The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us From Drowning
:A call for Christians to move past doctrinal tensions and denominational disagreements and into a deeper, more vibrant, beatitude-like faith rooted in sacred practices and intimate experiences with God. When a myriad of tense conversations about ideological differences...
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:A call for Christians to move past doctrinal tensions and denominational disagreements and into a deeper, more vibrant, beatitude-like faith rooted in sacred practices and intimate experiences with God.
When a myriad of tense conversations about ideological differences in the Church left him feeling spiritually empty, Niequist determined God must have a different vision for worship and community.
In his search, Aaron discovered that there was historical Christian precedent for enacting faith in a different way, an ancient and now future way of believing. He calls this third way "practice-based faith."
This book is about loving one's faith tradition and, at the same time, following the call to something deeper and richer. By adopting some new spiritual practices, it is possible to learn to swim again with a renewed sense of vigor and divine purpose.
AARON NIEQUIST has served as a leader at some of the most influential churches in the country. In 2014 he launched a neo-liturgical, practice-based form of church that operates out of Willow Creek in Chicago. He also helps to run 'A New Liturgy' and 'The Practic'e podcasts. Aaron and his wife, bestselling author Shauna Niequist, live in the suburbs of Chicago with their two sons.
Chapter 1: Losing My Religion and Finding the Kingdom
On an otherwise-normal Sunday morning in 2002, as I prepared to lead worship at my church, it dawned on me that I didn’t believe the words of most of the songs we’d be singing. In fact, even though I was a full-time employee of a large evangelical church in the Chicago suburbs, I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in Christianity anymore. Somewhere along the line, between being saved in elementary school and joining the staff at a church, my faith had stopped working. Like a car with a seized engine or an air conditioner that blows only warm air, my life as a Christian had run its course. An observer might see all the right pieces there, but something was uncomfortably absent.
For years I thought Christianity was fundamentally about three things: believing the correct things about God, saying a magic prayer to obtain eternal security, and not doing any of the fun things your friends are doing. It felt like growing up in a small pond that was perfectly safe for beginning swimmers. But once you grew a bit, you began stubbing your toes in the shallows and dreaming about oceans.
I was raised in the Plymouth Brethren faith tradition, a “conservative, low church, nonconformist, evangelical Christian movement whose history can be traced to Dublin, Ireland, in the late 1820s.” I experienced it, like any tradition, as a beautiful and messy mixed bag of gifts and disappointments that shaped me deeply. But my overarching reflection is that our church failed to recognize that we were connected to the River of God’s kingdom. Instead, we thought we were the one true pond.
This pond was a beautiful place to begin a faith journey. But as I became aware of the larger church and larger world, I started bumping into other realities and versions of the story that didn’t fit neatly into our still waters. I was exposed to different ways that Christians throughout history approached Scripture. I encountered a more Charismatic understanding of the Holy Spirit. I discovered that God was not an American—and not even a Republican. I learned that faith and science were not opposites. I got to know Catholics and was scandalized to discover that they, too, were Christians.
This was an exciting yet destabilizing season. I was thrown off balance because my early Christian training convinced me that anything outside our small pond of Plymouth Brethren beliefs and traditions was wrong. We were the center, and everything else was judged as off center. Instead of teaching us to be curious, they taught us to critique. Instead of teaching us to learn from other people of faith, they taught us to protect ourselves from being led astray. Instead of helping us discern and sift the wheat from the chaff, they trained us to defend ourselves against anything that fell outside our circle.
I wish my early tradition would have seen my search and said, “Yes! Keep exploring! Go! We’ve given you a foundation. Now let it sweep you into the bigger River. Keep growing and learning and building.” Instead, church leaders inadvertently communicated, Nope. We are right; they are wrong. We are inside and have all the rightness; they are outside with none of the rightness. Stay with us or fall away from the faith.
