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How to Foster a Contemplative Church

Note: If you are the pastor of a church or parish, this post is for you. If you are not the pastor but are a member of a congregation, consider sharing this post with your pastor, especially if he or she is interested in silent prayer.

Karl Rahner, the renowned 20th century Jesuit theologian, once wrote “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” I interpret this to mean that Christians need more than just moral guidance and instruction in the proper way to think about God, Christ, and salvation. To be a Christian means to be transfigured from the inside out. Of course, that’s the Holy Spirit’s job — it’s a consequence of grace, not something we achieve on our own efforts. But we consent to the healing action of the Spirit in our lives, and an essential way we offer the gesture of consent is through silent, contemplative prayer.

So many of the resources available to Christians today — whether books, audio CDs, teaching DVDs, or even organizations like Contemplative Outreach or the World Community for Christian Meditation — tend to focus on providing guidance to individuals. At the most, they support the establishment of small contemplative (silent) prayer groups, that might meet in a church education room on a weeknight. Such efforts are noble and important, but overall they tend to foster this idea that silent prayer is some sort of optional activity, a kind of “spiritual extra credit” that a small number of people may choose to pursue.

The hidden assumption is that most people either do not want, are not ready for, or are not temperamentally suited for, contemplative prayer. And I think that’s simply untrue.

Recently I attended a class on Buddhist meditation at a small convent of Chinese Buddhist nuns here in Atlanta. As used as I am to Christian contemplative prayer groups (that often have only 6-10 members), I figured this would be a small, intimate gathering of folks. Boy was I wrong! The meditation hall was jam-packed — easily well over 100 people were there, on a Thursday night. Now, Buddhism in Atlanta, GA, is hardly a mainstream religion. This monastery has only a modest website and a sign on the street promoting its meditation class.

As I sat there, marveling at the sea of faces, both men and women, all races, all ages (but mostly young), I thought, “these are folks who feel that the Christian churches have nothing to offer them. And so they’ve gone elsewhere.” If Christians (especially young ones) only knew about the contemplative dimension of Christian spirituality, they would not be abandoning the church as rapidly as they are. And it’s the local congregation’s job to teach the Christian contemplative tradition.

Provide opportunities to worship in silence.

Think of it this way: contemplative prayer is like tithing. A tiny number of people will do most of it, and only a minority will make it a significant priority in their lives. But everyone is invited to do it, and is encouraged to it. When it comes to financial support, in a healthy congregation almost everyone gives at least something. Likewise, in a healthy congregation, everyone should have at least some opportunity to learn and practice silent prayer.

If a Christian congregation decided that tithing was “optional” or that only the spiritually advanced or genuinely willing should do it, then before long that church would be closing its doors. If a parish only talked about tithing at an optional meeting on Wednesday nights, then you can bet that the level of giving would plummet.

Karl Rahner did not say “The Christian of the future will tithe or will not exist at all.” Clearly, Rahner saw mysticism (which includes contemplative prayer) as more vital to the ongoing health of the church than pledge cards. He understood that a Christian who undergoes a meaningful interior transfiguration will be one who works and gives for the life of the Church. But it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around: just because somebody makes an offering doesn’t mean they automatically become contemplatives!

As the writer of a contemplative blog, I hear all the time from people who are drawn to silent prayer but feel like their local congregation simply does not support contemplation. It doesn’t matter what denomination you’re talking about — I hear from them all. But do you know what is just as interesting? I’ve participated in retreats and workshops with contemplative clergy, and they are frustrated because their congregations don’t seem to appreciate the importance of silence!

So friends, we have a lot of work to do. If we want to be faithful to God’s call to “be still and know” the love of God, or to St. Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing,” or to the prophet Habakkuk’s proclamation that “all the earth keep silence” before God — then we need more than just a culture of “contemplation for the club.” We need to be prayerfully seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance for contemplative congregations.

I pray for this every day. I invite you to join me in this prayer. To beg of God to bless and lead our congregations to more intentionally turn to silence. This doesn’t mean that churches all become like Trappist monasteries! Churches will always be dedicated to educating children, supporting those in need, and providing worship that is prayerful and celebratory. So there will always be a “noisy” element to congregational life — and that’s a good thing. All I’m saying is that we need to foster a culture of prayerful silence as an integral part of congregational life — not an “optional” activity relegated to the middle of the week.

Remain silent. Stay calm.

But how do we do this? Here are nine ideas that I think every neighborhood church can reflect on, and hopefully, implement — as steps the congregation can take, as a congregation, to foster a contemplative dimension to their community life. This will not happen overnight (among other things, we have our cultural bias against silence and contemplation to overcome). But if a neighborhood church begins to implement even some of these initiatives, I humbly believe that God will bless their efforts.

