They have almost identical experiences in your ministry, but have radically different outcomes.
They sit in front of you every week, side by side. It doesn’t matter if you lead a young adult ministry or a high-school small group; they will be there side by side. One of them, Scott, may not look like he’s even paying attention. In fact, you probably suspect he spends most of each session covertly texting his friends using the predicative function of his keyboard amplified by thousands of hours of practice. Sean sits right beside Scott but has a completely different demeanor. He seems totally dialed in to every second of what’s happening, sending you positive nonverbal feedback like one PDA beaming another.
Showing up early and hanging on your every word, Sean seems like the poster boy for your ministry: bright, capable, attentive and really involved. Forty-five minutes after your meeting, he will be home in a room illuminated only by a computer screen, hacking the machine’s security software. Sean can’t wait to feel the rush of giving himself over to Internet porn. Next week he will be back in your meeting—smiling. Scott is also alone in a room 45 minutes after the meeting, wondering about where his life is heading. He begins to pour his heart out to God. Knowing he is not alone makes all the difference. As Scott falls asleep, the thought comes to him again that he should check out an HIV-education project in town that has a critical need for volunteers.
Sitting in front of you every week, side by side, Scott and Sean have almost identical experiences in your ministry, but have radically different outcomes. Their amazingly opposite lives, a paradox I have witnessed countless times in almost 30 years of ministry, poses one of the toughest questions leaders face: Just how do Christians grow spiritually? I no longer believe simple exposure to certain kinds of ministries or programs has much to do with it. Having witnessed people grow and not grow in a variety of ministry formats, ranging from revival services to house churches, the issue seems too complicated to yield a simple fix like new programming. In fact, one friend who is a missionary in Asia has found that even elaborate leadership training systems sometimes have minimal effects on actual behavior, sending the organizers in search of better materials to use next time, usually with the same results.
Many answers are proposed for the question of Christian growth. Here is a brief summary of a few of the major approaches for growth you will find today. Keep in mind these are not watertight compartments; there are many possible combinations:
> Power: Some Christian traditions (like mine; I’m a Pentecostal) contend for an accumulation of powerful encounters in which the Holy Spirit rocks your world in response to prayer—usually, but not always, in a large group worship setting. Placing great emphasis on things like altar calls, charismatic gifts and the laying on of hands, this stream of the faith understands Christian growth as catalyzed by yielding to God in these experiences. Not growing? Get your world rocked some more.
> Process: Other Christ followers, while also valuing corporate worship, place greater emphasis on training systems to spark spiritual growth. The assumption here is that a highly structured study of Scripture leads to a series of commitments, including involvement in the ministry of the congregation, and offers the best approach for the average person. I’ve seen the system described as a baseball diamond, a funnel and a camping trip, but the idea is the same: Discipleship lessons build on each other toward specific personal and congregational goals.
> Pattern: I grew up in a formal Christian tradition that practiced liturgical worship every Sunday morning. Wealways did our service from the same red book (eventually changing to a green book), meaning I sang, prayed and recited almost exactly the same words every Sunday. The assumption, albeit unspoken, was I would grow in grace if I could understand that my life took place in a larger context defined by Jesus and lived out by the Church.
> Position: Coming into ministry in my twenties, I was not prepared for the change in how people saw me. I felt the same on the inside but quickly discovered that others sometimes thought I was actually holy, or more spiritual than they were, simply by virtue of holding a position in a Christian organization. It is easy to let people believe this by our silence. Unfortunately, I know leaders who are only too happy with this situation and actually believe they really are more spiritual than those they lead. The idea seems to be that the position and practice of ministry are a guarantee of spiritual growth because both keep us close to God by definition. If only that were true.
> Personal: Almost everyone in the evangelical world would agree with the idea of the individual’s responsibility to pray and study the scriptures in private. In fact, we take this so seriously I’ve often heard ministers rebuked for reading the Bible only for the purposes of preparing sermons. Apparently, the Lord only values those times when we read with no hope of any practical outcome. This emphasis on personal spirituality treats growth as if we were building the pyramids and each day’s worth of prayer/reading made up another brick. If we miss a day, a brick is lost and has to be made up the next day. Accumulate enough bricks, and you will build your spiritual life.
