The Future of Christian Spirituality: A Protestant’s Journey Toward a More Unified Faith
New leadership is needed for new times, but it will not come from finding more wiley ways to manipulate the external world. It will come as we … find the courage to take an inner journey … to become healers in a wounded world. –Parker Palmer
We are made for more. More of God than we have right now. More peace, more joy, more love. Deeper levels of wisdom and discernment. True transformation and life change. Whether we can fully articulate it or not, on some level we know we’re made for more and we are wired to keep seeking it.
The Church was made for more, too, and yet many pastors and parishioners are deeply disillusioned with the church as an institution. They simply do not see it as a safe place for attending to their deepest spiritual longings, so increasing numbers are walking away. In the forward to Glenn Packiam’s book, The Resilient Pastor, David Kinnaman president of the Barna Group, describes a massively shifting landscape. Social norms and perspectives are edging further towards secularism and a growing indifference toward Christianity—particularly among Millennials and Gen Z who find it increasingly irrelevant and even extremist.
In addition, there is a growing credibility gap facing pastors and Christian leaders in the face of numerous high-profile scandals and abuses of power that have come to light coupled with the more intimate disappointments many churchgoers have experienced in their own congregations. Add to this the challenges of ministry in a digital age of distraction, shrinking attention spans, and a deeply ingrained consumer mindset regarding everything from cars to churches, and it is hard to see what the future of Christian spirituality might be.
A Season of Spiritual Opportunity
These are harsh realities that may cause us to wonder if there even is a future for Christian spirituality. But the good news is that while many seem to be questioning the institution of the church—and rightly so—peoples’ spiritual hunger is intensifying. The voices are getting louder and braver, clamoring for new expressions of life together in Christ led by transforming leaders who are being honest about their own spiritual longings and are willing to lead with integrity from that place.
Only God knows the future of Christian spirituality and the Church’s role in it, but if we look through the right lens, we might be able to recognize this as a season of spiritual opportunity. Wise and discerning leaders will be able to read the signs of the times to see what kind of future the Spirit of God might be leading us into. Even though this may involve allowing some of our current expressions of church to “fall into the ground and die” so new fruit can emerge and ripen, I believe it is possible to recognize some of the signs that point to where we might be headed so we can participate in the future God’s Spirit is creating and inviting us into.
What is Most Personal is Most Universal
I enter this reflection on the future of Christian spirituality through the doorway of my own experience as a Protestant who has found her way beyond the “protesting” for which we Protestants are so well known, to a deeper, broader, more historically grounded (orthodox) faith. This is a more unified faith in which all sorts of things that had been torn asunder—creating false dichotomies and bifurcations—have come together and are coming together into a more integrated whole.
This journey into a more unified faith has taken place in my life with all its particularities and in my relationship with God in all its intimacy and yet … my story seems to belong to many who have taken a similar journey. That means that in some significant way I am drawing attention, not just to my personal past, but in a more general way, pointing to where many of us have been and where many of us would like to go. While I want to be careful not to make my experience the measure of all things, I also know that what is most personal is most universal.
If there is one over-arching statement I could make about what I see and what I wish to see regarding the future of Christian spirituality it would be this—greater integration and wholeness in all sorts of different aspects of our faith because, as Fr. Ron Rolheiser says, “Holiness and wholeness are, ultimately, the same thing. To be holy is to be whole.”
What Do we Mean by “Christian Spirituality”?
In a general sense, spirituality has to do with the passions and inspirations that draw us one way or another, connecting us with the world and with one another, prompting our choices, and empowering our creativity and commitments. It has to do with what motivates us—our most profound passions, our ultimate concerns, and what gives meaning to our lives. It is the source of our deepest loves, values, yearnings and hopes and affects every area of our lives. In this sense, everyone has a spirituality. It is how we have been created.
Christian spirituality is about the lived experience of the Spirit of God deep within and the shared language we use to try to describe it. By definition, “Christian spirituality” is Trinitarian with particular emphasis on the Holy Spirit, the one sent by God at Jesus’ request to be our advocate and our counselor, guiding us into truth as we are able to bear it. As Bradley Holt points out, “Christian spirituality is about our lived experience of God within. ‘If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit,’ Paul writes in Galatians 5:25. The starting point is the Spirit of Christ living in the person.”
Phillip Sheldrake describes a “spiritual person” simply as someone in whom the Spirit of God dwells, and who lives under the influence of that Spirit. (see I Corinthians 2:14-15). Thus, Christian spirituality refers both to the human spirit and the divine Spirit—the divine Spirit referring to the spirit of God that was active in human affairs in the Old Testament, and the Holy Spirit of Jesus who dwells within us now. The wind of the Spirit IS blowing, and sometimes brooding, over the formless and void places of our hearts and lives; Christian spirituality could well refer to the process of getting our sails up so these frail human vessels can be blown wherever that Spirit is taking us!
A Future with Hope
Christian spirituality is alive and well, even if some of our religious trappings and institutions are not. To put an even finer point on it—the Holy Spirit of Jesus is alive and well and active, so it seems most important to draw attention to some indicators of how the Spirit might be leading us into the future of Christian spirituality. Relying on my own story and the stories of people I have accompanied, I am suggesting that the Spirit is weaving together the following beautiful threads into a future with hope:
- The future of Christian spirituality will be propelled by a greater understanding and respect for the role of desire and desperation in the spiritual life.
- It will be practice-oriented and practice-based rather than beliefs-oriented and institution-based.
- It will bring greater acknowledgement and intentionality around the charism and practice of spiritual direction with an emphasis on attending to all aspects of the human person—including a more robust focus on our embodiment.
- From a rooted depth, the future of Christian spirituality will be more welcoming and inclusive—a house with room for everyone.
- It will be profoundly justice-oriented and sensitized to social justice issues.
- It will be Christocentric but in new ways—celebrating diversity and focusing on the deeper unity we share in Christ within our diversity, rather than allowing our differences to divide us.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of what might characterize the future of Christian spirituality, but it is an attempt to get the conversation going in a positive direction and help us become increasingly attuned to what the Spirit is doing so we can join God in it.
Which one of the observations about the future of Christian spirituality grabs your attention or corresponds with your own observations and experience?
Join us in 2024 for a New Series on the Future of Christian Spirituality
Starting on Epiphany (January 6 2o24), Ruth Haley Barton will unpack each one of these categories. May God strengthen us with hope for the future that is emerging.
© Ruth Haley Barton, 2023. Adapted from a presentation given at The Future of Christian Spirituality Conference in honor of Fr. Ron Rolheiser in 2020.
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