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Contemplative-Mystical Christianity Compared to Mainstream-Evangelical Christianity: A Comparison in Language, Emphasis, and Perspective

In recent years I have come across two types of evangelical Christians who are interested in contemplative-mystical Christianity:

  1. Some are actively practicing evangelical Christians in their local church but frustrated by what they perceive as the lack of spiritual nurturing taking place. Often this is expressed as a feeling of being stuck in their spiritual growth and as desire to go deeper in their faith and relationship with God.
  2. Others were raised in an evangelical church but left the church and no longer have a connection to any institutional church. They are interested in their spiritual development but not necessarily interested in participating in a church.

I find that both groups are curious about the differences in their evangelical experience and the contemplative-mystical experience. Many are skeptical of the other, but both are widely accepted movements within the broader stream of Christianity. And there is no one universally accepted concise definition or understanding of either movement. Therefore, what I write below is simply my understanding of the differences between the two movements and are admittedly arguable. What is obvious to me is that both groups have this in common: they both recognize that the church often does a poor job at promoting a deeper spirituality.

A Definition Of Each Movement

Mainstream Evangelicalism Definition:  A movement within Protestant Christianity maintaining that the essence of the gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. The authority of the Bible as God’s revelation and the church as the primary instrument for accomplishing the Great Commission are central tenants.

Contemplative Mystical Christianity Definition: A movement within Christianity of those who have moved from mere belief and belonging doctrines and religious systems to an actual inner experience of communion and union with God. God reveals himself through the Bible, personal experience, creation and spiritual practices and traditions. God works through all things to establish His Kingdom.

Language, Emphasis And Practices Comparisons

I want to stress that though it may appear that I am presenting these beliefs, emphases, practices and understandings as unique to each movement that is not the case. In many if not most of these comparisons both movements embrace each perspective as truth that can be biblically substantiated. In most examples it is a matter of emphases, spiritual practices or language that creates the difference.

Further, my fear in presenting these as contrasts is that they are perceived as either/or choices. In reality I believe these comparisons present a both/and scenario. Each movement has attributes that are needed for a holistic spirituality. An exclusive emphasis on either runs the risk of losing balance or missing out on key aspects of the Christian faith.

1. Christlikeness or Christ-centeredness is Evangelical Christianity’s (EC) language for taking on the attributes of Jesus, emphasizing an outward action-oriented perspective. We are to be a student, a disciple of Jesus. We are the hands and feet of Jesus.

Union, communion and oneness is the Contemplative Mystical Christianity’s (CM) language for relating to God/Jesus, others and creation. These words describe an internally and interrelated oriented perspective. We are made to be in union and communion with God, we are grafted in and have the potential to be one with God even as Jesus and God are one. And, as we are in union and communion with God we will become Christ-like and Christ-centered and in union with neighbor, union with creation, union with oneself, and even union with the enemy.

2. Outside-In transformation is the focus of EC. The belief that the most effective means of inner transformation and growth is biblical knowledge communicated through sermons and small groups, and worship and missional experiences. This approach emphasizes the head.

Inside-Out transformation is the focus of CM. The belief that developing the inner spiritual life through individual spiritual practices will transform the outer life. This approach emphasizes the heart.

3. God is up there and out there representing typical EC views of God. God up in heaven and all around us. God is Father and Jesus is a friend. EC language suggests God is outside of us, separate from us and other than us. EC language suggests there is a split between God and man, and that we have to find a way to God and that Jesus bridges that split.

God is in here and in there represent typical CM views of God. God’s spirit is in us and in all created things. CM language suggests that God is Spirit that lives within us, is a part of us, and is the same as us. CM language suggests a oneness with God and man, a union with God and that we don’t have to search for God, He is already here within us.

4. The cross is viewed as a transaction in EC. Jesus died for our sins and if we accept that transaction on our behalf, we will have eternal life. EC emphasizes salvation.

The cross is viewed as transformational in CM. The cross transforms people in the here and now so they can experience heaven here on earth as well as in eternity. CM would argue that viewing the cross as a transaction has created Christians who approach salvation as a ticket to heaven without the accompanying transformed life. CM emphasizes sanctification.

5. The death and resurrection of Jesus is emphasized in EC as the excruciating and substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus as the means for atonement for sin, and symbolic of a believer’s death to sin leading to a new way of life. This act “saves” the believer and ensures eternal life.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is emphasized in CM as demonstrating the importance of non-violence, Jesus’ alignment and identification with the poor, persecuted and suffering, the importance of dying to self, and as an archetype and universal pattern of life that demonstrates all resurrections have to be preceded by some type of death. These are the “saving aspects” of Christ’s death and resurrection.

6. What to know and what to do about God and His love is a focus of EC. The need to teach concrete belief and action systems and knowledge of God in Scripture.

How to know and How to love God is a focus of CM. The need for learning spiritual practices that encourage inner union and communion with God, becoming one with God.

7. God’s love for us is a focus of EC. Teaching and preaching that focuses on God’s love for us. “For God so loved the world…..” “God loves the little children of the world.”

Our love of God is a focus of CM. Readings and practices that focus on deepening our love of God, others and creation.

8. Worshipping Jesus is a focus of EC. Praise and worship songs that focus on Jesus’s love and praising him.

Following Jesus is a focus of CM. Jesus never said, “Worship me.” What he did say is, “Follow me.” We are to imitate Christ, not just be a student of Christ who reveres him.

9. Doing for God is a focus of EC. We connect best to God through doing for him, such as community worship and bible study, social ministry, missions, and other ministry expressions that are requirements of obedience and are a necessary component of spiritual growth.

Being with God is a focus of CM. Being with God in silence, solitude, and private prayer and worship is how we best connect with God and practice the presence of God.  Being precedes doing for God. Doing for God flows out of a life of being.

10. The birth of Jesus is emphasized in EC as a sign of God that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.

The birth of Jesus is emphasized in CM as Jesus personally demonstrating God’s unity and solidarity with humanity, in all of its pain and suffering, and is representative that we too are spirit and flesh, and that God is embodied in us as well. This is referred to as the “Divine Indwelling.” CM believes that the first incarnation took place in the creation story of Genesis 1.

11. The sinful nature of man found in Genesis 3 is an emphasis and starting point for EC. Original sin means we have a carnal DNA and that we are inherently bad. This separates us from God, and we need to be reconnected to God through Christ.

The good God nature of man found in Genesis 1-2 is an emphasis and starting point for CM. We are made in God’s image and God said we are good. Our divine DNA connects us to God even in our sin, though our sin may create varying levels of connection.

12. A literal approach to scriptural interpretation is the preferred hermeneutic for EC.

A Midrash approach to scriptural interpretation is the preferred hermeneutic for CM.

In our next post we will look at 12 additional comparisons and contrasts.

Posted on January 24, 2023

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5