Here are some unusual things:
Why would a little resource explaining the readings from the Nine Lessons and Carols be downloaded from a website hundreds of times in July?
Why would somebody struggling with debt and addictions say that they had decided to seek help from their church on the strength of a line in a poem they didn’t understand?
Why would a person be inspired by the smell of creosote to remember a powerful experience of God in his life?
These are just some stories which have emerged from users of the Spiritual Journeys website. Spiritual Journeys is a project from the ecumenical Mission Theology Advisory Group (MTAG) which provides resources for spiritual seekers. It reaches out to people whose own tentative spiritual explorations are convoluted, fragmented, or constantly under threat. It attracts people who don’t necessarily want to find out more about Christianity or Jesus Christ, but who are still finding themselves looping in towards faith on a distant, elliptical orbit.
Spiritual Journeys was set up to complement a MTAG book Sense Making Faith which looked at the crossover between the way Christians encounter God through the senses and the imagination and the similar experiences of people outside the church. What Sense Making Faith showed was that there is so much in the Christian tradition that Christians themselves don’t know about but which could be mined to meet the needs of people searching for faith. Yet those searchers often drifted off happily into other faiths and spiritualities simply because their Christian friends weren’t really aware of the depths and riches Christianity has to offer. So Sense Making Faith was a book for a clearer apologetics, a deeper self-understanding of one’s faith and more effective faith-sharing.
But Spiritual Journeys also has a wider remit, providing a range of resources for spiritual seekers without prescription or expectation. It’s a question of what may spark something in the restless user that opens up pathways of spiritual possibility and exploration, whether it’s fractals, fragrances or ‘opeways’, those openings which lead to journeys on the one hand or creative Bible studies, prayer walks or music on the other. Many of the resources are also used by clergy and lay people who are planning services or events in churches which look to connect with people who wouldn’t normally come to church. In this sense Spiritual Journeys tries to look not through the eyes of the baptism party or wedding couple who have been prepared for the occasional offices but through the eyes of the reluctant teenager or cynical friend who has agreed to come along and has no idea what they’re really going to be doing there. What connects with whatever God has been doing in their lives?
The thing is: Spiritual Journeys, designed and hosted by Melchior Telematics (cost £100 p.a.), isn’t a sexy website; it has few pictures on the front pages and no interactivity. It’s basically a big pdf store and a nexus for links to other resources. About 500 different pages of resource are used every month. We know that the majority of users on the site (other than those checking in quickly to see if there’s new stuff) stay on the site for 30 minutes to 1 hour, just trying things out.
There are five sections denoted by colours.
- EXPLORE builds on and updates Sense Making Faith with resources to explore the spirituality of the senses, from looking at icons to the ‘smell’ of servanthood.
- LOOK offers a wide range of news, events, books, articles and ideas.
- DO suggests activities and discussion for both individuals and groups.
- ASK lets users offer feedback or request things they couldn’t find.
- DREAM provides creative resources such as Bible studies, poems, pictures, and reflections on the issues in TV episodes and films.
Content is also driven by people asking questions and sending in requests. All the resources are fully downloadable and free.
We’ve learned some interesting things. Some of the most popular resources are in the EXPLORE/hear section. There people can find out about what readings in church actually mean. Some users have reported trying out church only to be bewildered by what feels like random bits of text which have no meaning or relevance to their encounter with Christian faith. Spiritual Journeys helps them get a handle on what they’re going to hear.
As for the Nine Lessons and Carols, we discovered that this resource is being used as a means of teaching Christian basics, especially in countries where small groups of Christians are learning together in house groups and have problems asking overtly for materials to enrich their faith. Other spiritual seekers find that the Nine Lessons tap into powerful experiences from childhood or having children or they find themselves connected to the Nativity via their various spiritual explorations. People who are not Christians love Lent and Advent, Christmas and Easter and come to the site to find things to do and explore. Those that want to go further then come back to take their next tentative steps.
The person who was moved by Malcolm Guite’s A Sonnet for All Saints Day in the DREAM section didn’t actually understand it and said so. But an idea in the poem hit him powerfully: that while the mirror that should show us God is broken up by evil, yet still Christ is reflected in the shards. He wrote that in his own shattered world of depression and addictions he was aware of something drawing him back towards wholeness and now he could name it and seek it out. Other resources on the site have helped people whose spirituality has been shaped by adversity and some of the richest resources on the site are written for, or by, people with disabilities.
The person who used the ‘smell’ part of the EXPLORE section found himself exploring a different site discussing with others the evocative smells of childhood. When another contributor remembered creosote on a fence this opened up for him an experience as a small child when a family member had died, an experience which he connected with the smell of creosote. Only, that was not all. What had also happened was that he was certain God had been with him, comforting and sustaining him, even though his family was not religious and he had no real understanding of who or what God was. Having been reminded of this experience by using Spiritual Journeys, he got in touch with us to see how he could begin to explore that childhood memory and to talk through what it might have meant then and might mean now.
That user was one of many who visit the site who are like those studied by David Hay and Kate Hunt in ‘Understanding the Spirituality of People who don’t go to Church’ (another popular download). Many, many of them, have had powerful experiences of God in their lives but don’t know how to speak of them or don’t want to speak for fear of being laughed at and humiliated. Some fear that those precious experiences will be taken from them, mashed up and reinterpreted, or worse, belittled. Spiritual Journeys connects them with those experiences, validates them, and puts them in contact with others like themselves. And then they come back to us, through the feedback page, via a chance encounter with a thought-provoking TV episode, or wondering about the Stations of the Cross, and we offer them companionship on the journey. Some branch off again but stay in touch. Others continue towards Christ. Some come to faith, some continue to struggle.
What all this shows is that there’s an important place for pre-evangelism in mission: a place to dip your toe in the water, a place to come at faith sideways, and a place to find out that your spiritual urges and explorations make sense. We’re encouraged that many users are young people, using the site just to explore stuff about where they might be going. It is as if they hear Christ knocking at the end of a long hallway but on the way to answer the door there are many other doors. They open those doors and explore inside, learning more about where they are before deciding whether they want to answer the call or not. While MTAG exists also to provide Christians with ways to share their faith better, that task is continually shaped and honed by those coming to us with their stories and questions and ideas about what those rooms contain. So, paradoxically, the users of Spiritual Journeys are Good News to us, reminding us to be aware of the richness and depth of our faith and responsive to the Spirit, finding out where God’s call is being refreshed, delighted in, and renewed.
Dr Anne Richards is the Church of England’s National Adviser on Mission Theology, New Religious Movements and alternative spiritualities. Before that she read, and taught, English at Oxford University, specialising in modern and religious literature. She wrote her doctoral thesis, under Peter Levi, on David Jones. She is the convener of the ecumenical Mission Theology Advisory Group (MTAG) which provides mission resources to the churches (with a particular interest in equipping Christians to share faith effectively and in understanding the spiritual lives of people outside the Christian faith as seen in publications such as Sense Making Faith (2007) and Unreconciled? (2011)) and the content manager of www.spiritualjourneys.org.uk for spiritual enquirers and www.dispossessionproject.org on ways to explore mission and social justice.