We need ‘call to holiness’ more than Call to Action

By Sarah S. Howell, Special Contributor • • •

Sarah Howell

Sarah Howell

At Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, N.M., when the sun goes down, so do you. With limited electricity and a prayer schedule that begins at 4 a.m., there is no holding back the darkness. Sunset is not to be fought but embraced as a time of quiet reflection and rest.

In the 16th century, St. John of the Cross meditated upon what he called “the dark night of the soul.” In 2008, Elaine Heath appropriated that image in her book The Mystic Way of Evangelism to describe the state of the church today. Many denominations, including my own United Methodist Church, are seeking to reverse decades of decline. With falling numbers in terms of membership and giving, ineffective leadership and uncertainty about our mission, the church is indeed in a dark night of the soul.

However, Dr. Heath believes—as St. John of the Cross did—that the dark night of the soul is not something to be avoided or escaped. In fact, it is a necessary time of stillness, reflection and drawing closer to God. The monks of Christ in the Desert quietly yield themselves to literal night and welcome its coming without anxiety or fear. The church, on the other hand, has seen the oncoming spiritual night and rushed out to buy floodlights and generators. We are calling for more effective leadership, more programs and more styles of worship. None of these is bad, and in fact many of these efforts represent needed changes and long-overdue reform. But they do not get at the heart of the problem.

What we need is not a call to action. What we need is a call to holiness.

Faith over fear

Last summer, I heard Marcia McFee speak at the Indiana Annual Conference. She offered a workshop on worship design and made a point that I will never forget. When people resist change in worship, she said, they are actually expressing fear. Fear around changes in worship reflects an unarticulated fear of losing God. If someone has always connected with God through hymns accompanied by an organ, it is no wonder that she or he worries about not finding that connection through praise choruses sung to a guitar.

It seems to me that this fear is part of changes in church and society at large, not just in worship. The world is changing and the church along with it, and we are afraid that those changes will cause us to lose God.

Anytime we allow fear to dictate how we react to change, of course, we find ourselves responding out of anxiety and not out of faith. We need leaders who can calm those fears and remind us that even as everything around us changes, God never does. It says something about spiritual leadership in America that we have manufactured Christian heroes from professional athletes. As the church flounders, celebrities fill the gap, though only on a superficial level.

However, this does not mean that the church needs to produce leaders who will triumph an aggressive march out of the darkness. We do not need better performance and outputs. What we need is faithful leadership, not by those who are effective, but by those who are holy. Elaine Heath’s approach—and, I would argue, the biblical witness to the life of Christ in which we are called to participate—has nothing to do with metrics or effectiveness and everything to do with holiness and kenotic love.

The church should not be about building herself up but about giving herself away. The church can only show this self-giving love as embodied by Christ when she is more concerned about faithful witness in the world than with her own survival. Holiness is not about self-aggrandizement or even self-preservation, but about being the body of Christ, who “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7).

The whole life of the church should not just stand against but go beyond the utilitarian impulses of today’s world, insisting that true goodness is found in the extravagant, useless beauty of worship and holiness rather than in productivity and efficiency. The church’s task is not to increase its own membership but to imitate and participate in the life of Christ.

The church does this by giving itself to the world in love in a gesture as wasteful and beautiful as when Mary of Bethany spilled her precious nard at Jesus’ feet (John 12:1-8). Jesus calls us to behold “the alluring and ‘useless’ beauty of holiness,” (as Bryan Stone says in his Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness) and to stop being so focused on outcomes and measures of certainty, for the only measure of certainty available to us is the good news incarnate, Jesus himself.

God’s love alone

We do not need better performance and outputs. What we need is faithful leadership, not by those who are effective, but by those who are holy.

Efforts at reform cannot be about institutional preservation. The realities of membership and stewardship in a denomination facing decline cannot be ignored, but a fundamental shift in posture is needed if the church is to remain faithful to God’s call.

For, in the end, this is not about the survival of a denomination or congregation; it is about a God who does not need rescuing and to whom we must yield for rescue instead of trying to be our own savior. The church’s dark night of the soul need not be a threat but an opportunity for us as a body to seek humility, to recover our prophetic voice, to ask to be taught by the God who is love how to live into that self-giving love.

We need not fear, and we need not stock up on flashlights. Dr. Heath writes, “The church will persevere through the night and emerge alive on the other side, not because of church programs, but because God’s love has kept it.”

In the baptism liturgy, we say, “The church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.” What that will look like is an unknown that is wholly contingent upon God’s love, not our action—and for that we should thank God, who never changes and whose love alone can see us through the dark night.


Ms. Howell is nearing completion of her studies for a master of divinity degree at Duke Divinity School and is a candidate for ordination in the Western North Carolina Conference of the UMC.

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Amen Sarah very good, very clear and well said. ‘Call to holiness’ Wesley would like this. I agree we must seek holiness

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