  1. Cultivate contemplative leaders in the church. Ideally, this begins with the pastor. But I know that historically, Christian seminaries do very little to foster contemplation among its students. That’s changing for the better in many locations, but we still have a long way to go. So not every pastor has the formation to be a contemplative leader. And of course, lay leaders who are drawn to provide leadership in contemplative prayer need formation as well. So this won’t happen overnight — but I would strongly encourage pastors and dedicated lay leaders who recognize the need to foster contemplation in the congregation to turn to organizations like Shalem and  Spiritual Directors International or others to receive  training for providing spiritual guidance for both individuals and groups. If a congregation can raise up three dedicated contemplative leaders, it can work miracles. Once again, ideally the pastor will be one of these leaders, but it’s okay if they are all laity — as long as the pastor is supportive. A word here to the pastors: yes, your support is essential. You are the leader. That doesn’t mean you have to show up at every contemplative event in your parish, but give it your blessing. Talk it up, especially to those who you know are drawn to spiritual practice. Mention it from the pulpit. The congregation looks to you for guidance — so guide them into the blessings of silent prayer.
  2. Commission the congregation’s contemplative leaders (and spiritual directors) before the entire congregation. Spiritual direction (also called spiritual accompaniment) is a vital ministry in the life of any congregation: prayerful persons who are available for one-on-one guidance and instruction in contemplative prayer for those who seek to grow spiritually. But too many of the spiritual directors I’ve met feel they have little or no acknowledgment or support from their home congregations. This needs to change. Spiritual directors, whether lay or ordained, need to be commissioned by their congregation, which shows that the ministry is occurring with the knowledge and blessing of the pastor and other congregational leaders. Their names and contact information needs to be listed on the parish website and in the Sunday bulletin. Back to my tithing analogy: everyone who is a regular member of a congregation knows who the treasurer is; the contemplative leaders of a church need to have a similar profile in the community.
  3. Create a dedicated place for silent prayer in the church. Here is one place where Catholicism shines, in that almost every Catholic Church has an “adoration chapel” where people engage in silent prayer. It’s usually very close to the sanctuary (main worship space), accessible to all, but in a place where it’s easy to maintain silence. Every congregation needs this. Granted, protestant and evangelical churches will not practice eucharistic adoration, but they don’t need to. Such “silent prayer chapels” can be decorated with a simple icon of Christ or a plain wooden cross. The emphasis should be on silence and prayer — and the room should be a chapel, used only for silent prayer. The chapel ought to be small, for realistically only a small percentage of people will use it at any given time. But its very existence communicates to the congregation at large that contemplative prayer is a priority for the church. 
  4. Offer instruction in contemplative prayer regularly on Sunday mornings. Maybe it doesn’t have to be every single week, depending on the size of your congregation. But it ought to be at least once or twice a year when one or more of your congregation’s contemplative leaders invite people to practice silent prayer in a group, on Sunday mornings, with guidance. At first it will be a small turnout: maybe one or two. That’s okay. As long as this is regularly offered on Sunday mornings, the congregation will recognize that this kind of spiritual practice is an important part of Christian life, and over time more and more will come to check it out.
  5. Have a contemplative prayer group meet during the week, but also on Sunday mornings. At first something like this will be very small, and it’s never going to be “huge.” But think of the witness — to visitors, to our children and teens — if the congregation cares enough for prayer so that every Sunday morning a group of 5 to 10 people devote an hour to silence, just praying for the congregation, for the community, for the world! And those who do it, imagine how meaningful the church worship service or mass will be, if you enter into worship after an hour of silence? Frankly, enjoy the small group while you can: once the word gets out, this Sunday morning silent prayer opportunity might be bursting at the seams.
  6. Foster a relationship at the congregational level with a local monastery or convent. This holds true regardless of your church’s denomination. Most monasteries and convents are Catholic, but they welcome people to visit or make retreats regardless of their denominational affiliation. And not all monasteries are Catholic: there are Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopalian, and even Lutheran monastics. Plus there are a variety of retreat houses and centers of all denominational stripes. here’s the key: whatever denomination your church is, make the effort to find a center near you that is devoted to Christian silence and daily prayer. Get to know the people there, and make it easy for the members of your congregation to know about it, and to visit it regularly.
  7. In addition to your Parish Fellowship Weekend, sponsor an annual Parish Retreat devoted to silence and prayer. Many churches and congregations have an annual “parish retreat” but it really should be called the “parish fellowship weekend,” because the event is filled with programming and conviviality. Those are good things, but that’s not what makes a retreat. So keep the fellowship weekend going, but in addition to it, once a year partner with your local convent, monastery or retreat house (see #6) and sponsor a retreat that is dedicated to silence, prayer, and contemplation. Realistically, only a fraction of the people who attend the fellowship weekend will come to the retreat (especially at first), and that’s okay. The goal here is not huge numbers, but spiritual depth. Quality, not quantity. Once this becomes a regular, annual offering of your congregation, supported by the pastor and other contemplative leaders, expect it to gain its own traction.
  8. Incorporate appropriate amounts of silence into congregational worship and meetings. Unless your community is a Quaker Meeting, I wouldn’t advise you to have twenty minutes of silence in your main worship service — but why not two or three minutes? Long enough for people to notice it. Yes, at first you’ll get pushback, but those are opportunities for formation and instruction. Such time for communal silence could happen after  the scripture readings and/or the sermon, before the congregational prayers, or after the distribution of Holy Communion. A corollary to this: if you don’t already do so, make sure your congregation observes silence in the sanctuary/nave/main worship space. If people want to chat, they can do so in the foyer or narthex or outside the building. Also, encourage your congregational leadership to take time (two to three minutes) at the beginning of every committee or congregational meeting for silence. Make it a part of your church’s culture — a church that listens, a church that prays.
  9. Pray and work for the formation of a contemplative culture throughout your congregation. This is a major issue, so I can only touch on it here. But ultimately, being a contemplative entails more than just 20 minutes a day given to silent prayer. Contemplation is a 24/7 way of life. It characterizes everything we do, including our ministry as Christians. So for a congregation to be contemplative, it needs to be a congregation where listening is valued, where prayer is a priority, where seeking the leading of the Holy Spirit means being comfortable with mystery and ambiguity and paradox, where leadership is collegial and shared, and where lay ministry is vital to every aspect of community life. I know this raises a lot of issues about congregational leadership, church governance, etc., that I cannot address in this post, but I want to touch on it because I believe that the Christian congregation of the future will be led not by managers or supervisors, but by listeners and inspirers. If this is a topic of interest to you, for just one example check out the ministry of the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham of Grace Episcopal Church, Gainesville GA, and author of the Mindful Church Initiative Blog.

