Forging a New Path: An In-Depth Interview with Rebekah Simon-Peter

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When do things go back to normal? How do we get people (back) to church? How do we do more with less? Rebekah Simon-Peter calls us to the next normal as she explores what it means to invite people to church as spiritual community and to do more with less.

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Jessica Anschutz: In Forging a New Path, you raise three persistent questions asked by people in the church in recent years, and these are the questions I heard as a parish pastor. When do things go back to normal? How do we get people back to church? How do we do more with less? Rather than going back to normal, how can church leaders embrace what you call the “next normal”?

Rebekah Simon-Peter: I think the first thing to remember is normal wasn’t so great. In 2019 we were already worried about stuff. We were worried about how churches were going to make it and the finances and where were the young people. All that stuff. So, I get the wanting to go back to normal. Who doesn’t want to shake hands and sort of forget that the pandemic happened because it was extremely disruptive and still is. But I do think we need to embrace the next normal because, when we look at the history of the church, there’s always the next normal. Look at the history of the world. We never go back. There’s always the next normal, and so I think orienting ourselves towards the future instead of some glorified past is really the way for us to go.

What I see is that people have already been telling us that church wasn’t working for them. One of the things that really hurt during the pandemic was when churches were deemed nonessential. Shutting the doors of the church was really, really hard. I get that not everybody did, and I get why those decisions were made. I think it was really hard in great measure because people already had been telling the Church you’re not essential. They told us that in 2019; they told us that in 2009; they told us that in 1999 and 1989. So embracing the next normal is really about paying attention to what folks have been telling us. If we’re spiritual but not religious and the church is only offering religion, how can the church do spirituality? Hint: it’s not that hard.

We have so many resources — it’s our foundation. Embracing the next normal is really about looking towards what does the future hold for us, how do we put into place positives and how do we put into place things people have already been telling us they want instead of trying to scramble back to something we knew wasn’t working.

Jessica Anschutz: I think you rightly emphasize our need to embrace spirituality and to feed people who are hungry and longing for greater connection. How can church leaders infuse ministry with spiritual formation?

Rebekah Simon-Peter: Instead of looking at the Bible as a manual of right living and do’s and don’ts, cast a different filter and see it as “Wow. Look at all the ways God interacts with humanity.” That’s our first resource and, when we reframe what the Bible has to share with us and what it has to teach us, every single experience in the life of the church can take on spiritual formation when we use the Bible in a new way.

So, the first thing I would say is understand the Bible as a record of spiritual experiences. In that sense, it’s not a closed canon. I think about how I came to Jesus. I was in the Orthodox Jewish community. Jesus came to me in a vision, and it was “I love you and I understand you and I accept you” — me, in my particular context. In that way, the Bible is not a closed canon. It’s a hint of things to come.

In every moment that we meet, we could tune into the spiritual experiences that are there in the pipeline as a jumping off place, not as prescriptive instances of the only way God could speak to you or talk to you or the only way you could respond to God, but as descriptive as that idea generator. Say things like “I wonder how God’s going to speak to you today.” Our church council meetings, our board meetings, could take on brand new vitality. Introducing the Bible as a record of spiritual experiences into the different ways that we meet and gather is one way that spiritual formation can be brought into the life of the church.

Another way that spiritual formation can infuse the life of the Church is by taking the kinds of studies that we have and bringing a new quality to them. We don’t need to start from scratch and wipe everything out that we’re doing, but this idea of infusing spirituality. The four questions that go with the Covenant Group Model — How is it with your soul? Where have the challenges been? Where have the joys been? What would you like to be held accountable for? — could you imagine starting church council meetings with that? Wouldn’t that be different? Or Bible studies with that? That would be absolutely amazing to have those kinds of questions frame our time together because it gets right into our lives and where God is present in our lives.

Jessica Anschutz: And I imagine the revival that could come out of that work. What steps would you encourage folks to take so that it can be our future?

