Every Sunday I race the clock. It’s true. We announce the processional hymn, and then move seamlessly until the end. We never pause for any significant length of time. One prayer backs onto another; as soon as the reading is done, we announce the hymn. If the intercessions go on a little too long, or the sermon pushes slides closer to 20 minutes rather than 15, then I know the service will not have a lot of spare time. I sometimes try to convince myself that it must be this way. I must keep a close eye on the time, notice how long the announcements are, and how many 5 verse hymns we have lined up in the service. I must keep my eye on my watch so that I can preside appropriately, making up time where we have lost it.
Of course, I am not the only one focusing on the time, am I? I am sure that other clergy struggle with the same dynamic, and I am willing to bet that those in the pews are also keeping an eye on their watches. But with such a battle with time going on in the midst of our worship services, is it then any wonder why many people struggle with ‘not getting something out of the church?’ I have heard this a lot—maybe you have too. People come and say they are struggling with their spiritual lives, or their place in the church. The service simply doesn’t provide the connection with God that it once had. Sometimes people stick through it, believing in the importance of community; sometimes they leave, looking for a new and fresh community; sometimes they simply stop going to church altogether.
This trend, which is not unique to my community or diocese, places a whole lot of pressure on the leader. How do we reverse this trend? How do we ‘craft’ a worship service that will ‘attract’ people and ‘connect’ them to the presence of God? Like many others, I have gone through the rounds of proposed solutions. Let’s do Alpha, or some other type of education program! A deeper knowledge will help people move through inner struggles. A new praise and worship service! After all, people’s restlessness with not feeling something in church must be rooted in ineffective music right? Then again, maybe the liturgy is the problem… oooh, I know… Messy Church will solve everything!!
I don’t mean to suggest that such programs or ideas are bad in any way. These can be, and in many places are, quite effective ministries in local communities. It matters little what I list here—whether it be mission trips, Fresh Expressions, small groups, or thematic Eucharist services—all these proposed solutions are based on a similar notion, a notion that, personally, I think fails to address the deep heart of restlessness occurring in our world.
The reality is that we, as a people today, are too busy. We have jammed our schedules so much that we long for ‘more hours in the day.’ Just think about that. We have so succumbed to busyness that we seek not to reduce our frenetic activities, but rather wish there were more spaces in life in which we could squeeze in all of life’s demands.
And herein we have the struggle with the sometimes over-focus on new and exciting programs within the church. Each and every one of these responses to people’s spiritual restlessness is rooted in activity. New services, as wonderful as they may be, are often as jam-packed filled with things to do, and they still fight against the same time-restrictions as our regular services. A messy church service can be just as ‘busy’ as our regular services. Educational programs, small groups, mission trips—again all well-intentioned—simply take a lot of energy and effort to get off the ground. Added to this, with volunteers often expressing feelings of burn-out, a people’s schedules so tight that there is never a ‘good night’ to run a program, the idea of something else on the agenda simply seems daunting.
When we live in a world with so much noise and busyness, is the way forward really more activity? Is that what God wants of us? How can one connect with God when one is never given the adequate time to do so, or when their lives are filled with such internal noise? The only way we combat restlessness is by engaging in rest; Adding more activity onto a restless soul will simply keep it from experiencing the quietness in needs for its own restoration.
Perhaps this is why we seem to see a bubbling for of a desire for slowness in the world around us. Just think about the popularity of adult colouring books. At first, it may seem a little odd—men and women alike, in their 3-piece power suits taking a moment to colour swirly flours and garden scenes. Yet what is really going on is a slowing down of the individual – there is a cultivation of an inner disposition of stillness, a stillness that allows the individual to connect their deepest selves. After all, one simply cannot colour hurriedly. To do so is to miss the point.
The first task in our spiritual lives is to be still and uncover the presence of the one who bids us come. Ole Hallesby advises that one should “Let quietude wield its influence upon you… Give your soul time to get released from the many outward things. Give God time to play the prelude to prayer for the benefit of your distracted soul. Let the devotional attitude, the attitude of holy passivity, open all the doors of the soul leading into the realm of eternal things.” Or, as Dallas Willard once said in an interview ‘We must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives.”
What are some ways that we can slow ourselves down in our spiritual lives? Maybe it will involve colouring books, or knitting, or walks in silence. Whatever character our stillness takes, the root focus is the same. We must seek out times of retreat where we can cultivate the ability to be silent before our Lord, to rest in his presence. We must strive to cultivate a spiritual life defined by God’s activity of grace as opposed to our one set upon own activities. God still speaks today. His voice can be heard in those deep places of our lives. If we would but quiet ourselves enough, then perhaps we would uncover that we are not as disconnected as we sometimes feel.