Last month in my post, “Bouquets for God,” I wrote about my experience with an ancient prayer practice called “examen.” It is basically a way to prayerfully invite God to reflect with you on your day. As you do this, you discover where He was present and where you may have missed Him. Another way of doing the reflection is to look at what parts of your day brought life and what parts drained it. Ignatius of Loyola, who is credited with first suggesting the practice, called the life-giving, God-present times “consolation” and the life-draining, God-seemingly-distant times “desolation.”
I am accustomed to doing examen on short increments of life—a day, or perhaps a week. But God led me to do something much different with examen recently—something that was surprisingly helpful to me.
For the past nine months, I have been visiting local churches. At first I enjoyed the process, but frankly, it’s getting kind of old now. I’m feeling ready to settle down—but whenever I’ve asked God to show me where to settle, I haven’t heard much. Then a couple of Sundays ago, right in the middle of a church service, He gave me an unusual idea. He invited me to do an examen on church. I’d never heard anyone suggest anything like that before. But then God does tend to be creative.
I hardly knew what doing an examen on church would involve, but I figured God would. So I set aside some time.
As I sat on my deck one lovely summer morning, I asked the Holy Spirit to walk with me through a lifetime of church experiences. I prayerfully called to mind every church I’d been part of from childhood on. First I asked Him to show me where I’d encountered Him and where I’d experienced His life.
Memories bubbled to the surface. Life-changing conversations. Welcoming small group gatherings. Unusually convicting sermons. Spirit-led times of worship. Challenging and rewarding relationships. Seasons when I was in my ministry sweet spot. Times of unity and joy. Answered prayer. I jotted them down, and was surprised to notice some patterns.
Then, I asked the Holy Spirit to show me times of desolation, times when Jesus’ life was drained from me rather than replenished. More memories came. I wrote down examples of feeling out of sync with the church’s vision. Seasons of spiritual stagnation. Periods of striving. Occasions when I didn’t seem to have the gifts or passion for the ministry in which I was serving. Tensions over teachings and practices. Again, patterns emerged.
I noticed that in my experience, no one church had the corner on “life-giving” or “life-draining.” I have engaged with God’s life and presence in all of the churches I’ve been a part of. I’ve also experienced desolation in all the churches I’ve been part of—it’s not the hallmark of just a certain kind of church.
Still, God brought clarity to my search for a church. He helped me see that some things I’d considered insignificant to what defined “church” for me were actually very important. And some things I thought were deal breakers really aren’t. He helped me see that certain “preferences” I have are not just selfish whims—they are essentials for my spiritual well-being. He cleared up misconceptions I’d had that had made me hesitant about certain sizes of congregations.
God didn’t give me the GPS coordinates or web address for my next church home. I was a little disappointed in that. But He did lovingly reassure me that He is very much in this discernment process. He knows my heart. He knows my gifts. He knows my needs. He cares about all these. And someday—I don’t think it will be much longer now, He will make the specifics clear.