Good theology has long been a priority among evangelical churches. Pastors spend years studying, reading, and refining their theological understanding. Church members expect teachings that are biblically sound, critically sharp, historically grounded, with cultural savvy. And no-one is suggesting that we relax these high standards. As Hebrews suggests, believers should be concerned with their spiritual nutrition, “Now everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced…But solid food is for the mature – for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil” (Heb 5:13-14).
But what if churches have put all their focus on nutrition, at the expense of spiritual practices?
Ask any coach if nutrition is important, they will tell you definitely. Ask any coach is practice is important, and they will tell you that it is absolutely critical! In fact, given the choice between a team going for a week or two without good nutrition verses good practices, it is probable that most (if not all) coaches would chose practice!
It seems we act as if we can just get the nutritional (theology) element of our faith (our minds) right, that somehow we can be good Christians. But imagine a football team that ate right, spent time watching film, studied the philosophy of the sport, but never actually practiced and only played on game-day? We would call that crazy – or lazy – but certainly not a recipe for success.
First Timothy clearly presents that we are to practice godliness, “For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim 4:8). But how?
But we don’t seem to talk about practice, or what the ancients called the spiritual disciplines; at least not nearly as often as doctrine! With the exception of personal Bible study – which is really just a self-expression of the nutritional element – we hardly get practical help from most churches on how to practice prayer, fasting , and meditation. Further expressions of spiritual discipline (as outlined by Richard Foster) include simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.
The spiritual life has to be practiced, its not just a suggestion. Spiritual practices, like confession, cannot be ignored because of latent fear over abuses from the Catholic tradition. A lifestyle of simplicity (the opposite expression of consumerism) shouldn’t be an exception for the Western church, but its hallmark. Worship is a practice that each individual incorporates into their daily lives, it IS NOT simply a music genre on your smartphone.
The way forward in these practices for the church is simple, like any practical responsibility, we are simply called to do them. The day to day realities of our lives demand day to day practice.
We must be a people who practice our faith, not just think about it.
For further reading on this topic (not just to get the right thoughts, but the proper practice), here’s a few suggestions.
Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline.
James K.A. Smith's You Are What You Love.
Evan Howard's A Guide To Christian Spiritual Formation.
Adele Calhoun's Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.