Do Evangelicals have a Spirituality?

Last week I was travelling with an evangelical clergy colleague to an event, and mentioned that I was writing something on evangelical spirituality. ‘That’s a bit of an oxymoron!’ came the immediate response, followed by laughter. Some years ago Michael Green, former Principal of St John’s College and Rector of St Aldate’s in Oxford, had a similar conversation. His response was simply ‘That will be short!’ There is a suspicion within the church that evangelicals don’t take spirituality seriously, and that for serious reflection on the spiritual life, you need to reach for other traditions. Derek Tidball expresses this perception well in his book Who Are the Evangelicals?:

Many would…question whether evangelicals have much to offer by way of spirituality. Evangelicalism appears to be such an activist faith that the essential characteristics of spirituality can too easily appear to be squeezed out.

Another perspective is offered by Gerard Hegarty:

Roman Catholic usage has come to associate ‘spirituality’ with the ‘inner life,’ or the ‘interior life,’ thus making the connection with the mystical tradition…It is not difficult to see how this sits ill at ease with the evangelical emphasis upon practical devotion having a direct influence on character and ‘good works.’

And yet, if evangelical leaders lose their vital connection with the life of God, the outward focus of evangelical activity becomes a hollow shell and loses the essential touch of grace.

Just over 20 years ago, Alister McGrath gave the St Antholin lecture on ‘Evangelical Spirituality: past glories, present hopes and future possibilities.’ He begins by recognising those evangelicals who have seen the importance of spirituality within the evangelical tradition, and quotes with approval a lecture by Jim Packer.

We cannot function well as counsellors, spiritual directors, and guides to birth, growth and maturity in Christ, unless we are clear as to what constitutes spiritual well-being as opposed to spiritual lassitude or exhaustion, and to stunted and deformed spiritual development. It appears that the study of spirituality is just as necessary for us to hope to minister in the gospel as is the study of physiology for the medical trainee. It is something we really cannot manage without.

But McGrath goes on to lament how little notice has been taken of Packer’s encouragement.

My concern is that evangelicals have not paid anything like the necessary attention to this major theme of Christian life and thought. As a result, evangelicalism has become impoverished, where it ought to be rich; it has depended on the insights of others, where it ought to be contributing to the life of the church. I wish to suggest that the time has come to throw off the cult of dependency, and move towards the development and rediscovery of spiritualities which will complement and nourish the great evangelical emphases upon the sufficiency of scripture, the centrality of the death of Christ, the need for personal conversion, and the evangelistic imperative. Evangelism gets us started in the Christian life; but spirituality keeps us going, and refreshes us along the way.

McGrath has noticed how often evangelical ordinands at Wycliffe Hall, where he was Principal, came with clear evangelical convictions, but as they were looking for patterns of life and discipleship which would sustain them, felt the need to move out of the evangelical tradition and step into more ‘catholic’ habits. He goes on to ask the challenging question: having won people for the gospel, can evangelicalism keep them?

That perceived lack of a credible, coherent and distinctive spirituality is one of the greatest weaknesses facing evangelicalism today.

(It is worth noting here the importance of the word ‘perceived’.) I wrote to Alister to ask whether he thought, more than 20 years later, the situation was any better.

There have been some good things – I think of Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard, both of whom worked within an evangelical context, and found ways of developing approaches which would be well received within the evangelical community. Going further back, we had Jim Packer, whose Knowing God is still a classic. I know how many people have found these approaches helpful.

But I’m not sure that things are that improved here in the UK. There is still suspicion of “spirituality” as a concept within evangelical circles – for example, I have often heard it said that “spirituality is not a biblical term”. That’s true, of course, but then neither is “theology”. My own feeling is that there is still some way to go.

Part of the problem is that UK evangelicalism tends (though, happily, just “tends”) to be suspicious of anything that engages the imagination (as that suggests it is fictional) or the feelings (as that suggests it is “emotionalism”, which is a definite no-go area for male evangelicals raised in a certain tradition).