I know this is a supersized blog post, but thanks for hanging in there with it. I would love your feedback and insights. If your church, congregation, or parish working to foster contemplative spirituality? Are you doing anything different from what I’ve listed here? If so, please let me know about it, either on social media or in the comments section below. Many thanks — and keep praying in silence!

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20 thoughts on “How to Foster a Contemplative Church

  1. Carl, I had to promise someone I didn’t call you to write this article. A pastor friend is at a worship conference. I asked her if they were teaching about how to incorporate silence and contemplation into the service. They are not. So I responded with Karl Rahner’s quote and said this is why many of us are not in church. The church is not teaching congregants how to move out of dualism into contemplation and for many of us, church is just too noisy. About two hours later your article came out. I’ve shared it with the friend and with Richard Rohr’s Living School FB group. We’re with you on this! I suggested your article be a conversation starter with their pastors or their parish.

  2. Thank you for encouraging silent prayer. I remember as a child going into the sanctuary on Sunday mornings with a sense of reverence and awe. Everyone was silent and we sat down quietly and closed our eyes and prayed. The organ would then begin to play softly and then the pastor would come in and the main part of the service would begin. We also left the sanctuary in silence after the service. There was a strong feeling of the presence of The Lord. I loved it and was deeply moved by it! I miss that reverence very much. We had our meeting and greeting at Sunday School and the time in between Sunday School and church and after church. We also had prayer meeting on Wednesday nights after having dinner together. There were prayers offered by the pastors and the congregation and then there was about 20 minutes of silence with the pastor offering a closing prayer. I attended 4th Avenue Methodist Church in Louisville, KY then. I met you at St. Paul United Methodist Church when you were there last year. I have now moved to Princeton, Texas in the Dallas area and attend First United Methodist Church of Allen — a warm, caring congregation very actively involved in service to others. Not much silence, but lots of praying. My love and blessings to you.

  3. What a great post. I think there may be some ideas to pass on to some churches here in Asheville. We have a few Centering Prayer groups, but they are very small, and mostly spend about 20 minutes in silence then read from or watch a video of Thomas Keating. It seems to me there is SO much more that could be done. And I’m not even Christian – but the Buddhist groups tend to be so anti-metaphysical that I’ve found that when on the rare occasion I find a Christian contemplative group, they have so much more of a sense of “the Other” than one finds in many modern highly secularized Buddhist communities (this seems to have infected even some Zen and even more astounding, Tibetan Buddhist centers – probably trying to appeal to people for whom the prayers and rituals of devotional Tibetan Buddhism are too “Christian”!!).


