We live in a day when people are searching for meaning, belonging, and God. Far too many are finding no consolation or guidance in our mobile, rootless, and shallow culture. When we consider religious affiliation in this country, the largest growing group is not Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, or Pentecostals. And we certainly know that the largest growing group is not Mainline Protestants! The largest growing segment in the U. S. population when it comes to religious affiliation are those who have left all churches and are searching on their own.
I believe we should give this phenomenon some serious reflection. Why are so many people finding no purpose, meaning, and belonging in traditional churches? I would not presume to suggest that I know all the reasons for such a mass exodus from our congregations. But I believe one of the main reasons is because churches have failed in helping people to feel they belong in a changing and fast-paced world. So many of our rituals, customs, and even theological concerns simply do not “scratch where people itch.”
Now, I do not believe that the church should compromise the gospel to increase its numbers and resources. Such harlotry is beneath those called to be the Body of Christ. But I do believe it is past time for us to examine our roots and discover the richness that is in our tradition. I almost despair when I consider the depth and wisdom in the Christian tradition which has been ignored and forgotten by many in the church. From some of these voices crying out in the desert we may well find some unexpected help for ourselves and those who have given up on the church without abandoning our theological integrity.
There are many uncommon and virtually unknown heroes in the Christian faith who can help us. Many of these are women who because of their sex have been discounted by a male dominated church and world. One such woman was Mechtild of Magdeburg (1210-1280). Mechtild was an unmarried laywoman who consistently attacked church corruption. She was thanked for her efforts be being driven from town to town. Her journal entitled The Flowering Light in the Godhead is filled with wondrous images which influenced writers and artists in her time.
Mechtild was a Beguine. The Beguines have been called the women’s liberation movement of the Middle Ages. Their ranks were primarily made up of poor, unmarried women. The office of nun was closed to these women since that status required money and position in society. In a culture which offered support and safety to women only through marriage or the convent, these women joined together in an attempt to live holy, compassionate, and unfettered lives as children of God. Within time the church condemned the Beguines and ordered their groups disbanded. Nothing scares men, especially those trying to monopolize power and authority, like independent and insightful women.
Mechtild can be numbered among the Rhineland Mystics. Her insights and images are profound and numerous. One of her sayings could be used by the contemporary church in its attempt to speak to those yearning for belonging in our culture. The saying could also add some much needed depth in our own spirituality. Mechtild wrote: The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw—and knew I saw—all things in God and God in all things.
I am convinced that the church will continue to wither and people will continue to look elsewhere for their grounding and sense of belonging until Mechtild’s experience becomes its own. People need to find God in themselves, their families, their friends, their daily lives, the poor, the outcasts, the afflicted, the oppressed, and perhaps most importantly of all, the exquisitely beautiful natural world we seem so intent on torturing beyond recognition.
In a day when some in the church would restrict God’s presence and grace to their petty theologies and ecclesiastical realms, God needs a church which knows that all things are in God and God is in all things. We and all the world float in the immeasurable grace of God. And that grace permeates all of us and all of creation. A church which can help others experience this sense of belonging might be worthy of such heroes as Mechtild.