This past year, I have been training for the ministry of spiritual direction. It is one of the many threads in my life, a life that lately is all about going plural. A course in spiritual direction is a strange process, because the very training that helps you live into this gift is more about forming you and your own faith experience than it is about teaching you a skill or a particular kind of theory. Yes, of course, there are ways of speaking and listening that are part of the training, but really, the process is more about, well, coming out as who you are. These are charged words for some, but in my experience, so much of life is really just a coming out of one kind or another, sometimes to yourself and sometimes to others.
I have a story to illustrate what I mean. What do you think is the first question that most people ask me when I tell them that I am a spiritual director? Well, it isn’t really a question — it is more an exclamation of disbelief: “Oh, I didn’t know that Baptists were into that kind of thing.” I have experienced that same kind of disbelief at ecumenical services when I have performed as the musical soloist. The frequently heard exclamation there is: “Oh, I didn’t know that Baptists performed classical music!”
Clearly, I am not your grandmother’s kind of Baptist. Who knows what I really “am” these days or if I “am” anything recognizable to anyone but God. But that is a topic for another time and place, because at this moment, the baptist distinctives continue to inform my life of faith (a set of distinctives that find no better embodiment than the work of the Alliance of Baptists).
So, my unconventional Baptist-distinctive-embracing self was delighted when I found a little book by Baptist historian E. Glenn Hinson, called Baptist Spirituality: A Call for Renewed Attentiveness to God (2013). I found it, but I didn’t have time to read the entire work, until now. Sometimes I believe that books sit on our nightstand, waiting for us finally to be ready to hear their message. Baptist Spirituality was just such a book.
Hinson’s thesis is simple and yet powerful: the Baptist movement of the 21st century has wandered far from its roots and lost sight of its original calling. That foundational calling is the same as it is for a believer in any flavor of Christian experience: to form communities that act as schools of love, “through which we can effect the transformation of individual lives and, from thence, society (LOC 1647, Kindle Edition).” This model stands in stark contrast to the American corporate model adopted by say, the Southern Baptist Convention. The corporate model focuses on conversions not formation (conversions and baptisms are more quantifiable and make for better performance statistics). Hinson’s idea of the “school of love” is patterned after the practices of monastic communities (he was a student of Thomas Merton) but also the practices of the early Puritan movement out which the current expression of Baptist polity grew. The “school of love” idea resonates strongly with Paul’s ideas of community put in 1 Corinthians 13 (the famous “love” passage) and Romans 12, in which “he cited particulars of love indeed that, God helping, would enable a far-from-perfect human family to experience unity and community, its faults notwithstanding (Hinson, LOC 1662, Kindle Edition).” In the simplest terms, Hinson suggests that the Baptists in particular have strayed from a focus on the relationship with God (which is fundamental to the Baptist distinctives themselves, no matter which version of that list you embrace) and put all their attention on numbers — new converts, new souls brought to Jesus. They have, along with many other flavors of Christian religion, turned their attention from the biggest part of the job of conversion — the walk with the disciple after the moment of decision.
I appreciate his perspective — at least I understand it, being trained as an historian myself. And I appreciate the way in which this book fills in blanks for me, the gaps that have troubled me when I find myself in opposition to many of the human communities that label themselves “baptist” in today’s world, communities that bear no resemblance to my understanding of the Baptist distinctives that infuse my own life of faith. This disconnect between the two has often left me confused; Hinson has helped me to better understand the source of that confusion (as a good sense of history will often do).
Hinson tells the early history of the Baptist movement as it grew out of the Puritan society in North America (and, to some extent, in Great Britain). That Puritan community was founded in a practice of contemplative spirituality and personal formation, a set of practices closer to those of their medieval forbears and to the beliefs of their Pietist contemporaries. It was, for them, the daily formation of a life of faith that mattered most, not the moment of conversion. This formation happened through a life of prayer and study, in private and in community. Faith was all about practice. Hinson suggests that the Baptist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries stepped away from this life of practice, in which listening to and being in relationship to God was the primary focus, and stepped toward a type of pragmatic religious institutional expression steeped in what he calls conversion spirituality, a spirituality focused on bringing new believers to the fold, in which personal testimony supersedes all other messages and in which the altar call and the moment of decision become the only acceptable and necessary sacraments. My other favorite historian of faith, Diana Butler Bass, agrees–pointing out the general adoption of the capitalist business model by the mainline churches in the late 19th century (Christianity without Religion, 71). The drift towards a factory model clearly infected most of the mainline, not just the Baptists. For the Baptist movement in particular, however, conversion and call became the only two significant milestones of institutional success. This emphasis continues to this day, particularly among the communities of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Hinson doesn’t claim to have a fool proof plan to make the shift from corporate-based conversion spirituality to a sense of communal identity that typifies the idea of the school of love, but he does offer to the reader a hint when he shares the story of his own formula for ministry, one that comes to him through the teaching of Quaker writer Douglas Steere and those of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Steere crossed paths with Buber in 1951 at Haverford College and never forgot the philosopher’s words about ministry (and frankly, about any relationship): “The greatest thing one can do for another is to confirm what is deepest in another.” For Hinson, the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus teaches us this most important essence of ministry . Here, Jesus models for us the four facets of confirmation of another, according to Hinson, the essence of the art of love: first, to pay attention to another (Luke 19:5a); second, to accept the other without question (Luke 19:5b); third, to join in association with another (Luke 19:8); and finally, to affirm the other without demanding change (Luke 19:9).
And that brings me back to that exclamation I hear when I discuss my call to a ministry of spiritual direction, you know the voice that says (often), “Oh, I didn’t know Baptists were into that sort of thing.” Yes, we are. Not many of us, but more every day. Because some of us feel the lack of our foundations, the absence of a partner along the spiritual path. And we, like Zacchaeus, want to live fully into the art of love and participate in communities that form schools of love and formation, according to Hinson’s call:
What is God’s yearning for spiritual formation among Baptists, then? …I think it boils down to this: God yearns for us to form everywhere and in every way we can schools oflove that will enable those who enroll to open to the transforming love of God, so that they may have a sense of things that really matter, in order that they may become pure in heart and filled with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. …Because attentiveness is at the heart of the contemplative life, every effort would be made to listen to and learn from other persons and groups engaged in the same endeavor (LOC 1776).
This might be a call issued specifically to the community of Baptists by Hinson, but I hear it as a call to all Christians, everywhere. And, frankly, to all people, everywhere. For me, at the heart of those guidelines some of us call the baptist distinctives, is the call to love and respect all of God’s creation, all the people that inhabit it and all creatures, great and small.