Adele Calhoun is pastor of spiritual formation at Christ Church of Oak Brook in Oak Brook, Illinois. She is also author of The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (IVP, 2005). Building Small Groups talked with her about the need, benefits, and challenges of using lectio divina and contemplative prayer in small groups.
Building Small Groups: What are the differences between contemplative prayer and lectio divina?
Adele Calhoun:Lectio divina is a method of reading Scripture in a transformational way rather than an informational way. It's a sense of the immediacy of the Word, the experiential awareness of the Word—that I'm listening for a word for me.
And as I get that word, it often holds an invitation. And that invitation invites me into contemplative prayer. And so I think that's the place where they connect. There's a response in lectio divina, the oratio, where I'm led into prayer. So, contemplative prayer moves out of this deeper meditation on the Word of God.
People are often uncomfortable with phrases like contemplation or meditation because of a perceived connection to Eastern religious practices. Is that a valid fear?
As I understand Eastern meditation, the practice is to empty yourself. But in a biblical worldview, meditation is used to fill yourself with the fullness of Christ. So, I see them as two quite different goals, but they may use some of the same techniques—breathing techniques, centering techniques, and so on. But I see the goal as being very different.
Contemplative prayer and lectio divina are often described as "ancient practices." Can they still aid in the process of spiritual formation today?
Yes, they can. I have a real burden for the contemplative life, including contemplative prayer, to be something that the evangelical church embraces. If it doesn't, we won't have anything to say to this world that can never stop. Part of what the church has to offer is the ability to approach this completely out-of-control, over-packed, inundated, overwhelmed world and say, "There is a way to stop. There is a way to breathe. There is a way to live in a different rhythm of life." And the only way we can give that to the world is if we have it ourselves.
So, I feel like the contemplative journey is a really necessary journey, and if we don't make it, we'll be just like the world. We'll be shaped like the world—shaped by doing and productivity and outcomes and measures that are not godly.
What are the benefits of using contemplation and lectio divina in small groups, specifically?
One benefit is that I get to hear how God is uniquely speaking to all of the people in my group. His word to me may be different than his word to you, but he's spoken to all of us. And out of that, there may be a point where a leader can say, "As we've listened together, is there anything you want to share with this group? Is there anything that's come to you for anyone in this group?" And then I can share, if I have something.
I think lectio and contemplative prayer take people to a more real, true place of community. And it can sometimes do that more quickly than a conventional Bible study. It's a very wonderful way to be in community together.
You've mentioned that lectio allows us to find "a word just for me." Is there a danger of misinterpreting the Scriptures that way? Of making them subjective?
Part of the question has to be, "Is my hearing of this word so subjective that it loses touch with the objective Word of God and what it meant in a particular context." I don't know how God can be anything but subjective in some ways—it comes from a subject to a subject. But if I really trust the Holy Spirit, and I really believe that the Holy Spirit lives in me, there ought to be a willingness on my part to be very open to receiving something directly for me from the Holy Spirit.
But then that something would be subject to the greater understanding or witness of the body of Christ around me in a small group. That's also part of the process. For example, if I come up with something that says, "Based on this Scripture, I think I should go divorce my husband," that would be a red flag for the group as a whole.
So, using lectio divina in a small group can be a way of setting up appropriate boundaries around your interpretation?
Right. It definitely can be.
Based on your experiences, what are some of the challenges of using contemplative prayer and lectio divina in a small group?
One of the main challenges is fear—fear that I won't hear anything or fear that I'm only hearing my own thoughts. How do I know that I'm hearing from God and not just my overactive imagination?
We're also used to being given a nugget of truth from a preacher or a teacher, so there is a fear that lectio and contemplation are lesser ways of hearing—that maybe I won't hear something quite as stunning. And if I don't hear anything, have I just wasted my time? We may feel like: I gave an hour, and we sat here and we did lectio and we were quiet, and I didn't get anything. And that's a perfect waste of my time. I should have gone to a lecture.
And so, as a leader practicing lectio and contemplation, you're working against the model that the way people learn is through information rather than being in silence and having to face the times that God is silent. I have to believe that there may actually be a learning for me in this that goes beyond what a teacher could give me—if I will receive it.
Is there a way to know that you're hearing from God instead of an overactive imagination?
Jesus says the sheep know my voice, they recognize my voice. And I do think that recognizing God's voice is part of the spiritual journey in my life. We haven't helped people learn how to discern the Spirit's voice. People are used to hearing the pastor's voice or a teacher's voice or an author's voice. And because it's got new information, they assume they've heard God's voice when they may or may not have actually done so.
So, I think there's a big learning curve here. Lectio asks, "What is the invitation that you're being drawn into? What do you hear God saying to you? Attend to that this week and come back and tell us what it meant in your life." But when a pastor comes and gives an application, he gives it to everybody in the congregation. Obviously, I'm not saying that's bad, but it's different than hearing in my heart a word that is just for me.
I want to be part of the movement that helps people attend to that still, small voice that makes you, like Elijah, cover your face. Or like Moses, who covered his face. There's this sense that, having heard from God, I don't run out and blab, "Oh, I've heard from God!" It's more a sense of awe and quietness and taking it all in.
Are there any last tips you like to offer to small group leaders who are considering using contemplative prayer and lectio divina in their groups?
I'm wary that this would become a technique to make God show up. Contemplative prayer is about being present—making myself present for God to come. But it's not believing that just because I've showed up, I've man-handled God and he has to do certain things. It's an offering of myself.
And unless small group leaders are very comfortable with that—comfortable with waiting, comfortable with being in God's presence in their own life—I think it would be very hard to lead people where you want them to go. The members of your group need to be able to trust your journey as the leader.
1. Are specific fears or areas of apprehension keeping you from using lectio divina or contemplative prayer in your small group?
2. Have you experienced an intimate connection with God during your individual study or prayer? Could that be transferred to your small group?
3. Are you able to discern the still, small voice of God when he speaks to you? How could you improve that discernment?
Want to learn more about using contemplative prayer and lectio divina in your small group? Check out these training downloads from Building Small Groups:
• Go Deeper with God: The ancient practices of lectio divina and contemplative prayer have helped Christians connect with God on a deeper level for centuries. This training download will help you incorporate them into your small group.