So for the first twenty-five years of my life, I stayed in the small pond. I wanted to be a good Christian. I loved the people in this faith community, and they loved me. But eventually, from the inside out, my faith began to crumble. And I found myself at the crossroads that so many other people have stood at: Should I double down on a faith that no longer works or abandon the whole thing?
Maybe you have asked this question. Maybe you’re asking it right now. Your pond may feel very different from mine, but the ache for more is universal. No matter how good and whole your experience has been, the River is deeper. The Current is stronger. And you were made to get swept up into the fullness of its flowing goodness. Could this be your moment?
Increasingly in the polarized time we find ourselves, it can feel as if we have only two choices: give in or give up. We can turn off our hearts to stay where we are, or we can break our hearts by walking away from faith entirely. Friends, these are terrible choices. And thankfully, they are not the only options. But I know firsthand the claustrophobic pain of not being able to identify a third way.
So there I was in my midtwenties on a Sunday morning. I was standing backstage at my church, filled with dread as I prepared to put on a fake Christian smile and rock the house once again. Let me state the obvious: it’s pretty awkward to urge people to join you in singing songs you no longer believe.
This season of losing faith was dark. I didn’t feel angry as much as sad—and profoundly lost. Very quickly I slipped into a numb sort of despair.
Most often, the despair came out sideways. My disillusionment with faith spread to a disillusionment with just about everything and everyone else. Rather than grappling with the terror of feeling the ground disintegrating beneath my feet, I mostly just poked holes in everything else. Everyone was stupid. Everyone was fake. Everything was a lie. This was essentially a matter of self-protection. If I could remain focused on how everyone was wrong, I wouldn’t have to wrestle with the terrifying reality of my own wrongness. But in quiet moments, the unwelcome whispers of the faith I had lost sneaked through my cynic’s armor, and in those undefended moments, I felt truly defenseless.
The Christian story was the wallpaper on nearly every room of my memory—framing every day of my life. I didn’t know how to move forward constructively without it.
I’m not the only person who has felt that giving in or giving up were his or her only options. I needed to find a third way, and I have a hunch that if you’re with me this far, you’re looking for a third way as well. Jesus called it the narrow road that leads to life (see Matthew 7:14).
You will never settle for a small version of the story, but you’re not willing to give up altogether. Thank God. Or maybe you have found a third way and are looking to move more deeply into these streams. In either case, it’s possible to take a new path. But it’s very difficult to take the path alone.
A New Way Forward
Thankfully, my parents and a few close friends weren’t afraid of the doubts and questions of my midtwenties. In fact, a few of them moved closer to me in my dark season. (This is not normal. Many people express their doubts, only to get kicked out of the community. I am profoundly grateful for such a loving family and for safe, patient, and wise friends.)
A friend named Chris—a musician in my band who would go on to become a brilliant theologian—gave me a life-altering book. Possibly without realizing it, he was saying, You’ve been trapped in one small pond for a long time, and you’re drowning. But there’s a bigger and better River out there! Here’s an invitation into an entirely new way of being. Chris handed me a copy of The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.
I remember the morning I read chapter 2, “Gospels of Sin Management.” I was sitting on a fake-wood floor, leaning against a fake-leather couch, when God used Willard’s writing to open my eyes to a reality that I had never before heard: the kingdom of God. I learned that Jesus was inviting us not primarily into correct beliefs, eternal destinations, or behavior modification but rather to participate in a living, eternally present reality. Through Christ, we get to join the redemption and restoration of all things. God has not given up on the world. Instead, God invites every one of us—in the way of Jesus and through the power of the Spirit—into the divine conspiracy of overcoming evil with good.
Although I had been a Christian most of my life, this was the first time I had heard teaching on the subject that Jesus devoted most of his teaching to. Jesus’s primary message in the Gospels is the kingdom of God, but for some reason my tradition had avoided the topic entirely. How could we have missed Jesus’s core message?
At first I felt regret and frustration, but these quickly melted into gratitude for the possibility of a new way forward. This is such good news!