Rebekah Simon-Peter: In the program, “Creating a Culture of Renewal,” we always say that renewal begins within. You really can’t lead people farther than you’re willing to go. So, by necessity and by definition, church leaders would begin to work on their own spiritual connection and look at being with Jesus rather than doing for Jesus. So that’s the first thing. What are the leaders doing? Can they engage in those accountability groups and have accountability partners and talk about how it is with their soul?

And then the next step that I would take is to begin to introduce it in worship. One of the simplest ways to do it in worship is to set the expectation for people every week that “God will be speaking to you today. Listen for how Jesus is prompting you, pay attention to what the Spirit might be saying to you.” Set the expectation because people rise to the expectations you have for them. So, set the expectation and expect God to be delighted, “Oh, good. Finally, they’re talking about and creating space for me!”

The second thing I would do after setting that expectation intentionally, joyfully, and regularly is to create quiet spaces in worship. A lot of times during quiet prayer, you get only 4.5 seconds of silence, and then the words start again or the music is there. So, I would lengthen the time of quiet in worship and let people know we’re going to have quiet. It’s going to be three minutes. It’s going to feel like 10, but it’s only going to be three. Just help people get ready for that. And then at the end of worship, ask people “how did God speak to you?” Don’t just start off that way but have a bookend. How did God speak to you? And give people a way to respond to that. Maybe it’s something that they write down or they text themselves or they turn to a neighbor; and there’s a couple of minutes to share “Here’s how God spoke to me…” So, set up worship so that it becomes a place not only where the leader is speaking to people and people are responding in set ways but there is space for the Spirit to speak, an opportunity to recall it, share it, and kind of cement it in one’s being: “Yes, this is what happened for me today in worship.” Those are the steps I would suggest.

Jessica Anschutz: They are wonderful steps that will lead to great harvest. When it comes to spiritual formation, different models appeal to people in different generations. How might church leaders be mindful of this reality and seek to offer opportunities to folks from these different generations?

Rebekah Simon-Peter: The ways different generations like to connect and belong. We know that eighty-year-olds aren’t necessarily going to need to run around with a group of their friends to belong. When it comes to the younger generations, using the tools they already have like tech, the phone, and little TikTok videos that they share with each other that are a self-reflection on spirituality or where they saw God in the world today. Generally, the younger you are, the more you are used to being an online creator: posting stuff, making videos, sharing your life online. So, I would suggest using the tools of the culture and repurposing them for sharing spirituality. Maybe even give each generation these questions: what are the challenges, what are the joys, what would you like to be held accountable for, and how is it with your soul? What would be the best way to connect? Do these four questions speak to you? Which question do you want to talk about this week? It could be like that.

Jessica Anschutz: I’ve used those questions or variations of them in a variety of different contexts and even people who are new to the faith or new to church life can respond to those questions and are often eager to respond and even more eager to hear how people of faith are answering those questions.

Rebekah Simon-Peter: I think transparency is delightful to people when they feel safe and when they understand that there won’t be gossip, there won’t be criticism, there won’t be bad mouthing. I think transparency is just juicy. It brings people alive because everybody’s got stuff going on. Everybody’s got good stuff; everybody’s got bad stuff; everybody’s got stuff they’re sort of ashamed of or afraid to say out loud. And then, when somebody finally does say it, you can feel the relief in the room.

Spirituality is not only being present to God but being present to oneself and being present with one another. Something that the Church has missed out on is that a lot of times this idea of worship is this one-way adulation of God. And it’s not even necessarily God’s going to speak to you. And it’s certainly not how God is moving through the community. The more we can have two-way communication with God and have that expectation but then understand that God is going to speak to us through each other, that’s one of the great gifts of the whole 12-step model — understanding God’s going to speak to you through other people and to not pooh-pooh that. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen in the Church, but I don’t experience that nearly as much in the Church as I do in other settings where spirituality is forwarded.

Jessica Anschutz: Well, you’ve lifted up the real importance of listening and listening deeply to people and being able to respond to them where they are. How can those of us in the Church listen better not only to those who are already in the community but to those who are not yet in the community?

