streams and banks

I've just entered a new chapter in my life. I have started teaching 'spirituality' in our BAppTheol curriculum at Carey Baptist College. It's going to take me a few years to feel confident with the material - but, hey, you gotta start somewhere!

On the first day we did an exercise where students put 30 different words/phrases on the whiteboard which immediately come to mind when the word 'spirituality' is uttered. 20 years ago there would be a few empty spaces as we didn't tend to use the word. And 10 years ago you could have guaranteed that two little words would have made it onto the whiteboard: "new" and "age"! But those two words were nowhere to be found. I've spent the week since trying to decide whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Has 'spirituality' got so good that it has purged itself of harmful influences? Or has 'spirituality' got so bad that we just don't notice harmful influences anymore?

I am not sure! I guess I will find out. However I think we face this dilemma as followers of Jesus because of the image about spirituality which prevails among us today. Richard Foster is one person who has popularised it. It is the image of streams. Spirituality is like a river in which many streams - or traditions - mix and mingle and flow together.

There are any number of these streams. In one place Foster identifies six: the Holiness stream (a focus on being pure); the Contemplative stream (a focus on prayer and meditation); the Charismatic stream (a focus on the Spirit and spiritual gifts); the Incarnational stream (a focus on keeping sacred and secular together as we live in the world); the Social Justice stream (a focus on helping those less fortunate than us); and the Evangelical stream (a focus on the scriptures and sharing the gospel). A bit brief ... but that is the basic idea!

Now I confess that I find this image of the streams of spirituality to be far from convincing - both in theory and in practice.

In practice Foster's stated (and laudable!) intention to bring balance into spirituality doesn't easily happen. The tendency is for spiritually-minded Christians to hop into their kayak and find their way into the stream they prefer. "Sure - over there you can be into the Charismatic with a sprinkling of the Incarnational - but as for me I prefer the Social Justice with a hint of the Contemplative." I fear that Foster's desire for balance gets swamped by the tsunami of consumer choice. Balance too easily becomes preference. And preference always finds it hard to choose what we don't like ... and what we don't like is probably exactly what we most need.

In theory I remain unconvinced about the 'Evangelical' (not really the right word!) stream being just one of the streams in the river. This is the one which nurtures a focus on the scriptures and sharing the gospel. Is this just another stream? Really?! Surely this one is more than just a stream in the river? Isn't it more like the banks for the river? It is the one which determines the course of the river. It reaches right across the river providing the channel to include things from every stream. And it discerns what is a bit toxic and is able to divert it out of the river altogether.

My suspicion is that "new" and "age" should still be on that whiteboard - as well as a number of other words like gnosticism and mysticism. We need a clearer discernment with these words. However my suspicion is that because the Word of God can tend to be seen as just another stream in the river rather than the banks for that river of spirituality, we lose the ability to use the Word to carry out a more objective and critical discernment of what is happening. My difficulty is not so much with Foster but with those who apply Foster's image in a way he probably didn't intend. And my suspicion is that because of this there could well be much in so-called 'Christian' spirituality that isn't really 'Christian' at all. But I guess that is still up ahead of me.

nice chatting

Paul Windsor


Nick said…
Thanks Paul – interesting post – I’ve had exactly that conversation with a Christian worker in Christchurch.

The streams image itself is one that very much reflects the eclectic and anti-framework approach of our generation. Differences between Christians are almost entirely cultural. What we need (according to this kind of believer) is experience from a range of contexts that can be blended together into a mix that suits our taste (like blending tea!).

The threatening thing about the image is that it reminds us of something very true – that we are very culturally bound in our spirituality. Sometimes asking the question – ‘what has this stream got right?’ rather than ‘is their practice flowing out of their theology?’ is far more threatening to our own experience and tradition. It allows us to learn something from those that cannot articulate things in a way that we would be happy with. It says – the onus is on us to express theologically what they express experientially.

The frustration for the evangelical is that most other streams don’t even pretend to play our game – or when they do it looks pretty awkward. We reject their experience because we reject their theology – and that acts as a barrier to change for us. Perhaps a better approach is to get better at re-expressing their experience in theological terms that flow out of the gospel.

Recent church history would suggest this is precisely what evangelicals have been weak on when encountering various alternatives in the last 200 years. I suspect I could put a false theology against each of those streams – and hence protect myself from their challenge. Social justice streams can be rejected because they have been expressed in liberal clothing. Contemplative streams can be rejected because of their Roman Catholic associations.

Yet each one can be expressed in terms that I would be comfortable with. I would be incredibly helpful as a teacher to show how that the fruit of each is not a forbidden fruit – but fruit that can come out of a deep grounding in the gospel.

I do have a caution though. If we focus on outcomes (such as a focus on prayer and meditation) and detach that from the theology that drives us to it – we end up missing the point that a whole range of theologies may drive us to the same outcome. We can unwittingly change theologies because we admire the practise of another person. The evangelical must surely stop well short of that. I admire the Dalai Lama’s humility and contentment – but it comes from a very different gospel, which robs Jesus of his uniqueness and supremacy.

It is interesting on university campuses that we often get lumped together in chaplaincies – because we’re basically all religious types and the outcome the university expects from all of us is good deeds and emotional support for students. The challenge for the evangelical in that context is to insist that we are not simply one stream of spirituality amongst many – but a spirituality that flows directly out of an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus who will return to judge the living and the dead. That’s not an experience or framework that many want to stand for.