As my heart pounded and my vision blurred with tears, I sat on the floor where I had been reading and prayed over and over, “God, if this is what you are up to in the world, I’m in. If this is who you are and what you care about, I’m in. God, if you can use someone like me, in all my doubt and brokenness, I’m in.”
And like a good evangelical, I was born again…again.
Learning to Swim
The first few months after being awakened to God’s kingdom were full of passion, gratitude, and almost-nuclear energy. Like discovering a treasure buried in my backyard, I had found what was missing, and I threw my whole self into trying to live it out. But while the conversion exuberance carried me for a while, I began to notice that my old tools were no longer fit for this new journey. The skills I relied on to swim in the still pond didn’t help me in the raging River. The old wineskins were never meant to hold new wine.
I had finally been drawn into the great Eternal Current that has been flowing throughout history, and I wholeheartedly said yes to Christ’s invitation to get into the water. But I didn’t know how to swim. I didn’t know what to do on Sundays or in my life. My mind had been converted, and my heart was burning with devotion, but I didn’t know how to live into it.
So I began exploring.
The years following my spiritual awakening were both glorious and tumultuous, exciting and disillusioning, heart expanding and heartbreaking. The search led me more deeply into myself, and it nudged me outward into corners of the Christian faith that previously would have felt dangerously off limits. My heart had been seized by the mighty River of grace that is good news to all people, and I was going to either learn how to swim with Christ or drown trying.
Worship Beyond Singing
This search led my wife, Shauna, and me to Michigan, where we joined with a young pastor named Rob Bell at his church, Mars Hill Bible Church. Our years at Mars Hill were some of the most exciting and stretching of my whole life. It was a greenhouse for artistic experimentation, theological exploration, and discovering what the kingdom of God could look like in an actual time and place. We read books that blew our minds, heard sermons that ignited our hearts, and walked closely with a small group of Jesus followers who will forever frame the way we think about community.
As a worship leader, I tried to align the Mars Hill community with the bigger story, but I quickly discovered that my normal approach was woefully inadequate. Four rock songs and a hymn fell far short of the depth and width of the kingdom vision that animated us. It was like trying to paint Van Gogh’s The Starry Night masterpiece using only two colors. And so we began to experiment with different forms, practices, and ways to worship. Fortunately, my ministry partner, Troy Hatfield, had been on this journey for many years. He had a huge influence on all that we learned and discovered.
In the same way that God expanded our corporate worship forms to embrace the bigger story, God did the same thing in my soul. Four rock songs and a hymn no longer cut it on Sundays, and my personal spiritual practice began to fall short as well. It was in this season that I heard about contemplative Christianity, and I practiced centering prayer for the first time. I learned about the Jewish roots of our faith and began to see the Scriptures in a new and more vibrant light. Rob Bell’s teaching also exposed me to the deep connection between spiritual health and emotional health, and we explored practices that helped us become not just better Christians but, I hoped, better humans.
As my internal world was being reshaped and reformed, I learned that God was inviting me outward into the bigger world that God was reshaping and reforming. I didn’t always live it out well, but this season was the first time I saw contemplation and activism come together in one community. The deeper we went inside ourselves, the more we felt propelled into the messiness of the world. We didn’t have to choose between being exhausted activists and being isolated contemplatives. Instead, we caught a vision for swimming with Christ in a life of contemplative activism. I will always be grateful for Rob and the Mars Hill family.
In these formative years, both as individuals and as part of a church community, Shauna and I discovered that God’s Eternal Current is deeper and grander and more beautifully powerful than we knew. This understanding brought us face to face with our inability to swim well in it. Four songs and a hymn in worship could get our feet wet, but we had to move beyond singing if we were to enter the flow and swim. My personal practice of reading the Bible and journaling was a helpful foundation, but it could take me only so far. Thankfully, God’s grace drenched us as we stumbled and splashed around with new (old) practices and worship forms. I couldn’t wait to see what was around the corner.