By Brian Jones
Whenever people talk about moving beyond facilitating conversions to making disciples, someone will inevitably say that teaching and practicing the spiritual disciplines will be vital to making this happen. I couldn’t disagree more.
Years ago Richard Foster released a perennially best-selling book called Celebration of Discipline. In it he outlined 12 disciplines Christians have engaged in over the last 2,000 years to help them live more spiritually abundant lives—meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.
The church should be profoundly grateful for that book, and profoundly ticked off.
Someone said a person’s greatest weakness is his or her greatest strength pushed to an extreme. That’s pretty much how I feel about that book, and all the other books about spiritual disciplines that have followed. The way these authors take, digest, and push spiritual disciplines in an extreme way adds more guilt and pressure than anything.
No one I’ve ever met who has read the book or others like it feels like he prays enough. Or reads his Bible enough. Or shares her faith enough. Or gives enough. Or worships enough. And on and on and on.
Can Worship Become a Discipline?
Take worship for example.
Years ago I used to frequent a Vineyard Christian Fellowship’s Saturday night service. I was pretty burned out at the time, and I really liked the pastor of the church, so I’d sneak over there every three months or so to get a spiritual shot in the arm.
I’ll never forget the Saturday the worship pastor stood up and told the congregation, “In my prayer time this week God told me that we are supposed to begin taking our worship to the streets. So what we’re going to do is rent a huge flatbed truck, put our entire worship team on it, hook our speakers up to a generator, and drive it through the streets playing worship music and lifting our hands to Jesus!”
That’s just wonderful, I thought, because, I don’t know, people don’t already think Christians are freaky enough.
The problem wasn’t the goal. As stupid as I thought the idea was at the time, I appreciated the desire to get out in the streets. And the problem wasn’t the method. While I’m not sure turning 10 artsy people loose on a flatbed truck with microphones was the smartest thing to do, at least they were trying something. The problem was with their definition of worship.
Worship = singing songs accompanied by music.
What the worship pastor didn’t understand was his people already hit the streets and worshipped every day of their lives. They did it through their work, their attitudes, by the way they washed and waxed their cars, hugged their wives, and cut their lawns.
But more importantly, the bigger problem with the worship pastor’s suggestion was it belied the fact that he had let his American, utilitarian worldview seep into his understanding of what it means to ascribe worth (“worth-ship”) to God.
Worship can’t be “turned on.” People can’t be “led into” worship. Christians are continuously worshipping—24/7—all the time. Through everything they do, say, feel, and give.
Can Spiritual Growth Happen Without Bible Study?
Or let’s take the granddaddy spiritual discipline of them all—daily Bible study.
Many Christians act as though they believe a leather-bound copy of the Bible descended from the sky immediately after Jesus died, rose from the dead, and went back to Heaven. This Bible—complete with the 27 finalized books of the New Testament and Jesus’ words etched in red—was delivered to the church and has been studied in perpetuity by Christians around the world.
The reality is we didn’t have the New Testament in its complete form until AD 367 when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed all its 27 books for the first time.
That’s more than 300 years after Jesus returned to Heaven. By comparison, it’s like Jesus showing up in the Jamestown colony when it had only 75 people in it, teaching, dying, rising from the dead, and then the Bible coming together in its final form this week right before we head out to Applebee’s for lunch.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a Christian without a Bible.
One hundred years after Jesus left, it appears some churches had copies of the collected letters of Paul and a Gospel or two, but that’s it. Many had collections with books of debated authenticity that were later ferreted out. No one had a final New Testament like we have today. Whatever copies existed remained in the possession of the local church leadership. No one, it appears, owned his own copy of the Bible for personal “Bible study” unless he was wealthy enough to pay the substantial cost to have it transcribed (cf. Luke 1:3, 4).
Besides, with the high rate of illiteracy among the social groups represented among the rank and file of second- and third-century churches, having a personal copy of the Bible would have been useless anyway. Many Christians wouldn’t have been able to read it.
I bring up all this to make one simple point: the modern-day church places an unreasonable amount of emphasis on studying the Bible.
It’s obvious, from historical observation alone, that one can be a sold-out, fully devout, willing-to-die-a-martyr’s-death follower of Jesus and spend very little time practicing the spiritual discipline of Bible study.
What if one of the reasons we’re so spiritually dead and the church is abysmally failing at its mission to move beyond just making converts is not because we study the Bible too little, but too much?
Instead of being out and about extending the works of the kingdom, Christians are wasting precious time excessively studying the Bible in groups and feeling quite content that if they’re practicing the spiritual disciplines at home, then they’ve done their duty and can call it a day.
Who cares if I never open my mouth and share my faith today? Or forgive those who mess me over? Or share my money with those in need, or my house with the homeless?
All is good. I read my Bible today.
How Does Spiritual Growth Really Happen?
I believe a Christian taking credit for growing closer to God is like a rooster taking credit for the sun coming up in the morning.
Bible study, worship, and prayer are all vital parts of the Christian journey and powerfully aid in creating the context in which God can draw near to us. However, in the vast majority of instances, God makes himself known to us in spite of what we try to do, not because of it.
The spiritual disciplines gurus imply that our personal spiritual growth is something we have complete control over. They’re convinced it’s something we initiate, structure, and maintain.
The reality is if you talk to 100 Christians about where they were spiritually five years ago and where they are today, the vast majority will tell you their spiritual growth had more to do with what God did to them than all their feeble attempts to practice the spiritual disciplines.
Looking back at the last five years, here were the major culprits in my spiritual advancement . . .
Suffering: I grew because God allowed painful things to happen in my life.
God nudged me to get away and listen: I look back in wonder at how many times I heard nothing during my planned prayer time, but sensed the risen Jesus pulling me away to come into his presence during utterly unexpected times.
A friend’s rebuke: Someone I trusted saw something in my life that needed to change and had the gumption to call
me on it. Having friends who obeyed James 5:19, 20 and Galatians 6:1, 2 profoundly impacted me over the last five years.
God caused hurting people to cross my path: I didn’t plan it. I didn’t want it. I wasn’t looking for it. Yet God allowed, caused, or nudged some hurting person to cross my path. And in the process of helping them I grew as a disciple of Jesus.
God’s silence: Looking back, I’m surprised at how much God’s silence, not his speech, produced remarkable levels of spiritual maturity in me.
In Advice to Sufferers, John Bunyan observed, “It is said that in some countries trees will grow, but will bear no fruit, because there is no winter there.” I’ve come to believe that life in the Spirit is the same way.
The corporate worship gathering: It’s become quite the fad nowadays to slight the corporate worship service as an impotent spiritual experience. I couldn’t disagree more. I can look back on countless times over the last five years when God showed up in our weekend gathering: in a message, the Lord’s Supper, a song, or when someone was sharing a part of his pilgrimage.
What do all of these situations have in common? I didn’t initiate any of them.
Does this discount the practice of the spiritual disciplines? Of course not.
But it does, in my mind at least, help us accurately gauge their perceived importance within the conversation about moving beyond facilitating conversions to making disciples.
What the church needs right now are evangelistically passionate disciples, not guilt-ridden, would-be monks.
And in the words of the great American theologian Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Brian Jones is founding pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Royersford, Pennsylvania. He’s the author of Second Guessing God and Getting Rid of the Gorilla: Confessions on the Struggle to Forgive. Learn more about his ministry and writing at www.brianjones.com.