Leader to Leader, Leadership

A Physical Spirituality

March 14, 2017 | Posted by Ken Chitwood

The other day over dinner a friend of mine turned to me and asked, “Why aren’t Lutherans more physical in our spirituality?”

The conversation had turned to the tangible practices of Catholics, Pentecostals, and others that generally engage their body much more in the expression of their faith than Lutherans appear to.

And then someone made their desires known. They laid bare their heart. They asked me — a pastor — to provide for their spiritual needs…in a tangible way.

It is often assumed that along with the Protestant Reformation came a wave of modernist sentiment that drove a hard line between the spiritual and the secular, the ephemeral and the earthy, the theological and the material.

To a sense, this is absolutely spot on.

Lutherans fit smack dab into this historical tradition. Yet, there are still some very physical, material, and embodied aspects to our spiritual heritage. That’s not only acceptable, but should be celebrated.

And, for people like my friend who yearn for a more hands-on experience of their faith, it would behoove leaders to foster an environment where the human body is actively engaged in spiritual practice and discipleship.

Indeed, far from being a carnal, lowly, thing, the body should be celebrated as a prized feature of God’s creation (see Genesis 1-2, Psalm 139, etc.). It is in some sense the most wonderfully complex created matter in the cosmos.

As leaders, we would do well to implement new or emphasize existing, material, physical, and tactile elements of our worship, study, discipleship, and outreach programs.

In “Learning Styles: Reaching Everyone God Gave You,” Marlene D. LeFever encourages educators and leaders to adjust their teaching and leadership practices to better match the learning styles and modalities of all the people God entrusts to them. These styles include the imagination, analysis, common sense, and dynamic learning.

The modalities are auditory, visual, and tactile/kinesthetic — someone who needs physicality and movement to learn and grow.

This may make our job more difficult. LeFever wrote, “learning styles force us to rethink how we teach and adjust to the way God made people — not the way we used to think He made them or even the way we wish He had made them.”

Still, it’s worth it. While there is no solid statistical data to back this up, anecdotal evidence from my own field research — and the experiences others have shared — shows that many individuals who grew up in Lutheran churches and later leave often still share in some form of spirituality. It often involves tangible, material, and physically engaging practices of some sort.

My question is — why wouldn’t we emphasize and engage our own embodied Lutheran traditions?

Maybe you’re with me on this. Good. Where can we begin? Here are a few ideas. I encourage you to share some of your own thoughts, practices, and disciplines in the comment section below.

In Worship:

Emphasize, and engage worshipers in, the many physical elements of Lutheran worship: the water of baptism, the smoke from the candles, kneeling/sitting/standing, the bread and wine, the physical handshake in the passing of the peace.

In Bible Study and Small Groups:

Go beyond a lecture-and-learn or share-and-discern teaching style and get people to paint their response to the Scripture. Bring in show-and-tell items and pass them around. Better yet, send them home with an object that reminds them of the study’s point or with an attached discipline or practice to implement in their spiritual walk.

In Sunday School:

Give kids Play-Doh, foil, clay, or some other moldable object to make squeeze art to tell the Bible story. Have them mime that Sunday’s narrative text. Instead of just having students memorize Bible verses, have them come in the following Sunday with objects that tell the story of the Scripture (like emojis…but real).

On Retreats:

Engage the body full here with disciplines such as fasting, walking a prayer labyrinth, carrying prayer beads, or lighting incense/candles. Instruct participants on the purpose, meaning, and proper practice of each and let their bodies sense the guidance of God in life.

In Discipleship:

Role play real-life encounters and experiences. Go beyond talking about what God is prompting us toward and how the Gospel is being made known in our lives and talk about how our bodies can be vessels — not just our words — for the good news of God in the world.

Ken Chitwood
Ken Chitwood is a religion scholar, Ph.D. student, and graduate assistant at the University of Florida studying ethnography of Religion in the Americas and global Islam with emphases on globalization, transnationalism, and immigration. Chitwood is a forward-thinking Lutheran theologian, preacher and popular speaker who weaves together historical context, societal exegesis, and a fair dose of ironic humor. He enjoys ultra-distance running, well-placed sarcasm, craft beer, bike-commuting, traveling, hiking, camping, and rugby.