I personally value Jim Packer a lot. But I find that my own reading in spirituality tends to draw on non-evangelical sources, not because I am disinclined to read evangelicals on this topic, but because there aren’t that many evangelicals writing sensibly and pastorally in the field. They seem to assume that reading the Bible is unproblematic, and is in itself an adequate approach to spirituality.  In fact, there aren’t that many evangelicals writing in the field – end of discussion. I think one of the issues here is that evangelicalism still hankers after the security of a bygone modernism, when the goal was propositional truth which nourished the mind, and hence – like most Enlightenment writers – suppressed the imagination and emotions. But things have moved on, and younger evangelicals are more alert to these matters, probably because they no longer inhabit a modernist mindset, and hence can read the Bible without having to filter it through this distorting and compromising mindet.

McGrath here cites some negative reasons why evangelicals have been less interested in spirituality than other traditions. But in his earlier lecture he mentions some more positive reasons.

They arise from a historical perspective. According to the historian Owen Chadwick, the whole notion of ‘spirituality’ as a discrete discipline originates with the French spiritual writings of the seventeenth century. In reaction to a concern with the material, these writers wanted to focus on the inner life of the soul. But this was predicated on a fundamental distinction between the material and the physical, between the soul and the body, and between the inner life of spiritual reality and the outer life of the everyday. Very often this has meant that spirituality has involved a withdrawal from the world. This kind of division and separation is one that evangelicals have rightly felt very uncomfortable with. And evangelical commitment to engage with the world by means of practical action has made the notion of withdrawal problematic.

I think there is another, perhaps even larger, reason underlying evangelical ambivalence about the practices of spirituality in other traditions. It is the focus on grace, of God’s initiative in offering unmerited forgiveness. The biblical text underlying this concern (often implicitly) is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” (Luke 18.10–14)

The Pharisee here is drawing attention to his own spiritual disciplines—disciplines which of course Jesus commends. But the tax collector has his focus elsewhere—on the unmerited grace of God. This actual leads to a certain passivity in relation to spiritual disciplines, and a lack of self-consciousness. As the Pharisee illustrates, to spend too much time focussing on what I do is to miss the point: evangelicals constantly want to focus instead on what God has done. This might weaken self-awareness and reflection on actual spiritual practices. But it has the virtue of keeping the main thing the main thing. Is this enough?

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19 thoughts on “Do Evangelicals have a Spirituality?”

  1. I think that while what God has done is indeed the most important thing, that can never be a reason for passivity. Surely we are called to respond to this and live transformed lives as a result. Spirituality is incredibly important in growing our awareness and sensitivity to God and to others and so responding to God’s grace. A certain suspicion of notions of spirituality which imply that we are earning our own salvation is justified, but it would be a tragedy if that caused evangelicals to neglect or play down spirituality when done properly and with the right focus.

  2. ‘Spirituality’ is a slippery term, which is probably why most evangelicals don’t like it. What I mean by ‘spirituality’ might be very different by what someone else means. McGrath rightly points out that it is not a Biblical word. True enough, but I think the problem is deeper – it’s a word without an agreed definition (unlike, say, theology, or Trinity).

    Don Carson wrote a piece on Spiritual Disciplines inThemelios. (He wrote a 1994 article on spirituality as well which is linked at the beginning of that article). To quote him:

    “Spiritual” and “spirituality” have become notoriously fuzzy words. In common usage they almost always have positive overtones, but rarely does their meaning range within the sphere of biblical usage. People think of themselves as “spiritual” because they have certain aesthetic sensibilities, or because they feel some kind of mystical connection with nature, or because they espouse some highly privatized version of one of any number of religions (but “religion” tends to be a word with negative connotations while “spirituality” has positive overtones). Under the terms of the new covenant, however, the only “spiritual” person is the person who has the Holy Spirit, poured out on individuals in regeneration. The alternative, in Paul’s terminology, is to be “natural”—merely human—and not “spiritual” (1 Cor 2:14). For the Christian whose vocabulary and concepts on this topic are shaped by Scripture, only the Christian is spiritual.

    I think the whole article is worth reading and I agree with it.

