Sheathed in cheap, dark wood paneling, the pastor’s study in which we held our church board meetings looked like a leftover from the 1960s. In a discussion one night, we began to talk about how to help people in our church grow spiritually. Taking a marker in hand, I stood up, walked to the long white strip of paper taped to the wall, and asked the board members, “Who in our church is—to our eyes, at least—growing spiritually?” Warming to the question, in just a minute or two we listed the names of about ten people plainly thriving on the grace of God, becoming people they had never met before. I still recall that conversation as the most joyful moment of leading the group.
The next question presented more difficulty: “What, if anything, do these growing people have in common?” In silence, we all ran our eyes over the paper on the wall looking for clues. As we began to talk through what we knew about these friends, a common element surfaced: every single one of these people somehow found his or her way into an informal network of nurturing relationships—apparently without help.
I took a deep breath and asked the third question: “What could we do to make sure that everyone in our church has this kind of experience?” Now it grew really quiet. We enjoyed listing the growing people and thinking about their traits. Both gave us the feeling that perhaps we were doing a few things right. But trying to systematize the spiritual formation of our people stopped us dead in our tracks.
Of course, the obvious answers beckoned. Just start cell groups! Roll out more traditional Sunday school classes! Disperse the congregation into postmodern house churches! But in our context, these fine ideas collided with the reality that our growing people had spontaneously found their way into informal networks that required minimal administrative support. In other words, all the good stuff seemed to happen in the cracks between our complicated programs. The discussion that night led us to the question of how God was at work among us, and what God’s activity implied for our own.
I transitioned from the church to my denomination’s seminary shortly after that meeting, but always wondered where this stream of discernment might have carried us. How do you plan a ministry around the unplanned, around what I came to call sacred accidents? This article considers whether such “accidents” might play a more pivotal role in spiritual formation than is commonly assumed and suggests some specific contributions to our growth that may take surprising forms.
01. The Power of the Accidental
The burgeoning literature of organizational leadership has brought with it the notion that the Christian life should be lived intentionally, according to a design that will achieve certain purposes. In one sense, I couldn’t agree more. For example, while most church members report they have access to spiritual growth opportunities, less than a third strongly agree that anyone in their congregation inquired into their spiritual well-being in the last six months.Albert L. Winseman, “Meeting Members’ Needs: ‘How Can We Grow?’” The Gallup Tuesday Briefing, 10 November 2002, 66.
“To put it another way,” notes Gallup researcher Albert Winseman, “nearly seven out of ten members of faith communities are not getting the feedback they need about their spiritual growth.”Albert L. Winseman, “In the Last Six Months, Someone in My Congregation Has Talked to Me about the Progress of My Spiritual Growth.” The Gallup Tuesday Briefing, 24 September 2002, 93. Given these findings (and the overwhelming consensus of other research casting doubt on the state of “discipleship”), the need for some kind of plan for spiritual formation has perhaps never been more pressing for both individuals and congregations.
And yet, plans did not produce the results our church board identified, nor can a great deal of what we call spiritual formation always (or perhaps even mostly) be ascribed to personal disciplines or church programs. In this connection, John Ortberg points to a survey of thousands of people at Willow Creek asking them what contributed to the spiritual growth they experienced in certain seasons of their lives. Their top answer: pain. He goes on to quip, “So I think a helpful thing churches can do is provide lots of pain for people.”John Ortberg, “Holy Tension.” Leadership Journal (Winter 2004). Online LeadershipJournal.net [http://ctlibrary.com/12072 URL] Accessed 10 February 2004. The irony in John’s humor makes the point that some of the most profoundly forming influences in our lives happen outside of our best plans and processes. In short, they are sacred accidents, surprises from God, which challenge the notion that spiritual formation is always a response to direction from the outside or discipline from the inside.
Consider this: the literature of other fields is filled with examples of great accomplishments in which accident played at least as big a role as design. A Discovery Channel documentary, for example, recently featured the “Top Ten Accidental Discoveries,” including Velcro, X-rays, penicillin, and even the humble Popsicle.Natasha Stillwell, “Top Ten Accidental Discoveries.” Discovery Channel, 19 April 2004. Online [http://www.exn.ca/Stories/2004/04/19/51.asp?t=dp] Accessed 15 October 2006; Robert Austin, “The Accidental Innovator.” Working Knowledge, 5 July 2006. Online [http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5441.html] Accessed 15 October 2006. As the Harvard Business School’s Robert Austin points out, “A surprising number of important discoveries and inventions are associated with stories about spillage, breakage, and other manner of unintended action that led to valuable, though unexpected, outcomes.” The person who happens to be there when the right accident happens becomes the “inventor” or “creator” of the product, as did Alexander Fleming in 1928 when mold contaminating a Petri dish suddenly transformed his research on influenza into the “discovery” of penicillin.Stillwell, “Top Ten Accidental Discoveries.” In fairness, of course, we must point out that chance does not always favor the positive, as the UC Berkeley Law School discovered when an administrator accidentally sent out 7,000 e-mails to prospective students erroneously informing them of admission. The prestigious school actually admits around 800 law students annually. See Todd Weiss, “Accidental E-mail Congratulates 7,000 on Admission to UC Berkeley Law School.” Computerworld, 24 February 2006 Online. [http://www.computerworld.com/softwaretopics/software/groupware/story/0,10801,108992,00.html] Accessed 15 October 2006.
In Mark 4:26–29, Jesus expressed a similarly mysterious aspect of the kingdom of God when he compared it to a farmer who scattered seed only to find that “night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head” (verses 27–28, NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™). This parable affords a healthy corrective for the temptation to borrow uncritically from the emphasis on intentionality found in both secular and religious culture as the only cure for our spiritual ills. Certainly, Christians can benefit from a dose of spiritual exertion. But while direction and discipline can help to position us to experience God’s surprises, they should not become substitutes for the accidental, obscuring the fact that we are involved in a process of growth that is beyond our control in many respects, not a science of engineering that reduces being a disciple to discovering the right spiritual methods. Jesus did not say, “Follow my plan”; he said, “Follow me.”