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What are spiritual practices? Your invitation to experiment…

Spiritual practices are crucial to help us grow as fruitful disciples on our frontlines. If that phrase makes you think of meditation in a monastery, think again. In this piece, our Culture & Discipleship team share how you can build spiritual practices into the rhythm of your ordinary, everyday life – and how they can help you join God’s work right where you are.

I have to confess, I’ve not listened to much jazz in my life.

Left to my own devices, my musical taste tends to revert back to noughties pop tunes. However, on the occasions when I do put some jazz on – perhaps at a dinner party, or when trying to impress people with how cultured I am – I’m left astounded at the ability of the musicians to improvise together, creating stunning music even though none of them know where it’ll flow next.

It’s a bit like discipleship.

As followers of Jesus, we don’t know the situations we’ll come across on any given day. But through the work of the Spirit, we’re growing into people who are increasingly able to respond to whatever we face as Jesus would.

Responding like Jesus doesn’t mean having a stock answer to hand. It means seeing what’s happening around you and doing or saying the godly thing in response. To help you do this well on your frontline – the place where you spend time day-to-day with people who don’t know Jesus – we’ve put together a four-stage framework. We’ve unpacked it at greater length here, but it involves:

  • Listening to what’s going on around you and why, exploring how ordinary experiences in your ordinary places form part of a wider cultural story
  • Imagining what should be going on, understanding how culture fits into God’s story from creation to consummation, centred on the cross
  • Creating a new story of healing action, shaping the culture of your frontline for shalom, as a taste of heaven in the here and now
  • Communicating the good news of the gospel in a way that connects with those around you.

At this point it’s fair to think: ‘Sounds great. But how do I actually do all that?’

Well, in the same way that people don’t wake up one day able to play jazz piano, it takes time. We need to be formed as disciples over weeks, months, and the rest of our lives. And that begs the question – how are we formed?

 

Head, heart, and hands – the path to transformation

There’s a modern myth that all we need to do as disciples is to get our ideas right, and everything else will follow. This myth reduces discipleship to the intellectual pursuit of orthodoxy (right belief), which then will lead inevitably to orthopraxy (right action).

But as anyone who’s tried to stay away from the biscuit jar will know, this idea is based on a misguided view of human nature. I believe and know that if I want to be healthy I should avoid some foods and focus on others. But the issue is – I don’t want to eat salad. I want sugar. I know the environmental importance of reducing meat consumption and yet find my mouth watering at the idea of a beef burger. And here’s the crux of the issue: as Christian philosopher Jamie Smith explains at length, we’re primarily desiring creatures, shaped by what we love. If, then, we want to live as Jesus would if he were us, our hearts need to be shaped so they long for his way, and his kingdom. For that to happen, right belief and right action need to partner with orthopathy (right desire).

The good news for both our discipleship and my waistline is that our desires aren’t hard-wired. The bad news, though, is that we’re not the only ones who’ve noticed that our loves shape our lives. We’re already being formed by what we read, watch, and play every day, to look more like consumers, like individualists, like the product of the culture we’re in. A half-hour’s heady sermon once a week, listening to your church leader expositing the Scriptures, is no match for hours each day of infinite scrolling on Netflix and Facebook, and highly tactile browsing through racks in your favourite designer outlet.

So, what we want or what we do may not yet always line up with what we know to be right – to put it starkly, our desires are functionally unredeemed. But, we can grow to look and act more like Jesus.

This transformation requires strategic counter-formation. It’s not sufficient for discipleship to be ‘top-down’, starting with our brain and trickling down into the rest of our lives. Instead, what if we simultaneously worked ‘bottom-up’, starting with our daily routines and rituals – our practices?

 

Practicing the kingdom way – on musical improvisation and spiritual athletes

Christian practices are ‘rich and repetitive actions we do, over time and often together, which engage our senses and imagination, reminding us of God’s presence and aiming us at his kingdom.’

