To put it simply, I've decided my favorite colors are black and white. I prefer it when issues are clear, easy and not confusing. For many evangelical churches, there's a whole lot of gray when it comes to conversing about emerging ministry trends that many feel knock on the door of New Age ideology.
For instance, Minneapolis pastor Doug Pagitt's book Reimagining Spiritual Formation showcases a few of these trends, including yoga, energy workers, massage therapy and gifts of intuition and premonition.
Evangelicalism is becoming less and less your grandmother's faith characterized by hymnals, potlucks and Wednesday-night prayer meetings. In light of these new "worship" expressions exploding in popularity, what's a church leader to do? Discern or consume? Boycott or bless? Accept or reject?
Obviously, for many it's a mixed bag, hence the controversy. However, I've noticed that not all leaders are blindly accepting or rejecting. Some seem to be dissecting, interacting with Scripture, reflecting and then taking a stand. This is not only a novel concept, but also the fulfillment of the great command to love the Lord our God with our hearts, souls and minds. Here's a glimpse of the controversy surrounding three of the most common expressions.
MAZING GRACE: PRAYER LABYRINTHS
Danielle Rayer of the East Side Grace Brethren Church in Blacklick, Ohio, first experienced a prayer labyrinth in 2002 at a Youth Specialties youth worker convention. A labyrinth is a single, circuitous path created in a garden or patio or woven into a carpet. The person walking it uses the same path to return, and the entrance then becomes the exit. As walkers work their way through the labyrinth, they pray. The prayer labyrinth is a pattern found in various forms throughout the world and has Christian roots dating as far back as the fourth century. While walking through the labyrinth, individuals are encouraged to let go of cares and concerns and focus their prayers in meditation, repentance and forgiveness.
"When I first heard about it, I thought it was weird," Rayer says. "But after participating in it, I thought it would be great for our high school students if we would make a couple changes."
Rayer went to work and created her own labyrinth for her church.
"Anytime you find a new tool for ministry you need to filter it through Scripture and your identity as a church," she explains.
Her church is now in its fourth year of "doing the labyrinth." To date, more than 200 students and youth workers have participated. The last station of the prayer labyrinth allows participants to write down their thoughts in a visitor's book. One of these entries from a teen reads: "Lord, I want to do Your will. I love You and want to have an impact on this world for eternity. My life is Yours. Do with it what You want. I love You."
Seems pretty innocent, right? Not so fast. Gary Gilley, senior pastor at Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Ill., an independent Bible church, has some concerns about prayer labyrinths and other "contemplative prayer" practices.
"Youth Specialties has now incorporated contemplative prayer and mysticism in their annual pastor's conferences and national youth conventions that reach over 100,000 youth workers each year," he notes. "Each conference now offers courses on how to develop a contemplative youth ministry, pray the lectio divina and walk prayer labyrinths."
Many of the criticisms surrounding prayer labyrinths, lectio divina and yoga are directed at the mystical component thought to be associated with these practices. Historicallyâ€”and in most labyrinths todayâ€”a chanting prayer is used while walking the labyrinth. This chant is often associated with similar repetitive practices of pagan cultures which are condemned in Scripture.
Gilley argues that the rationale is "to empty his mind [detach] then fill it with imaginative experiences with Christ [attach] who we will find in the silence of our souls, resulting in God becoming the source of our words and actions."
The Cross and the Veil, a Catholic Web site resource for spiritual discernment, gives additional warning. "Far from simple or sacred, contemplative prayer is a codified technique which constructs a psychological and spiritual state of awareness designed to unleash unconscious forces and which typically encourages a narcissistic turning-inward and preoccupation with self-awareness, consciousness-raising and the achieving of preternatural experiences."
SACRED READING: LECTIO DIVINA
Proponents don't get it. "I am curious as to how a spiritual discipline could be misconstrued to be a 'pathway to evil,' "says a Church of the Brethren pastor Brad Bohrer.
In his doctoral dissertation, Bohrer explored how seminary-trained pastors in his context couldn't read scriptures devotionally.
"We are so trained to do the exegetical process, to look at the historical and cultural context, that often we miss the opportunity for God to speak to us through the Scripture."
His project sought to offer a remedy by introducing lectio divina to 26 pastors over a 60-day period. Latin for "divine or sacred reading," lectio divina is the ancient practice of the contemplative praying of the Scriptures. Kept alive in the Christian monastic tradition, the lectio divina consists of four stages: lectio ("reading"), meditatio ("meditation"), oratio ("prayer") and contemplatio ("contemplation").
"Many of the pastors were not familiar with lectio divina. A few of them couldn't even do it," Bohrer notes.
As a pastor I can relate. It's easy to approach the Bible as something that I can control, taking on the posture of a scientist who dissects the Word, never allowing it to dissect me. The flesh has a strange tendency, even within the discipline of hermeneutics, to factor the Spirit out of the equation. It's ironic that we'll use anything (even the Bible) to prevent having an encounter with the God of the Bible. The Bible is the inspired Word of God, and we need to let it penetrate our hearts.
M. Robert Mulholland Jr. in his book Shaped by the Word disallows this tendency of distancing oneself from the Bible by unpacking the term "laid bare," found in Hebrews 4:13 (NIV):
"The term comes both from gladiatorial combat in the arena and from the sacrificial altar. In association with the altar, it describes the position of the sacrifice with its head pulled back and its throat exposed for the sacrificial knife â€¦ the writer of Hebrews is suggesting this as our posture before the Word of Godâ€”a position of total, absolute, unconditional vulnerability."
For many, lectio divina helps to accomplish this vulnerability.
