There has been much hand wringing and ink spilled over the past several years regarding the decline of the church in the United States. The solutions from the experts are varied. Some argue that the answer lies in better systems for church reproduction or new facilities. Others argue that a shift in worship style can reach a broader demographic. But I think the problem is more foundational: We don’t know how to help people experience the deep transformation and healing that Jesus offers.
Think about it: Most of our discipleship structures are designed to help people learn to pray, read the Bible, get people connected to small groups, and serve our cities. These are all vital practices, and we shouldn’t let these go. But through these practices, Jesus will inevitably invite us to engage in a process of deeper transformation. The problem is that we don’t know what to do to our help our group members when that happens. It seems like the only option is to implore people to try harder, do more, and give more.
So they try. And try. And try. As leaders, we get frustrated with them when they won’t do more. But the problem is that they can’t. They can’t “be more like Jesus” any more than I can “be more like Mike” (pardon the Michael Jordan reference, but we live in Chicago after all!).
Most people show up to church not because they’re looking to be entertained, be part of a movement, make a name for themselves, or find their place in the world. Most people show up because their lives aren’t working, and they need help. Our world is rapidly changing and many people are afraid and confused—they fear for themselves and their kids. They are stressed, anxious, angry, and burdened by truckloads of guilt, shame, and pride. They don’t want to live this way, but they don’t know what alternatives they have. They need healing and they want help—and it’s the kind of healing and help that only Jesus can offer. Our primary job is to help them identify and respond to Jesus’ invitations to this deep transformation.
Just how do we do that?
Our church leaders wrestled and prayed earnestly about this, and we discovered Pete Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Course (EHS). It has been an invaluable tool to help people join Jesus in the deep transformation he offers. We started implementing EHS by having all our small groups go through the course simultaneously. After everyone had gone through it, we started regularly offering a large group experience to help people really engage the EHS course further.
To help drive home these principles, we’re currently doing an eight-week sermon series focusing on EHS. On top of that, our staff team has adopted many of the team-building, planning, and decision-making principles in The Emotionally Healthy Leader, a related book by Peter Scazzero.
The core principles of contemplative spirituality and emotional health presented in EHS have been game-changers for NewStory on six vital fronts.
1. We’re learning to recover our divine design.
We are learning to live into our authentic selves, not the self that has been constructed by fear, pride, and shame. Not the self that has been crafted by the pressures of our performance-drenched and image-focused culture. EHS encourages us to resist the voices and pressures that demand we live a story we were never meant to live. EHS sets up Sabbath and the daily office (an ancient form of fixed hour prayer) as primary tools to abide in Christ.
In order to live into our true selves we must learn to identify, process, and respond to our emotions. I’ve often heard two different messages about emotions: We either deny them because they’re fleeting and untrustworthy, or we elevate them and allow them to become the dominant force in our lives. EHS invites us to a middle path: We can pay attention to our emotions and learn from them without letting our emotions control us. Our emotions can serve us well if they don’t become our masters.
2. We’re learning to detox from destructive family patterns.
My father was driven by a fear of failure. This led him to work 60–80 hours each week, which eventually led to his death at the age of 59. Left to my own devices, I will live a live driven by the same fear, and I’d likely experience the same fate. We all inherit destructive family patterns. Whether it’s fear, anger, pride, codependency, impulsive spending, or any number of other dysfunctions. These conditions can become so embedded within us that they can define our destiny. But Jesus invites us to a new way. Before we move forward we must go backward and investigate and identify the destructive family patterns that we’ve inherited.
EHS provides encouragement, sets expectations, and provides tools that have helped us engage with this. By charting and investigating our genograms, identifying the implicit messages that we inherited, and analyzing the impact that “earthquake events” have had on our family, Jesus guides us out of that old way of life and invites us to live a new reality.
3. We’re learning how to carry pain and grief.
Each person in every congregation in the world will experience grief, pain, loss, and trauma. It will transform their lives forever. The question is: How will it transform them? What will be the lasting impact? Fr. Richard Rohr has said, “Pain that is not transformed will surely be transmitted.” If we gaze across the landscape of churches in America today, we will be hard pressed to find many who are equipping their people to live well through pain and grief. Lament, the ancient mode of processing pain and loss, is virtually absent in most churches today. EHS attempts to remedy this. The course has given us a framework to normalize grief so we can prepare people for how to respond when they hit the wall of grief and loss, as Pete Scazzero puts it. If we can help people grow in patience to wait on God before they’re in the midst of grief and loss, they’re better prepared to engage grief and grow through it instead of dying in it.
