When I was at seminary two decades ago, “spiritual direction” was a new trend. Many of us thought that it was the greatest idea we’d ever hit upon, particularly for those who had grown up around very prescriptive approaches to faith.
Spiritual direction, we learned, was like midwifery: A midwife cannot create life or control it. She can only encourage it to fruition and be present to the miracle that is already happening in someone else. In the same way, spiritual directors facilitate growth but aren’t responsible for it. Both the director and directee are in a listening posture, waiting on the Spirit for discernment and attending to the life that God is growing within.
This midwife-to-mother relationship was located, we thought, in the upper atmosphere of spiritual maturity and sought after by believers who were really striving to attain deep faith. We were all talking about it, reading books about it, and wondering where on earth to find a highly trained spiritual director.
Through twists and turns of God’s will, my husband, Matt, and I found ourselves in Scotland immediately after completing seminary at Regent College. Matt went to serve as a pastor and I went to study John Calvin, but it was there in that Calvinist land, where no one had even heard of that suspiciously Catholic term “spiritual direction,” that Matt and I began learning about the real thing. While we were homesick, lonely, and facing the financial and emotional insecurity of undertaking my PhD, the idea of “spiritual direction” suddenly tumbled from its high place in the upper echelons of spirituality and landed in our laps in a new guise: everyday friendship.
We had a small group of friends who would get together on a regular basis with small dinner offerings and carefully hoarded bottles of wine. We would share deeply about the struggles of marriage, the pressures of our work upon our spouse, the cost to our kids. We swapped child-raising insights. We watched the World Cup together. But we also cried in front of each other. We walked with one another, saw God at work in each other, and reflected that back to each other where we saw it.
Matt and I had some nights where we were disagreeing so intensely that we would call one of these couples and ask if they would be present as we fought—not to take sides but simply to walk with us into the dangerous territory of confrontation. Our friends would offer little to no counsel. They’d simply ask questions, listen, and pray with us. I should make note that these were not necessarily people with whom I had felt an instant kinship, but through the ordinary sharing of our lives, we grew deeply together and “directed” one another spiritually.
As Matt and I grew in kinship with this community, I finally began to understand that spiritual direction should be happening mostly between friends, spouses, parents, and children. In other words, spiritual direction isn’t for “deeper” Christians, as the ongoing trend seems to suggest, but rather for all God’s people. While I will be the first to recognize the gains of having a certified director, most spiritual direction can (and should) take place in the unstructured context of friendships and marriages and everyday relationships. What defines “spiritual direction” is the mutual commitment to a listening posture—looking for where the Lord is at work in the details of everyday experiences.
In Scotland, this quotidian approach to spiritual direction was key not only to our conception of discipleship. What surprised us most was that it also became the anchor for local evangelism.
Often, pastors want nothing more than to escape mundane conversation and turn discussions toward the “real” spiritual stuff. But in a rural parish in North Scotland, one of the greatest gifts of being a pastor is that most of your time is spent ministering in the context of ordinary life. People want to talk to you about their children’s report cards, their Aunt Mary’s bunions, this year’s lambing, or that dreaded topic, the weather, which changes 100 times a day in Scotland. In other words—the way to their hearts is through small talk.
No one came to the outreach events we initially hosted, the bouncy castles we rented, and the potlucks we advertised. So Matt started donning his Church of Scotland clerical collar and went door to door in our little farming community. He was welcomed into homes by a cup of tea and spent time talking to people about the price of grain, the World Cup, their children and grandchildren. By listening to their everyday hurts and hopes, he was able to gently open their eyes just a bit to where God was already at work. Many of them had not darkened the door of our village church. But if he would ask them—as he always did at the end of a visit—where God was at work in their lives, they could tell him. They knew.
In Scripture, when Jesus wants to communicate about the kingdom, he talks of rebellious children and thieves, pesky weeds and farmer’s fields, investment strategies and sheep. In the same way, these “small talk” conversations that happened in homes all around our parish became doorways to evangelism and discipleship.
Although we’re stateside now and ministering in a small, rural church in Washington State, we see these same patterns. Here, too, committed friendships and small, mundane conversations are becoming the building blocks of spiritual formation and kingdom work.
“If we bully people into talking on our terms, if we manipulate them into responding to our agenda, we do not take them seriously where they are in the ordinary and the everyday,” writes Eugene Peterson in The Contemplative Pastor. “Nor are we likely to become aware of the tiny shoots of green grace that the Lord is allowing to grow in the back yards of their lives. If we avoid small talk, we abandon the very field in which we have been assigned to work.”
Peterson goes on to say that humility “means staying close to the ground (humus), to people, to everyday life, to what is happening with all its down-to-earthness.”
The gospel message bears out this truth. It says: God knows us. God pays attention to us in the minutiae of our lives. He is more deeply present to us than we are to ourselves. Accordingly, we don’t necessarily need a new program or a new spiritual director but rather eyes to see the many ways that God is beckoning us to himself. Perhaps if we understood evangelism to be precisely this—opening peoples’ eyes to the God who is already at work, already calling them, already present—then we could kick outreach (like spiritual direction) off its pedestal and embed it into our daily lives and relationships.
In a world that suffers from isolation, offering friendship and listening attentiveness might give our neighbors a more embodied encounter with the gospel than they’ve ever had. It just might save them. And it will certainly save us.
Julie Canlis is the author of A Theology of the Ordinary (2017) and Calvin’s Ladder (2012), winner of a Templeton Prize and a Christianity Today Award of Merit. She collaborated with her husband, Matt, on the documentary Godspeed.