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Spirituality movement grows among Baptists

The setting is anything but normal for a Baptist church in the Deep South. So is the worship experience.

As people enter the Spirituality Center of Oakhurst Baptist Church, one of the first things they see is a sign reading: "God is present in this place. Feel free to remove your shoes observe silence light a candle."

The room is softly lit with lamps and candles. Religious banners hang on the walls. Gentle devotional music plays on a tape recorder. Chairs form a circle.

Welcome to a contemplative worship service, one of the fastest-growing phenomena in moderate Baptist church circles over the past decade.

Tom B. Turner, considered by some the guru of spirituality among Baptists, is one of two leaders of the distinctive services held twice a month at the Georgia church.

"Most Protestants don't understand it when I say prayer is my vocation," Turner said in an interview. "We (Baptists) don't have the same historic concept of prayer that Roman Catholics, Quakers and others have always had."

Turner began focusing more on prayer after attending a program sponsored by The Upper Room magazine at Stillpoint Retreat Center in Nashville in the 1980s.

"Even though I am the son of a pastor and was a pastor for 12 years myself, I didn't learn what authentic prayer was," he said. "It changed my life."

Turner publishes a monthly newsletter on spirituality and a quarterly journal with scholarly articles on spiritual formation and spiritual direction. He leads spirituality retreats across the country and at his own Pilgrim's Rest Retreat Center in Greenville, S.C.

In addition, he has started a new ministry to train others to become spiritual directors.

Turner said the new spirituality movement has grown so fast across the country that there are, at last count, more than 500 retreat centers nationwide. Many are interdenominational, and dozens are Baptist-sponsored.

The worship Turner helped direct at Oakhurst began with 15 minutes of silence, followed by a time when he quietly asked those in the prayer circle to share aloud what had been in their private thoughts.

"I work vocationally in spiritual formation, with theology students in training," said Lloyd Allen, a university professor. "I am supposed to be a model of one who has prayed, who has been silent before God, who has a recent message from God. I come to get a fresh message from God."

Social worker Carol Burgess testified: "I dreaded some tough personnel problems facing me on the job. I spent extra time in Bible study, prayer and journaling. God made the day pass with amazing ease and meaning, and with positive results."

After the testimonies, Turner leads the group in what he calls "spiritual discernment."

"What is the most responsible spiritual response you can make to people and situations you have confronted since we last met?" he asks.

This low-key give-and-take continues for about 45 minutes. Then the group takes a 10-minute friendship break before returning for singing (accompanied by Turner on a portable keyboard), Bible and prayer readings and chants of praise.

In addition to the services, Oakhurst _ a former Southern Baptist congregation now affiliated with more moderate groups _ has set aside a major portion of its educational building for its spirituality center.

Experts predict there could be more such centers in the future.

Several Baptist churches across the South now have directors of spiritual formation on their staffs, and at least four Baptist seminaries now have professors of spiritual formation on staff.

"I sincerely believe we are on the verge of a major breakthrough among Baptists in the areas of spiritual formation, spiritual direction and contemplative worship," said Bill Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Baptist-related Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "These are clearly ideas whose time has come for many Baptists."