Total Church 11: evangelical spirituality – an oxymoron?

Continuing discussion of Chester and Timmis Total Church: a radical reshaping around gospel and community

Chapter 9 is on Spirituality

Work has been a bit manic lately. Now there are few things more yawn inducing than moaning about how busy you are.  And there can be something especially irritating about someone involved in ‘Christian ministry’ seeming to assume ‘Christian busyness’ is somehow of a different, higher, order than the busy pressurised daily lives most people live trying to earn a living and a 1001 other things.

Anyway, that wee rant out of the way, the reason I mention busyness is that Chirstian spirituality needs to be about following Jesus in everyday life – and our lives tend, for good or ill, to be busy. Spirituality therefore is not just for when we can retreat or get away from everyday life – to escape to the quietness of solitude or whatever …..

Of course there is a place for this – but Chester and Timmis have a go here at a sort of Christian elitism; an advanced spirituality of silence, contemplation and solitude that is actually at odds with what they call a biblical spirituality. Namely, reading and meditating on God’s Word; participation in community; and involves speaking, praying, engaging with others in real life.

This is the sort of spirituality that evolves from they dual thrust of this book – a gospel word and gospel community. According to the authors it stands in tension and even opposition with the more meditative type of spirituality. In this they are actually quite bullish about an evangelical spirituality of activism, mission, Bible study, preaching, pastoral care and so on. Activism is of course one of David Bebbington’s quadrilatoral marks of evangelicalism.

Rather they say, we don’t need ‘more’ than the gospel, more than Jesus and all the spiritual riches he gives us. We don’t need ‘more advanced’ levels of discipleship than following Jesus daily, in community and in service. [And if I have a criticism here it is their virtual silence on the Holy Spirit – they need to make much more space for integrating the Spirit into a theology of Christian spirituality].

The authors’ view in this chapter goes straight against a pretty wide consensus that evangelicals are pretty bad at the ‘inner spiritual life’ and have much to learn from more ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ traditions that have a place for silence, contemplation and prayer.

What do you think? Do you equate ‘spirituality’ with ‘special experiences’ of some sort? Experiences that are to be sought out, tend to be rare, and take you to a deeper communion with God? Or is ‘spirituality’ better understood as making that decision not to say something negative about someone behind their back?

Now I’m framing this as an either / or choice which is unreal. It’s hit me afresh looking at Mark each week just how ‘manic’ the scenes are around Jesus and how busy with ministry he was. Yet there is a response of retreat, prayer, space before re-engagement. But I think the general question stands – how would you describe what ‘spirituality’ is?

And another question comes to mind. Does far too much talk of Christian spirituality tend to assume there is a ‘right’ model to be found that will somehow ‘unlock’ the key to spirituality?

It’s taken me a long time to feel free of that straitjacket. Silence, contemplation and solitude have never worked too well for me (but sometimes they’ve been helpful). Neither has the evangelical ‘quiet time’. So I feel an affintiy with the authors on this one – I tend to work out spirituality as I live life – sometimes alone reading Scripture, reading other Christians, reflecting on issues in writing, praying with others and alone, discussing with others, speaking and teaching, being active in a small community, being a father and husband etc …

The problem with these is the assumption that there is a ‘one size fits all’ form of spirituality. Yet we all have different personalities, are in different contexts, live in different cultures, have been formed by different experiences and face different challenges.

So what does your form of spirituality look like? How has it changed and developed over the years?


4 thoughts on “Total Church 11: evangelical spirituality – an oxymoron?

  1. Spirituality in my opinion is that connection you get with God after you’ve repented, reflect on the teaching of Christ (via bible study or otherwise) and of course fasting and praying. Forget the world around you and immerse yourself in his love. A spiritual ‘high’ can then be attained.

  2. The invitation of the gospel is an invitation to a relationship, a relationship with God, modelled by Jesus Christ. In all relationships things are not always the same. I have been married for 26 years and my level of knowledge is not the same that when we first got married, nor it is our taste or views on different things. Things might have changed but at the core of our relationship is love and trust, those things haven’t changed. In terms of God I had had many experiences, but to hold on to one particular one and say tha I have understood everything about the relationship is silly and arrogant. I am to seek Him as my ultimate good to what experience that is going to lead me it is no something that I have to figure out but be willing to trust in His loving character. If I seek the experience only I am making that more important than God himself. At the moment, my spirituality is one that seeks a constant awareness of God in the world that I am living int.

  3. Welcome Nigel. I’m with you 100% that Christian spirituality begins with repentance, faith, prayer and experiencing the love of God. But I’m not quite with you in saying our experience of God involves forgetting the world around us. Seems to me that Jesus is our model here of combining love and obedience of his Father with profound and practical concern for the world around him.

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