  4. I share the dream expressed here and appreciate the nine practical steps. For the past 15 years I have worked in third level settings to provide an MA IN Contemplative Practice/ Applied Spirituality. It filled up in 3 weeks this year! Maybe our paths will cross some time

    1. I do hope so. It’s been almost two years since I’ve been in Ireland — let me know if you know of any opportunities for a lay contemplative to speak in your community!

  5. Carl, you are absolutely right that silence is at the core of life with God. This is because silence is attunement, awareness and listening. Belonging (as I do) to a highly liturgical church with singing, chanting and coordinated gestures like kneeling and prostration I long for quiet. In this sense an ’empty’ church is sometimes a great refuge although frankly so is a mountainside, a woodland or the sight of waves rolling up a beach. It can even be so sitting in a cheap café engaging with other customers in an everyday or humorous manner or watching people go by at an airport terminal. There is plenitude and beauty in all these places. For many people I speak to church has become a wearisome battle between personalities such that flight is becoming the way ahead. But it will be a flight into listening not a running away. Was this what happened in 4th century Egypt? I don’t know. Historical analogies or justifications may not be needed.

  6. Welcome back, Carl. First, I want you to know that I always enjoy reading your posts. You have a fair delivery, and I appreciate your outlook. The Christian life is often experienced as a gospel celebration, but it is also a call to great reverence and the holy way. ‘He leads us beside the still waters’ is far more than just for our thirst and protection. ‘Our cup runneth over’ when we find spiritual refreshment nurturing our souls as partakers of the water offered there at the “still” places. I wish this quietness of being and reflection, prayer and meditation for my sisters and brothers in the faith. Contemplative focus is a desired spiritual discipline of sweet nurture to the soul. I wish it for in our houses of worship, that it would be honored and practiced as you have well stated. It starts with me (us).

  7. As a Quaker in the diaspora, I have struggled with the country UMC church I attend and its reticence to celebrate silence. I have had pastors tell me it’s too difficult or the congregation would not find it meaningful. I wonder if that is a reason that the median age of this congregation is mid-sixties and average attendance is less than 30.

    1. You and I wonder much the same kind of things, Bill! As Karl Rahner famously said 40 or so years ago: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” Rahner’s “future” is now. We are already seeing the “not exist” part: falling church membership, congregations closing, many young people choosing to be “spiritual but not religious.” So now those of us who care about Christian community have an important choice to make: do we want to embrace contemplative culture in the church, or watch the church continue to slowly die?

  8. Dear Carl
    Thank you very much for your article. You make a very good analysis and make good proposals.
    Can i ask you to correct something about WCCM? You suggest in your text that WCCM only presents meditation and silent prayer as an extra exercise. When you study a bit more about the spirit of WCCM you can see that it is really a contemplative community. A monastery without walls and we promote the continuous prayer and living out the indwelling Spirit. See http://www.wccm.org

    Geert from WCCM Belgium

    1. Thanks Geert. My comments were not meant in any way to criticize or dismiss the good ministry of WCCM, but rather to challenge parishes / congregations to resist the temptation to see such communities as marginal or “extra.” Sorry if this has led to any confusion.

  9. I think contemplation is needed. Our lives are full of noise and chaos.
    God does not talk to us when it is noisy.

  10. The Christian Church will soon be a majority immigrant church, with a very spirit filled worship style, certainly not contemplative . Contemplative prayer will always have a place, but I can’t envision a large future presence?

    1. I don’t think there’s anything inherently “American” or “European” about contemplative prayer. The roots of Christian contemplation are in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. I think that there will always be a need for both an ecstatic/exuberant style of worship as well as a silent/contemplative style. What fascinates me is the number of monks and contemplatives I’ve known over the years who have ties to the charismatic renewal. That makes me think that today’s Spirit-filled worship is the breeding ground for tomorrow’s contemplatives.

  11. Thank you for this encouraging post. Recently our parish hosted a service for those in recovery and their loved ones. We incorporated 10 minutes of silence with some reflection questions if people wanted to use them during the silence. The congregation was a mix of churched and un-churched and I was anxious about how the silence would be received. It was amazing to see how well people moved into it and seemed to use and appreciate the quietness.

  12. I am a member of The Church of Conscious Harmony in Austin, Texas. We are a Contemplative Christian community where all members are encouraged to have a daily practice of centering prayer, Lectio Divina and more. We have ministers visiting us all the time trying to learn how to replicate our model.

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