Christ’s presence and we keep transformation in Christ’s presence as our primary goal, we are able to be with all the other stuff humbly, respectfully, willing to learn from and be influenced by each other. We approach each other as brothers and sisters in Christ rather than as adversaries and foes, and are not so easily threatened by our differences. The other thing that is stunningly wonderful is that when we gather for the purpose of being transformed in Christ’s presence through spiritual practices (rather than gathering around dogmas and a set of beliefs) …when we gather as souls in Christ’s presence ready and willing to be guided by him on a journey of faith (rather than coming as defenders of the faith or protectors of the church as an institution), Jesus’ presence moves in and among us in the most unifying ways. Its very hard to explain how that happens but it does. We have just launched our 16th Transforming Community (!) and this is our consistent experience. Bless you, sister! Come join us if you can!

Thank you, Ruth and Larry, for speaking into this concern – and into my life. This isn’t an easy path and I will take some time to process what you’ve shared as it does give me some hope. Blessings.

Great essay – so very thankful for the TC and all the ways it has helped shape my life experience.

Ruth, I have found and continue to find your words are so ‘in season’ for the church more broadly and for each of us as followers of Christ. Many of us are so sick and tired of going through the motions of repetitive behaviours and forms that we have grown up with, that offer little to stimulate and change us. Oh that we can grasp what the gospel is meant to be for us, transforming life in all it’s fulness. There is such a void, especially in talking the real issues of the heart with others. And yet there is such a longing from so many for it. I too long for a place where people can go and seek God more fully and transparently, without the need to perform or DO. Thanks for being such a ray of hope in dark times. Love your ministry and work, it has been a gift to myself and my husband.

Thanks be to God (and you’re welcome!).

I see lots of pastors doing their utmost to lead and grow a church.
The first instinct is to be in charge, in control, take responsibility for everything.

Controlling a church is easy, but gifted people will leave.

Then a word bro.

Man’s way of maintaining order in the meeting of the local church is to stifle the brethren.

This works but it comes at a great price as you mentioned.

If they continue in this way, (I predict that they will) these churches will become extinct.

Praise God for the house church movement which is taking up the slack and is booming.

Yes, I really think that in order for the Church to flourish in the wake of all that’s broken, we will need to move beyond narrow definitions of Church to fresh and simpler expressions of the body of Christ now–like house churches. That will be good for the brethren and sister-en!

At the church where I am a member, transformation is taught by the pastor and modeled by the elders. In my opinion, the issue is that, broadly speaking, people don’t want to be transformed because of what they fear it will cost – giving up perceived control of their life. They want only 25 cents worth of Jesus in their life. They refuse to consider the freedom they would gain through spiritual transformation.

Ruth, thank you for this! It pierces me with painful longing. Like many, I’ve ached, lived (in spite of the church) and worked for decades for this vision. I’m currently in a leadership position (a lay pastor) who is seeking to introduce the other elders (and staff pastor) to these dynamics.

As Evangelicals, one of our biggest hurdles are wrong ideas about the purpose and function of God’s Word in growth in grace. We overestimate the Scriptures in a certain sense. We are often guilty of searching the Scriptures in a way that treats them as our source of eternal Life (John 5:39) but are not willing to go on the journey of self-awareness necessary to come to Christ as our Life. Most just assume that intense study will do it, not seeing that study is one aspect of a full orbed life in Christ.

The church in North America is dying (see Chuck DeGroat’s article linked below) and as we steward the process I hope and pray that what emerges will be the kind of communities you are describing. The current model cannot be sustained, and the high levels of pain associated with it are creating inroads for the Kingdom of God and a wider and deeper gospel (Acts 14:22).

Peace to you,
Scott Holman
Spokane Valley, WA

Great stuff! Thanks so much for sharing. “As we steward the process (of the church in North America dying) …” that is an idea worth pondering. We have such a hard time with the necessary dyings that are so essential to new life.

I am grateful. I found Spiritual Direction and it transformed my life so totally that I cannot imagine myself before. I am now pastoring a small church and we are transforming our mission to be outside ourselves. But I would like to become a place of intentional spiritual formation. I pray that you will continue your work, and your book, but remember to reach down to those to whom the path is new and instruction is lacking.

Ruth, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your succinct way of expressing what so many are experiencing today. I recently left my church – strangely enough because I had “outgrown” it. The practices no longer held me, in fact, I felt constricted and hypocritical – as if I were going through the motions but not finding God in the practices anymore. I have no desire to join a church now, but have a strong sense that our Creator, who is always creating, is doing something new in the hearts and souls of men and women who are seeking Him in His fulness. Your insights, along with those of Richard Rohr from the Center for Action and Contemplation, have been feeding and sustaining me through this part of the journey. Thank you for following what God is showing you to bring to His body – broken as it may be. You are a blessing!

Ruth, I’m curious; do you see the typical practices of local churches to be inconsistent with creating transformation communities/churches?

Well, yes and no–some are and some aren’t! But the full answer to that would be a whole book–which happens to be the book I have been working on for awhile. 🙂

A new book with this focus! Sounds amazing!

Jim, I would also add that it is not just the “what” its the “how”–how we frame these practices, how we invite people in and the spirit in which we invite them to engage. A spirit of legalism, dogmatism, performance, subtle positioning as works righteousness rather than means of grace, anything that smacks of preserving the institution rather than welcoming the questions that lead to transformation and may unsettle the institution–all of these hidden dynamics can undermine the intent and the power of life-transforming practices. As you can imagine, I have many examples of all of the above!

Thank you for this reflection. I ceased attending and looking for a local church community some years back. I dread the thought of re-mingling among dogmatic and static groups of people who judge and criticise. I take pleasure in reading the works of Father Rohr and Phileena Heauertz and the writings here at the transforming centre. I guess that I had to take myself out of the local church dynamics to breathe …and God came with me 🤗

This has been a conversation amongst my peers in spiritual direction and in my prayer group for the last decade now. Most churches stay in the first half of life spirituality and often don’t know there’s anymore. But with people now coming to spiritual direction more frequently and becoming acquainted with transformation I believe there is hope as the transforming re-enter the church and share their journeys. Thanks, Ruth, as always, for your honesty and transparency and hope!

Yes, I, too, believe there is hope for transforming churches that are prepared to welcome and resource seekers at ALL stages of the journey, not just the first half of the journey. But that does mean that pastors and clergy must be willing to go on that journey themselves. In the meantime, grateful to know you are praying and doing spiritual direction!

Thank you.

Your words are always so compelling and helpful. Being able to resonate with them is energizing. Thank you for TC and its life transforming influence on me and so many others.

Thank you for not giving up on your search over 15 years ago. For letting Christ work in you for the sake of others. As I am one of the others! I do appreciate and learn from your work.

Thank you Ruth for your commitment to these truths. I’m an grateful to be with you on this journey! Praying for you!

Thank you, Kim! You are such a blessing on the journey.

Words of truth and beauty. I am so grateful for the learning and experience of TC.

You are such a faithful encourager, Michael. Thank you!

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