Waves forming in the ocean


January 31, 2022

Next Wave Spirituality: Thriving From Within and From Beyond

As the world continues to languish, Dr. Pamela King emphasizes the need for spirituality as a source of personal and societal transformation.


Like the turbulence in the ocean that takes place under the water’s surface before the formation of a new wave, there is a churning of a different sort in the homes, churches, and communities across much of America and in many parts of the world. The turbulence I see around me is of a spiritual nature, an unrest of the soul. Many of us are spiritually hurting and hungry. Many are lost and unmoored from sources of spiritual guidance, comfort, and strength. Others are churning with violent anger. Increasingly people report deep fractures in relationships and an undercurrent of loneliness. The sources of turbulence are many, but at much of its core there is a longing for a renewal of spirit, an unmet desire for spiritual substance and sustenance. Both in my research and in the lives of those closest to me, I see people seeking more, a transcendence and encounter with love—not love for the sake of feeling good but love that transforms us and empowers us to care for ourselves, others, and creation.

Though many religious traditions, including Christianity, have long established practices for forming people, recent focus on filling up empty pews rather than transformative engagement has resulted in an unmet need for spirituality that matters. The good news is that the churning and turbulence taking place has the makings of a powerful wave of spiritual renewal. I see this next wave of spirituality forming from two directions.

From Within the Church

In one direction, though there’s evidence of a decline in religious attendance and increased pastor burnout, we are seeing a surge of life and vitality in justice movements, community-driven organizations, contemplative practices, faith-based networks, and resources (such as podcasts and books) that ask deep, reflective questions. The Study of Spirituality in America conducted by the Fetzer Institute confirms that prosocial and civic activities are related to people’s sense of spirituality. My own research has taught me that people’s sense of spirituality involves a deep engagement with their beliefs, values, ethics, identity, purpose, and motivations.

It’s no secret that our current forms of faith engagement may not be as effective and meaningful today. Please know: I hold the highest reverence for the Church’s history and tradition. However, I believe that the great Reformers of the 1500’s would have expected us to continue questioning and reforming our practices over time. Surely, they would have anticipated that the Spirit would continue to move in ways beyond reason or imagination. We live in a day and age with new needs and new opportunities. As we seek to find our place in God’s ongoing story of love and redemption, there is a burgeoning emphasis on participating in God’s work towards a flourishing world.

From Beyond the Church

From another direction (broadly speaking), people are seeking spirituality that provides meaning beyond themselves. Humans need connection and belonging, especially during difficult times. It’s in our nature. It’s how we are nurtured. There is a yearning to be known, to feel like we matter, and to contribute. Though our mental health and wellbeing are so important, we must acknowledge that wellness dissolves into a dry well when wellbeing is focused solely on the self. When our focus is on ourselves and our own people, others suffer.

Not only do we need connection, but also a direction towards what matters and informs a good life. Spiritual practices center us in our values and promotes virtues that direct and motivate a life worth living. Spirituality not only deepens and broadens our awareness of the world, but holds us accountable to just systems and practices. Consequently, spirituality brings communion and has the potential to hold and heal a fragmented society.

Next Wave Spirituality

These two movements are merging as they begin to surface the next wave of spirituality. Both focus on the human longing to be fully alive, connected, liberated, and wholly unleashed for a greater good. While spirituality draws us into greater intimacy with what truly matters, this new wave encourages us to be accountable with those closest to us and to have a deepening sense of dignity and interconnectedness with all persons, nature, and beauty. It calls forth an evolving sense of ethics and sustains motivation to live them out.

As we all know, spiritual trends come and go. Religious traditions have long endured because of their doctrines, practices, rituals, polity, and communities. However, when these become unmalleable and lose meaning for the people for whom they were intended, religion’s greatest strengths can become its greatest weakness. I’m not advocating for “feel-good spirituality,” but spirituality that compels people out of the trenches and towards a greater purpose. People are seeking an engaging, safe space where they can be known, loved, and equipped.

What Story is Your Life Telling?

I propose that a defining element of this next wave of spirituality is our narrative—one in which we can find the essence of our identity and purpose. Our narrative must be inclusive of all persons and creation. As a Christian who understands her life in the context of the Gospel, I am convinced that the Spirit continues to work in this world. I believe this mounting wave of spirituality encompasses all of life and is based on love. I am grateful for the women and men of diverse faith traditions who are leading out of love for the greater good. We need to be mindful that even if others do not adhere to the same doctrines and confessions as we do, that our responses towards others may still enable them to be grounded, connected, and directed in love.

Just as waves calm and soothe, they can also be destructive. The pandemic, racial injustices, and social unrest have stirred the waters, creating a ripple effect of fear throughout society. Innovative, creative leaders are needed now more than ever to enable others—whether in the workplace, schools, organizations, or congregations—to live their lives to the fullest. Do not be distracted by smaller waves of self-help, optimization, and sensationalism. We cannot be daunted by waves of fear. As leaders, we want to enable our people and communities to effectively ride this wave. This next wave of spirituality is calling us towards transformation for the greater good, and requires that we can inhabit it with and for all persons.

Pamela Ebstyne King Executive Director, Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science


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