04 November 2008

Spirituality and the search for meaning in contemporary, secular and post-modern society

Willow Creek Community Church: a survey last year concluded that spiritual growth doesn’t happen just by becoming more-and-more dependent on elaborate church programmes

Patrick Comerford


There was a lot of reaction and a lot of conversation in wider church circles a year ago about a report by the Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago is one of the biggest “mega-churches” in the United States. The average attendance at each of its three weekend services is said to be 20,000, and the church is listed as one of the most influential in America.

It measures up to all the American standards of success: attendance, marketing, growth, expansion, image, branding, brand-recognition, building programmes …

Last year, however, there was a lot of reaction and a lot of conversation in wider church circles following the publication of a report and survey by Willow Creek Community Church of the members of its own congregations, as well as people in congregations of a wide range of other evangelical churches in the United States.

This survey and report are said to have caused a paradigm shift at Willow Creek. Until then, Bill Hybels and the other church leaders had assumed that the more people got involved in church activities, the more spiritual growth they would experience. For many Church leaders there is an equation that more engagement with church and church activities equals more spiritual growth.

However, this survey found is that among the people who go to church at Willow Creek the equation between greater engagement in church activities and personal spiritual growth only works for those people who are relatively new to Christianity.

On the other hand, the closer members of the congregation felt to God, and the further along they were in their knowledge of Christianity, the more they felt that the church was not serving them adequately.

Many people work on the assumption that the more they get involved in Church activities – worship, community events, synods, the vestry, committees – the more they’ll grow spirituality.

But this survey challenges that equation. People don’t feel more peace, more insight, and a closer relationship with God, simply by attending or taking part in more-and-more church activities several times a week.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming more-and-more dependent on elaborate church programmes, Rather, it comes about through the age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

So what is the solution for people who want to grow in faith, but who are finding that more time at church is just not doing it for them?

The two principal pastors at Willow Creek, Bill Hybels and Greg Hawkins, were forced to grapple with the same questions, and initially offered at least two ideas.

The first is that church-goers have to let go of the idea that church is their sole source of spiritual sustenance.

The second and related idea is that church-goers need more tools to integrate spiritual practice and reflection into their lives outside the church.

But the report and survey leave many other questions that need to be faced. How can we continue to grow in faith even after we have a strong knowledge of our tradition and a sense of relationship with the divine? How can people of faith seek spiritual sustenance outside the Church, while still maintaining a sense of connection to the community? To what extent can church-goers expect a church to fulfil their spiritual needs? To what extent can a parish expect those who come to church to be continually and meaningfully engaged with the congregation?

The search for spirituality outside the Church

The British Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, in a recent programme, argued that the search for meaning must begin outside the self.

We only have to consider the number of do-it-yourself programmes on psychotherapy and self-help that people follow to help them find a meaning in life that is beyond their own personal, temporal existence. Or think about the number of people who find identity in the football clubs or the teams they support, their identity with a political cause or party, their regional identity.

Many people find meaning for their existence through the arts, through music, through literature, through poetry and through the theatre. Think of the number of people who find meaning, community and support through walking groups, in nature, or in photography.

One of the false presumptions in all religions is that the search for spirituality and the search for meaning can only be authentic when it is a religious quest. In reality, many people who live secular lives, with very few religious points, have a deeply spiritual quest, and know that they are on their own searches for meaning.

The search for the meaning of life is the age-old search, and it has no less meaning for people who are atheists, agnostics, or humanists. We live in a society that until the present economic crisis allowed economists, bankers and shopping centres to dictate our values, without taking account of our emotions or what matters in life. Everyone can be involved in seeking meaning in life and the meaningful life is not the same as the happy life.

Research shows that a majority of people in Britain, for example, say they have had significant spiritual experiences during their lives.

These experiences include:

● They sensed a benevolent patterning in events – life was not random.

● They had an experience of prayers being answered.

● They had an experience or awareness of evil.

● There were moments when they felt aware of God’s presence – whatever they may have meant by God.

● They were aware of the sacred in nature.

The great majority of these people surveyed by the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre had no contact with church. And they preferred to describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious.

In Australia, a recent survey found that while 80% of Australians say they believe in God or a higher being, only 20% attend church at least monthly. Yet, a survey has found that two-thirds of Australians feel that a spiritual life is important. Those respondents sought meaning and a sense of peace and well-being in their lives through their relationships, family, work, nature and music.

What is spirituality?

If spirituality is about core meaning, deepest life meaning, hope and connectedness, then the search for meaning is common quest for all humanity, and not confined to those who are labelled as religious.

And the search for meaning, connectedness and hope becomes more significant as people grow older people and face the possibility of frailty, disability and failing health.

Spiritual care is about helping people in their search for hope and meaning, but not just as they face issues such as grief, loss and uncertainty. Depression can often be a sign of a loss of meaning and hope.

For everyone, life is a “spiritual journey,” with challenges that continue right into the later years of life. It is a journey that searches to find meaning in one’s life and, therefore, reason for continued life and hope, living life to the full. Even as they grow older and face illness, disability, uncertainty and the inevitability of death, people find hope and to flourish.

