Conversatio Divina

Part 11 of 19

Sacred Accidents

Earl Creps

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 [ 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 [] Accessed 15 October 2006; Robert Austin, “The Accidental Innovator.” Working Knowledge, 5 July 2006. Online [] 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. [,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. 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.”

02.  Spiritual Growth Is Where You Find It

Spiritual growth, then, may be catalyzed by practicing direction and discipline to prepare us for “sacred accidents,” circumstances in which God gets access to my life in ways I did not plan. The idea that God can meet us on any of life’s terrain is certainly not new. In fact, Richard Foster contends, “The Disciplines are best exercised in the midst of our normal daily activities. If they are to have any transforming effect, the effect must be found in the ordinary junctures of human life.”Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 1. Foster also describes “Corporate” and “Outward” disciplines that, by their nature, involve engaging God in relationship with the world outside of ourselves. I couldn’t agree more, but I would extend the argument to include the idea that our responses to sacred accidents can actually become spiritual disciplines if they are embraced as such.

Often, these divine encounters are disguised in circumstances so ordinary as to appear sub-spiritual. But each carries the potential to become spiritually forming in a way consistent enough to qualify as a discipline, albeit, perhaps, one without a title we would recognize. Many of these accidents receive their spiritual power by allowing me to see God or to see myself realistically. The discipline aspect occurs in my choice of how to respond to these revelations.

03.  Seeing God

A great deal of Christian culture is devoted to the proposition that God is available to us primarily through his presence in our worshipping communities. Some communions might center this encounter in the Eucharist, while others might consider the Scriptures or even the fellowship of the saints as the venue in which God is most accessible to us. Having grown up in a liturgical tradition, and now working within a classical Pentecostal denomination, I have experienced a huge diversity on this issue.

My liturgical heritage gave me an appreciation for engaging God through form, word, and beauty, while my Pentecostal season has involved touching God in worship experiences and manifestations of the Spirit. In no case, however, did any of my spiritual instructors suggest, except in the most general terms, that God might also invite me into relationship outside the walls of the sanctuary. We knew that the Creator’s work could be seen in each sunset, making nature a sort of divine art gallery, but communing with the Artist was no more likely than meeting Rembrandt during a tour of the Louvre.

Our emphasis on encountering God in Christian settings, with all its benefits, cannot obscure the fact God may also be enormously available to us elsewhere. Ironically, many ministers admonish their congregants almost weekly about the importance of how to live “the other six days” while doing little to prepare the flock to discern God’s activity anywhere but in services. Having preached this sort of sermon myself, I know how easy it is to ask people to hold their spiritual breath for six days until they can resurface safely in God’s house on the seventh for a lungful of divine air. Surely the atmosphere of heaven is available outside as well as inside the buildings and exercises we call holy.

So, while we see God most fully in Christ,Hebrews 1:1–3. God’s love is so vast that glimpses are also found in other ways. Since Jesus was a constant surprise to those who encountered him, it makes sense that some of the other ways God reveals himself would also be unexpected or, I would say, accidental.

Rob Bell, a pastor and popular writer, provides one example from his own faith journey: “I remember the first time I was truly in awe of God. I was caught up for the first time in my life in something so massive and loving and transcendent and . . . true. Something I was sure could be trusted. I specifically remember thinking the universe was safe, in spite of all the horrible, tragic things in the world. I remember being overwhelmed with the word true. Underneath it all life is somehow . . . good. . . . I was sixteen and at a U2 concert. The Joshua Tree tour. When they started with the song, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name,’ I thought I was going to spontaneously combust with joy. This was real. This mattered. Whatever it was, I wanted more.”Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 72. While church leaders debate the fine points of whether a drinking, cursing, Bible-reading lead singer named Bono is a Christian, Rob simply sensed an expression of God in U2’s music. Others who have this same vision point to lyrics like these:

Looking for to save my, save my soul,

Looking in the places where no flowers grow,

Looking for to fill that God-shaped hole.U2, “Mofo,” by Bono and The Edge, Columbia Records, track 3 on POP, released March 1, 1997, compact disc.

A rock show may not be the auditorium in which some might expect God to be visible, but in Bono’s words, “God might not use the people that you expect.”Bono quoted by Michka Assayas, Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005) 25, 27. Also see Christian Scharen, One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God (Ada, MI: Brazos Press, 2006) and Raewynne J. Whitley and Beth Maynard, eds., Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2003). Perhaps the accidental nature of these unplanned experiences is precisely what makes them disarming enough to open us up to a startling vision of God.

04.  Seeing Me

While some events surprise us with a revelation of God, others provide a mirror that allows us to see ourselves, revealing things we would never have seen in the absence of a sacred accident. On a recent blog, for example, I complained to my readers about people in airports overhearing my cell phone calls or talks with my wife and choosing to intrude on the conversation to offer unsolicited help. Even though the issues involved tended toward the petty (e.g., are the good food places on this side of security or the other side), I found these unwanted helpers completely annoying and sometimes told them so. Ventilating these sentiments online made me feel better.

