Spirit Lab: A holy experiment
by Katie Langston '21 M.Div.
Luther Seminary Student raised his hands in worship
Once a week, Sara Jensen ’22 M.Div., Bethany Ringdal ’19 M.Div., and Esther Sianipar ’20 M.A. gather together to dwell in scripture, pray, and plan.
They’re the leaders of Spirit Lab, an experimental spiritual formation program at Luther Seminary. Operating out of the office of the seminary pastor, Spirit Lab aims to deepen spiritual practice in the Luther community.
“Spiritual formation isn’t ‘extra’ to Christian faith,” Ringdal says. “In order to live in a way that the impact of the reign of God is visible in our lives with our neighbors, we need practice—just as we’d practice a sport or an art form.”
Sianipar sees spiritual practice as vital for ministry. “When spiritual practice is embedded in our daily lives, it equips us to be confident walking with the Lord and creates space for the Holy Spirit to move,” she says.
Now in its second year, Spirit Lab emerged out of Professor Adam Copeland’s course Money and the Mission of the Church, in which students have the opportunity to award up to $10,000 in grant funding to benefit Luther Seminary.
“Years ago, a $100,000 endowment laboratory was created through a gift and partnership with what is now the InFaith Community Foundation,” Copeland says. “When I teach Money and the Mission of the Church, the class gets to decide how to award that year’s grant. We identify a mission statement, solicit proposals from the community, discuss them together, and select which proposals to fund. It’s a wonderful learning experience that helps students practice stewardship in the real world.”
In Spring 2017, Luther students Ringdal, Katie Langston ’21 M.Div., and Jia Starr Brown ’18 M.Div. conceived of Spirit Lab and wrote a proposal. The students in Money and the Mission of the Church funded the project for 12 months, and Brown was hired to pilot the program during the 2017–18 academic year.
“I knew this was an area where I needed growth, so I was excited to take it on,” Brown says. “It was amazing to see the Holy Spirit in action.”
Per the project proposal, Brown approached her work using a process known as design thinking, which helps organizations innovate user-driven solutions. Design thinking begins with deep listening to empathize with struggles users might be experiencing, then moves to a stage of defining problems based on the gathered feedback. Next, innovators generate ideas for solving user problems and create prototypes of the most promising concepts. These prototypes are then tested by users for additional feedback, and the successful prototypes are implemented.
Brown coordinated dozens of experiments during Spirit Lab’s first year, including an early morning prayer practice, a Facebook group for community members to share spiritual insights, talking circles to address racism and injustice, a weekly small group lectionary study, special worship services, and a four-week mini-course on weightlifting as a spiritual practice.
Today, several experiments from the past year remain fixtures in the community’s rhythm. For example, the weekly lectionary study continues and has expanded to include Distance Learning students via virtual conferencing technology.
Brown, who now serves as associate pastor at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, credits her experience with Spirit Lab as key to her preparation for ordained ministry. “I’m more open to seeing God in places I never would have before,” she says. “Now I see God in the gym, in the neighborhood, in day-to-day life. As a pastor, it helps me be more attentive to where God is moving in my congregation.”
But it isn’t just in individual lives that Spirit Lab has made a positive impact. The entire Luther community has benefited from renewed attention to spiritual formation— so much so that at the beginning of the 2018–19 academic year, Spirit Lab was renewed for the foreseeable future.
As they take the reins, Jensen, Ringdal, and Sianipar see significant overlap between Luther’s new vision to lead faithful innovation for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ and their work with Spirit Lab. All three emphasize that spiritual formation is not just the intended outcome of Spirit Lab; it is also part of its methodology. They embed prayer and listening into meetings, and approach the experiments themselves as vehicles of discernment.
For Jensen, this means trusting what catches on as the work of God’s Spirit and letting go of the rest. “I’m a true believer in the wisdom of the community,” she says. “I can’t wait to hear about all the ways the Holy Spirit is twisting, turning, pushing, and pulling in our community.”
Ringdal agrees. “Faithful innovation is a synonym for Spirit Lab and vice versa,” she says. “It excites the heck out of me. It’s so clear that God is up to something.”