“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” ~Dr. Brené Brown
Grace and Peace to each of you this Epiphany season! I am excited to share good news about spiritual formation at Tabernacle Baptist Church this past year.
On the one hand, it’s tempting for me to count success in terms of numbers and growth in our discipleship programming. Sunday school attendance has been up this past year. We have four classes that meet regularly at this point, and have had a number of short-term series scheduled to meet during the Sunday school hour, as well. Anna Tuckwiller led a 7-week series on Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection last spring. Amanda Pohl and Beth McMahon co-led a 6-week series on racial reconciliation this past fall. And I’m excited that we have three series scheduled for this coming spring that focus variously on contemplative prayer, N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope, and Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s book The Book of Forgiving. I’m excited that we are be able to offer these possibilities for focused growth for our congregation, and grateful for those who have stepped forward to lead in this way.
Our Community Groups are growing in number, as well. The weekly Brown Bag Bible study led by Sterling Severns (that meets on Tuesdays) and the Ladies’ Brunch (that meets on the Second Saturday of each month) continue to meet regularly. We now have seven small groups that meet regularly in homes throughout the Richmond area for fellowship, discipleship, and prayer. Small groups represent more than 70 people (plus children) gathering in homes weekly.
We’ve had several thematic offerings in the spiritual formation area over the past year. Julie and Jeff Walton co-led a Lenten series in 2016 this past year entitled “On Death & Dying.” It was a meaningful look at theological and practical issues surrounding the end of life. During the Easter season we hosted a Wednesday night series we called “Tabernacle Stories.” Each week we invited a member or two of the congregation to share their personal story, with an emphasis on “testimony”: how have you seen God present and at work in your life? Where do you see God at work in your life and in our congregation today? For this 7-week series, folks that represented a cross-section of our congregation shared, and we podcast this series to share more broadly. Our Narrative Lectionary Bible Study continues on Wednesday nights. We typically have 12–15 in attendance, and have had some wonderfully meaningful conversations about Scripture together.
Kristen Koger and I collaborated to organize a marriage retreat for April 15–16th, 2016. To my knowledge, it was either the first such retreat, or the first in a long time. It was well attended, and provided a neat opportunity for couples to focus on strengthening their marriages. Our marriage enrichment class, led last spring by Kristen Koger, and this past fall by Sterling Severns, has been a tremendous success as well, in terms of attendance. I hear they are busting at the seams in the conference room each Wednesday evening.
“Size matters not. Judge me by my size, do you?” ~Yoda
All that being said… I try hard to resist judging success in the church based on numbers. We’re not primarily a numbers-driven organization. I want to measure success in spiritual formation in terms of depth. Where do we see people connecting more deeply with God, with their true selves, and with others? So here are just a few examples of where I’m most excited to report success in our spiritual formation as a church:
More than quantity of community groups and Sunday school classes, I’m proud of the ways in which these groups knit together our church into a community of care and spiritual growth. Small group members get to know one another in deep ways as they share their stories, meals, and prayer concerns together. They encourage one another in spiritual growth and care for one another when they struggle. Sunday school classes have been an amazing entry point into the life of the congregation for new attendees. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that new visitors that attend a Sunday school class are much more likely to get connected to others within the congregation and eventually become members. For both Sunday school classes and community groups, these become communities of care, as well, when members are sick, welcome new babies, or face other challenging times.
During our “Death and Dying” series, we talked openly and honestly about death and the dying process. It was hard and uncomfortable at times. But we did it, and did it courageously. For those of us that participated in that series, death isn’t such a taboo subject anymore. We are better prepared to face our own deaths or the deaths of loved ones in a healthy manner, with courage and integrity.
Our Tabernacle Stories series was a success because of the depth of sharing that we don’t often get in churches. Those who participated shared deeply of their own stories, their hurts, their growth, and their awareness of God’s presence in their lives. On more than one occasion tears were shed (although I won’t name names!). When we know one another deeply, we have succeeded as a church. We’ll repeat this series this spring, and plan on podcasting it again.
This is but a brief snapshot of where I see us growing in depth as a congregation in the area of spiritual formation….
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ~Soren Kierkegaard
As I look to the not-so-distant future, I have a number of things that I envision for our spiritual formation program:
1. I perceive a need for a new, permanent adult Sunday school class that meets regularly for Bible study.
2. I suspect that our small group program will continue to grow as we grow as a congregation. We’ll need to continue to identify and equip leaders and hosts, and to find people who are eager to participate in these groups.
3. Children and youth who attend Sunday school or Wednesday evening programs benefit from “formal” spiritual formation by learning Bible stories together, but we don’t currently have much to offer those who attend small groups with their parents. We need to find a way to engage these children and youth in spiritual formation at small groups.
4. I’m excited about a short series on contemplative prayer that Cathy McLaren is began just today (Jan. 29, 2017). The contemplative tradition of Christianity focuses on slowing down, being quiet, and cultivating awareness of God’s presence in all of life. I’m secretly hoping that this series is just the beginning of a deeper attention to the contemplative stream of spirituality within our congregation.
As I look back and look ahead, I’m ever so grateful for all of the leaders in the spiritual formation area. Whether a small group leader, Sunday school teacher, or otherwise, these people are nothing short of amazing. They open their homes and their hearts, their mouths and their ears, week after week, and invest in the spiritual lives of others in our congregation. THANK YOU.
For all of you who are members and who attend Tabernacle Baptist Church, I am grateful for your trust and the support of this community as I finish up my second year as Minister of Spiritual Formation here. This community of faith is a tremendous blessing to me, and continues to enrich my own life and spirituality in myriad ways. I’m grateful for all of the ways that we encounter God at work among us.
Grace and Peace to you all,
Minister of Spiritual Formation