Sustaining Change: What keeps whole-life disciplemaking going and growing?
In-depth research reveals key ingredients in churches that have sustained whole-life disciplemaking for three years or more. ...
First instalment of in-depth ‘Shaping Disciples’ research reveals the day-to-day benefits of regular engagement with spiritual practices.
Questions are both the engine that power us, and the rudder that steers us. One question that propels and guides our work at LICC is: ‘What sustains whole-life disciples for the long term?’ We believe it’s crucial to the mission of the church in the UK and beyond. We long to see disciples increasingly formed into the image of Christ – living like him, with him, and for him in their day-to-day places.
In search of answers to this big question, and in hope of seeing this vision become reality, we’ve been doing some research. First, we explored the question from a communal perspective – looking at how churches can sustain and develop a whole-life disciplemaking culture over a long period of time (read the resulting Sustaining Change report to find out more).
More recently, we’ve been coming at this question from the perspective of the individual. During the Sustaining Change project, we noticed that some of the disciples we spoke to were reporting significant benefits from regular engagement with spiritual practices – so we decided to explore that area further.
A spiritual practice is an intentional habit, designed to help disciples deepen their faith, shape their character, and integrate faith into daily life. There are many different varieties of spiritual practice, from the still and quiet to the loud and active. But however they look, the key element is a deliberate, repeated focus on connecting with God and growing as a disciple.
During October and November 2021, we surveyed 265 people across 10 churches that have a particular focus on everyday discipleship. We asked them questions about their day-to-day contexts, the extent to which they think they are bearing particular kinds of fruit in those places, the spiritual practices they engage in, and the impact they perceive those practices having upon their day-to-day fruitfulness.
Here are 10 of the most interesting things we discovered:
1. The more you put into a practice, the more you get out of it.
The more frequently people engage in a practice, the more formative it’s likely to be. For example, people who pray or read the Bible most days are much more likely to notice the benefit compared with those who only do it once or twice a week.
In addition to frequency, the more a practice demands deliberate focus, the greater the transformation. People who talked about practices that can be done without much focus (such as listening to worship music while cooking, or jumping onto an app for a few minutes) were less likely to report discipleship growth than those who are more deeply engaged in their practices (such as those who take time to focus on Bible reading). Giving quality time to practices does make a difference.
2. We influence each other
In the survey, we asked people what they think is their most formative or enjoyable spiritual practice. We then asked them where they learnt this particular practice. By far, the top answer was ‘from other people’. They were most likely to learn them from a church leader, or from people within their church community, followed by friends and family members.
We find this really encouraging. It means that as each of us talks about the practices that are helping us in our adventure with Jesus, we may just be inspiring others to pick up some practices that will help them too.
3. Practices boost joy
For some, the idea of regular spiritual disciplines conjures up a sense of drudgery – of an unsmiling man in a hessian cassock eating dry Weetabix. But the findings from this survey explode that Weetabix into a thousand flaky pieces.
In one question, we asked people to select three words that describe them on their discipleship journey at this moment in time. 32 people described themselves as ‘joyful’. These joyful disciples reported way-above-average engagement with spiritual practices, and they were much more likely to say spiritual practices make a big difference to how they live. And when people described the impact of their most formative and favourite practices, many of them reported a greater sense of God’s presence, more peace, and better perspective – all things that feed into joy.
4. Purpose matters
Lots of people talk about the significance of purpose – Christian or otherwise. In our previous research amongst Elim churches, we found a strong (and probably causal) link between having a clear sense of God’s purpose and thriving as a disciple in day-to-day life. We found the same again in this research.
Across pretty much every metric we looked at, purposeful disciples fare better than those who report little or no sense of purpose. They’re more thankful, more joyful, more likely to demonstrate fruit in their everyday lives, more likely to have drawn closer to God during the pandemic, and more likely to regularly engage in spiritual practices. We suspect this link between purpose and practices is bi-directional: regular engagement with practices increases purpose, and having a sense of purpose fuels engagement with practices.
5. The Bible, the Bible, the Bible
However we sliced and diced the results from the survey, the Bible always came out well – always at the heart of everything good. It ranked second as the most frequently used practice (62% most days, and a further 20% once or twice a week). It also ranked top as people’s most formative or enjoyable practice.
Those who particularly value Bible reading talked about how it enhances their relationship with God, how it helps them to gain perspective and focus, and how it helps them live better. They said things like, ‘It brings me closer to God, to understand more of his love and ways for my life’, and, ‘It’s God’s word, helping me find my place in his story. It gives me perspective and guidance.’