Spirituality is about core meaning and connectedness, and it is from this that we respond to all of life. Anger, hate, love, forgiveness and hope come from this core. For many of the people we meet in ministry, spirituality may be expressed in a relationship with God or a higher being. But for others it may be expressed through family and friends, nature, and or the environment.

Although for people who have a religious faith, their religious life is part of their spirituality, when we talk about spirituality, we must be careful not to talk specifically or exclusively about being religious.

The spiritual realm is deeply related to hope and is the spark that enlivens human beings. Essential elements of spirituality revolve around a relationship with self, others and God, a sense of meaning and purpose, hope, connectedness and beliefs.

Spirituality lies at the core of each person’s being, an essential dimension which brings meaning to life. It is constituted not only by religious practices, but needs to be understood more broadly, as relationship with God, however God or ultimate meaning is perceived by the person, and in relationship with other people.

Yet, religious people often fail to recognise or accept that many people have a spiritual life without identifying themselves with a Church or having tangible religious commitments.

I imagine our culture is more open to expressions of spirituality than we are aware of in the Churches or are open to when we limit religious commitment to church attendance.

Spirituality in unexpected places

David Runcorn suggests these trends should make us aware of the following:

1, Being human is being spiritual. Life is spiritually porous, and to be spiritual does not necessarily mean being religious. Being spiritual is part of being human.

2, The spiritual seeks us, even when we do not seek it, and we cannot manage or programme it.

3, Faith and spiritual understanding keep appearing in places we least expect it. This is the Gospel story too; we only have to think of the unexpected faith of the centurion (Matthew 8: 5-13), the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7: 25-30), or the tax collector in contrast with the Pharisee (Luke 18: 9-14). In an unexpected insight into the spiritual life of people on the margins, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of them (Matthew 21: 31).

How then can we help people to work with this reality, the reality that they are having spiritual experiences and are living spiritual lives even when they are on the margins of or outside the formal structures of the Church?

How do we encourage them without threatening them, and without killing what is spiritual within them?

How do we make sure that they allow their spirituality to grow without being killed off by meaningless New Age spirituality or completely secular models of the spiritual quest?

Viktor Frankl ... wrote about the spiritual search for meaning in ways that respected religion without identifying with one particular religious expression

The search for meaning: an example from the story of Viktor Frankl

In the course of his own research, Dr Jonathan Sacks says, he rediscovered the work of the late Viktor Frankl, who tried to talk about the spiritual search for meaning within the categories of psychotherapy and in ways that respected religion without identifying with one particular religious expression.

For many people, Viktor Frankl discovered a set of truths about the human condition that he stated very clearly, and the circumstances in which he did so are utterly extraordinary.

Frankl survived three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps during World War II. But if survival in itself is something of a miracle under these conditions, Frankl did more than survive. He helped others survive. On the basis of his experiences during the Holocaust he founded a new school of psychotherapy — he called it Logotherapy — whose central idea is summed up in the title of his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946).

According to a survey by the Book of the Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search For Meaning is one of “the ten most influential books” in the United States.

Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl chronicles his experiences as an inmate in concentration camps and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live.

According to Frankl, the book intends to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”

Part One constitutes Frankl’s analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his theory of logotherapy.

Frankl identifies three psychological reactions experienced by all inmates to one degree or another:

1, Shock during the initial admission phase to the camp.

2, Apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself/herself or others to survive.

3, Reactions of depersonalisation, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment after being liberated.

Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In a group therapy session during a mass fast inflicted on the camp's inmates trying to protect an anonymous fellow inmate from fatal retribution by authorities, Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even a God, who would expect not to be disappointed.

Frankl concludes from his experience that a prisoner’s psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his/her life, but also from the freedom of choice he/she always has, even when faced with severe suffering. The inner hold a prisoner has on his/her spiritual self relies on having a faith in the future, but once a prisoner lost that faith, the person is doomed.

He also concludes that there are only two types of people, decent people and indecent people. No society is free of either of them, and thus there were “decent” Nazi camp guards and “indecent” prisoners, most notably the capo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain.

His concluding passage in Part One describes the psychological reaction of the inmates to their liberation. He recounts a decent friend who became immediately obsessed with dispensing the same violence in judgment of his abusers that they had inflicted on him.

In their first foray outside their former prison, the prisoners realised that they could not comprehend pleasure. Flowers, sudden kindness by their former guards, and the reality of the freedom they had dreamed about for years were all surreal, and in their depersonalisation they were unable to grasp them.

Even when he or she returned to “normal” life, a prisoner experienced bitterness. They felt that others were superficial and did not comprehend what they had gone through. Then they faced disillusionment when they realised that their new-found freedom did not mean the end of unhappiness. As time passed, however, the prisoner’s experience in a concentration camp finally became nothing more than a nightmare.

Frankl’s discoveries

Frank’s insights can be summarised as two key discoveries. His first discovery was that in Auschwitz you needed a reason to carry on living. If you lost that, you lost the will to live, and if you lost that will to live, you died.

