The Contemplative Congregation: Replacing Tradition with Tradition

October 9th, 2019


One step into the soul is more valuable than a thousand steps anywhere else. This statement sums up my congregation’s journey over the last six years. Early into my current pastoral appointment, I felt called to lead in a different direction and in a different way, utilizing the insights of a contemplative approach to the Christian life in a setting unaccustomed to this spiritual path. Questions burned in my soul:

How would a full embrace of the contemplative life impact my leadership?

What would a contemplative congregation look like?

Was such an arrangement even possible in a historic African American church with over one hundred and fifty years of tradition?

Can an existing church be transformed into an alternative faith community?

The desire for discovery became more powerful than the fear of failure. I announced to church leaders that we would be shifting our focus. “We cannot be everything to everybody, but we can be something to somebody,” I offered. That day we began a new journey, experiencing the joys and strains of the contemplative path: purgation, illumination, and union.


The contemplative journey begins with loss. Just as Adam lost his rib in order to become tov (“good”; Gen 2:18-22), we experienced loss in order to thrive. The question I posed to the congregation in this season was, “What must we lose in order to become whole?”

We ended our routine praise and worship time before the formal worship service and replaced it with a centering moment. We hired a string instrumentalist, who played the guitar or violin for thirty minutes prior to worship. People were invited to the altar to pray or light a candle representing a concern on their hearts. During centering time, I would read the names of all the people on the sick and shut-in list and call out the issues and concerns facing our nation and world. The last ten minutes of centering included a guided meditation, encouraging people to let go of doubt, worry, and fears.

The response to these changes was mixed, to say the least. A number of congregants felt uneasy and even resentful. Some were upset because they could no longer socialize in the sanctuary before worship. Others were uncomfortable with the concept of being still and silent.

Our music ministry was also restructured. We moved from a performance-based approach to a communal style of worship. Instead of the choirs singing to the congregation, they were encouraged to lead the congregation in communal worship. Our music ministry experienced a lot of turmoil. Musicians transitioned out and some choir members refused to sing. The silent and not-so-silent protests began.

The season of purging also impacted me as a pastor and leader. I emptied out my church office. It felt so good to be free from clutter. The momentum spilled over into my home. My wife and I even gave away all our living room furniture and televisions. We lived without them for more than six months. Contrary to the culture’s call to “more,” a desire for physical emptiness called out to me. People’s attitudes and looks changed when they walked into my office. The emptiness spoke to them as well.

That first year of the contemplative journey was heart-wrenching. More than once I questioned whether it was worth it. So much chaos and strife gathered around our efforts to be quiet, focused, and still before God.


Slowly, I noticed signs of life. People started coming early to worship “to catch the centering time.” The stillness and silence became desirable. I started praying with people at the altar prior to worship. When people unburdened themselves during centering, they could focus better and participate more fully in worship. We also started to see an uptick in visitors and attendance. Many commented on how they appreciated the time to be still and quiet for a moment.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to start a separate contemplative worship service, I began a Christian meditation group. The group attracted people from various backgrounds and locations. The spiritual hunger of church people and non-church people became more apparent as we continued to grow. The group became a gateway for deeper spiritual growth and evangelism, reaching people beyond our faith community. The gathering was intimate, and new faces showed up almost every month. People entered our church and joined through the meditation meeting.

Bible study became another entrance into our congregation. I designed many of the classes around contemplative themes. We spent one year studying dreams. Another year we examined meditation in the Methodist and biblical tradition. We also explored the religion of Jesus.

Leaders from other churches were attending our Bible studies and meditation group. We were reaching people, and our niche began to emerge. It was humbling to witness.

Contemplation and Union

The fruit from our journey was plentiful, but nothing compared to the fruit of deeper union with our Lord. The spiritual growth I have observed over the last few years has been nothing short of miraculous. One outcome of our turn to a contemplative approach revealed itself in how individuals in our church handle conflict: there was a noticeable shift from aggression to thoughtfulness. The spirit of prayer caught fire in our congregation, with the attention cultivated in a deeper prayer life informing the way we engaged each other, even in disagreement. People were sharing their faith journey with others. We were becoming one with Adonai.


We are far from a perfect contemplative church, whatever that may mean. We have much to learn and a lot of areas where we need to grow. The Lord called us to minister to our community in a particular way. We live into that call one step at a time. Now we know firsthand that one step into the soul is more valuable than a thousand steps anywhere else.

This article originally appeared at Ministry Matters on October 1, 2017.

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