For years Sunday worship had felt more routine than restorative for Ellen Flanders, a lifelong member of Christ United Church in DeWitt, Mich. Then Alex Aivars, pastor of the ELCA-Episcopal congregation, introduced a meditative worship series for Lent 2023.

The new service invigorated Flanders, a retiree and caretaker to her elderly mother.

“I’m a stressed person every day,” she said. “Going to meditation [at church] has been an awesome thing for me. It just takes me to another place. I feel really close to God and Jesus.”

Aivars is glad that the service has a soothing effect. “It seems like everyone is very stressed and very busy,” he said, “and this service is a way to slow down and have some space to be calm.”

The pastor himself began meditating seven years ago while at seminary. His inspiration for meditative worship, however, came from scrolling through Facebook and seeing advertisements and friends’ posts on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. He wondered if he could introduce this practice to members of Christ United.

The meditative worship service has become so popular it’s now a permanent fixture on the church calendar, offered the first and third Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m.

How it works

Held in the sanctuary of Christ United, with chairs placed in a circle and pillows laid on the floor, the service includes time for silent and spoken reflection. Candles are lit. Coloring books and crayons are available for those who wish to use them to meditate. An urn with sand and candles sits in the center of the room, used for offering prayers at the end of the service.

Aivars begins meditative worship with an opening prayer, then leads a guided meditation. He invites participants to imagine their bodies as trees, their legs poking through the floorboards like roots and their arms reaching toward the sun to gather nutrients. “This is where you can meet God,” he tells churchgoers.

As Aivars speaks, participants have ample time to breathe and be still. This is the heart of meditation, which he defines as “being quiet [in] a quiet space and focusing on a word or few words, going inward … then listening for God’s voice.”

Afterward participants will listen to music and hear Aivars read the Gospel lesson for the evening. As he reads, he asks participants to picture themselves in the story, imagining how it felt to have Jesus wash their feet or how the wine tasted at the wedding in Cana.

“I’m not hearing more people wanting more church. There’s a hunger for spirituality and getting in touch with your soul.”

The Gospel reading is followed by two minutes of sacred silence, then participants are encouraged to share thoughts and reactions to the story. “We will share how we were feeling, what we saw, what we experienced,” Flanders said. “That helps me feel even closer to the other [attendees] there—my church family.”

The silence, Aivars added, lets participants form their own thoughts on the Gospel text and connect with each other.

The format has piqued the interest of young and old alike, including people who have never been drawn to Christ United’s other offerings. In fact, Aivars said, three people who had never been to Christ United began attending the meditative worship service this past fall, then brought three others with them.

In the months ahead, Aivars said, he’d love to try a Sunday worship service incorporating meditation. He believes that meditative worship is the future of the church.

“I’m not hearing more people wanting more church,” Aivars said. “There’s a hunger for spirituality and getting in touch with your soul. [Meditative worship] seems to feed people spiritually.”

For her part Flanders appreciates that the service is one she can share with her young adult daughters and her husband. She highly recommends meditative worship to others.

“The weeks I go, I’m more aware of keeping Jesus in my life,” Flanders said. “I feel more present; I have more gratitude. I appreciate nature and beauty around me. … I remember that, oh yes, I’m loved, I’m special, I’m important to Jesus.”

Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago and author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years (Morehouse Publishing, March 2023). Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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