According to Google, searches for prayer were at an all-time high during the height of the pandemic. Six out of ten people in the US and around the world prayed for an end to the pandemic. People were desperate for a solution. But now that COVID is receding, churches have reopened, and we are resuming familiar ways, prayer searches are back to normal. Yet the need for a deep connection with God remains. How do we help people cultivate their own relationship with God? Good news! Methodist spirituality can anchor us in our post-pandemic world.
In this article, I am going to share three strategies to deepen congregational-based spirituality in your setting. But first, a word of warning. If you are tempted to skip this article because you think your congregation already provides deep spirituality, please read on and keep an open mind. Too many churches confuse reading or hearing about God with experiencing God for themselves.
Jesus’ Emphasis on Spiritual Community
A peek into the community that Jesus formed with his circle of closest friends, known as The Twelve, gives us a good idea about life lived in spiritual community. These twelve disciples were a diverse group of people who might not normally mix, yet this group transcended their differences to become trusted friends.
First, they embraced honesty and vulnerability by living a transparent life. As they journeyed through life together, challenging themselves and one another, their transparency built trust.
Life on the road with Jesus wasn’t easy. Several of the disciples thought about returning to their old lives. On more than one occasion they couldn’t understandJesus’ teaching and way of life. Despite all this, Jesus never sent them away, nor did they leave. They felt safe enough to share their confusion, doubts, what they really thought, felt, and believed. In other words, they practiced vulnerability, which opened the door to accountability.
During their three years together, Jesus sent the Twelve (and others) on assignments where they were told to heal the sick, raise the dead, and share the coming and presence of God’s Kin(g)dom. When the disciples returned, they would give account of who they spoke with and what they accomplished. Sometimes they had miracles to share! Other times they returned empty-handed. Regardless of the outcome, the Twelve knew they were accountable to and loved by Jesus.
Spiritual Community in Early Methodism
In much the same way, early Methodists gathered in small groups, or “bands,” for spiritual growth. Historically, band meetings were centered around these five questions:
- What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
- What temptations have you met with?
- How were you delivered?
- What have you thought, said, or done of which you doubt, whether it be sin or not?
- Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?
The purpose of these groups was to build genuine relationships with one another, and with God. This honesty, vulnerability, and accountability created powerful bonds between members, and with God. Methodist spirituality powerfully undergirded the church.
Post-Pandemic Spirituality Reimagined
Both Jesus’ community and Early Methodism give us examples of spiritual community. When you look at your church, do you sense this level of connectedness? When people gather for worship, Sunday school, classes or small groups, during fellowship or other events, do they transparently disclose what’s really happening in their lives? In the tough times, do they support each other, no matter how challenging or uncomfortable they feel? Do they share their struggles and overcome personal biases to be together?
If we are to emulate Jesus’ way, then we must build a true community within the church that is spiritual in nature rather than simply functional. Here are three strategies for building spiritual communities:
Strategy # 1:
Practice accountability. In my work with pastors and lay leaders around the country through Creating a Culture of Renewal®, I have been surprised how often spiritual leaders struggle with holding their people accountable. As institutions that generally put relationships first, learning how to cultivate relationships is paramount. Instead of focusing on keeping everyone happy and not rocking the boat, build true, genuine relationships with and amongst your people by creating safe environments where they can be honest about their life’s struggles and hold one another accountable as, together, you grow as disciples of Jesus.
Strategy # 2:
Highlight spiritual experiences contained in the scriptures. The God of the Bible is a God of direct encounters. Over the centuries, however, people of faith have taken the Bible and mined this recounting of spiritual experiences for morals, lessons, and do’s and dont’s. By focusing on the beliefs and behaviors rather than the transcendent states being described in them, church people begin to think that a direct experience of God is out of reach. Remind people that they can have an encounter with and experience the love and grace of God.
Strategy # 3:
Lengthen the time for silent prayer. Have you ever noticed that silent prayer during corporate worship might last only five to ten seconds before the space gets filled with words again? That brief silence in a noisy, crowded week doesn’t leave much room for people to connect with their soul or for God to speak with them. People are looking for something more substantive and more soulful. In fact, those who are leaving the church tell us that they want more spirituality in the church, not less. Allow your people time to talk to God, and for God to answer. You may find that this extra time allows you to nurture your own spirituality, which we too often become disconnected from when we are too busy working for God.
Are you having a hard time building spiritual community post-pandemic? Join me for my upcoming workshop, How to Do More with Less: Leading the Post-Pandemic Church, beginning July 6. We’ll uncover the surprising truth about how renewed spiritual community can allow your congregation to do more with less.
Excerpted and adapted from Rebekah’s upcoming book, Forging a New Path: Moving the Church Forward in a Post-Pandemic World (Market Square Publishers, 2022).
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