  3. I have two comments.

    First, my dad led me to Christ when I was thirteen. A couple of weeks later he gave me a classic little booklet called ‘Seven Minutes with God’, about how to have a daily ‘quiet time’ of Bible reading and prayer; that booklet got me going on a daily prayer discipline which has stood me in good stead for the past forty-five years. It’s a simple spirituality, to be sure, but to say that it’s not a spirituality is simply narrow-minded. And this discipline of the daily quiet time is widespread in historic evangelical spirituality, from John Newton and Charles Simeon to John Stott and Scripture Union daily Bible reading notes, to Ole Hallesby (‘Prayer’) and Bill Hybels (‘Too Busy not to Pray’).

    Second, I think one of the difficulties is that so much of the church’s tradition of ‘spirituality’ has been developed by monks and nuns for monks and nuns. More catholically minded Christians then take some of these practices (which depend on healthy doses of solitude and silence) and try to ‘make them over’ for Christians living gin families (with small children). But those practices weren’t developed for that setting and the fit tends not to be a good one. Mothers with small children don’t get up in the middle of the night to pray the night office, they get up to change diapers! Evangelicalism has tended to emphasize family life, so we’ve been rightly skeptical of spiritualities that don’t seem like a good fit in that setting. but our challenge is to find and develop approaches that do work in families.

  4. For myself my church history has been varied but predominantly charismatic, evangelical. Through out that time there was a definite sense of evangelical order and an assumption about life which I began to question and that questioning came through times of depression and despair as at that time there seemed no answers for me.( Hardship, depression and struggle was often put down to rebellion, disobedience and somehow being out of gods will and not a place where god can shape us and form us) I began praying and asking questions and amazingly got answers and so my spiritual growth began. It started with pain, struggle and disillusionment and lead me rather surprisingly to a book based on Benedictine discipline and prayer and I felt this fit me as a contemplative introvert. I remember a very well meaning person ( charismatic in churchmanship) saying that god did not want me to have depression and yet I was so conflicted as my own spiritual growth had come on leaps and bounds through it and my understanding of scripture was richer as a result. I think questioning what we hear but also having leaders that understand this is not an undermining of them but a part of someones growth is essential for healthy people and churches. Just my thoughts 🙂

    • Thank you Deborah for sharing this – as someone who has battled depression and many struggles and who remains within the charismatic-evangelical tradition I can only groan at the rotten advice you were given, it sounds all too familiar!. I entirely agree that our questioning is generally not undermining but understanding.
      Re-OP, I think ‘spirituality’ is a catch all term to describe whatever nurtures my relationship with Jesus – and
      questioning is key to that.

      • Hi Deborah and Simon – good to share your experience. I am a chronic depressive who is ordained. I would not want anyone to experience what I have, but I also know I wouldn’t have the ministry I have had I not been through those experiences. Like Deborah I would call myself a contemplative introvert, and this is the route my personal prayer life tends towards though not exclusively. I have also had the insensitive comments – one in particular insisting that I was only depressed, because there was unconfessed sin in my life. In terms of church tradition, I don’t really define myself as I find helpful things in a variety of traditions. For me, if God is at the heart of it, then it is OK. I have found some Evangelical “spirituality” quite shallow though. I’m interested in McGrath’s questioning about having won people for Christ whether they can be kept in the Evangelical tradition. I guess that depends partly on how they are led in that tradition and how open to insights from others they are. I personally have wanted more. I’ve also found the level of biblical teaching in most Evangelical churches is not aimed at me, but at those with far less knowledge of Scripture and Christian faith, which is possibly why I find some of it shallow.

        • Thank you for sharing Deborah – what has been the most helpful thing for you in juggling your spiritual life, ministerial responsibilities and depressive illness?

          • I do not have many ministerial responsibilities as I am not ordained but am married to a vicar. I do have a job, family and attend various church things when I can. I think my time in prayer, hearing god for my life as he sees the whole of me and how that all balances out. I remember going away on retreat once and my husband had started his curacy with a big thriving church. I think I went away with possibly 20 things I could have got involved with ( all quite worthy and necessary) yet after that time away I came away with a list of three, my family being the first. God knows me better than I know myself and whilst it does not look too sexy on paper 🙂 it saves me from overstretching myself and becoming ill. This balancing act is always there and can also make you unpopular if you say no or I cant manage (life is very busy and that takes a.lot of courage)

          • Thanks so much for Deborah for sharing – my wife says the biggest difficulty for her is ‘expectation on her and intrusion of family’.

