RESEARCH: The role of spiritual practices in whole-life discipleship
First part of in-depth ‘Shaping Disciples’ research reveals the day-to-day benefits of disciples’ current engagement with spiritual practices. ...
Do you want to grow as a disciple of Jesus?
Do you want that growth to impact every area of your life – not just who you are on Sunday morning, but how you work on Monday, how you treat the kids on Tuesday, how you speak to your mates in the pub on Wednesday?
Well – what if we told you it only takes a subtle shift in your daily habits to see that kind of visible, impactful growth?
That’s what our latest report on spiritual practices has found! When we embed prayer, Bible reading, and other practices into our everyday lives, it quickly changes the way we behave, the way we feel about ourselves, and the way we see our relationship with God.
That’s true for everyone, regardless of our age or stage. It’s really that simple
Read on for some key findings from the second and final part of our Shaping Disciples research – and if you’re intrigued, check out the full report.
What we did
First, a bit of background. The Shaping Disciples research project explored the effect of different spiritual practices on how Christians live. A spiritual practice is an intentional habit, designed to help disciples deepen their faith, shape their character, and integrate faith into daily life.
Part One was released in April 2022, and focused on which spiritual practices whole-life disciples are currently using and the impact they’re having. Part Two, which this blog is all about, asked what difference we’d see if we taught a group of disciples some tailor-made spiritual practices with a whole-life focus, and helped them integrate those practices into their lives. The results were even more encouraging than we’d hoped.
We recruited 82 normal Christians from across the UK to participate in this research, spending three months doing different spiritual practices in daily life – including Bible reflection, the prayer of Examen, breath prayers, and their own DIY practice.
At the start of the process, we got them to fill out a survey as a spiritual health check, to see where they were at. Then, we taught them four spiritual practices to try out each day, and encouraged them to embed those practices into their daily routine across the next three months. At the end, we got them to fill out the survey again to see if anything had changed. Of the 82 who started, 53 people filled out both surveys – and the results are in.
The proof is in the pudding research
In the surveys, we measured 10 ‘fruitfulness indicators’ as markers of a healthy Christian life – things like doing jobs or tasks well, acting with grace and love, seeing God work through us, and displaying the fruit of the Spirit.
In the initial survey, we asked how often people were seeing these indicators in their lives. After three months using spiritual practices, we asked again – and across every single indicator there was an increase in people living fruitfully ‘a lot’ of the time.
To really hammer this home, we also gave them 14 statements relating to their life as a disciple, and asked whether these things were happening more or less than before. When we asked about how often they felt aware of God’s presence, knew how to act in everyday life, prayed for situations, felt close to God, had healthier thought processes, and had a better attitude to tasks, the majority were seeing them happen more. For another five statements, at least 40% were seeing them happen more.
In other words, most people reported living more like Jesus and having a closer relationship with God as a result of regularly embedding spiritual practices into their daily life.
By now, you might be considering trying out some of these practices for yourself, to see if you grow as a disciple in a similar way. That’s a great place to be – and we’ve got some advice to get you started.
You might also be thinking, ‘Those stats sound encouraging, but exactly what sort of difference can I expect to see if I start incorporating practices into my life?’
Great question. We saw growth take place in three key areas, which we’ll call ‘up’, ‘in’, and ‘out’.
1) ‘Up’: the change in people’s relationship with God
As a result of doing practices like breath prayers, which participants used throughout the day, people saw God at the centre of all they did – not at the periphery in a holy box marked ‘quiet time’ or ‘church’.
Two in three participants felt more aware of God’s presence with them during the day. Most felt closer to God. And over 40% were more aware of his love for them as they went about their tasks. That amazing feeling of seeing God work through you in your job, or in your relationship with your neighbour, became a more regular occurrence.
‘God has become the centre of the day, rather than something which is left on the side. The practices give a method by which I can keep coming back to God, keep him at the centre.’
2) ‘In’: the change in how people view themselves
Relating to God differently helped people see themselves differently too. Participants described themselves as more peaceful and more prayerful as they went about their days. In both surveys, we asked people to choose three words from a list to describe themselves as a disciple. By the end of the three months, 13% more described themselves as ‘purposeful’, and more people chose to describe themselves as ‘faith-filled’ or ‘flourishing’.
Meanwhile, 13% fewer felt ‘stuck’, and fewer felt frustrated or jaded, too. Having embedded practices into their life, the majority of participants had a healthier thought process and a better attitude to their daily tasks.
‘It’s changed how I approach everyday tasks… practices aren’t things you do before you go on to do things in the world outside. All your actions, everything you do, is part of the same process.’
‘Having gone through redundancy in 2021 and starting a new job, I have felt more assured of God’s guidance in my daily life… I notice God’s prompting more frequently to pray during the working day for my colleagues and for tasks we’re working on.’
3) ‘Out’: the change in how people act
The inward change in self-perception led to an external change in how people approached everyday life. Most of the ‘fruitfulness indicators’ we talked about before referred not to how people thought, but how they acted: doing tasks well, changing things for the better, standing up for the truth.
The same goes for the statements. The majority of participants had a better sense of how to act, and nearly half felt they represented Jesus better and related to others better at the end of the process. They were being more patient in responding to frustrating situations with the kids, more honest where they got things wrong, and more kind and considerate towards friends. They were caring for colleagues, concentrating better in work meetings, and responding to God’s prompting in conversations with neighbours.
The practices people used were all oriented towards applying faith to everyday life, and using the things they already did throughout their days – daily habits, their breathing – as a prompt to pray or reflect, leading them to invite God into all of their lives.
And, it’s not surprising that the people around our participants noticed the difference too:
‘Naturally, I’m quite a short-tempered person. But, the feedback I’ve got from colleagues over the last few weeks [since using the practices] is that I’m very diplomatic. So, it seems that the change in my behaviour and approach is working.’
‘In my review with my line manager, they said that just over the last couple of months, they’ve seen a new level of maturity, a new steadiness rather than being massively up and down. I think you can definitely put that down to the practices.’
So, there you have it. Spiritual practices – when embedded consistently into everyday life – help us to grow more like Jesus and live as he would if he were us – wherever we are, whatever we’re doing.
If you’ve read this far, hopefully you’re convinced and ready to get going. And we’re here to help with that! This Shaping Disciples research also explored what helped people keep going with spiritual practices beyond day one or two. So whether you’re looking to embed practices in your own life, or you’re a church leader wondering how to help your congregation engage, check out our findings – which are full of practical tips you can use.
Because, at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to live more like Jesus?
Research and Implementation Manager