Why Contemplation Matters

Photo by Fran McColman

Photo by Fran McColman

Two significant insights into the importance of contemplation crossed my desk this week. The first, Reversing the Exodus, comes from the Association of Religion Data Archives, where writer David Briggs looks at research currently being done to understand religious congregations (across faith traditions) that are successful in engaging membership and participation of young adults. Briggs compiles a list of seven characteristics common to such youth-friendly communities, and some of them (“Keep up with new technology,” “Promote young adult ministry”) are predictable enough. But here’s what really stands out:

The KISS principle: Keep it spiritual, stupid: Congregations reporting high levels of spiritual vitality were three times as likely to have significant numbers of young adults as congregations with low spiritual vitality. “What they are looking for is something that touches them,” [one researcher] said of young adults. “They’re looking for something that connects to the divine in a palpable way.”

Eat, pray, read the Bible: Congregations that reported a lot of emphasis on spiritual practices such as prayer and scripture reading were five times more likely than congregations that put no emphasis on such practices to have large numbers of young adults in the pews. “It appears that congregations that teach spiritual practices are much more attractive to young adults,” [the researchers] reported.

“High levels of spiritual vitality.” “Something that connects to the divine  in a palpable way.” “Emphasis on spiritual practices such as prayer.” “Congregations that teach spiritual practices are much more attractive to young adults.” Interesting stuff.

The second fascinating insight comes from a quotation that popped up on tumblr (thanks to my friend Rebekah for highlighting it on Facebook) — an excerpt from an address that Rowan Williams, former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, made to the Catholic synod of bishops in Rome (while Williams was still in office). This was the first time that an Anglican primate addressed the Roman synod, and Dr. Williams chose contemplation as his topic. Here’s the excerpt that caught my eye (emphasis is mine):

“… contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.” — Archbishop’s address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome

When I look at these two quotations side by side, I see something quite obvious: not only does contemplation matter, but that it could very well be the key to the future of a meaning, vibrant Christian community.

Which reminds me of Karl Rahner’s famous quote about the Christian of the future being a mystic — or not existing at all.

If a church cannot attract young members, it is slowly dying. That may seem harsh, but it’s true. And if young people want churches that teach them authentic spiritual practice, I hope that churches are paying attention. Granted, contemplation is not the only spiritual practice available within a Christian context, but with firm Biblical support, roots extending back to the fourth century desert tradition and across the Orthodox/Catholic/Protestant spectrum, contemplation is not only a core Christian practice, but also foundational to a mature spiritual life. And Archbishop Williams points out that contemplation is not merely a form of navel-gazing, but truly a radical, revolutionary, deeply transformational act (his words remind me of another luminous quote, from his fellow Anglican Kenneth Leech).

So contemplation matters. It transforms us. It trains us in a new way of seeing. It opens our hearts and minds to the silent loving presence of God, which in turn equips us to more faithfully love God in return, and love our neighbors as ourselves. And because of this, it’s the kind of practice that, if supported by a congregation, makes that congregation more attractive to young people, who are hungering for authentic spirituality, not stuffy religiosity.

Here’s a question I have: why aren’t churches more engaged with contemplative practice? Why don’t churches offer training in Christian contemplation, and regular gatherings of people interested in contemplative practice (and how such practice can impact their lives)? Is it because we haven’t trained our clergy to be leaders in this way? Or because the hostility to, and fear of, mysticism which has characterized the modern era continues to shape church culture? Or do you think the researchers have it wrong, and that young people really aren’t interested in spirituality & practice?

I have no illusion that suddenly church fellowship halls are going to be packed with twenty-somethings eager to meditate. Contemplative practice is rigorous and challenging, and will always, I believe, only be embraced by a small percentage of the public. So it shouldn’t be the only type of spiritual practice promoted by the local church (there should also be support of meditative Biblical reading, aka lectio divina, as well as fasting, vocal prayer, Ignatian-style meditation, chanting the psalms, and repetitive prayers such as the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer). But contemplation needs to be on the menu. And it needs to be supported by the clergy. And it needs to be seen as a core element of evangelization, and catechesis, and the ongoing practice of Christian discipleship.

What do you think, my friends? Do you agree that contemplation matters? And any suggestions on how to make it more part of the life of your local congregation?

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  1. A few leaders at my church are reading a book title Unbinding the Gospel (http://amzn.com/0827238045), which focuses on the question of evangelism within mainline congregations. The pretext is precisely the question of what makes congregations vibrant and “successful.” I’m only one chapter in and I’m still trying to ascertain the possible role of contemplation in this exercise. That being said, I did come across the following resources on the UCC site:



    As to why churches aren’t more engaged in contemplative practices, I think it’s partly because that tradition has been lost (or marginalized.) But, in addition, I think it may reflect differing concepts of the divine that drive institutional practices. Marcus Borg distinguishes between “supernatural theism” and “panentheism.” The former is the dominant model behind the ways that churches most often talk about God and prayer.

    • Carl McColman says:

      Thanks, Brian. I am in complete agreement that contemplative practice has been lost/marginalized — first by locking it away in the cloister, and then by placing it under a cloud of suspicion thanks to the Reformation (both sides are at fault here) and modernity. So we have our work cut out for us!

      Thanks for the UCC resources, they look really good.

  2. Indeed we do have our work cut out for us, Carl and Brian! We are fighting a similar “business” mindset in The United Methodist Church that puts statistics and “best practices” ahead of spiritual formation, including contemplation. I have been frustrated in the first six months of my ministry as a certified spiritual director because of a distinct lack of interest in the workshops and other instruction I’ve tried to offer. Based on Carl’s post, however, I will keep trying.

    • Carl McColman says:

      Glad to hear you will persevere. My experience is that this kind of ministry typically happens in small groups. “Where two or three are gathered”!

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