This week’s blog post is by Rev. Bobbie McKay, Ph.D., a UCC minister, author, and licensed psychologist. Rev. McKay co-created The Spiritual Health Center, NFP and conducted a research study on Spiritual Life in the United Church of Christ. Based on the findings of this study, “Spiritual Life Teams” were born and the study has been extended into the Episcopal Church, the Catholic Church and the Reform Jewish Community in the greater Chicago area, as well as to Islamic populations in New York, Illinois, and Florida. Rev. McKay currently works as Pastoral Associate in Spiritual Life at the Glenview Community Church in Glenview, Illinois.
This original study of Spiritual Life in the UCC raises two questions: (1) What are the words you associate to the words Spiritual Healing? (2) What are the stories you tell in relation to your understanding of Spiritual Healing? One Hundred UCC churches were chosen to participate in the study, selected for ethnic, socioeconomic, geographic and sexual diversity.* Approximately two thousand people from these congregations participated in the actual data gathering. The two questions raised were designed to be interactive: people were first asked to share their word associations to the words, “spiritual healing”. Then people were asked to share their stories of “spiritual healing” as they understood the concept.
The words, “spiritual healing” were selected as a means of opening the subject of Spiritual Life in a way that might lend itself to further anecdotal information. The only information given to the participants about the study included: The history of the study and the credentials of the presenters (who were defined as researchers and not spiritual healers.)
An original nine page questionnaire with quantitative and qualitative questions was developed to provide further information. People were requested to complete these questionnaires immediately after the meeting. Eighteen hundred questionnaires were completed by people in the UCC and data processed at the Center for Learning and Health, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.
It became immediately clear from the words and stories shared that a spiritual healing was “an experience of the Presence or Action of God in my life which was transforming”. In this context, the word, “transforming” meant “God becoming real in my life”. The most frequently selected word to describe that experience was the word, “peace”.
Three kinds of healing stories were shared: (1) Stories with a disease that was cured; (2) Stories with a disease present, no cure, but in which a spiritual healing took place, described as “God becoming real”; (3) Stories in ordinary life, with or without a stressor in which a spiritual healing (God becoming real) took place. The largest number of shared stories were from category #3.
In 2001, we presented our research to the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre at Westminister College, Oxford, UK. In examining their research conducted several years earlier, we discovered 30 areas of congruence between our findings. Spiritual Life, as a transforming experience in which God becomes “real”, was clearly a universal experience.
Among the most important findings from the research were the following:
- People rarely talked about these God experiences for fear of being seen as weird, crazy or too religious. But they never forgot their experiences. When retold, it was as if the experience were happening in present time with all the affect still available.
- Clergy were universally reluctant to share their God experiences, reported to be too “vulnerable” to share.
- The element of “surprise” was an important part of the experience. “Surprise” became God’s “other” name.
- People did not try to define God, but used God as the chief “actor” in their experiences.
- Over 90% of our sample reported at least one God experience they were willing to share.
- 74% of our UCC sample were female; 26% were male.
- 47% of our sample had been members of their particular religious community for over 15 years; 30% between 5-15 years, making this a very stable population.
- 91% reported their God experience had transformed their lives. The word, “transformed” meant God had become real.”
- 89% reported having a God experience between the ages of 30 and 59, with age 48 being a peak age for God experiences.
- God was always the “subject” of the experience, even though the experience happened to me.
- Tears often accompanied the sharing of a God experience: tears of depth, not of sorrow.
- Action became an important part of the experience: people wanted to take some kind of action to express the power and created energy of the experience.
- Hearing the stories of others was often a trigger for discovering my own experience.
- The Presence of God became “real” in each of the participating groups through the process of shared stories about God.
- There were no ten steps or stated programs reported to create a spiritual experience. God was the unexpected ‘surprise’ discovered in the moment. The essential spiritual question then became, ‘Where is God in this moment?’ allowing the action and presence of God to provide the answer.
- A beginning interfaith study (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) including both the sharing of prayers and God experiences revealed an amazing opportunity to discover the reality of God present in that setting.
Our qualitative data have not yet been analyzed for the wealth of anecdotal materials they contain about spiritual life. Additional research studies followed in populations of adolescents and people over the age of 70.
In 2008, based upon our research findings, I initiated a small group program to develop spiritual life called “Spiritual Life Teams”. These teams have become a powerful, spiritual voice in the churches where they are located. (See item 14 above.)
Four books have been published about this study: “Healing the Spirit: Stories of Transformation”; “Taking a Chance on God: Exploring God’s Presence in our Lives”; “When God Becomes Real: Stories of Presence; Models of Church”; “Dancing with God: A Spiritual Autobiography”. The study also appears in “Religion and Healing in America”, Oxford University Press, 2004.
George Gallup, Jr. examined our research and its results and wrote the forward for our second book: “Taking a Chance on God”. He stated, “The authors have done the scientific and religious worlds a great service in probing beneath the surface of life to give us new and fresh insight into the action and presence of God in human existence.”
To learn more the study and programs developed from the study are available on the author’s website: www.spiritualhealthcenter.org.
*Participating Catholic and Episcopal churches were selected to provide the same diversity.