Recently I met with a friend who suffers from depression and fatigue. He had just returned from one of the most prestigious medical centers in the country and was feeling discouraged. After three days, dozens of tests and interviews with numerous physicians to assess his condition, the only advice he received was to adjust his medications.
I asked him if anyone had talked to him about his sense of purpose or how he saw the world. He responded: “No one seemed interested to go there.”
My friend’s experience isn’t unusual. As a practicing psychotherapist and ELCA pastor, I’ve observed a growing distance between psychiatry and spirituality. Studies have shown spiritual life—our beliefs and sense of purpose—is vital to well-being, yet it’s largely ignored by today’s medical community. I believe this dissonance has contributed to our country’s current mental health crisis—rates of addictions, anxiety disorders, suicide and depression are on the rise even as medication usage for such disorders is at an all-time high, according to Consumer Reports and IQVIA, a health research firm.
But the abandonment of spiritual well-being isn’t limited to medicine. It’s a cultural phenomenon that continues to override all dimensions of modern life. The church is no exception.
A search for meaning
ELCA leaders boldly warn of dramatic changes coming to the church. Their forewarnings come as the Pew Research Center reports a steady decline of church affiliation over the last three decades in North America. Such news is debilitating for a generation of leaders, most 50 and over, who have dedicated their lives to the church.
Historically, Lutheran identity in the U.S. was shaped by pastoral care, theological integrity, and right teaching about doctrines, sacraments and church structure. Devotional disciplines and psychological reflection—modes of spiritual care—were often dismissed. Now social justice and institutional survival are major themes across the ELCA, and in many congregations, spirituality is not a priority. We pay a price for that.
Only when we care for our spiritual well-being will we be equipped to translate those experiences into courageous acts of compassion, justice and peacemaking, offering them to a world crying out for healing.
The crass materialism of modern culture holds us captive so much so that we become numb to spiritual moments in worship. Take baptism, for example: too frequently this sacred initiation into the realm of spiritual life is reduced to a follow-the-words-in-the-hymnal welcome ceremony. Jesus’ words about being “born again” through baptism have lost their power to remind us we all have a kingdom within that’s equal in beauty to God’s physical world.
Moreover, the art of prayer can be stunted by conventional church protocol. For many of us, our prayer life is limited to a laundry list of communal requests offered in worship. Little, if any, instruction is offered to individuals on contemplative devotional practices: how to listen, slow down and discern.
Confusing to some churchgoers is the emergence of a hunger that drives younger generations to seek spiritual fulfillment outside church walls through pay-as-you-go activities such as yoga, life coaching or self-help groups. On the other hand, attractive, highly sophisticated commercial forces embedded in social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram lure users of all ages away from exploring spiritual well-being. We are more acquainted with how our iPhones operate than the troublesome dynamics of our own egos and demons. Despite our technological advances, more Americans are grappling with mental health issues, a symptom of our collective spiritual sickness.
A path forward
ELCA leaders now have a chance to help us reclaim and rediscover a geography of the inner spiritual life with all its depth, power and magnificent complexity.
One step forward is to prioritize spiritual practices in our congregations. We need to reclaim the sacred in worship and outside of it. This will mean more small-group meetings, retreats and other opportunities to reflect on our inner lives. It will involve a new kind of Bible study where the focus is not on external facts and historical narratives, but on more personal, honest reflections. When parishioners begin such a journey inward, ideas like grace, forgiveness, acceptance and love take on deeper expressions.
We need to talk to each other, especially when our opinions—political or otherwise—differ. We need to recognize and acknowledge together the wounds each of us carries and how they affect our worldviews.
Guided by God’s grace, we can allow ourselves to be led into a more attentive and redemptive way of living.
Lasting reconciliation is possible when we find a way to meet in humility. Only when we care for our spiritual well-being will we be equipped to translate those experiences into courageous acts of compassion, justice and peacemaking, offering them to a world crying out for healing.
As I consider the challenges facing church and society, I am reminded of a gift I received from a friend who visited Detroit. The city, once a gleaming example of the American Dream, is now economically depressed and dotted with abandoned churches. But my friend’s gift was a thing of beauty—a photo of a stained-glass window from one of Detroit’s cathedrals. Most casual visitors and churchgoers admire stained glass for its magnificent, stunning craftsmanship. However, these dazzling artistic creations originally carried a deeper purpose. They were designed to remind us of our interior worlds: sacred, dramatic, personal.
Even in the bleakest environments, we can gain encouragement from such beacons of hope. Guided by God’s grace, we can allow ourselves to be led into a more attentive and redemptive way of living.