"It allows the Scriptures to become again what God intended them to be: a means of uniting us to Himself," explains Benedictine monk, Luke Dysinger in an article titled "Introducing Lectio Divina," at navpress.com. "It requires that we first quiet down in order to hear God's voice."
The goal isn't exegesis or analysis," argues Mike Perschon in "Contemplative Prayer Practices," at youthspecialties.com, "but allowing God to speak to us through His Word."
For others, the formulaic nature of lectio divina raises some red flags.
"Participants are being groomed so as to make future instruction on mystical meditation more palatable," argues Brian Flynn, a New Age expert, author of Running Against the Wind and founder of One Truth Ministries (onetruthministries.com). "A form of occult mysticism is practiced with the hope and intention of gaining a mystical experience. It is a form of mantra-style meditation."
SANCTIFIED MYSTICISM: CHROGA
Yoga is a $27-billion trend, according to Yoga Journal. From a Sanskrit word meaning "yoke" or "union," yoga seeks as its goal the healing of the body, psyche and soul. Although yoga has roots in Eastern culture, it is not explicitly religious and its basic principles of health and well-being can be applied to anyone, say proponents.
Of course, with its overtones of mysticism, there is bound to be some criticism surrounding this Hindu practice. And because of this, the Christian subculture has an answer. Christian yoga, also know as "Chroga," adds Jesus Christ to yoga postures.
Yoga ministries are sprouting up across the country. Yahweh Yoga, Holy Yoga and Outstretched Inc. are only a few. Outstretched Inc. began "as an outreach ministry of Jubilee Shores United Methodist Church in Fairhope, Alabama. Outstretched Inc. has reached thousands across the country and throughout the world with this approach to fulfilling God's Word when He tells us to 'be still and know that I am God'" (christianyoga.us).
Should Christians participate in yoga, regardless if it's Christian yoga? Some say, "Yes." They believe it is just stretching while meditating. What one chooses to meditate on is up to him or her. When Christians meditate on Scripture it becomes legitimate worship to God.
Many Christians believe yoga is just like anything else, a neutral tool. They believe that music and media are also neutral tools, which can be used for good or evil. After all, most people don't reject all music or all media simply because some people use it for evil. And why should Hindus be the only group allowed to "own" stretching exercises that promote holistic health?
Not all people agree. Brian Flynn of One Truth Ministries notes, "Meditations are not the only problem. It is a whole series of ritual appreciations to the sun, being thankful for that source of energy."
One thing is for sure, not all yoga groups would necessarily connect with the marriage of exclusive claims of evangelicalism and universalistic tendencies of yoga. For instance, Laya yoga is associated with The Global Oneness Commitment, "an eight-year project with the goal of uniting people around the globe to mutual actions in order to ... to transform the planet through an increase in spiritual awarenessâ€”a new consciousness creating a joyful home for all its inhabitants and respect for all forms of life" (experiencefestival.com).
This Web site "warns": "In spite of using such terms as Christian yoga, Tibetan, Buddhist or Taoist, yoga remains yoga and means inner, mystery teachings, and practices of each of these religions. The separatist sectarianism arises because of hatred and fanaticism the members of religious communities [i.e. evangelicals] have not got rid of."
SPIRIT AND TRUTH
The influx of these new forms of Christian practice can be linked to a larger phenomenon: Critics of traditional "worship" believe the church has gotten too comfortable in its worship of God. Methods of worshiping God can soon become dead traditions if they become our focus, rather than God. Sadly, the body of Christ can become uncreative in its worship of the Creator.
As a result, many churches are incorporating unconventional worship in their services and ministry programs. From dance, poetry, rap and pottery to the lectio divina, yoga and labyrinthsâ€”all are birthed out of an attempt to bring creativity to the supposedly dry landscape of church life. But is this right?
The woman at the well got into a theological debate with Jesus about worship. Her questions focused on geography, as she argued, " 'Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem' " (John 4:20, NIV).
In modern parlance, Jesus didn't "go there" with her. He didn't get into the details about which mountain was important to worship on. Instead He said, "'Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks'" (John 4:23).
Spirit and truth. Not either/or, but both/and. The church often errs to one extreme or the other. We often worship God in spirit or in truth. God seeks worshipers who worship Him in spirit and truth. God invites beauty and creativity in worship as evidenced throughout the Scripture. Yet, there does seem to be limits.
In the Old Testament, when people approached God on their own terms it meant judgment, death and discipline. This process is seen in Cain's offering (see Gen. 4:5), Nadab's strange fire (see Lev. 10:1-2) and Saul's sacrifice (see 1 Sam. 15:22-23).
Each of these examples illustrates how people thought they could come to God in their own way. God didn't view these as misunderstandings, but rather idolatrous attempts that elevated worship to a higher level than God Himself. God stated in black and white that, "'You shall have no other gods before me'" (Ex. 20:3).
Whether these new models of worship are pathways to God or doorways to deception, one thing is for sure: pragmatism can't be the deciding factor. There are all kinds of things out there that "work" for some people and don't "work" for others. Our experience is not the standard; the Word of God is.
We are called to be salt and light in this world. That means we must interact with these issues using Scripture as our standard of truth. I think God wants us toâ€”it seems to fit with the whole "loving God with our mind" command. I believe God wants us each to emerge from all this gray with a black and white response.
Kary Oberbrunner, D.Min., a self-confessed "recovering Pharisee," is a speaker, pastor and author. His new book, Called: Becoming Who You Were Born to Be, explores what it means to authentically follow Jesus. You can find him at karyoberbrunner.com.