Rebekah Simon-Peter: Derek Kubilus uses motivational interviewing to ease polarization in the Church. I write about that in Forging a New Path, and the questions are — I can’t remember them exactly but it’s something like “How did you arrive at this point of view? Tell me how it speaks to you.” And there’s a third question, but it’s sort of like asking people to tell you about themselves, even if you disagree wildly with their point of view, even if you just start at odds. Tell me what life is like for you and why this way of looking at things makes sense to you. I think those are terrific questions to ask people in general.

Derek also said instead of coming at people as a teacher — “I’m going to tell you everything; I’m going to teach you now how you should think about things”— come as a humble listener, as a humble learner. If we are going to be attractive to others, whether they’re in the church or not in the church, I think people want to know that you care, that their story can be heard, not just your story, not just your point of view, but their story. A question a person could ask themselves as they listen is how can I hear God through this person? I wonder how God’s going to speak to me through this person versus I wonder what I need to tell them about God. It’s that whole God flowing through us and not assuming that you’ve got the whole pile of good God stuff but assuming that other people have it, too. Even if they don’t even know it, you know God can speak through them.

Jessica Anschutz: I absolutely agree with you, and I think we don’t take enough time to listen, which speaks to your second question — how do we get people back to church? How do we not only go back to normal but then how do we get the people that were here before back?

Rebekah Simon-Peter: Well, those three questions have sort of three different answers. The first one — when do things go back to normal? They don’t. There’s got to be this new normal. How do you get people to church or back to church? Don’t. Don’t try that because they were already telling us that it doesn’t really work. Our numbers are down generally.

In addition to really thinking about embracing spirituality in the church, think about spiritual community. Instead of the institution of church, what does it mean to deepen what we’re already doing into community that’s really grounded and founded in this deep spirituality, this connection with God, this connection with each other, this understanding that God moves through all of us, works through all of us, speaks through all of us.

One of the things I wrote about in the book was James Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development. This is how a person deepens in faith over time. And it’s not necessarily traditional kinds of faith but just the idea of ultimate meaning — how they gather that sense of ultimate meaning and how they can get undone and redone. In Fowler’s work, people have a traditional sense of church and of religious community, a traditional sense of how the world works. At some point, if they keep growing, if they keep thinking, they’re going to test assumptions and realize, wait a second, some of this doesn’t hold together. I thought the world worked this way, but then I meet these people. They’re outside of the way I thought the world worked, but these people seem good. So, their worldview has to split apart a little bit to embrace a larger set of realities and circumstances that they’ve encountered. And what we’ve seen is that people have left church, and it’s kind of part of a natural progression. When their worldview is bigger than the church’s, they’ve left.

What if Church could expand so it can encompass a larger worldview and so people don’t have to leave Church in order to take that next step in their faith development. That’s part of building spiritual community where questions are as good as answers. The Church, in a lot of ways, likes to have the answers. But what if we can open up? If part of spiritual community is that it’s great to ask your questions? Bring your questions. We may not have answers, but we will welcome your questions. That’s a very Jewish way of being. It’s very Jesus. He always had questions for people. You don’t always have answers, but you have questions. What if the church could be like that? I think that’d be really great when there’s no question off limits. You don’t have to leave if you’ve got a question nobody knows the answer to. That could just be “Yeah, what a great question. You know, what if we looked into that together?”

So, I think that’s part of how we build spiritual community. Open up to allow new things, multiple ways that God can speak to us not just answers but questions, and conversation that gets down to the soul level. I think people would be interested in coming to that, especially if it was available in bite-size chunks. It’s not like you have to do a year-long Bible study or a three-hour church service. Those do exist and they can be really fun. But what if there was a half-hour worship service, you know. What if there was a half-hour “How Is It with Your Soul?” What if we had two-hour retreats, you know, ways to build this spiritual community in the chunks of time that people have to give.

Jessica Anschutz: I want to give you an opportunity to talk about how we can do more with less.

Rebekah Simon-Peter: I’m teaching a class on it, and one of the really cool things I do is ask people to make a list of everything they have less of because of the pandemic. It’s a long list, and you can imagine the kinds of things on it. Well, we have less connection with less people, we have less money, we have less mission engagement. Then we put that list aside.

