When my life gets out of balance, I start to have a lot in common with the tomatoes in my family garden. Left to their natural inclinations, these tomatoes flop to the ground in a clump, falling far short of the health they’re capable of enjoying. The fruit that should be blessing my family and friends winds up as food for the bugs and fungi instead.
If any of those tomatoes reach our table, it’s only because the plants have been staked and supported. Unless trained by outside interventions, they never get off the ground. The health of the plants and their fruit is dependent upon their supports. These are no substitute for sunlight and water, but they do play a vital role in training the plants to take a shape that will allow us to harvest more fruit for the nurture of human health.
Like the plants, when my stakes and supports aren’t in place, and when my energy is being directed to too many branches at once, I eventually bend under the weight of what otherwise would have been good things.
Can you relate? Whatever it is you do — your job, parenting, leading small groups, preparing for worship, preaching, volunteering in your community — when it all adds up, is it too much? Does it leave you physically and spiritually exhausted?
We too need stakes and supports in our lives that train us for physical and spiritual vibrancy. Following Jesus’ example, early Christians recognized and taught practices that aligned their lives with the work of the Holy Spirit. Because of the vital role they play in spiritual training, these positive habits have long been known as spiritual disciplines.
Prayer, worship, and Bible study are the best known of these, but they are only three among many. Others include solitude (Mark 1:35), silence (Isaiah 30:15), self-examination (Psalm 139), simplicity (1 Thessalonians 4:11), and confession (James 5:16). Abstention from regular activities can also be a discipline, like fasting from food, media, or entertainment (Luke 5:35). Caring for our body and observing daily and weekly rhythms of rest can also be included (Mark 6:31; 1 Kings 19). These are only a handful of the disciplines that Christians have been practicing for two millennia.
Practicing a new discipline
They aren’t called disciplines because we do them without thinking about them. In fact, the discipline whose training we most need may be the most challenging to observe. For this reason, ask God to allow you to discern the one discipline that would benefit you most during your current season. Which one could you add that, instead of being a burden, would actually support and thus remove the weight you currently carry? As Martin Luther paradoxically proclaimed, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” What is your paradox?
After you have identified one discipline, be intentional about practicing it. You may need to start small and work your way up in time. But that’s fine, because a discipline is all about training. And sometimes, training is a slow process that happens in increments.
If the disciplines you practice are such a part of your life that you can do them without thinking about them, it’s probably a good time to be intentional about learning a new discipline.
Involve your congregation
Ironically, despite the role these tools play in spiritual growth, most people learned them not at weekly church gatherings or Bible studies but at home, through books or parachurch discipleship programs. Yet if church leaders do not introduce such practices to new believers and believers who have never learned to engage in them, they may never reap the benefits.
In part because we pray, worship, and study at a congregational level, we most likely carry these practices over into our daily lives. But just because we practice them corporately doesn’t mean that people know how to do them individually.
If you are a pastor, consider planning a sermon series — or, ideally, a retreat — in which you coach congregants through the specifics of how to practice spiritual disciplines. Small groups provide a great environment to learn, practice, and coach disciplines. If you’re a parent, identify a discipline that you can begin observing as a family.
A garden of possibilities
What is weighing down your congregation and its leaders right now? Just imagine the fruit you could bring to the table if each member relied on stakes and supports.
How much more enthusiasm might your congregation experience if we didn’t define rest as participating in church services, but as actually engaging in rhythms of rest? How might their relationships and conversations be transformed if our church members practiced self-examination during the week? What if parents both taught their kids how to confess and modeled it in their own relationships? When spiritual disciplines support spiritual growth, the possibilities are endless.
Does your congregation teach and practice spiritual disciplines? The BA’s online sister publication, Artios Magazine, would love to feature you in an upcoming article. Please share your story by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.