Awakening spiritual hunger – full version
A shorter version of this article was published in issue 47 of our magazine.
Laurence Singlehurst and Trevor Withers explore how we can encourage a thirst for God.
Awakening spiritual hunger in our non-Christian friends is the unexplored great challenge that faces the church, as far as mission is concerned.
What does this mean? In a sense, once we become missional and we begin to make caring connections with non-Christians around us, this becomes relatively easy and, through Alpha, seeing people come to faith has become much easier. The hard bit is the bit in the middle – we all have lots of friends who have no spiritual interest at all, or very little, and they don’t understand enough or have enough spiritual hunger to go on Alpha.
We looked at this in some detail in 2008 Cell UK Magazine issue 38 where we highlighted the following areas as ways that spiritual hunger can be stirred:
- The effect of our prayers
- The encounter with pain
- The warmth generated by our love
- Stories, both written and verbal
- Different types of art
- Post-modern apologetics
- Prayers of spiritual seekers
- Asking questions
- God speaking through dreams
- Spiritual atmosphere in meetings
We now want to share some new insights around this area – things that we have seen and experienced over the last couple of years. But first let’s ‘zoom out’ a fraction and look at the bigger picture so we can have some sort of framework in which we understand this spiritual hunger taking place and some of the things that stand against it.
John Wimber in his book Power Evangelism tells the story of Dr Paul Hiehbert, who on returning from the mission field in India observed that a secular world view dominates Christian thinking in the West, that denies what he described as ‘the spiritual world on earth’.
The world view that Dr Paul had been working with was made up of three sections:-
- The transcendent world beyond ours
- Supernatural forces on this earth
- The empirical world of our senses
These sections included the following areas
1. The transcendent world beyond ours includes…
Other times, i.e. eternity
High god (African) Vishnu, Siva (Hindu)
Cosmic forces; karma
Jehovah, angels, demons, spirits of worlds
2. Supernatural forces on this earth includes…
Spirits, ghosts, ancestors, demons
Earthly gods and goddesses that live within trees, hills, rivers and villages
Supernatural forces; planetary influences, evil eyes, power of magic, sorcery etc
Holy Spirit, angels, demons, Signs and Wonders, gifts of the Spirit
3. The empirical world of our senses includes…
Folk sciences to explain how things occur
Explanations based on empirical observations
Theories about natural world
Theories about human relationships
What Dr Paul discovered to be our Western view excludes the middle section – the supernatural forces on this earth – and so typically gave us a two section picture rather than three:
- The transcendent world beyond ours
- The empirical world of our senses
I think this can help us to see why creating spiritual hunger has been a challenge for us where a Western world view is dominant. The good news however is that since Dr Paul’s observations, our world view has started to change, which is allowing this middle section to be restored in our thinking.
In Laurence’s book Sowing Reaping Keeping he talks about a scale of 1 to 10, and that through our love and prayers we are taking people on a journey: 10 is a place of faith, a place of surrender to the love of God, but 1 is a place with a very negative picture of who God is and of Christians:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Phase 1: Sowing 1 Phase 2: Sowing 2 Phase 3: Reaping
So there are three phases: Phase 1 which is all about learning that God is good and Christians are OK; Phase 2 which is about spiritual hunger and understanding; and Phase 3 is about responding. So Alpha is in phase 3, and making friends is phase 1, but it is the middle part, phase 2, which is really difficult.
So how can we see our friends develop a spiritual hunger so they want to go to Alpha or something similar? I think this is one of those areas which we still need to learn a lot more about and I’m hoping and praying that in the years ahead we will see coming into the body of Christ a lot more creativity that will help us to help people on their spiritual journeys.
It might be good to reflect on what we already know:
There is no doubt we have all seen people who seemed totally impervious to the Christian message change through prayer alone. Laurence’s favourite illustration of prayer is to think of a big magnifying glass. At school you might have had one of these, it was not used for magnifying objects but its purpose was to wait for a sunny day and then find one of God’s good creatures and focus the sun’s rays upon it and in a dramatic way it might blow up or shrivel. When bored with that, find the jacket of the person in front of you and burn a small hole in that, and when bored with that, focus on their neck. Now confess, how many of you did that?
So, what happens when we use a magnifying glass in this way … do we make the sun hotter? No. It is focus that makes this work, so when we pray do we make people love God more? Answer, no. It is focus that makes this work. We focus the love of God and this burns away those things that hinder the love of God and therefore spiritual hunger awakens.
Sadly pain awakens spiritual hunger, or is it sad? One of the most challenging things that CS Lewis argued was that pain, in many ways, was a gift from God because it shows us the danger, it connects us with reality. Also in a strange way it speaks to us of God, because we think of God as a God of love and He is, but He’s also a God of pain because from the very beginning God knew that Jesus would die on the cross, but in the cross and the pain was the power that was hidden from everybody.