Then I ask them to make a list of everything they have more of because of the pandemic. Would you believe it? That list is longer and richer and more delicious than the other list. You know, as predictable as that list is, this list takes everybody by surprise because they hadn’t really thought about “Oh. We have a lot more.” So, here’s some of the things they came up with: We have more compassion. We have more intentionality. We have more patience. We have more generosity with each other. We have a deeper desire to connect with each other. We have a greater sense of what’s really important.

You can do something with all of that. Okay, maybe you have half the people. Maybe you have 30 percent of the people, but if you have more patience, more intentionality, more appreciation of each other, my goodness, you can do more with less. Again, it gets back to what are we really here for? We are here for spirituality, for connection with God, for building a spiritual community. Well, if you’ve got more patience, you’ve got more love for each other, you’ve got more appreciation of the importance of life. You really can do more with less because you’re not focused on trying to do everything. Pay attention to what you have more of because sometimes that’s where our focus needs to be. That’s where the abundance comes out. So, it’s really a trick question. How do you do more with less? Well, get it out of your system first. Okay, yes, grieve that stuff, but then recognize what you actually have. And from there, all kinds of things are possible.

In a way, those three questions — When do things go back to normal? How do we get people back to church? How do we do more with less? — are a little bit trick questions that get people’s attention because that’s what we’re asking but then it’s a redirect. Look at what you actually have more of, and work with that because we do serve a God of abundance, we do live in a world of abundance: abundant possibilities, abundant connections, abundant love, abundant creativity. There is abundance, even in the midst of all that we’re suffering and all that the world has lost. There’s tremendous abundance, because we have God and God is the ultimate creator.

So, when we’re in the flow of God, when we’re in that place of connecting with God, we can have far more than we think we do. We’ve gained more than what we’ve lost, because we would never go back to the medieval days and say “Oh, those poor people. They lost the monarchy. They lost serfdom, you know. Those poor people. No, we see what came out of it and we rejoice. Oh, my goodness, the printing press, books, the Protestant Reformation, the breakdown of a society that was unjust, that had no middle class; people had no say in how their lives went.

That’s the stuff we focus on and that’s the stuff we’re going to look at ultimately, when it comes to coming out of this pandemic — all that we’ve gained, all the creativity, the way we’ve let go of systems and institutions and ways of doing things that didn’t serve us. In some ways the pandemic has done for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. I’ve been in the business of church renewal for 15 years and then 15 years before that as a pastor, and I watched things change overnight that I’ve been trying to teach people for years. And then came the pandemic and they’re all of a sudden “Oh. We aren’t just relegated to the building. We can do things online.”

We discovered overnight stuff that we’ve been pushing for years, so I think in the end we’re going to look back at this time and say, “It was rough. It was tough. But, oh, my goodness, we’ve come out in a new way, a better way. We’re more connected to God. We’re more connected to each other and we got refocused on what really, really matters.” So, that’s my hope. That’s my stand. That’s my story, Jessica. I’m sticking to it and I’m going to be looking for the evidence of that for a long time to come.

Jessica Anschutz: We have a lot to gain if we look at the pandemic as a catalyst for change and we look at the blessings that came out of it. I don’t say that to minimize the losses because we had tremendous losses. But I think to refocus on what we have and the work that God has done and is doing is a very faithful and hopeful response.

Rebekah Simon-Peter: One last thought on that. The origin of the word pandemic is “of or belonging to all the people” and that’s really different than “being done” to all the people like being victimized by the pandemic. When we look at the pandemic as belonging to all of us, then we can practice agency, which is a God-given quality. Then we can respond in powerful creative ways. I think that’s really what the book is about. That’s what we’re called to: how do we respond in powerful and creative ways?

Jessica Anschutz: And how do we do that together? It points us back to community, which is where we started.


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About Author

Rebekah Simon-Peter
Dr. Jessica Anschutz

Jessica L. Anschutz is the Assistant Director of the Lewis Center and co-editor of Leading Ideas. She teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary and is an elder in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Jessica participated in the Lewis Fellows program, the Lewis Center's leadership development program for young clergy.


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