On just about every area of discipleship we measured, those committed to regular Bible reading scored more highly compared to the overall sample. It seems to lead to a healthier perspective, better decision-making, and an increased ability and desire to share faith effectively. They tend to be more thankful, be better at loving the people around them, and they say they respond better to difficult people or situations they encounter.
So, yeah, read the Bible.
6. Prayer fuels action
From time to time, you hear people say stuff that makes prayer sound like a substitute for taking action, implying that active prayer produces passive living.
Yet those who said prayer is their most significant practice were 15% more likely to say they try to change things for the better ‘a lot’. For these people, prayer is not a substitute for action. They are people who are proactive in trying to shape cultures, and their prayers and their actions work together.
Prayer helps disciples in all kinds of ways, and if you want to know what some of those ways are, read the report. But here’s one more on the house. When we looked at the results of people who say they don’t pray very often, we noticed they were more likely to describe themselves using more negative words, and none of them described themselves as joyful.
It seems prayer helps disciples flourish in all kinds of ways.
7. Prayer partnerships are particularly helpful for relational aspects of discipleship
People who particularly value being part of a prayer couple/triplet/similar were more likely to talk about it being relevant to everyday life, and helping them to live better.
Since the lockdowns, they were more likely than the average to say they now have a greater sense of purpose, are connecting more with people who aren’t Christians, and are having better conversations with them. They also rated this practice higher than the average for helping them respond to and pray for difficult situations, have a healthier perspective, and share their faith appropriately.
There seems to be something about coming together with other Christians, at least in the way these people do it, that lends itself to focusing on everyday discipleship. When Christians meet together to talk, they seem even more likely to focus on the things of everyday life than when they are praying by themselves. We need a staple diet of practices we do by ourselves, and we also need one another.
8. Worship music is great, but it mustn’t become a substitute for other practices
Lots of the respondents regularly listen to worship music: it was the third most regularly engaged with practice, and was also rated third as the most formative or enjoyable. People said it helps them connect with God and sense his presence. It can be a great source of inspiration, and a medium through which people experience God’s peace.
That said, when we asked people to describe the difference listening to worship music makes to how they live, they rated relatively low on most metrics, such as having a healthy perspective, praying for people or situations around them, loving people around them, responding to difficult people or situations, doing tasks well, making better decisions, and sharing faith more effectively.
And when we looked at the results for people who said this is their most formative or enjoyable practice, they were more likely to describe themselves as challenged, stuck, frustrated, and doubting.
As is always the case with quantitative data from a survey, you don’t get the full picture. It could just be that people who are struggling are more likely to turn to worship music than to other practices. But we think it’s fair to say that worship music, by itself, isn’t enough to form us as disciples – we need to integrate it with other practices.
9. Younger adults particularly hungry to develop practices
Every season of life has its own challenges and opportunities, and practices benefit Christians whatever age or stage. But one interesting thing that shone through our findings was the way younger Christians, particularly those aged 18-29, described the impact practices have on how they live, and their level of openness to learning new practices, and receiving help in connecting their practices to their day-to-day discipleship.
God grows us in every season of life, but as a general rule of thumb, the gradient on our growth curve is higher in our younger years. Therefore, it seems pressing that we should be encouraging and equipping younger generations to engage in meaningful, whole-life-focused practices.
10. Practices change people, but internal growth outweighs external
By internal changes, we’re referring to things like attitudes and perspectives, sensing God’s presence, and feeling at peace. By external, we’re referring to ways people express their faith through actions in their daily lives, such as responding well to difficult situations, loving people, or sharing their faith. In general, we found that people’s engagement with practices generally caused stronger internal change in their attitude or perspective than an external change in their actions.
In the way this group of people were engaging in their practices, both types of growth seem to be occurring, but inner change is stronger than outer. In light of this, we want to discover and develop practices that help people grow more in these outward aspects of discipleship.
All in all, what we’ve seen through this survey is what the church has seen throughout the centuries: a significant way that God shapes us to live for him day by day is by receiving his grace through the discipline of regular practices.
At the time of writing, we’re in the thick of the next phase of our research, where we’re helping a group of Christians learn some practices that have an intentional whole-life focus. We’ve been conducting surveys and interviews with this group to see what we can find about how people form good habits, and how regular engagement with certain practices can empower God’s people to live as missional disciples in their contexts. We’ve learnt so much already, and the findings of that work will be out later this year.
In the meantime, keep going with the practices that help you as a disciple, keep experimenting with ways to connect them with your daily life, and keep talking about them with others – you never know what influence you might have.