Q&A: The ‘Quiet Pentecost’ of spiritual formation

United Methodists worried about declining church membership may be overlooking a more subtle renewal that’s underway, writes the Rev. Dwight H. Judy in his new book, A Quiet Pentecost: Inviting the Spirit into Congregational Life (Upper Room Books, 2013).

Dr. Judy is a retired elder in the North Texas Conference and professor emeritus of spiritual formation at Garrett-

Dwight Judy

Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He answered questions by email and by phone from staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are edited excerpts.

You write about a “quiet Pentecost that is happening across the church.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

I think our mainline churches tend to focus on the grand Pentecost reported in Acts 2. We keep looking for this major breakthrough in numbers. What we are failing to notice is how the Spirit is emerging in small groups when we adopt a prayerful listening posture. The model for this outpouring of the Spirit is John 20, in which Jesus comes among the disciples after the crucifixion when they are quite frightened and speaks the words, “Peace be with you.” This is what I mean by the “quiet Pentecost.”

It’s not really being noticed by our denominations, because this “quiet Pentecost” often involves small numbers of people in covenant discipleship groups, or prayer and faith-sharing groups; and because it involves developing a posture for listening, what we often call listening in a contemplative prayer mode. The book records the experience of more than 40 people who have been developing such small group ways of being together, whether learning to pray the Scriptures; or guiding Companions in Christ groups; or guiding their administrative councils with this posture of prayerful listening together for making decisions about their life and missional outreach.

The focus on spiritual formation seems to have re-emerged in the last 30 years or so. How did we lose that focus in the first place, and why is it coming back now?

I remember vividly in my seminary education days in the late 1960s, we didn’t talk about this. There was no construct for what we now call spiritual formation. By the mid-20th century, we had really lost our way of articulating that in Christian tradition in the west. You could say that it was part of the modernism movement, the rise of the more rational focus on religion and Christianity.

I think the publication of Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer in 1969, a year after his death, was a signal moment. The Protestant world started to look at the riches that had been locked away in the monastery.

Many Americans are seeking peace and spiritual connection but finding it outside the church, in activities such as yoga or Buddhist meditation. How might the church reach those folks?

All of us are trying to find a bit of respite to make sense of our daily life. Unfortunately, the culture at large just doesn’t even know that Christianity has these kinds of riches within its traditions to address that need.

Christianity contains practices that can also equip us with daily prayer, so that we sort through our problems and come to the day refreshed and ready to engage our daily life with meaning. Many of the prayer forms, such as meditation on Scripture (lectio divina), the Jesus Prayer, and Centering Prayer have been taught historically in monasteries, but we now have these resources widely available.

We have a great opportunity to reach out to the community to share the riches of Christian prayer. Many churches are developing a named “spiritual life center” ministry in order to do that. The largest of these of which I’m aware is St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. They now have 2,000 people on their email list, with only half identifying St. Luke’s as their home congregation.

If a church hasn’t had an emphasis on spiritual formation, how would you advise them to start?

A great way to start is with a short study in the Companions in Christ series. A facilitator’s training is available online from Upper Room Ministries. Bring in a person for a retreat day. If people are looking for a facilitator, they can look to Hearts on Fire: Fellowship of United Methodist Spiritual Directors and Retreat Leaders, an affiliate organization of the United Methodist Church (http://fumsdrl.org). A great idea would be to work with your prayer chain/prayer team, and actually engage in study together, so that you could share some of your prayer experiences together and learn different modes of prayer. The best overall book I know to help a congregation think through the historic spiritual disciplines and how to apply them today is Marjorie Thompson’s book, Soul Feast.

In developing a spiritual formation program, are there common errors or missteps that many churches make?

As people are thinking about their spiritual life focus, I want to ask them to define spirituality and spiritual formation within their context and community. It’s easy to just keep doing things as we’ve always done them, but call it “spiritual” without really examining our practices. Then, I want to ask people to think carefully about how to engage both their congregation and community. For example, while some people may be ready to launch a community ministry, it may be important to develop several small groups within the congregation for a few years, and then invite people who have clearly shown the capacity for leadership to be available for leading community-focused groups and retreats.

Can spiritual formation be a form of evangelism?

Since we all can benefit from learning to lead a more prayerful life, I do encourage every congregation to begin moving toward inviting their communities into classes on prayer, experiencing the prayer labyrinth, or coming to a service of anointing, reconciliation, and healing prayer. Some congregations have been engaging in door-to-door outreach, leaving a gift, asking about needs, being prepared to pray for those needs and then inviting the community to a special event like a block party or to a special service of worship. We just need to listen for how Jesus wants to “send us.”

As our readers hear sermons relating to the Pentecost in Acts this weekend, how might that relate to the “quiet Pentecost” that you write about?

Let’s remember our Methodist heritage: that vitality belongs in small groups of people who “watch over one another in love.” We have amazing new riches from the literature on prayer and spiritual disciplines to enable a variety of such ways of being together in Christ. From these small circles, powerful community mission can spring. We need to question our interpretation of the big Pentecost of Acts 2, where 3,000 people were converted in one day, as the only model for church renewal. Instead, let’s also look to the way the Spirit is very much alive in small group sharing and renewal of personal and corporate mission as we are touched one by one by Jesus who comes to us saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so now I send you.”

mjacobs@umr.org

Mary Jacobs

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