Silence, solitude and Scripture. Those are the three things I rediscovered years ago when invited to a Roman Catholic retreat center.

Many of us long for a deeper spiritual life, and Christianity has a rich history of contemplative practices rooted in silence, reflection and a loving intimacy with God. These ancient practices were central to the early church and were gradually lost as science and rationalism took over.

The church has been scrambling for years to find ways to stop the slow loss of members and declining growth. We’ve been good at social action and teaching. But looking back hundreds of years even before the Reformation, we see a gradual loss of the intimate spiritual life of the early church.

Ancient practices can bring new life to our lives and those of our congregations. Seasons like Advent and Lent are perfect times to introduce the congregation to new and ancient practices from the early church.

People throughout Western Christianity have turned to ancient mystics to learn what’s missing and to search for answers to their deep hunger for meaning — solitude, silence and prayer have become the center of their lives. Contrary to what some might think, these folks aren’t withdrawing — they are finding a deep spiritual life that heals inner wounds from life’s hurts and loneliness from modern life’s isolation.

A rebirth of such spiritual practices gives strength and purpose for life’s challenges.

This can also become a natural part of the way a church does ministry. It’s a cultural shift for many — busy pastors say they barely have time for such practices in their own lives, let alone their congregation’s. But this is about adding a practice, not a new program.

A similar shift is being made in much of the corporate world. Businesses are bringing in life coaches and taking time for meditation because it changes the way employees work together and do business. Health clubs and spas offer silence, meditation, and solitude for rest and renewal. Twelve-step programs offer spiritual guidance, companionship and prayer as part of recovery.

Many church members, as well as non-members, tend to their spiritual hunger by joining contemplative prayer groups or seeking spiritual directors or professional spiritual companions. All well and good.

Suggested practices

But the church can also meet these needs. Making such a cultural shift in our congregations isn’t about adding another meeting, but incorporating contemplative practices into what we’re already doing:

  • Pastors, mark your calendar for daily silence, meditation and reflection.
  • Instead of opening devotions or prayer at congregational council meetings, take time for lectio divina, the sacred reading of Scripture and shared silence. Rather than Roberts Rules of Order, let Christian discernment practices allow all members to voice their prayerful reflections on decisions to be made.
  • Teach contemplative practices in all levels of education, even among the youngest children, who love to use their imaginations and tell their faith stories.
  • Fold spiritual practices into confirmation. This age is surprisingly responsive to meditation and being asked how they experience God. This way of teaching honors their questions and doubts.
  • Invite the choir(s) into centering prayer, song or chant as spiritual preparedness prior to worship.
  • Invest in a singing bowl or meditation bowl for your worship space. Rather than a hum of chatter prior to worship, encourage silence and prayer by ringing the bowl. It teaches even the youngest child to become silent before God. Such a focus keeps us from checking out what is going on around us and keeps us centered.
  • The singing bowl also signals a time for silence during worship, especially for prayer, and after readings and the sermon. Worshipers can be encouraged to ask themselves: How is God speaking to me through this text? What is God’s invitation to me from this sermon?

By planting these seeds, ancient practices can transform our experience of God, changing us and our relationship with those around us — even changing how we see our families, our jobs and the world.

As we intentionally add simple, meaningful practices, the still, small voice of the indwelling Christ that is always present with us will guide our daily lives. As it changes even one of us, the ripple effect begins to change all.

Joann Nesser
Nesser is the founder and director of the Christos Center for Spiritual Formation in Lino Lakes, Minn.

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