There are isolated and scattered signs of spiritual vitality in the American Protestantism. There are people and pastors who believe that spiritual practice is indispensible to the life of the church. There are a handful of denominational programs and an occasional bishop who emphasizes the spiritual life. And a handful of seminaries have given one kind of attention or another to the spiritual preparation of their students.
But there is also evidence that the emphasis on spiritual practice is losing momentum. New emphases have begun to eclipse the programs that the church and its schools have launched. The conversation with those who are “spiritual but not religious” has gone off the boil. And retreats devoted to the subject attract a minority of any community where there are still programs of that kind.
I’d like to be wrong about these countervailing trends, but there is reason for concern, and it is worth naming the reasons spirituality may be losing its importance to American Protestantism:
One: Spirituality was never deeply bred into Protestant DNA.
For Protestants the key to theological understanding has been Scripture. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) was Martin Luther’s defining declaration. It was central to the Protestant understanding of the Christian faith. Scripture was ostensibly the sole religious authority in Protestantism, and spirituality was and is primarily a matter of understanding the text. As such the Protestant spiritual quest has been, more often than not, a quest for biblical understanding.
There have been exceptions, of course. The Pietists and, for a time, the Methodists pursued their own brand of spirituality. Episcopalians took some measure of responsibility for preserving the practice of the Catholic tradition.
The high point for contemporary Protestantism was probably the confluence of the Emmaus program in Methodism and the Cursillo program in Anglicanism and other mainline churches.
But those movements have lost their purchase in mainline denominations.
Two: Mainline Protestantism’s interest in spirituality has been situational, not necessarily a matter of principle.
Mainline Protestantism has often had no more than a situational interest in spirituality. The spiritual but not religious asked themselves if there were people and pastors in the church who could help them and declared, “No, no help there, but Oprah, Oprah is interested in the spiritual life.”
When the “cool kids” on the American landscape declared themselves “spiritual, but not religious (SBNR),” it was embarrassing for the church to find itself out of step with the culture around it.
So, in a small flurry of activity churches rummaged through Christian history, rediscovered the labyrinth, lit a few candles, played Taizé music, and held a handful of workshops. Mainline seminaries even took a handful of initiatives to introduce a few spiritual formation programs into the curriculum (particularly because there were foundations that were prepared to fund them).
But grants are not line items on a budget, and SBNR’s had concluded by that time that the church was only one authority among many and had moved on. So, mainline Protestantism has begun losing interest.
For evidence, search Google for articles on spirituality and mainline Protestantism and you will discover that the number of articles devoted to the subject have dwindled over the last 5 years. There are even churches with labyrinths that have already forgotten (again) what their purpose might be.
Three: Protestantism has branded itself in pragmatic terms.
American Protestantism is, like American culture in general, pragmatic in nature.
A colleague of mine once asked his class of seminarians whether they would want to go to heaven, if it meant contemplating the glory of God. Most of them voted no. Without even asking what that might mean, the vast majority of his class was pretty clear that they weren’t interested in heaven if that is what it involved. They needed something to do, they noted.
Not surprisingly, American Protestantism has been trying to sell belief in God based upon the efficacy of faith for as long as the American church has been in existence. The health and wealth crowd has bought the Prayer of Jabez and taught Americans that God’s got stuff and God wants to give you stuff, so if you believe, God will give you stuff. Evangelicals picked up on other themes and taught their followers that God could save your soul, give you a sense of purpose, and order you life. Progressives, fearing nothing more than being thought of as Evangelical, struck out in a third direction and have been working on teaching people that God will heal society and usher in heaven on earth through better politics.
Candidly, spirituality will never compete with that pragmatic emphasis. To be sure, Protestants of every stripe will tell you that you need to pray before you strike out and do what you were going to do anyway, and most of us have a hip-pocket invocation for the occasion. It would be embarrassing to admit that praying to God isn’t important at all and would raise serious questions about why anyone would go to church. (SBNRs figured that out without being told.)
But if you asked whether silence, retreat, contemplation, or prayers of discernment were necessary or preceded and shaped the church’s ministry, often we would be forced to admit that no such thing was involved.
This is not to suggest that social engagement is a bad thing or that personal transformation is not intrinsic to the work of the Holy Spirit. But the notion that prayer is somehow necessary is, in far too many places, simply the obligatory admission that churches somehow have something to do with encountering and listening to God.
There are undoubtedly other reasons that spirituality has shallow roots in the American church:
Four: American Christians and Americans in general remain materialists.
We believe that what is “real” is what we can see, feel, hear, smell, and taste. It is hard for real spirituality to take root in a culture in which spirituality is at the margins of reality and is not shot through the world around us.
Five: Panic over the shrinking influence of American Protestantism has led to panic and a frantic search for a silver bullet that will solve the problems the church faces.
Falling numbers in mainline Protestantism has led to an unfocused search for ways to connect with the culture. One could argue (and I certainly would) that the absence of a spiritual center is precisely why American Protestantism is in the condition that it’s in. But problems one through four make it hard for the American mainline to take that claim seriously.
So, instead, we are likely to pursue the same course we have been on for some time now and the destination isn’t in dispute.
Those of us who believe the spiritual life lies at the heart of the vitality of the Christian life and witness will need to make a principled argument for our views. We should also continue to nurture spiritual practice. But it is worth remembering the trends that militate against our efforts.