Let’s briefly return to the jazz pianist. Their ability to improvise and react in the moment is because they’ve honed their skills for years, relentlessly practicing their scales. The same is true for us. By continually repeating certain practices over time, we can partner with the work of transformation God’s doing in us by his Spirit.

There’s nothing mystical about this – spiritual practices are simply actions that lead us to an awareness of God’s presence, and grow our desire for his kingdom. The more often we do these actions, the more regular they are, the more formational will be the effect, as they quickly become second nature by God’s grace.

It can be as simple as taking everyday routines – like brushing your teeth or putting on your shoes – and ‘thickening’ them, reminding ourselves of God throughout our day by imbuing these activities with divine significance. As you clean your teeth in the morning, thank Christ the Saviour for cleansing you from your sins and freshening your breath to speak his words that day. As you put on shoes before leaving the house, remind yourself that the feet that bring good news are beautiful (Isaiah 57:2), and that as the Father sent Jesus, so too he sends us out into our days in the power of the Spirit (John 20:21). You haven’t even left the house yet, but the course of your day has already made you aware of God’s presence, and aimed you towards his kingdom mission.

Practices have most power to shape our hearts when they’re embodied, and when they’re done in community alongside others. Embodied practices engage our five senses, forming hooks that stick for a long time in our memory – just think how easily a thought attaches itself to a familiar taste or smell, reminding us of a memory or experience. Community creates both accountability and a place to debrief, where we can share learning. Corporate gatherings become less of a time to put our feet up and passively watch, and more like what John Calvin envisaged: gymnasiums, where we work out and become physically fit. As we repeat these practices by faith, we grow in virtue, as our hearts are shaped to desire his kingdom, and our lives are transformed to look more like Christ.

Picture yourself, then, as a spiritual athlete who trains their body for righteousness by mixing up the exercise regime of spiritual disciplines ancient and modern (1 Corinthians 9:24–27; Philippians 3:7–21). We learn through these practices how to keep attention on Christ who is with us every moment, everywhere. We become the kind of people whose habits reinforce our God-given call on our frontlines, constantly engaged in the mission of God to work and pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18).

As the new humanity, our thinking, desiring, and doing increasingly work as one – head, heart, and hands functioning together, empowered by God’s love – to seek the Father’s just kingdom in the here and now (Matthew 6:33; Ephesians 2:1–10). We shed bad habits, and put on new, virtuous practices as a community who imagine all things under the Lordship of Jesus, while waiting to see this victory in full (Colossians 3:1–17).

How have you used your body and imagination to remain aware of God’s presence in your everyday life? Which fruit of the Spirit do you most need to grow in to effectively join God’s mission right where you are, Monday to Sunday? How might a new habit help to form this in you, to be more fruitful?

 

Getting experimental on your frontline

Let’s spend a bit longer thinking about what these spiritual practices might look like in everyday life.

There are plenty of examples out there from which to draw inspiration. Across millennia, monks have organised their day-to-day life using a ‘rule of life’, a routine designed to guide their growth as disciples. That structure didn’t limit them so much as give them direction – embedding prayer, fasting, silence, service, confession, celebration, and worship in their daily and weekly routines.

Most of these practices still have huge value today when regularly repeated. However, we don’t need to feel constricted to them – there’s room to experiment with what works for each of us in our different daily contexts. We just need to remember the end goal of our practices: the focus shouldn’t be on us, but on aiming ourselves towards God’s kingdom, as we seek to grow more like Christ.

So, what might spiritual practices look like in our modern world? We thought earlier about how we could use our morning routines for our discipleship. But what if we don’t head out of the house in the morning, perhaps because we don’t have work to go to, or because we’re based in a home office? Well, we can be flexible, adapting our practices for the season and stage of life we’re in, doing them in whatever place we normally go.

If you’re working from home, perhaps you can set alarms to go off each hour, rejecting busyness by instead reminding yourself to pray for people and situations from the comfort of your desk. Or choose one day or lunch break each week to abstain from technology (you might need to sit on your hands), fighting the desire to scroll and check the next notification to instead be still in God’s presence. The repetitive action of getting up and walking through a door, as you transition from one activity to the next, can become habitually linked with committing the next task to the Lord.

