Ancient spiritual practices for the 21st century

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Imagine this scene. Teens silently line up and wait late into the night to experience an ancient spiritual discipline: contemplative prayer. When they emerge from the prayer room an hour later, many have tears in their eyes, smiles on their faces and peace in their hearts. They have just walked a prayer labyrinth, where they learned to practice the presence of Christ. Scenes like this are happening in churches, camps and conferences across North America.

Spirituality is “in” these days. Many people are searching for truth in unconventional ways. In the modern era (roughly the past 300 years) there was a move away from the spiritual toward the rational, the observable and the quantifiable. During the Reformation Protestants “protested” the mysticism of the Catholic Church and favored a logical interpretation and presentation of Scripture—thus the sermon was born. Today’s postmodern culture is increasingly distrustful of science, institutions and established religion. Post-boomers are once again open to the mystery of the Holy Spirit and eager to understand God in ways other than the traditional sermon.

In a survey of twentysomethings George Barna demonstrated that while 80 percent of 20-29 year olds say faith is important and 60 percent report having a relationship with Christ, only 31 percent attend church weekly. The survey reveals America’s young adults are deeply spiritual but highly disinterested in the modern church. Theologian Robert Webber makes a case for a return to an ancient spirituality including mystery, holism, community and spiritual disciplines in his book Ancient-Future Faith. Weber argues ancient traditions must inform our contemporary church practices. “Our challenge is not to reinvent Christianity, but to restore and then adapt classical Christianity to the postmodern cultural situation.” Returning to ancient spiritual practices can help a new generation re-imagine the power of the Gospel and re-engage with the church.

Many ancient disciplines are energizing congregations all over America. The list is far too long to review but two are worth mentioning:

The labyrinth was adopted by Christians in the first centuries following Christ’s death as a tool for prayer. Labyrinths were also widely used in the great gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe, the most famous being in Chartres, France. Laid out as a single path within concentric circles, participants travel from the outside into the center and back out again. The path represents life at three different levels: the journey toward God, communion with God in the center and then movement with God back into the world. This type of symmetrical circular labyrinth can once again be found in churches throughout North America.

A recent adaptation of the original labyrinth has made use of technology, imagery and interactive prayer stations. This labyrinth looks more like a maze than a set of concentric circles. Participants relinquish distractions, admit their brokenness, celebrate communion, remember the global community of faith and think about the imprint they are leaving on both the planet and people. Many describe this experience of prayer and meditation as life-changing.

Lectio divina is another ancient practice being used in churches. Simply translated it means “divine reading.” Lectio divina is a way of reading, praying and meditating on Scripture with the expectation that God is present and can be heard through the text. The four basic steps are lectio, the reading of a passage; meditatio, a time of meditating on a specific word or phrase; oratio, a prayer for guidance shaped by the selected phrase; and contemplatio, a moment of silent contemplation in the midst of the Living Word. The lectio divina is a discipline of silence, slow reading and careful attention to the voice of God.

Other ancient contemplative practices include Taize worship, the Jesus Prayer, the Ignatian Examen and spiritual direction. Spiritual habits directed not toward silence but to an active response include fasting, journaling, Stations of the Cross, Sabbath and service.

Spiritual disciplines draw us into the presence of Christ. Ancient practices are not harsh duties requiring unquestioning rigor. Instead, they provide a means by which a spiritual though distracted culture can find the source of its spirituality. In Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark Yaconelli, a teacher of youth workers, says the contemplative tradition is a “precious gift in an age when no one has time to sit still. It comes as a medicine to a church culture obsessed with trends, efficiency, techniques, and bullet-point results.” Jesus called His disciple to times of personal retreat. What would happen if we heard this call and practiced His presence in the midst of our busy lives?

Tim Neufeld is a professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno Pacific University and on a pastoral staff in a local congregation. When no in the classroom or leading worship, he can often be found blogging on issues of church and culture at

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