Toward an Integrated Spirituality

Many years ago I joined some teenage Inuit friends on a two-day Arctic caribou hunt up the west (left-hand side) of Canada’s Hudson’s Bay. This is still one of the most unpopulated places in the whole world. We felt how small and mortal we were in that vast, silent emptiness that spread to the horizons. Our destination was Maguse River, where a small cluster of derelict buildings would provide a place to overnight. Thousands of white geese rose suddenly from the long grass as we approached at dusk, with such a shocking blast of sound that we literally staggered and our hearts raced. So much sound puncturing that much silence was almost too much to bear.

The birds all disappeared, and if anything, the buildings felt lonelier than the land, for they had been abruptly abandoned years before by a resident group of evangelical missionaries when their leader died in a dreaded winter “white out.” Unable to see amid the swirling snow, he crashed his plane and the adventure ended. Now the doors creaked and swung open in the wind in ways that made the Inuit wary of ghosts.

This bleak scene was once an evangelical missionary outpost. Who else but evangelicals would have pursued tiny, nomadic Inuit groups roaming this remote region with the Gospel? Who else but intrepid evangelicals would have ventured so far, and endured so much, for the sake of so few?

My mind moves to a similarly motivated, but at face value more successful, evangelical venture. Today prosperous Hangzhou, China boasts the largest registered church in that whole nation. Around five thousand worship openly each Sunday there. I walked through that beautiful, lakeside city a couple of years ago, and realized, with a mix of pride and humility, that the China Inland Mission, and Hudson Taylor himself, with his indigenous pigtail and silk tunic, had set up operations right there over one hundred and fifty years ago. Evangelical spirituality has always gravitated toward activism and mission. It is both our strength and our vulnerability.

In previous blogs I wrote of my longstanding desire to discern the contours of an authentic Christian spirituality, not some faddish variety, but the deeper kind that has sustained believers through the centuries. I shared my discovery that such spirituality has always been characterized by three dynamics: a relational dynamic (Christ with us), a transformational dynamic (Christ in us), and a vocational dynamic (Christ through us). The Christian life has always involved connecting, becoming and doing. It is about living in relation to God, being transformed by the impulses of his divine life, and actively participating in God’s purposes in the world. 

The point I want to make here is that these are not three calls bundled together, from which we are at liberty

It is sobering, however, to note that believers have always found this balance elusive. An integrated spirituality does not come easy to any of us. Take for example even the classics of Christian spirituality. They offer us rich resources, but by measuring them against our three-dimensional standard it is easy to see how they tend to favor one dynamic over the others. The mystical writers have left us a great legacy of insight into the nature of deep communion with God. The monastic tradition has explored the transformational impulse with great passion and diligence. Compassion, evangelistic zeal, and demand for justice have led mission-focused believers to attempt great things for God in the world.

We must embrace the full scope of our spiritual heritage. By itself the mystical pursuit can become self-serving and even narcissist. On its own, to the neglect of everything else, the monastic or Puritan impulse will breed legalism. Divorced from the other two, a fixation on mission will only lead to worldliness.

An interesting pattern emerges when contemporary evangelical writing on spirituality is measured against this standard. It turns out that the majority of our favorite writers gravitate toward the practical, vocational aspect of spirituality. We move most comfortably, even eagerly, into the sphere that matches our genetic predisposition as activist evangelicals. Our tradition has conditioned us to opt for the quantitative over the qualitative. We are more interested in making disciples than in being disciples—more inclined to preach the Gospel than embody it.

Therefore evangelicals especially need to be aware that an undue fixation on the vocational can drift toward functional secularism. After all, how can we move in the right directions without the guidance that comes in relationship? How can we ever succeed and endure without the inner strength that comes from a crafted soul?

Voices today are warning us that the church of the twenty-first century will be spiritual or it will not be. But what is needed is an integrated spirituality. Then we will be able to move from rhetoric to reality, from image management to authenticity, and from hectic activism to meaningful vocation.

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