May 2, 2013

What are the different approaches to Christian spirituality?

One of the great challenges to Christian spirituality in the western countries, in the developing nations, in our globalized modern economy, one of the greatest challenges of all is secularism, for secularism squeezes spiritual life to death.  And in our common fight against secularization, the destroying of real spiritual life, Christians are finding God today in different ways.  Let me suggest to you five as we near the end.  There are some Christians, we might call them liturgical Christians, they pay a great deal of attention to the structure of their worship services.  Some of their prayers are even written out in prayer books.  They pay great attention to the observing of the ordinances, or they will probably call them the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  They find in the repetition of the basic truths of the faith in their liturgical services, they find that their spirits get re-centered on God’s truth and all of the confusion and the stress of being part of a busy work week gets re-centered on God in the quietness and the stillness of their liturgical worship experience.  They think and feel that God meets them with his grace in a special way through the observance of the sacraments.  You cannot be anywhere in the world where there are not at least some believers whose spirituality is of this sacramental or liturgical way.  Usually evangelicals will reject this alternative altogether as unhealthy and maybe superstitious. But I would invite you to ask yourself, although I may not be able to accept it altogether and I may not believe everything they teach about the sacraments, what are some of the things I can learn from that tradition.  What can I learn about stillness and silence before God?  What can I learn about beauty and the healthiness of repeating important truths until they become familiar and memorized?  There are things we can learn from the liturgical approach. 

Now the second approach that is around today is the one that evangelical’s, conservative evangelical’s gravitate toward.  It is one that prioritizes the word of God; it puts the Bible in the center as the main place where we meet the living voice of God, the pulpit where it is preached is central to our churches.  The Bible study is what we do during the week in homes.  The personal devotions is how you start each day or end each day with the open Bible before you seeking to hear the voice of God.  Yes, there is a great strength to the evangelical tradition of a Bible-centered spirituality.  What we have to be careful about is this Bible-centered spirituality must not treat the Bible as the end goal but as an inspired means to actually encounter the living God and in that relationship be transformed and called to service. 

We mentioned a few moments ago a third stream of Christian spirituality, that of contemporary spirituality, that of the Pentecostals.  What is the distinctive contribution of Pentecostal or charismatic spirituality today?  I think that one of the great contributions that tradition makes is that it constantly reminds us that there is a supernatural dimension to authentic Christian living.  There is a living God who acts in our world and we should be watching for and expecting and celebrating his supernatural touch, his supernatural influence, his supernatural involvement.  We should not be so afraid of the supernatural because we want to control everything.  This is part of the witness of the Pentecostal tradition.  And the Pentecostal tradition is also a reminder to us that God is not weak but God is powerful and we can celebrate that. 

Fourth, there is a liberal Protestant tradition that cultivates, prioritizes, ministries of compassion to people in need that works actively for justice in the world.  Some people in their spirituality withdraw from the world so totally that they do not really help make it a better place, but this liberal tradition is very convinced that when you give a cup of cold water in Christ’s name you are really giving it to him.  And as you serve the poor and the needy, as you do what is inconvenient and costly Christ notices and your heart is beating in sync with the heart of God and there is a kind of intimacy and fellowship with God that comes through Christ-like service that maybe cannot come in the same way, just through prayer or just through Bible reading.  So there is a wonderful reminder in that tradition as well, although its weakness is sometimes that it ignores the communion with God and does not emphasize the need for personal transformation quite so much. 

There is a fifth and final strand of Christian spirituality today that I would mention to you in conclusion, or almost in conclusion, and that is the emergence of the voices of the saints from the developing or third world, the two-thirds world, the majority of Christians where Christianity has not been around so long but is growing and is vibrant and represents the future.  And as we survey the spirituality of people in lands that are becoming Christian, one of the common theme in the theme of suffering.  The theme of how God’s power is revealed in weakness.  How God’s wisdom is revealed through people who do not always have a great and extensive education.  The theme that seems to emerge in these spiritualities is that God takes the ordinary and does great things and God takes the experiences of suffering to refine people’s character and to make them more Christlike and God uses that suffering to give people a supernatural authority in ministry so that it is out of the suffering that the real spiritual power is released.  This is the kind of spirituality that many of the people hearing this lesson may be able to contribute to and I commend it to you.