These personal spiritual disciplines are most often prescribed as the best and most widely available path to the growth of believers. No one believes in them more than I do, but I’ve met too many believers who are pious but unspiritual to believe they are meant to be all-sufficient. Another problem with the traditional way of thinking about the disciplines is we depend on ideas that sound like this: We should read the Bible because the Bible says we should read the Bible. Now I agree with that but think we can do better in persuading the Scotts and Seans of the world to consider connecting with God through the Word. In fact, perhaps we should consider another way of thinking, a model that would concentrate more on practicing a disciplined spirituality than on spiritual disciplines in isolation.
A Model of Disciplined Spirituality
The major problem with the individual disciplines seems to be our tendency to take them like vitamins, as if they were designed to improve our condition by themselves, with little regard for whatever else is going on in our lives. Ironically, it is difficult to find this perspective in the scriptures, the source of the disciplines themselves. A more growth-friendly approach might be found by thinking of the disciplines more broadly and then connecting them to each other in a holistic pattern. A wider perspective on the definition of spiritual disciplines has led me to think of them in four ways:
1) Intentional: All of us have heard someone describe their time with God, often early in the morning, as “doing my devotion.” In one way, there is a lot to like about this expression. Our devotion to a person or a thing can be measured, in part, by the kind of time we invest and the level of our interest during that time. So we need to honor the traditional definition of the disciplines right from the start. Prayer, Bible reading, fasting, meditation and a number of other valuable practices are all part of devoting ourselves to God by intention. Having a plan for regular, special times in which our relationship with God includes unique activities reserved only for those times makes a statement. For example, we pray to no one else, we fast for no other spiritual reason, etc. These practices, then, are made sacred in part by the very special and exclusive way in which they are done. However, I’ve met enough bad leaders who pray and read the Bible religiously to have much faith in these exercises on their own as cultivators of real growth. Intentional disciplines answer the question: “How can I spend relational time with God?” Personally, the older I get, the more drawn I am to times of silence with God, just listening.
2) Constructive: Creating a mash-up involves spotting pieces of pop culture, maybe a popular hip-hop song and a funny but unrelated video, and combining them in some surprising way to make a new art form. In the same way, constructive disciplines are formed out of elements that life brings to us if we have the eyes to see them. Good spiritual disciplines are where we find them. They can be discovered in anything I can engage in regularly that forms me spiritually, helping me to become more Christ-like. The constructive variant answers the question, “Where is God already active in my life?” In Off-Road Disciplines I describe a variety of activities that can spiritualize many leadership practices. For example, leaders who do the hard work of measuring the fruitfulness of their ministries learn much more than how to tabulate statistics. Actually knowing the results of our efforts (as opposed to guessing, assuming or just spiritualizing the issue away as being God’s business) forces us to confront the brutal facts about how we’re doing. What if the leaders of the young adult ministry across town with hundreds attending each week knew for sure that almost all of their attendees were drawn from other churches? I have witnessed this scenario around the country, and discovered that those who practice measurement often face moments of burning repentance and humility when they discover the truth about themselves and their programs. That’s what makes a practice like this a spiritual discipline: If practiced regularly, it can break us to the point where we return to dependence on God. Constructive disciplines like this are all around us. We just need eyes to see them.