Nice chatting…

Tastewise! said…
Paul interesting to see your involvement with teaching spirituality. I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that this is something similar to spiritual formation as approached by catholics and some protestants.

In my current presonal quest to read about truth from multiple perspectives I recently read J P Moreland's work Kingdom Triangle, and was impressed with his multifaceted focus on recovering the Christian Mind, Renovating the Soul (i.e. spiritual formation), and Restoration of the Spirit's Power. Many authors champion one of these only. At the end of the book is a recommended reading list of many books, which narrows down to if you only read one book then read Dallas Willard's Renovation of the Heart.

This I will do - and it is the first book I have approached on the topic of spiritual formation and at page 73 to date seems like it will prove stretching and helpful on my journey - again wholistically embracing transformation of body, mind, soul, and spirit.

From the sound of your comments I am pleased I did not pick Fosters work to read.

David B
Sean said…
Hey Paul, good to see you teaching this course! I think you'd really enjoy Erwin McManus' recent message on John 10:1-18 available at (or on ITUNES). He refers to himself as a "mystic" which he admits is not the best word, but he still likes it.

Willard's Renovation of the Heart is still one of the best "spiritual formation" books around. But I have more charismatic tendencies within the banks of evangelicalism...

Paul Windsor said…
I am deeply grateful for these comments. I have dabbled in JP Moreland (but Kingdom Triangle is new to me) and Willard (with Renovation unreturned to me from a student at the moment!) and McManus I will have a listen to...

On the Word as the banks of the river ... I find that the Word makes very wide rivers. It is fresh understandings of the Word that has taken me into things Charismatic and Contemplative and Social Justice etc. The Word has made me a broader person, not a more narrow person. I must be one of the few people in NZ who find 'Evangelical' to be an expansive and inclusive and thrilling word. But it also helps me see that we live in a delta world where there are lots of rivers going everywhere. We need to be discerning.

On Foster ... I am a few steps back from being dismissive. I think there is a gap between what he says/intends AND how he is perceived ... and an image like 'streams' with its limitations does help nurture a misunderstanding.
Nick said…

Peter Adams is a good read on this:
Andrew Butcher said…
Thanks Paul - an excellent post. When we speak of spirituality in the context or your classes and in churches we really need to talk of Christian spirituality. It reminds me of a comment I heard British theologian John Webster make at a conference recently about how we speak of the Trinitarian God. Even if we start talking about that God in terms of the Holy Spirit we need to continue onto God the Son and God the Parent - our talk of Spirit needs to be within a proper doctrine of God and our talk of spirituality needs to be a spirituality that always returns us to that God.
In defence of Richard Foster, I heard him speak at the TSCF conference in about 1995 or 1996. I found his approach really helpful, although in reflection I guess I never really questioned that the Bible was the banks of the river. But evangelicalism isn't really quite the same as believing the Bible - it is a particular approach to it, too. At the conference I realised that I had been strongly influenced by the evangelical and social justice traditions, to the exclusion of most of the rest. It encouraged me to explore more, and led to a practise of meditation, a year when I fasted every Tuesday and learnt heaps doing so, and to a very conscious practise of simplicity - things which I see as coming out of the contemplative and incarnational streams. I've yet to learn much about holiness or charismatic practise.

I guess you could take Richard Foster's ideas and use them to develop yet more pick and mix spirituality, but that certainly isn't what he wants. He encourages people to form accountable small groups where you are expected to consciously seek God through all of the modes he identifies, and for many years I carried a card outlining the six streams and reflected from time to time on whether I was paying attention to all of them.

He also encourages us to seek things that our tradition have largely forgotten, like the practise of spiritual disciplines other than the quiet time.

People may well take his ideas and use them to justify their current existence or even to drift away from God, but taken as a whole I have found his approach stretching and enlightening.
Paul said…
It sounds like you have absorbed Foster in the manner I'm sure he intends - as you seek to add some depth and breadth to your spiritual practices. An important 'comment' to make with this post...

I belong to the generation who found his much earlier Celebration of Discipline so revolutionary. I think my concern is not so much with Foster - but with the way a metaphor - the 'streams' - that has its limitations (as all metaphors do) is applied in people's lives without careful thought, leaving "the word" in a diminished role as one option among many.
Anonymous said…
thanks Paul for your comments on Rhema. Ours womens bible study group have just finished this study. It produced a lot of lively discussion and your comments will shed some light on why we were struggling with the content. Patty
Malcolm said…
Hi Paul

In case your are interested. Two books on this issue which I have found helpful (if you don't already know them)

"Hearing God's word: Exploring Biblical Spirituality" by Peter Adam (part of New Studies in Biblical Theology series edited by Don Carson)
"Stirrings of the Soul" by Michael Raiter (This one might not be know well outside Australia. It can be found and ordered through

I think you are probably leaning in the same direction as these guys in your "In theory" comment
Paul said…
Ah, Malcolm - thanks for taking the time with this. If any of my students get this far in these comments they will smile.

Let me tell you about an assessment which some of them are doing. Because I find marking Book Reviews so incredibly boring I like students to have a 'creative critical conversation' with a pair of books.

With this class they can choose from one of three pairs of books.
Pair #1 is Mike Raiter (Stirrings of the Heart) and David Tacey (The Spirituality Revolution). Pair #2 is Peter Adam (Hearing God's Word) and Tony Jones (The Soul Shaper). Pair #3 is David Wells (Above All Earthly Pow'rs) and Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz).

There you go - in the words of poker (oh dear!) - I've seen your two and raised it with four more!!

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