        • Sarah, would love to hear what helps you get through the dark-night and how you manage to minister when in the depression?

  5. There may well be a reason that ‘spirituality’ is such a recent word. Sometimes words that in many cultures never come into being at all are in some way self-contradictory or wrong-headed. Not only do the BIible writers not use this term, I do not think they would wish to do so (because it removes God from the centre, even potentially from the picture), just as they would not use ‘spiritual’ in the present sense (because there are many spirits which are sometimes going to be at enmity with one another so how can one generalise about them under one head?).

    I thought that the excellent Alister McGrath’s book-title ‘Beyond The Quiet Time’ was precisely wrong: a quiet-time itself is precisely what all of us need (in the wake of Mott, Stott, Iwerne – and of course Jesus).

  6. It’s interesting to read some of Alister McGrath’s observations in the light of a conversation I had with an Australian Salvation Army officer, Christine Faragher, who is a specialist in spiritual direction and has written a book entitled “Other voices – exploring the contemplative in Salvationist spirituality”. Now to many the very idea in her title might seem a total oxymoron, to many Salvationists probably even more so (and I write as a Salvation Army Officer) but she argues powerfully for the need for depth of spirituality and points clearly as to how historically this has often been drawn into the Salvation Army from a variety of different and perhaps surprising sources. She cites among other things a survey carried out in 1893 (when arguably the SA was at its most evangelical) of senior Salvation Army Officers and the books they were reading and being nurtured by. Evangelical authors are present in number but so to are: The life of Madame Guyon, The Fathers of the Desert, Introduction to the devout Life (Francis de Sales), Life of StTheresa of (Cardinal Manning), A serious call to a devout and holy life (William Law), Imitation of Christ (Thomas a Kempis), Robert Barclay’s Apology. Perhaps this looking outside evangelical confines for depth of challenge and spiritual formation is by no means a new issue, but one which sadly is still the case and in itself a challenge to evangelical Christians of all traditions. Jesus after all did not call his disciples and then leave them simply to the reading of scripture; he taught them, challenged lazily accepted interpretation, engaged their imaginations and their emotions as they were formed and transformed into who he saw they could be.

  7. I think that the issue of defining ‘spirituality’ is probably a significant part in negative responses by evangelicals to the term. It has a wide range of uses, including by those who describe themselves as ‘spiritual not religious’. Perhaps if a functional definition was settled upon, it might facilitate more engagement – something like “the lived experience of a personal relationship with God”.

    Even with a biblical focus, ‘spirituality’ if conceived in this sort of way does not need to be limited to reading the bible alone. I too have come across a work on evangelical spirituality that argued that the only valid spirituality was reading the bible, and did not find this helpful. Yet the bible itself depicts Jesus practicing retreat and solitude, along with personal prayer. At the same time, such a ‘lived experience’ also includes acting with God in the world. And surely the Psalms give warrant for an emotional dimension as well.

  8. I’m interested that there is a felt need to discover or uncover an ‘evangelical’ spirituality. I am not sure why it is thought to be ‘unevangelical’ to draw on other spiritualities in the Christian church. I too was given the discipline of a daily ‘quiet time’ and consider it vital to spiritual health: but in that QT I consider myself free to read and reflect on anything which leads me closer to Christ. Surely this isn’t about developing an ‘evangelical’ spirituality per se – it should be more about how we apply evangelical criteria to different spiritualities, eg ensuring that we draw on those which are faithful to biblical teaching. This opens up a huge variety of sources for us. And yes, we do need it: the lack of evangelical spirituality failed me utterly when I was a mission partner. It was only after returning home, and having resources to hand to help me explore, that I discovered what I find the most helpful approach, which is the Ignatian way of exploring scripture in imagination as well as in mind.

    The fact that some evangelicals find this hugely suspect is because of an inadequate theology of the body. It is assumed that we are only saved in our minds. It took me some time to realise that Christ redeems and begins to transform all of our selves, including our creativity and imagination.

