Practice-Oriented Spirituality

What, exactly, constitutes a spiritual practice? For me, that’s a basic question for anyone who wants to deepen their spiritual life. It’s also a basic question for anyone who wants to bring a spiritual formation focus to their congregation.

As we’ve seen, spiritual and contemplative practices can be so much more than those stock photos of someone sitting in the lotus position, eyes closed, hands resting on their knees.

© Rawpixelimages | - Lady Meditating Lotus Position Top Mountain Concept PhotoErik Walker Wikstrom’s Spirit in Practice curriculum offers a sphere of eight practices, from personal spiritual practices to justice practices.

And there are many branches of spiritual practice depicted on The Tree of Contemplative Practices, from activist practices to stillness practices.

With all of these options, how does one really know whether or not what they’re doing is actually a spiritual practice and not just, say, journaling or volunteering or sitting quietly on the back porch?

To answer that question, I turn to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s notion of practice-oriented spirituality, which he describes in the last chapter of After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this book has had a huge influence on my understanding of what spirituality can be in the 21st century, especially the kind of spirituality promoted in religious communities.

After making a distinction between what he calls the spirituality of dwelling and the spirituality of seeking, Wuthnow offers a “practice-oriented spirituality” where “people engage intentionally in activities that deepen their relationship with the sacred.”

This, in turn, causes “people to engage in service to others, and to lead their lives in a worshipful manner.” Here’s how Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat describe practice-oriented spirituality in their review of After Heaven:

Wuthnow delineates some of the characteristics of spiritual practice, including: (1) prayer, devotional reading, and service of others; (2) an intention to deepen contact with the divine; (3) discernment; (4) an orderly and regular approach to ritual; (5) a revisioning of the self; (6) a sharing of our experiences and stories with others; (7) the use of a wide variety of resources for inner work; and (8) an emphasis upon an ethical dimension. Wuthnow wisely concludes: “The point of spiritual practice is not to elevate an isolated set of activities over the rest of life but to electrify the spiritual impulse that animates all of life.”

I believe that this kind of spirituality, anchored in the kind of religious community John Ackerman describes as “Emerging New,” is exactly what progressive congregations can offer spiritual seekers and dwellers in the 21st century.

And a key feature of this spirituality is “a sharing of our experiences and stories with others.” Which is, of course, exactly what happens in small groups spiritual direction.

Imagine a congregation that looks at all the possibilities for spiritual growth contained in Wikstrom’s eight spheres and in the branches of the Tree of Contemplative Practices, then finds ways to help individuals explore those practices within the context of a nurturing and supportive community.

Without dogma. Or judgment. Or guilt. Just the opportunity to “deepen their relationship with the sacred.” That’s the kind of religious community I see flourishing in the 21st century.


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