Whether at home or working out and about, gold-coloured tape on your keyboard can be a prompt to commit the words you type as precious worship offered to the Lord, sharing the truth in love as a way of honouring your reader. Naming slides for microscopic scans becomes a trigger for the lab technician to thank God for his creation, and emptying the bins can become cause for the barista to confess grievances against people leaving litter on the tables and pray for ways to bless frequent customers.

Your imagination is the only limit! Practices are all around you, just waiting to be noticed and cultivated (check out this list of ideas to get your creative juices flowing!). The key thing is to stick at any given practice for a couple of weeks at least, observing the training effects it has on you – cultivating the fruit of the Spirit and your love for God and your neighbours as you cultivate your piece of God’s earth. Then feel free to mix it up when your growth stalls or the practice becomes stale.

What do you do every day that could become a prompt for a quick prayer? When could you fast and spend the time in the Bible instead? What moment in your routine could you mentally tag as a time for thanks or repentance or worship?

 

Starting small and sticking at it…

Though small, these actions eventually become habits. Habits change our hearts from the bottom up, meaning that our loves and our actions come into alignment with our beliefs. Soon, our lives start to imitate our Saviour’s, and we grow into disciples who can improvise fruitfully as we respond to the unpredictable post-Christendom world around us.

So, what regular action could fit the contours of your daily life? Who could you do it with? And how might God transform you as a result? Let the jazz music play!

 

Matt Jolley and Dave Benson
Culture and Discipleship

 


 

Want to go deeper? Read on and discuss with your small group!

In Richard Foster’s classic, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, he distinguishes the following classic spiritual disciplines:

Inner Disciplines

Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, Study

Outer Disciplines

Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, Service

Corporate Disciplines

Confession, Worship, Guidance, Celebration

 

Small group discussion questions
  1. In your understanding and experience, what’s involved in each discipline listed above? Which have you experimented with, and what transformation have you seen as a result?
  1. Are any of these part of your weekly routine at the moment? Why (not)?
  1. What most attracts you to the regular practice of spiritual disciplines? Does anything concern you about it?
  1. What do you make of the claim that ideas alone are not enough – that our heads, hearts, and hands must work together? Share an example from your own journey.
  1. Read Deuteronomy 11:1–2, 18–21. God wanted the children of Israel to enter the promised land. Yet they hadn’t seen his work in the wilderness. Moses gave these instructions so that they would be formed for fruitfulness, rather than rebel as their ancestors did. What does this kind of formation look like in your family and church?
  1. In pairs, choose one of your frontlines and come up with a spiritual practice you could embed into the routines and context of that place. Try and think how you can connect it to all five of your senses to trigger your memory. How might it form the fruit of the Spirit in you? Now, put it into practice for a fortnight and afterward reflect on the growth you saw.

 

For those in leadership at church

Our ‘Sustaining Change’ report (2021, p58) noted that several churches talked about the significance of spiritual practices in how they view life, and how they live it. At the same time, many churches aren’t sure where to begin with embedding corporate spiritual practices into people’s frontline routines.

  1. How has your church experimented in this space?
  1. What might you change to make this a regular part of your gatherings, practicing the way of the kingdom when together so this becomes your second nature when scattered?

 

Other helpful resources:

David E. Fitch, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission (London: IVP, 2016).

Denise Daniels and Shannon Vanderwarker, Working in the Presence of God: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Work (Peabody, MI: Hendrickson, 2019).

Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (London: IVP, 2011).

Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (London: IVP, 2002).

John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to stay emotionally healthy and spiritually alive in the chaos of the modern world (London: Hodder, 2019), with accompanying ‘Un-hurrying Workbook’ here.

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (London: Hodder, 2008).

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015).

https://practicingtheway.org/.

David Benson, ‘A Litany of Practices’, Practical Theology (2019).

Christ’s Pieces page on practices.

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