Until I got the responses.

Shocked and offended, my usually friendly readers rebuked my bad attitude, expressing dismay at such intolerance, and disappointment with me as a person. They expected better. That hurt. So, I started thinking through why they saw things so differently and came to the conclusion that my native culture (suburban Anglo Baby Boomer) enjoyed tidy categories like public vs. private, along with the protocols of landline telephones. My readers, however, had discarded such notions long ago and regarded helping a stranger in a public place as not an intrusion, but the only polite and ethical thing to do. After all, by holding a conversation in a public place, hadn’t I intruded on them first?

The sting of this clash in the blogosphere woke me up. I have worked for years to be the old person who “gets” young people. But the airport issue revealed that I was still assuming my culture as the default position and younger people’s culture as deviant—just because they were younger. My blog friends gave me the gift of the truth, exposing my lack of humility exactly where I had done the most work on cultivating sensitivity to younger leaders. The truth was clear: despite drinking an ocean of coffee with leaders under thirty, I still didn’t get it. At this point, I had a choice: defend my position or soften my heart and commit again to learning from my younger friends, rather than assuming that age alone qualified me to be their teacher. So I blogged again, this time with the title “I Was Wrong.”

05.  Accidents Will Happen

This pattern of confrontation and commitment sacralizes an accidental situation by converting it into an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to cultivate the character of Christ in our lives. Learning from the young, for example, has become a broader pattern in my life (and the most fun I’ve ever had) in the form of reverse mentoring, a spiritual discipline that grows humility by forcing me repeatedly to say the dreaded words, “I don’t get it.” At the scene of a sacred accident, those words are a prayer.

The classic disciplines, then, offer an indispensable foundation for Christian spirituality, orienting our lives so we can be responsive to the surprises of God when they come. Without a laboratory and basic scientific training, Alexander Fleming would have had no place for his penicillin “accident” to happen. By analogy, a believer practicing “Christianity lite,” out of touch with God and treating Scripture as a mere religious accessory, may be too superficial to recognize the sacred dimension in life’s accidents. For this person, Ortberg’s prescription of “pain” may yield death rather than growth. Think of the difference between a NASCAR driver and a crash dummy—both hit the wall, but only one learns anything from it.

Conversely, there is nothing like the impact of a sacred accident to enliven our interest in prayer, Scripture, and other classic disciplines. A morning prayer time that seemed tedious last week may become a personal revival when we are trying to sort out what God is saying to us through an uninvited imposition.

These sacred accidents are available to us in many forms. Sometimes we see God as Paul did on the road to Damascus. Sometimes our own character is revealed, as when Isaiah cried, “Woe is me, I am undone!” In either case, how we respond to these divine intrusions may well define our spiritual growth for years to come. As Garnett Foster writes, “Spiritual formation is not an emptying of ourselves, but creating openness to what God is already about in our lives and in the world.”Garnett E. Foster, “Spiritual Formation: Can We Teach It?” Mosaic, Spring/Summer 2002, 10. Foster is the director of vocational and spiritual formation at Louisville Seminary. We will harden or soften in response to the sharp confrontations these events often involve. Each one affords the opportunity to open ourselves up to God and others in ways that give the fruit of the Spirit a chance to grow. My sacred accidents, then, are a surprise only to me. They are part of God’s plan all along.

06.  Sidebar

Accidents often happen on their own (e.g., a lightning strike incinerates a TV set) but can also result from the slackening of our safeguards (e.g., I forget to mount a lightning rod on my house). The following ways to increase the odds of having a sacred accident include elements of both:

  1. Stop talking: I am in control as long as I’m speaking. Control is the enemy of the accidental. Start listening, and things will get dangerous.
  2. Cross lines: Staying only within my normal network of peer relationships lulls me into an under-challenged state. Find someone half your age, for example, and ask for help with something he understands (like technology or pop culture) that perhaps you don’t.
  3. Carry a camera: When I bought my digital camera, everything started to look like a photograph. The device gave me perspective somehow. And it’s amazing how often the “God’s eye view” of a sign, a person, or even the simplest object will show up in the viewfinder.
  4. Take chances: Walking only the paths that are familiar to me may be comforting, but it also creates ruts. Start a neighborhood Bible study, mentor a sixth-grader, or plant a church, but do something that carries real risk.
  5. Be disciplined: The classical disciplines are where we find the grace to take the kinds of chances that can lead to sacred accidents, as well as the divine perspective that integrates them into our lives in a formative way.


Earl Creps is the director of doctoral studies for the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri ( He is the author of Off-Road Disciplines: Spiritual Adventures of Missional Leaders, a 2006 Jossey-Bass/Leadership network publication. You can connect with Earl at: