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Dangers of the shallow end

03 July 2015

Spiritual growth: Laurence Freeman OSB says that churches should seek depth as well as width


GROWTH is an interesting word. It can mean everything good, desirable, and natural. We delight in seeing children grow healthily. We think growing up is a moral requirement.

But "a growth" brings ominous and fearful associations: uncontrollable, the wrong kind of growth. And, in religious terms, do we use the word in a spiritual or statistical sense?

It's a happy thing to see a church grow in numbers. The New Testament celebrates this joy of spreading the good news to all corners of the world. The phenomenal expansion of Christianity, however, was seen as a work of the Spirit, not the result of a successful marketing campaign.

St Paul (like Moses) thought of himself as a weak presenter, not a highly successful leader. Growth came through the blood of the martyrs soaking into the grass roots. So important was this sense of martyrdom to Christian life that, soon after the Church became respectable, new forms of radical witness were imagined - instead of the red martyrdom of blood, the white martyrdom of ascetical renunciation. There is kerygma, but also kenosis: proclamation, but also self-emptying.

We need to ask what kind of martyrdom or witness is in play today, because that will identify the kind of growth that is really being nurtured.


LANGUAGE, values, and the metaphors of self-understanding are intimately related. So often an organisation drifts unwittingly into an abstract, depersonalised language of metrics, targets, goals, and, weirdest of all, "sustainability". Once this management-speak gets a hold, the system of values of the organisation begin to redefine themselves against these vague but scientific-sounding terms.

The first casualty is the spirit of the community; then common sense; and, next, personal relationships. Soon the whole organisation is gripped by the need to be sustainable - and, of course, to "grow". This is the language of the boardroom or management consultants, but not of the Church or its tradition.

One test of spiritual growth would be how we control this use of language. If St Paul fired people up, without being a good orator, he must have succeeded because he spoke directly from the heart and passionately from personal experience. Language (like silence) is a key form of witness. It is as easy to hide behind pious, devotional language as it is to escape into corporate language. Authenticity makes for authority.

The dialect of management culture leads to a Church over-committed to belief and action. In this culture, beliefs can be defined, and members are asked if they believe (yes or no?). That's one kind of church that is growing in numbers today. Numbers give a buzz, but do they necessarily lead to metanoia, a change of mind?

Action is endless. As it was for Martha, action can become an end in itself - leading to stress, burnout, and ego-invested projects.


TO KEEP a balance, and to make growth spiritual, and good works good, faith and contemplation need to be understood as the "better part".

Faith is commitment, endurance, ultimately leading to transcendence of the ego. It flowers in agape. St Irenaeus said: "The beginning is faith, the end is love, and the union of the two is God." Growth in church life, then, simply means God.

Contemplation receives, generally, nominal interest among church leaders. But I prefer priests who openly dismiss the meditators in their congregations as "navel gazers", over those who feel it's just another bandwagon to jump on, or a market need to satisfy.

Belief and action are necessary. Faith and contemplation are foundational: they preserve the precariousness, riskiness, and fragility of Christian life.

For many, however, church is associated with security, status quo, and stability. Church can become a place of refuge - a "second life" rather than a sacrificial place of witness.

If this is the case, innovation will become repressed, and radicalism will be suspect. In the past, this mindset preserved the squire in his box and the labourers in their pews. Today, the Church is not suited to give this kind of support to social stability.

But it can be deceived into thinking that it is doing its job by giving people a hint of mystery in a drab, stressed, disenchanted world, or some reassurance of hope in a world of rapid change and instability.


BUT growth means more. It is surely more than desirable that those employed by the Church, in education or other ministries, not only subscribe to "Christian values", but also understand what a Christian prayer practice means from their own experience. This will ensure not only successful projects, but a "growing into the full stature of Christ" - the growth-goal of all Christian life.

Statistical growth is always reassuring, because it can be measured. These "outcomes" would be like the cardio-vascular or psychological "benefits" of meditation. Spiritual growth, however, is about developing the fruits of the Spirit, which faith and contemplation generate - including love, joy, peace, and patience. There is no law, no measurement-scale, dealing with such things as these.

To be sure that the numerical growth associated with believers and doers is actually coming from the right place, and producing these fruits, volume, or market-share, should always be a secondary objective. The primary goal of the Christian life is the deepening of faith, and the marriage of contemplation and action.

This is simply the result of the opening the mind of Christ in us, and streaming the qualities of the Holy Spirit that flow from this into the world. These are the "values" of inclusiveness, equality, and a preference for the powerless.

But what if a church is achieving this primary objective, but is failing to grow in numbers? Should it then be seen as a "non-performing" part of the organisation, and be shut down?

I think not. Origen said that we "do not pray to get benefits from God but to become like God. Praying itself is good" (De Oratione).

Jesus gave Mary the edge on Martha by saying that she had chosen the better part - meaning not that action is inferior to contemplation, but that being comes before doing, and the quality being determines the integrity and outcome of the action. So, even a smaller congregation that is "successfully" balancing the contemplative with the active can be justified in receiving material support disproportionate to its numbers.

The contemplative consciousness is valuable for itself. If we lose that perspective, we have lost the game. Contemplation is rarely adequately understood for the actual difference (and witness) it makes in the life of the Church as a whole. But when this is actually seen, the Church not only grows spiritually, it will, in time, touch more lives, more deeply. The life of the Spirit is not only about growth, but flourishing on all fronts.


SIMONE WEIL called for a "new holiness", and Dietrich Bonhoeffer for a religionless Christianity with a restored "secret discipline". To ensure the right kind of growth, the Church needs to be asking what these two prophets and martyrs of our era meant by these terms.

They saw that the Church is probably not going to succeed miraculously in reversing the spiralling of the world into chaos. And they saw that forms of Christianity will multiply. For some, this is disquieting. But these forms are unified by faith, contemplation, action, and belief. The Church can then accompany the world, and witness to the presence of Christ until the end.

In the mean time it should, as St Benedict did once on a small scale (before his model became a brand-leader), build small, and probably not very successful, communities of order, peace, and that very uncountable commodity that grows in contemplation - love.


Fr Laurence Freeman OSB is a Benedictine monk of Turvey Abbey, and the Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation (www.wccm.org).

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