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June 12th, 2013

Practice Spirituality – the new social phenomenon!

‘Practice spirituality’ is the new zeitgeist, the new social phenomenon. We have had ‘dwelling spirituality’ and ‘seeker spirituality’, and now it is all about discovery through spiritual practice. This can be seen in the social phenomenon that is mindfulness, built as it is on mindful awareness practices, or meditations, that come from a spiritual background.

As we enter the summer festival season it can also be seen in the rise of festivals offering a wide range of spiritual and health practices. This cultural shift to practice-based spirituality was presciently tracked by Robert Wuthnow as far back as 1998 in his book After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. What is interesting is that this transition is largely happening outside the church.

Bill Hybels and Rick Warren caught the zeitgeist of seeker spirituality through seeker-sensitive services and purpose-driven lives, and the church needs to wake up to how culture has now moved on. The problem is that our culture doesn’t think the church has anything to offer it in this new area of practice.

We, the church, need to rediscover our rich history of spiritual practices in contemplation, not just for the sake of the world, but ourselves as well. These practices must indwell us rather than just be taught as ingredients to be put together in formulaic and inauthentic teaching. Too often we teach things that we are not practising.

For this is not just about our witness or the potential for authentic contemplative evangelism mediated through mindful Christians. It is also about discipleship. Our current model of discipleship is built around teaching people information and sharing knowledge about what to believe – leaving people largely untransformed. We need to develop a different discipleship paradigm that is based on spiritual practices, spiritual practices that have the power to transform lives.

Why is this important?

In understanding depression, and relapse into depression, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has a working model which says that the self is seen or felt ‘as inadequate, worthless and blameworthy, and negative thoughts are seen as accurate reflections of reality.’[1] This is not just a concept or idea of the self in our minds, it represents ‘the distilled essence of many experiences of mind, feelings, and body.’[2]

It is not new conceptual information that provides transformation but rather the provision of ‘new experiences for the mind and body, over and over again, that will accumulate to create an alternative view.’[3] These new experiences are provided through meditative or mindful awareness practices.

Christian meditative or mindful awareness practices need to be put at the heart of a new type of discipleship, drawing on ancient sources as well as creating new ones that emphasise our embodied reality.

Christina Feldman, who teaches mindfulness, says that people ‘practising Buddhist mindfulness are seeing liberation in bite-size pieces.’[4] Of course, once they have experienced a bite-sized piece of inner freedom, people want more of it, and will then often go on a spiritual quest.

There is a spiritual awakening happening in our culture alongside and fuelled by this practice-based interest in mindfulness and related phenomena. It is not that dwelling spirituality and seeker spirituality have had their day. People still like to visit sacred places but they don’t stay; they are seeking a charged moment with the numinous in the fleeting visit to the cathedral or ruined abbey.

Growing up in Kenya and going to a boarding school in England gave me a desire to find a home, a dwelling place. But I also learnt that stability-in-place is hard to find; we have homes as we move on, not just one home. In the same way, we often realise our status is not about being complete knowers but humble learners, seekers after wisdom. My stumbling into practice spirituality was a life-and-death matter, as stress and anxiety brought me to a place where I felt I was falling apart.

The spiritual and reality-focused practices of the Jesus Prayer, Lectio Divina and mindfulness threaded me back together again. The Jesus Prayer is an ancient prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’, which is repeated with the breath time after time. Lectio Divina is a slow, prayerful, meditative reading of Scripture. The rich indwelling of Christ that comes from practising Lectio Divina will lead us to the values and beliefs that give us stability.

In a world that is in the grip of anxiety, fear and depression, we mustn’t promise to be a church that pretends to be able to solve people’s problems for them. Rather we must offer them something better – the tools to help them take responsibility for their own spiritual journeys. We may see Christian festivals being reshaped to include practice spirituality as a central strand.

Something must be done about being. We inhabit dwelling spirituality as the church, and have moved in part towards seeker spirituality. We now need to embrace practice spirituality. The danger is that in a church largely run by activists, the call for a paradigm shift to include contemplative models of discipleship may fall on deaf ears.

As the mindful Jesus said, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’

Shaun Lambert is the Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church and the author of A Book of Sparks – A Study in Christian MindFullness.

A Book of Sparks is a 40-day devotional book that invites us to enter into a practice-based spirituality that is rooted in the gospels and Christian contemplative tradition. It also draws on the wisdom of modern psychology.

Available from Amazon on Kindle & in paperback:


[1] Segal, Z., Williams, M., & Teasdale, J., (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. London, The Guilford Press, p.67.

[2] Ibid, p.67.

[3] Ibid, p.67.

[4] Quoted in ‘Mindfulness in Schools’, a dissertation by Richard Burnett, p.23.

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