The conditions in the camp were designed to break not just the body, but also the spirit. They were so dehumanising that they turned the prisoners into the walking dead.

But it was the second discovery that changed Frankl’s life with the force of revelation. The Nazis had robbed the prisoners of every vestige of humanity. They had robbed them of their possessions, their clothes, their hair, even their names. Instead they were given numbers, tattooed on their arms. But Frankl realised that there was one thing that remained that they could not take away – the freedom to choose how to respond. That one slender opening of hope in the walls of despair was all that remained, and it was enough.

Frankl saw that I have to redefine my situation if I am to stay sane. And so he persuaded himself that he was not a prisoner in a concentration camp but a psychotherapist taking part in an experiment.

This allowed him to salvage a vestige of freedom and dignity. He had found a purpose in life. He now knew that his task was to do all he could to rescue his fellow prisoners from despair. He did so by helping them to find a reason to live, a task not yet completed, work still to be done.

For one prisoner, it was completing a series of travel guides. For another prisoner, it was rejoining a child in Canada who needed him.

That sense of a mission not yet fulfilled gave many people the strength to carry on. Frankl was fond of quoting Nietzsche's remark that those who have a Why can withstand almost any How.

He tells the story of one young woman in the camp who was about to die. She was unbelievably cheerful and she explained this cheerfulness in the following way. Until her imprisonment, she had never thought about matters of the spirit. But in Auschwitz she had nothing except a tiny window through which she could see a branch of a chestnut tree on which there were two blossoms.

That branch seemed to speak to her: “I am here – I am life, eternal life.”

And she was there to experience that.

Frankl discovered that to find meaning in life we must ask not what do I need from life, but what does life need from me?

Each of us is here for a purpose, a task, and I need to accept that only I can fulfil that purpose or task that is there for me. To find meaning is to find that task.

The spiritual in Frankl’s work

There is something deeply spiritual about Frankl’s work. The self finds itself by attending to something beyond the self. Our reason to be comes in the form of that call, that summons, that vocation, that mission, that voice of the beyond-within.

Religious people call this the voice of God. But Frankl points out that you do not have to be religious to hear it.

Frankl’s writings are an antidote to today’s materialists who would reduce the human condition to biological imperatives and the human person to no more than a handful of dust.

It was his gift to be able to find, and in some cases to help create, epiphanies in the heart of darkness, fragments of Heaven even at the gates of Hell.

Finding spiritual meaning

The central core of spirituality is what a person perceives as ultimate meaning in life. Transcendence is the ability to triumph over the psychosocial, physical and spiritual challenges, moving from provisional to final life meanings, finding intimacy, and finding hope. And so continued spiritual growth and development continues until the end of life.

What brings greatest meaning to each individual is the starting point for that person. It is from this point that he or she responds to life. For example, if the person thinks of God as judgemental, then guilt may be a central feature of the person’s life, and he/she may not be able to feel hope. If core meaning comes through relationship with loved ones, it is important to recognise this, especially if there has been a loss of relationship through death or separation. Meaning is at the centre of what it is to be human, and loss of meaning can be an important factor in grief and depression and in spiritual care and spiritual growth.

The response to meaning involves reaching out from my depth to otherness and to others. If art, music or the environment is a central source of meaning to me, then I will respond to meaning through this. If God is central in meaning to me, then worship, prayer, reading of sacred scriptures or meditation may be my means of response.

Self-transcendence – the move from self-centredness to other-centred-ness – involves spiritual changes, and is a reality for people regardless of their religious and spiritual background. However, we know that not everyone can or will progress in life along a continuum towards self-transcendence. While some seem at peace and express a deep sense of joy in their lives, others experience despair. A sense of despair may lead to failure to thrive. One aspect of failure to thrive may be a lack of nourishment of the soul, or lack of love and spiritual care.


Although we live in a largely secular society, spiritual care should not be seen as an “optional extra” for anyone. The search for meaning in later life becomes more real for many people as they get older, and this search is essentially a spiritual search, with questions of meaning, transcendence and hope becoming important. The spiritual quest does not cease and is not confined to those we regard as or who consider themselves as being religious.


J. Bellamy, A. Black, K. Castle K, et al, Why people don’t go to church (Adelaide: Openbook, 2002).
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Washington: Washington Square Press, 1984, first published 1946).
P. Hughes, A. Black, “Managing the diversity of implicit religions in Australian society,” in G. Bouma (ed), Managing religious diversity: from threat to promise (Sydney: Australian Association for the Study of Religions, 1999).
Elizabeth B MacKinlay and Corinne Trevitt, “Spiritual care and ageing in a secular society,” Medical Journal of Australia 2007; 186 (10 Suppl): S74-S76, available online at http://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/186_10_210507/mac11050_fm.html
David Runcorn, Spirituality Workbook (London: SPCK, 2006).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture/seminar in the Year III course, Spirituality for Today, on Tuesday 4 November 2008.

1 comment:

Nate and Sarah said...

Thanks for making a post about this book. One of the greatest books I have read. I would recommend it to everyone regardless of your religious beliefs.