In the story of Job we see that the devil thought that if he could create pain then Job would be separated from God and therefore he would deny God. But what the devil did not know is that God is a God who has experienced pain and therefore He is there in the midst of that pain – understanding, reaching out with friendship – and therefore many of us have actually come to faith through pain. Many of us as Christians know that some of our deepest moments with God actually were not those fantastic experiences on a mountain top but instead when we connected to God in our pain.
You and I may have some good friends who are non-Christians, and they warm to us and they warm to our God, but in the cell movement we’ve always had a picture that evangelism is something that we do by a net, it’s not a solo effort. When our friends meet other Christians good things begin to take place, in that when they see other Christians they don’t just think “Laurence is a nice person”, but “Here are lots of interesting people” and that can begin to awaken a certain amount of spiritual hunger. As Jesus said “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples that you have love one for another”.
4. Stories: the power of the printed word.
Around the turn of the last century there were a great number of Christian writers who wrote all sorts of fiction, both children’s stories and adult fiction, good stories which had some kind of spiritual content. We could see this today in the writing of John Grisham, that some of his stories have some fantastic spiritual content and this could awaken spiritual hunger. Of course, it’s not just fiction, real life stories have always touched people. Jonathan Aitken’s two books of his scandal and his story in prison could awaken a spiritual hunger in people. CS Lewis’s book Surprised by Joy in its day was fantastically effective at doing this. And now there are some new things that Christian groups are putting forward that achieve the same things. The Journeys DVDs produced by Willow Creek are being used in just this sort of way, as is the More to Life DVD from Vis a Vis Ministries. So stories, whether they are written or on a DVD, are a great way of creating spiritual hunger.
We need to be in touch with art in the widest sense. There is no doubt that theatre, music and pictures awaken something inside people. Art goes places that other things, such as rational arguments, sometimes never reach. Creation itself can do this at times; a beautiful sunset or a fantastic view can awaken spiritual hunger in people. Riding Lights, the theatre company, put on plays that help people. Some friends of ours are Christian classical musicians who put on concerts using some of the great Christian composers, and it’s amazing the impact it has. Another friend sings rock ‘n’ roll, quite well known songs, and yet sometimes in his concerts, because two of his songs have spiritual content and are about his friend Jesus, special things begin to happen.
In the old days we used this word ‘apologetics’ which means to use logical reasons why people should be Christians. In its day this was very effective but in our post-modern world the rational argument is not as powerful as it used to be – until, that is, you see it in a new kind of way. We owe a growing debt to Rob Bell who produces the Nooma DVDs. There are now quite a number of these 15-minute DVDs, in which Rob Bell puts forward compelling arguments in a very post-modern style that challenge our suppositions about God and create spiritual hunger. A friend used these recently and an atheist in his group was very impacted by what he saw. The Cell UK bookshop at www.celluk.org.uk stocks a selection which are appropriate for use with spiritually seeking friends.
According to one in five adults in the UK, prayer can change the world – a finding revealed in the latest research published by Tearfund. The survey found that in the UK 20 million adults say they pray outside of church services, that is 42% of the population. Of these, 10 million believe that prayer ‘changes the world’, while 12 million believe that prayer ‘changes what happens in my life’ and ‘changes what happens to other people I know’.
In this survey, praying for family and friends was the most common theme for prayer, so with this in mind should we not be offering to pray with people more often? Trevor belongs to a singing group for fun, it is not church connected and is a great way to get to know people outside the church. At a recent rehearsal one of the ladies was having serious back trouble and appeared to be in a lot of pain. Was she happy to be prayed for, well yes, not in front of everyone but a few days later, in her home. People are often more open than we are in this area, and as the survey shows are already engaging spiritually.
Asking the simple question “Have you ever had a spiritual experience?” can set all sorts of conversations going. Often those people who are most adamant in argument with us about our faith are able to answer “Yes” and tell their story. This is because it takes the conversation out of the ‘religious’ box and puts it in the ‘spiritual’ one. Many people do not want to be associated with anything religious but are very happy to admit that they are spiritual. We also need to help people understand that some of the experiences they have had are spiritual, and give them a Christian framework in which to understand them.
We have a great Biblical heritage of God speaking to people in their dreams. The popularity of the musical ‘Joseph’ has brought this back on the agenda. Was this something that only happened in Biblical times or could God still be speaking in this way? Our research shows that God does indeed still speak to people through dreams even in our 21st century Western world.
Again what we need to do is help people realise that God is speaking to them. It is interesting to see how dreams feature in the lives of Christians and particularly in the lives of those coming to faith. Try using this idea as a welcome question in your cell one week and see what surfaces; you might be surprised. But don’t just leave it there – start conversations with your friends about their dreams and see where it goes. If you want to take this further then Streams Ministries run training courses in dream interpretation from a totally Christian perspective.
Some things are powerful in their own right. Let’s not underestimate Christmas carol services. We encourage every church to have a ‘make the most of Christmas’ mentality with carol services and plays for children, because as we bring our non-Christian friends to a good Christmas service, who knows what could happen.
