Essay / Theology

Evangelical Retreats and the Local Church

Over the past twenty years (or perhaps more) it has become common for American evangelicals to go “on retreat.” In the mid-nineteenth century if an evangelical Christian went to a monastery or retreat house they would be suspected of being Roman Catholic. Retreats were what monks, nuns and priests did, not what Protestants were expected to do. For Protestants, and especially for evangelicals, it was enough to attend church on Sunday and to live morally exemplary lives at all times, following the commandments and admonitions of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Retreats were not on the evangelical church’s radar screen.

All that began to change, at least for English-speaking Protestants, with the advent and rise of the Oxford Movement in England. Leaders and adherents of the Oxford Movement made retreats and they encouraged others to do the same (see John Tyer’s “Not a Papal Conspiracy but a Spiritual Principle: Three Early Anglican Apologists for the Practice of Retreat,” Journal of Anglican Studies 8 [2010]: 165-183). Since this time it has gradually become a very common practice for Protestants and, eventually, evangelicals to go on retreat. The practice is so common now that there are evangelical owned and led retreats. One no longer has to go to a Roman Catholic retreat house or monastery. The retreat business in the evangelical church is becoming big business.

Nowadays I often hear from my parishioners, students and other evangelicals, “I am going on retreat next month. I just really need to get away and be with God.” This is such a common sentiment, in fact, that I heard this from someone just three days ago! The general sense is this: 1) my spiritual life is lagging and it needs to be recharged; 2) my life is so hectic and cluttered that I certainly cannot recharge my batteries while staying in my “normal” life routine; 3) monasteries and retreat houses are the best places to recharge and rejuvenate a lagging spiritual life; therefore, 4) I need to go on a retreat. The reservations are made and off the person goes to be recharged and meet God again, often in some of the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this but it has got me thinking about a particular element of evangelical spiritual life: the general tendency to think of spiritual renewal as occurring best outside of our local churches. Or, to state it another way, when we feel like our spiritual life needs a boost why don’t we ever head over to our own local churches instead of away from them to parachuch retreat ministries? When was the last time you heard someone say, “My spiritual life needs to be rejuvenated, I really wish my local church had one more church service each week or month so that I could meet God intentionally at my own church as opposed to having to go on retreat.” Instead, it’s common to simply go on retreat. Local churches seem improbable places to be rejuvenated and renewed (not counting “revivals”).

For most evangelicals their local church is the place where they go on a Sunday morning (though they might also go there one other night of the week, often for some sort of children’s ministry). In fact, many evangelical church buildings sit empty from Monday to Saturday. It used to be common (at least in the southern US) for churches to have a week-long, yearly revival. These days are mostly over I think but that might have been the only week in the year when a church sanctuary was open for worship every night of the week. In all of my moving around over the years I have never once attended, worked for or saw an evangelical church that had a daily service, attempting in this way to meet the spiritual needs of their members. This, at least in part, is why many evangelicals need to make retreats since their churches are only in the worship business one day a week.

Yet, what if evangelical believers who desired spiritual renewal could attend a daily service in their home church? What if local churches became the real centers of spiritual renewal in the life of the evangelical church? What if retreats were unnecessary because the local church met its member’s spiritual needs by way of daily or, at least, near-daily worship services? I happen to attend and minister at an Anglican church that has an approximately fifty year old tradition of having a daily Eucharist. That’s right, daily. This is no small task either given the need in the Anglican tradition for a priest at each Eucharist. These services cannot be led entirely by lay persons—they call for a priest. Are these daily services well attended? Not usually. But they are done daily, nearly without fail. It is not about the numbers that attend but it is about the need for the central acts of worship (word and sacrament) to be available to the church’s membership on a daily basis. Sometimes when someone needs to be spiritually recharged they simply want to head over to their local church and hear more preaching and commune with God more regularly. Not everyone can or wants to head off on a retreat. Again, I am not against retreats but I am not a fan of evangelical churches that only provide an hour or two of worship and teaching to their members each week. The local church is the God-given and most logical venue for spiritual formation and that likely cannot be fully accomplished on a Sunday morning. So why not reach out more often? Why not provide more frequent opportunities for teaching, preaching and communion – at the church, not in someone’s home. It is high time for the evangelical church to get serious again about the role of the local church in the life of the believer. We can no longer afford to sub-contract spiritual formation out to parachurch retreat centers. It is time that the local church becomes the hub of spiritual formation and this is certainly done, in part, through frequent services open to all members of the community, presided over by those called to minister to the people of God.

This challenge, of course, also implies that there needs to be a change among evangelical church leadership – that pastors need to quit being CEO’s or once-a-week teachers/preachers and be content to be the daily teachers, preachers and doctors of souls that God has called them to be. Would many evangelical pastors be content to preach to one person on a Tuesday morning at 8:00am? Probably not but that might be what is called for should they be so bold as to open their church to parishioners during the week. Would many worship teams be content to show up on a Thursday night to lead worship for ten members? Again, probably not but this is what will be called for should the church be so bold as to seek to be a daily source of nourishment and refreshment to its members. Becoming a church that has a more regular practice of worship has its risks and its opportunities for humility but in the long run I bet the church of Jesus Christ would be better served. The question is, is anyone up to the challenge?

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