4. We’re learning to see lament as a catalyst for mission.
Going through EHS together has helped form NewStory for mission in our city. As we’ve dealt with our own past, grief, and identity, we have become deeply invested and engaged in the tragic areas of our city, namely racial injustice, gun violence, mental illness, and refugee displacement. There is much to grieve about all of this. EHS has encouraged us to create space and give permission to grieve, using lament to navigate through grief.
For example, we hold prayer vigils at locations of recent gun violence and homicides in our neighborhood, and we are in the planning stages for holding quarterly lament services. One might think that taking time and energy to create space and opportunities might slow our efforts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lament humbles us, empowers us, and deepens our missional engagement. Our impact over time is much greater because grief and lament can sustain our engagement in a complicated and deadly world. After all, there’s no room for triumphal “we’re gonna change the world” lingo in the midst of such overwhelming suffering. We have to acknowledge and accept reality as it is and proceed humbly from there.
5. We’re learning how to be a reconciling community.
NewStory is a multiethnic and reconciling church. Our neighborhood is one of the most dense and diverse in Chicago and many nations, races, and people groups form the fabric of NewStory Church. Our desire is not to be diverse—after all, you can have a diverse congregation and still have a mono-ethnic structure and leadership. Our desire is to be multiethnic and reconciling. That means that we have to learn how to work through conflict. Whether we like it or not, we have all inherited a history (and present reality) that is fueled by racial hostility and marked by oppression and privilege.
Tension in our congregation began to rise in late 2014 in the wake of the verdicts in the deaths of Michael Garner and Michael Brown. As the façade of a post-racial America began to crumble, factions started to form in our church. In response, we promoted unity and reconciliation through discussions, panels, and teaching. These discussions, at times, turned to arguments. Many white people in our congregation interpreted these as isolated events while many African and African-American folks saw them as a part of a continuing cultural dynamic of racial oppression.
God was very kind to us during that season and began teaching us what it means to become a kingdom community by resisting the patterns of privilege and oppression that mark our world. EHS has provided the tools and given language to join Jesus in this work. We learned to pay attention to our own triggers—or reactions—asking “What just happened in me?” As we grew is self-awareness, we were able to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. And that relationship led us to each examine our own hearts to see how we might to change or grow around this topic.
6. We’re learning to engage in healthy conflict.
One of the goals of a kingdom community is that we love one another well and help one another live more fully into the story we’ve been created to live. The key to this is the ability to engage in healthy conflict. When it comes to being a reconciling community, we need to have space to express anger and confusion without judgement. We also need to have the maturity to receive anger and confusion without becoming defensive. Reactive conflict only deepens division. We need to respond, not react.
As a leader, EHS has taught me to monitor my own triggers and identify them in the moment of conflict rather than allowing them to cause a defensive reaction. For example, a leader approached me following a Sunday service expressing concerns that a phrase I used in the sermon was insensitive. Immediately, I sensed myself getting defensive. I just preached a sermon that was awesome! I busted my butt to prepare and preach well!
As the tension within me increased, I was able to catch myself, identify what was happening, and resist the urge to be defensive. Instead, I become curious: “Why was this insensitive? How could I have phrased this differently?” Through this tension, both of us were able to grow in our understanding of God, ourselves, and one another. The practices and postures that enhance healthy conflict are leading us to become a stronger, healthier community.
If you’re considering implementing EHS into your church, you need to know two important things. First of all, know that EHS is not a silver bullet or a one-time shot in the arm. It’s a discipleship structure that must be continually embedded in the life of your church. Everyone in your church, from your staff team to your small-group members needs to understand the principles and work to implement them in their lives.
Second, you’ll need to develop a list of trusted therapists and counselors for referrals. Through this curriculum Jesus will invite people to confront deep-rooted issues and engage the painful events of their lives. Many people will need trusted guides to help them navigate the minefields of our past and present. It’s important to know that they may need help and guidance beyond what you and your small groups can provide. Create a list ahead of time, and you’ll be able to point them in the right direction.
Using EHS has developed me as a leader and changed our church for the better. We now have the language and tools to engage in the process of deep transformation that Jesus invites us to.
—Rich Gorman and his wife, Dori, co-pastor NewStory Church in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago.