In my last post, I pointed out some of the limitations of religious institutionalization. In this one, I’d like to suggest some corrective steps that might be taken to counter or avoid those problems.
Since becoming a Spiritual Director, I’ve come to think about Jesus and other founders of religious movements in a new way. These movements began small, with no institutional structures to support them, and it was only after the death of the founders that these forms developed in an effort to preserve essential insights. In the process, however, the vital energy the founders released into the world was often diluted or lost. So reexamining the initial dynamism of those early years may help us to rediscover what has been lost over time.
Jesus, for example, began by gathering a small group of twelve disciples. While he occasionally interacted with much larger groups, the primary focus of his attention was on the Twelve. On many occasions, he spent time with only a select three. We usually assume that his purpose was to teach those disciples something important, but what sort of “teaching” was it? Was it ideas and concepts? Was it doctrines and theology? Was it lessons about morality and ethics? Perhaps, but I’m more inclined to think that his work with them was more a matter of spiritual guidance. He had a profound sense of the benevolent presence of the Divine, and the possibilities for personal and social transformation available to anyone “with eyes to see.” For this reason, I suspect that his primary concern was to help his disciples to experience for themselves that Transcendent Force at work in their lives, and discover how to help others experience it in theirs. We know he often sent his disciples off to practice and share what they had learned with others. Perhaps we can even assume that the 70 that he sent to extend his ministry were those whom his initial twelve disciples had served as spiritual guides.
It is also interesting that in the gospels, neither Jesus nor his disciples are ever portrayed as leading worship. While he occasionally teaches at various synagogues and in the Jerusalem Temple, religious rituals are more often criticized than endorsed (e.g., Matt. 12:1-8; 23:13-28; 24:1-2). Consequently, we may assume that rituals and buildings were of secondary importance for Jesus, while the spirituality of his disciples was the focus of his attention.
Therefore, I wonder if contemporary religious institutions might benefit by returning to such a spiritual direction model of cultivating mature spirituality. Imagine what might happen today if a spiritual director were to meet with a dozen individuals who were dedicated to fostering their spiritual growth. Imagine them meeting regularly with the director for several months, both individually and as a group, to reflect on the following questions:
● Where is God actively present in your personal life (past and present), family life, workplace, social relationships, community, world?
● What is obscuring or resisting God’s activity in these areas?
● Where is God inviting you to participate in that activity and in what way?
● How can you deepen your sense of God’s presence in these areas?
○ How can we pray for each other?
○ How can we help each other?
● Who are six people who might want to explore these questions with you?
As I’m sure you noticed, this plan requires no special buildings or burdensome budgets. It doesn’t require (but doesn’t preclude) elaborate public worship rituals, art or music. Neither does it require (but doesn’t preclude) full-time clergy upon whom congregations can delegate their unwanted spiritual responsibilities.
This model undoubtedly has its faults, but it still might be just the “spiritual medicine” we need to regain the spiritual health that so many of our religious institutions have been unable to maintain.