Also guest services, whether the Willow Creek model or just a good guest service that doesn’t go on too long, where the preaching does not lead to an altar call but is informative and raises questions and answers, where perhaps there are testimonies, not just testimonies that are of miracles but testimonies of people that are in pain and God sustains them. Good guest services, I believe, are an important part of our strategy.
So these are just some of the ways that we could help our friends on their spiritual journey. Let’s be bold and see what God is up to, and join with Him in seeing people’s lives opened up as they develop a spiritual hunger for the God who loves them.
The Missional Challenge
Laurence has recently been asking himself “What is the greatest challenge in helping people on a journey of faith?” We the body of Christ have recognised that through our relationships and through projects, we have to go out and love a lost world unconditionally. This is what we are called to do – to demonstrate the love and goodness of God through our actions and lifestyles, using the Cell movement and the work of our small groups. By empowering people to build relationships we create more connections with unchurched folk than we previously had, which is great news. The other bit of good news is that through Alpha and Alpha-like courses, people are coming to faith. The non threatening nature of Alpha and its step by step approach, the fact that people can participate and share their own ideas, creates a great environment for people to explore the idea of faith and make some kind of response.
So if the above is true, why are we not seeing as many people come to faith as we had hoped? This is where the missional challenge comes in. In Laurence’s book Sowing Reaping Keeping, which we mentioned earlier, he outlines three broad phases that people might need to go through. The first is called ‘God is good and we’re OK’, which is when, through our love, relationships and good works, our friends and community get a real sense of who God is and they also perceive us in a new way. Of course this is an end in itself, but it is also the first step for many. The next of the three phases is when spiritual hunger develops and when some more content of the Christian message is shared and understood. Then comes the ‘response phase’, where things like Alpha have proved to be so successful.
So let us go back to the second phase, which contains the missional challenge, because it seems that there is not currently a natural spiritual hunger in terms of Christianity in the UK. There is however perhaps a greater openness to a spiritual world which is a characteristic of our post modern culture - as suggested above, a world view which includes ‘supernatural forces on this earth’ is perhaps being restored in our thinking.
When you read the writers of old and you look at their works on revival they often describe spiritual hunger as a sense of conviction that this was the Holy Spirit at work in peoples hearts and minds, creating a sense that they really needed to know God and that perhaps they were separated from his love. So how are we going to see this take place? What creates this genuine spiritual hunger and openness?
In the parable of the sower, Jesus gives us a clue that it’s not just about hearing the Word; he talks about the good soil and people who understand and have an honest heart. We’re trying not only to help people understand the good news of the Christian message, but at the same time help them to come to a place of openness and honesty. Now this creates some real challenges for us, but here are some things that we can do:
- Prayer – we know that praying for people creates spiritual hunger, it breaks down the barriers that hold people back.
- Stories – the power of my story and your story, not just of conversion but God in life. In today’s culture, people are impacted by the reality of our experience so we must share our experiences in a natural way as just a part of conversation and of life.
- Books – giving someone a book as a present, which has fantastic relevant content, be it fiction, non fiction or biography, but carrying in some way a spiritual impact. Now here’s a challenge, as this kind of material is not as readily available as it once was, there was perhaps 30 years ago many more books that could be useful.
However, we have chosen a few at Cell UK that we think work, available through our bookshop or other online bookshops. For example many of you will have heard of The Shack which is a piece of imaginative writing that has helped to cause spiritual hunger in peoples’ lives. Letters to a Sceptic by Greg Boyd is in the form of letters between a sceptical father and his son, raising and answering a lot of the questions that people have. There are others on our website at www.celluk.org.uk, but if you have any books or materials that you think are effective then we’d love to hear of those as well.
- Events – I think we need events that we can invite people to, where they feel safe, and which perhaps can have some real purpose which our unchurched friends can share in and yet where there is a little bit of spiritual content. There doesn’t have to be a challenge to respond, it’s just to help them understand that the Spirit of God can move in this non threatening context. Traditionally our Christmas carol services have played a very important part in this, but we need to find a lot more opportunities.
One of the aspects of Hope Together (www.hopetogether.org.uk) has been to provide many more ideas that help us: passion plays at Easter; fundraising events at harvest time; and other charity or community events, perhaps where a Christian charity can share their story and therefore provide an opportunity for people to get a glimpse of what Christianity is all about.
- TV and Media – to my surprise, every now and then secular TV helps us. Ian Hislop’s series on ‘do gooders’ as he called them, was very powerful. He unashamedly chose a number of people who had a remarkable impact on our society through doing good and many were from a Christian background. Also Melvyn Bragg’s programme on the King James Bible was a powerful look at its impact. He claimed that many of the great radical changes in our society which are sometimes attributed to our secular development are actually directly linked to the impact of the Bible. It was an amazing programme delivering real spiritual impact and content.
These are just some of the ways that we could help our friends on their spiritual journey. Let’s be bold and see what God is doing and join with Him in seeing people develop a spiritual hunger for the God who loves them.
Laurence Singlehurst & Trevor Withers lead Cell UK