There’s an old saying that you can tell a lot about a preacher by what she chooses to preach. Truth is, most preachers speak to themselves and let the congregation listen in. I bring this up because in today’s post I want to look at some practices that seem to be in decline amongst many Christians. The danger is that I’m projecting my own struggles onto others. Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I’ve been totally content with my spiritual practice. Perhaps its temperamental, but it always seems that I could be more earnest in prayer, more assiduous in study, more sacrificial in generosity. I have to return frequently to the gospel truth that regardless of my own efforts or diligence, I cannot recommend myself to God–Christ alone is the source of my salvation.
As I consider contemporary Christianity, I’m convinced that our churches need to grow in five areas:
The Bible has become marginalized in the life of the church for a variety of reasons. Many Christians appear to be incapable of reading it for themselves and interpreting it as a guide for life and practice. The variety of interpretations of the Bible has caused some to give up and assign the Bible to some sort of secondary authority because since there is no unanimity of opinion it must mean that the Bible has nothing to say to me. In practice the Scripture is replaced by a culture-formed conscience. Others are just too busy, tired, or distracted to sit with the Bible for the time necessary to actually digest it.
We face at least three challenges in the discipleship ministry of our churches:
- Teaching Christians to read and interpret the Bible for themselves and in conversation with the Church.
- Guiding Christians into an awareness of the relative values of the doctrines developed from the Bible.
- Equipping and encouraging believers to create space in their lives for sustained Bible reading.
By silence, I don’t mean the absence of noise. Instead, I’m referring to an inner silence–an internal quietening of the soul and the mind before God. Regardless of the stream of Christianity we’re in, each has a tradition of quietness in the presence of God. For some this is best done alone; for others it can be done in community. What’s needed, regardless, is the slowing down of our minds and of our hearts so that we are aware of our humanity and of the presence of a loving God.
As a culture we are loud, anxious, entitled, and manic. There are precious few sources of inspiration to this practice outside of the church. If the church is unable to encourage Christians to slow down before God, then it won’t happen.
I have a feeling that prayer as practiced by many evangelical Christians is no longer sufficient. If we are distracted, anxious, manic, it seems unwise to counsel Christians simply to cease that and enter into a quiet internal monologue. Experience shows that this sort of prayer practice will likely lead to a wandering mind and only a temporary abatement of internal noise.
The church needs to work on providing Christians with the resources to prayer better. For example, I recommend that we augment our normal prayers with the use of a prayer book. Some fine examples include:
- Celtic Daily Prayer [The Northumbria Community]
- The Divine Hours [Influenced by the Anglican tradition]
- The Book of Common Prayer [Episcopal]
- The Book of Common Worship [Presbyterian]
If this is something new to you, check out Scott McKnight’s book Praying with the Church. It introduces the concept of fixed-hour, liturgical prayer.
By generosity I mean so much more than simply financial gifts. By generosity I really mean magnanimity. The Latin roots of magnanimous refers to a largeness of soul. It is the very opposity of a petty, small-minded, vindictive life that seeks only what is good for itself. Rather, the generous person seeks the welfare of all and considers others more esteemed than himself. It’s not thinking less of oneself; it is thinking of oneself less (to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis).
Simplicity is the opposite of complexity. It can also be, according to Oliver Wendell Holmes, something that is reached beyond complexity. His famous dictum is, “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” One of the gifts of a highly intelligent and diligent person is that of making complex ideas seem simple without doing violence to the idea itself.
As we look at our lives there is the sort of simplicty that is the result of laziness or of indifference–it’s easy to not be rushed when you’re failing to take responsibility for providing for your family or for contributing to society. Then there’s the type of simplicty that is the result of a series of intentional decisions about values and how your life reflects those values. It brings to mind Eric Liddell whose high view of the Lord’s Day precluded him from running races on Sunday. Obeying the fourth commandment was, for Liddell, an intentional decision born of his Christian discipleship and not some publicity stunt designed to get a movie deal.
The church must help its members make intentional decisions that reflect the core values of their life and of the faith.
What do you think?