Trying to convince computer-age people to practice spiritual disciplines—such as regular prayer, Bible study, and giving—is like trying to sell hair restorer to a bald man. He might accept that he needs the stuff, but he's not convinced your product can deliver. In response to an article I'd written on fasting, a lady wrote, "You don't really believe we're supposed to do that in the twentieth century, do you?"
The trick, for those of us who are pastors and church leaders, is finding ways to minimize the obstacles and give people the joy of discipline. Here are some ways our congregation has found to do that.
Present Disciplines as Normal
Most Christians wish they were more disciplined. They know they should pray consistently, read their Bibles more regularly, and give generously—just as they should exercise more faithfully and spend their time more wisely. But their guilt about their lack in these areas causes them to dismiss the disciplines, considering them only for the spiritually elite. After all, how many people besides Martin Luther and John Wesley get up early for an hour of prayer? As a result, many people accept the notion, "I'm just not a disciplined person," and leave it at that.
It's vital for a church to talk about Christian disciplines as a normal part of the believer's life, not an add-on for the spiritually elite. Churches can introduce the spiritual disciplines in the new member's class so that people hear about them right from the beginning. Churches should stress that they don't endorse one set of principles for normal folk and another for the all-stars.
Model Them Through Leadership
As we all know, the Christian life is more caught than taught. Parishioners follow our lives more than our words. So the leaders of our congregation are constantly reminded that they set a standard for the people.
I was in the home of a former member who is now a pastor. He said that when he was a member of our congregation, he knew the leaders were giving quality and quantity time to prayer. It made him want to do the same thing. One young father told me recently, "As I saw leaders applying various disciplines to their lives, I desired to grow in Christ with them."
Move in Slow Motion
On the other hand, the commitment of leaders can, for some people, be too intimidating a model. My predecessor, for instance, rose at 4 A.M., jogged eight miles while praying for the church, worked on memorizing books of the Bible, had his personal prayer time, made entries into his journal, and daily met for prayer with a group of men—all before family devotions at 7:15 sharp! He was careful not to make his program normative, but his example brought challenge to some and groans to others.
We've learned to go slow. Before we called the congregation to a fast a year ago, we discussed it among the elders for several weeks. I then taught on the subject for several weeks. Then we issued the invitation to join us in fasting.
People appreciate moving deliberately. Moving slowly and steadily gives our members a sense of peace and security. They know we aren't going to pull any fast ones on them.
Our through-the-Bible confirmation program starts in fourth grade and teaches children prayer, Bible study, and memory work. We now have teachers who went through the program as children.
We also encourage parents to start their children in personal and family devotions. A young man on our church council attributes his interest in regular Bible study and prayer to his father's persistence. "We were sometimes grumpy when he called us together early in the morning for devotions," he says, "but he kept on doing it. His consistency made it a major priority for me now."
Avoid the Dual Dangers
Two dangers confront us in encouraging spiritual disciplines. One is giving people the impression that it's all up to them—they were saved by grace, but now they had better roll up their sleeves and get to work. One woman in our congregation, for example, returned from a teaching seminar and made six life-changing commitments, including one to meditate daily. I rejoiced in her enthusiasm but cautioned her to be easy on herself. Her five children weren't knocking at her knees when she made her commitments. The challenge of stepping into spiritual disciplines must be tempered with realism.
On the other side are those who believe God does everything. They're content to relax, not wishing to disturb grace by their works. Having walked with the Lord for 20 years, they're still giving the Lord only 5 quick minutes before falling off to sleep at night. Such people may need a kick in the pants rather than a pat on the back.
For example, I recently called George, a member of our congregation, to tell him I expected him at the men's prayer group at 6 the following morning. He wasn't home, so I left the message with his wife. I told her that if he wasn't at the breakfast, I would come over and throw him out of bed.
My wife, who heard me, wondered why I'd spoken so insensitively. The reason could be seen the next morning. When George's alarm went off, he struggled to decide whether to get up. However, when his wife remembered my call and passed on the message, he decided to come. During the prayer meeting, George thanked the Lord for the "encouragement" he'd received from a brother "who cared whether I came." As I explained to my wife, some people need toughness and can handle it. George is a coach who knows both how to give and how to receive a challenge.
Growing as a pastoral leader involves discerning whether a person needs a kick or a pat. I've had church members who responded best to a challenge that demanded everything of them. Those who don't have that kind of motivation may need encouragement bit by bit. Paul struck the balance when he urged believers, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling," adding that "God is at work within you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
Excerpted from our sister publication Leadership Journal, © 1988 by Christianity Today International. For more articles like this, visit LeadershipJournal.net.