    • I think evangelicals do have a deep and rich spirituality – drawing on contemplation of Scripture, intercessory prayer, sung worship, experience of the Spirit, listening to God, passion for church revival & personal renewal, reading devotional material and especially autobiographies of their saints. But all these things are not evangelically distinctive and find shared experience with other christian traditions. I’m re-reading a brilliant study at the moment on the monumental Evangelical, Martyn Lloyd Jones by Tony Sargent. Lloyd Jones was largely responsible for bringing AW Tozer into the spiritual life of the evangelicals in Britain. AW Tozer was himself deeply schooled in the spirituality of the medieval mystics – and spent hours daily in contemplative prayer. Sargent suggests that it was Lloyd Jones’ rich spirituality drawn from the Puritans that gave him a soul-mate in Tozer – the Puritans disciplines and experience of God being much the same as the Mystics.

  9. In reflecting on the diverse ‘flavours’ of spirituality which are on offer outside of the evangelical tradition, I do see value in some of them with the proviso that they are biblically grounded.

    There something of New Age syncretism in the myriad of books and seminar circuits in which the exploration of the Christian cultural tradition of a specific region is vaunted as an exceptional route to accelerate spiritual development, e.g. Celtic, Afro-Caribbean, etc.

    John Henry Newman was right when he wrote that mysticism ‘begins in mist, centres on ‘I’ and ends in schism.’

  10. You are right to sound a note of scepticism about some of these explorations of spirituality and their value if not biblically grounded. However I think sometimes (particularly with Celtic Christianity, which I have had great deal of interest in for a number of years) that is as much because there is confusion surrounding what is actually being talked about. The term Celtic spirituality for instance is not synonymous with Celtic (or British to be more accurate) Christianity. Celtic spirituality encompasses a far broader range of religious ideas and thoughts, much of which is Victorian romantic invention adopted into “New Age” guises and which has no relation to Christian faith and practice. Celtic or British Christianity by contrast is about the early Church in these islands (not just Ireland & Scotland) and the way it developed, the spiritual disciplines it embraced and encouraged, largely pre-Augustine ( who did not first bring Christianity to Britain contrary to the claims). For instance in Wales there emerged a great tradition of praise poetry, soundly biblically based which many would not recognise as Celtic spirituality or Christianity though it is more authentically such than much which is peddled.
    This Celtic or British church tradition actually owes much to the Desert fathers, it was very down to earth, practical bringing the presence of God into every day, ascetic and thoroughly rooted in Old Testament and the Gospels. Of course in recent years many (including evangelicals) have laid 20th & 21st century flummery on top to produce “New Celtic Christianity or spirituality” which is not always what it seems. How the church first grew and developed in these islands amongst a non-christian culture and people can be inspiring, can help us look at how we develop as disciples today, can challenge how we do church today but it’s not a quick fix or shortcut, and neither a lot of the time is it mysticism, but it is often evangelical.

  11. Ian, this is a really interesting article thank you. I’ve been thinking a lot about these things myself lately. It seems to me that there are two ways of approaching spirituality a Evangelicals. Firstly is the Lutheran which retains the patristic link between word and Sacrament. Secondly, there’s the Reformed tradition which places Word above sacrament. Lutheranism seems to me a better vehicle for developing spiritual practices of the patristics. Lutherans often describe their spirituality as being that of the first evangelicals. Indeed Gene Edward Veith has written a book on this title. Lutheran has a rich history of spiritual writers, particularly revolving around the spirituality of law and gospel. Lutheran spirituality, like Anglican, can often resemble Catholic spirituality but the difference in my view is that where is Catholic spirituality attempts to lead the believer to walk closer to God. Lutheran spirituality doesn’t believe that the believers I can walk towards God rather God always comes closer to us. All spiritual practices are not about climbing the stairs to God but about shaping us so that we are more receptive to reach out to the God who coming down the staircase to us through faith alone. Reformed writers seem to be working on more sacramental material recently. Eg Hans Boersma who has written on the Nouvelle Theologie. Thirdly, there is Steve Brown at Key Life or Anglicans such as Paul Zahl and the Mockingbird crew, both who seem to be blending the Radical Lutheranism of Gerhard Forde, with modern Reformed thinkers. Lastly I’d point to L’Abri and their community life which blends Benedictine ideas with Dutch Reformed theology of the Christian Worldview.


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