3) Accidental: One of the most powerful drivers of innovation in scientific research often shows up as a simple accident. Products as complex as the microprocessor and as simple as the popsicle were either invented or developed because someone stumbled upon their key features inadvertently. Like Velcro (also discovered by accident), many life circumstances that appear “secular” at worst and “sub-spiritual” at best actually offer the platform for growing in our relationship with God. The key to Velcro spirituality is the wisdom to recognize the divine potential in things that may seem like uninvited guests. When Paul met Lydia at the Jewish place of prayer outside of ancient Philippi, he parlayed this chance encounter into an opportunity to share the good news about Jesus for the very first time with a European, creating the first beachhead on the continent for Christianity (Acts 16). In fact, many of the most important spiritual experiences of our lives seem to happen in this unpredictable, unplanned way. Think about where your life would be without these “sacred accidents,” and you will see what I mean. The most important feature of Velcro spirituality, then, is the ability to ask a simple question: Now that this has happened to me, what is God up to in this situation? Answering that question can turn a seemingly random circumstance into an encounter with a God whose intrusions into our lives ironically can seem undisciplined. But responding to these sacred accidents rather than dismissing them as too spontaneous to merit our attention might just change our lives.
4) Destructive: Spiritual growth sometimes depends on removing obstacles just as much as it does on good devotional practices. All of our lives are subject to forces that resist God, forces the Bible refers to as “strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4). These points of resistance can be so powerful that the benefits of years of Bible reading and prayer can seem to be neutralized. For this reason, bringing down strongholds is part of a disciplined spirituality, but in a reverse way. Whether the issue is repenting for behavior patterns, overcoming addiction or bringing a rebellious attitude into submission, our spiritual growth will be both faster and deeper if these obstacles are removed. Without this discipline of demolition, we can do everything else right, but stay in the same spiritual status for years with no appreciable change. The key question about these destructive disciplines is: What needs to be turned around in my life? Most of the time, the answer to this question is not a mystery. However, actually reversing unspiritual patterns usually involves help from other believers who can hold us accountable and encourage us to trust God for real transformation.
Putting these four dimensions of spirituality into relationship with each other might look something like this: This can be a tool for understanding your own Christianity. Chances are, you can locate your primary approach to spirituality somewhere here on the diagram.
Hopefully, this way of thinking about a disciplined spirituality as the relationship among these elements also offers the possibility of removing “me” from the center of your life so Christ can occupy His rightful place there. If my spirituality is just the traditional disciplines, I may turn them into a technology for getting things from God, or a source of guilt and depression because I don’t practice them enough. If my focus is only on overcoming strongholds, my walk with God is not much more than a form of therapy, with my problems occupying the center of my life. However, putting all the dimensions together, with each being a valid and necessary way to experience God, offers a way of being a Christian that is more holistic than the prayer+Bible+Sunday morning formula, which is a silent disappointment to many believers. My goal is not to pray or read more, as good as both of those things are, but to live every aspect of my life within the terms of the Kingdom of God. That kind of life requires a disciplined spirituality that embraces all of life. Until everything is spiritual, nothing really is.
Spiritual Discipline or a Disciplined Spirituality
The acid test for Christians is whether our spirituality actually works for us. If it doesn’t, we have little credibility to offer the world. Is the point of our spiritual disciplines just to measure the regularity of certain behaviors regarded as more “spiritual” than others? If my spirituality is reducible to my practices, something is missing. I run the risk of elevating the performance of my religious duties above the reason for doing them. I also risk collapsing my spirituality into the regularity of my devotions, without much regard to whether my actual life is being transformed. Sustainable spiritual growth is more a matter of discipline than disciplines. A disciplined spirituality brings me into an encounter with God that features as many dimensions as life itself.
They sit in front of you every week, side by side. If Scott’s growth is to continue and if Sean is ever to escape the grip of addiction, something more than guilt-inducing sermons on prayer are going to be necessary. They will need leaders who encourage them in ways of being Christian that are as big as the lives they live. Sometimes we teach a faith that seems small enough to fit neatly within our lives, diminishing it to a kind of value-added feature, like making iced tea taste better by dissolving sugar in it. Jesus did not go to the cross to be part of our lives, but to be our lives. Young adults deserve a spirituality that is both Christ-centered and holistic–all about Jesus, but big enough to enfold our whole life so we live like citizens of the Kingdom of God, rather than Christian tourists in a secular world. This kind of disciplined spirituality offers the combination of mystery and practicality that young adults would find appealing. Scott and Sean are waiting for leaders who will show them the way.