Lent disciplines for evangelical leaders

Lent.AJ.620One of the constant temptations of evangelicalism is to decide that we have all the answers and so do not need to listen very carefully to what others say. A parallel temptation is to have the same attitude to God. He has revealed himself in Scripture and has made his will evident—so surely we just need to get on with it? Ironically, this attitude is potentially made worse by recent research on church growth. The Centre for Church Growth in Durham has identified key strategies and practices that lead to growth—so surely all we need to get on an implement them, don’t we?

This attitude is evidenced in four tendencies:

Individualism Evangelicals are not unique in this, but we have often valued strong leaders and heroic individuals. If there is a sense that God has raised up a ‘charismatic’ (in terms of personality) leader, then evangelical culture often makes it hard to ask appropriate questions, and shared leadership doesn’t appear to come naturally.

Modernist rationalism. Evangelical commitment to doctrinal expressions of faith can be very helpful in clarifying issues and positions. But it can also be a sign that the underlying philosophical assumptions are highly rationalist, and assume that the autonomy of the sensing subject at the centre of the process of acquiring knowledge. This rationalist approach can also mark some evangelical approaches to the interpretation of Scripture. As long as we have mastered the text, and have the appropriate techniques of interpretation, then we can have complete certainty about what texts might mean in new contexts. In this approach, there is little room for ambiguity or uncertainty.

Resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit. Whilst many evangelicals have been shaped by the charismatic renewal movements that have influenced western churches since the 1960s, others remain highly suspicious. This can be the result of a healthy skepticism about the latest spiritual ‘fad’, or a positive decision to reflect critically on teaching which is not rooted in Scripture. But it can also be an expression of a reluctance to relinquish control, including a reluctance to live in active dependence on the action of God.

Shallow spirituality—or at least the perception of such. Derek Tidball expresses this perception well in Who Are the Evangelicals?:

Many would…question whether evangelicals have much to offer by way of spirituality. Evangelicalism appears to be such an activist faith that the essential characteristics of spirituality can too easily appear to be squeezed out (p 196).

When told someone was giving a talk on evangelical spirituality, Michael Green (former principal of St John’s Nottingham and rector of St Aldate’s, Oxford) responded ‘That will be a short talk then!’. Gerard Hegarty explains why this might be the case:

Roman Catholic usage has come to associate ‘spirituality’ with the ‘inner life’, or the ‘interior life’, thus making the connection with the mystical tradition…It is not difficult to see how this sits ill at ease with the evangelical emphasis upon practical devotion having a direct influence on character and ‘good works’.

And yet if evangelical leaders lose their vital connection with the life of God, the outward focus of evangelical activity becomes a hollow shell and loses the vital touch of grace. David Watson’s constant struggle, recorded honestly in his final, biographical book Fear No Evil, was to love God more than loving the things of God. The ‘good news’ from which evangelicals get their name is not so much a thing as an act of personal communication from the Creator to his creatures. To understand and communicate this message requires a constant deepening of understanding the person who has sent it.

A good way to reflect on our engagement with God is by considering some of the classic spiritual disciplines.

1. Sabbath

The discipline of keeping Sabbath is one of the oldest spiritual disciplines of God’s people, given as part of the pattern of their life in desert and promised land following the exodus from slavery in Egypt. Over the centuries it became one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Jewish people, and in the Second Temple period set them apart from other peoples in the Roman Empire. Despite the advent of Sunday trading, it is still a significant part of Western culture.

For church leaders, there is no small irony in the fact that Sundays can never be a day of rest. To have a pattern of one day a week away from work or ministry therefore requires a act of discipline, a decision to set a day aside. I once remember a conversation with a colleague who said (with some pride) ‘Oh I haven’t had a day off in years.’ The problem with this goes back to the origins of the Sabbath command: in an agrarian subsistence lifestyle, to refrain from work is an explicit act of trust in God’s provision. If we refuse to take time off, we are communicating that our ministry belongs to us, and depends on our own power and effectiveness, rather than depending on God to give the growth (‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth’ 1 Cor 3.6).

On noticeboards, website and newssheets, proclaiming loudly ‘Thursday is my day off!’ might not be the first thing to communicate. But it does demonstrate a commitment to this discipline. What about members of our congregations? With sound systems to man, welcome desks to staff, coffee to be made and chairs to be moved, ‘every member ministry’ can easily become ‘every member busyness.’ We need to reclaim Sabbath rest as part of our communal inheritance in the body of Christ.

fasting2. Fasting

Fasting has been a classic evangelical spiritual discipline. John Wesley would not ordain anyone who was not in the habit of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Fasting continues to be a regular discipline for some evangelicals, but it has become marginalized, and is discussed much less often in evangelical congregations. And strangely, where it is talked about, the pattern of fasting is usually that found in the Old Testament—of occasional, intensive fasting related to particular issues or occasions.

In fact, Jesus appears to have expected his followers to fast, and to fast often. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus warns against doing our ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, as a way of parading our spirituality. And what does he mention as these regular, frequent spiritual habits? Giving, praying…and fasting. If we read the gospels carefully, we can see that the disciples of John and the Pharisees fasted ‘often’ (Luke 5.33), and Luke even goes on to tell us exactly how often: ‘twice a week’ (Luke 18.12). (This regular fasting would usually have been from after breakfast until a light evening meal.) We need to look outside the gospels, to the early Christian document The Didache, to find out on which days: Mondays and Thursdays. The document (whose name means ‘Teaching’) goes on to specify how followers of Jesus should distinguish themselves from these Jewish ‘hypocrites’: by fasting instead on Wednesdays and Fridays!

The change in pattern of fasting from Old Testament to New was linked with the growth in expectation of God’s deliverance of his people, possibly by means of an ‘anointed’ leader. This link with messianic expectation is confirmed by Jesus’ response to the question about fasting:

How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast. (Mark 2.19–20)

In other words, Jesus associates fasting with expectation of the coming of messiah, the bridegroom, either for the first time, or on his return. In the ancient world, eating signified engagement with the world, and ascetic practices like going without food signified detachment from the world. Regular, intermittent fasting then signifies both an attachment with this world but a longing for the world to come—it is a tangible, dietary way of being ‘in the world, but not of the world’ (John 17.16).

By a wonderful providential coincidence, this pattern of fasting is the kind proposed by Michael Mosley in The Fast Diet. It has physical benefits—but most of all it keeps us rooted in the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ of the kingdom of God. It is a practical way to ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (Matt 5.6).

3. Silence

In A Passage to India, E M Forster describes how one character, Mrs Moore, enters a cave and hears all the echoes that her sounds make. She realises that this is how she feels about ‘poor little talkative Christianity’—that is consists of a constant echoing of the same sounds again and again. If Christianity is talkative, then evangelicalism is, perhaps, the most talkative variety. At one level, this arises from a commitment to the value of words. But, like money supply in the economy, if there are too many of them, their value diminishes.

Practising the discipline of keeping silence before others will develop our ability to listen well, to offer hospitable space to the views of others. It will help us to learn that, in a world of social media connectivity, it isn’t actually necessary to correct every wrong view that is out there.

Practising the discipline of keeping silence before God will develop our ability to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, and take us away from prayer as a shopping list of requests.


Membership-hands4. Mutuality

‘Mutuality’ might sound strange as a spiritual discipline, but it is vital to continued personal spiritual health. One thing that is very striking about Paul’s ministry is that (contrary to Mr Incredible!) he never worked alone. In his ‘missionary journeys’ he always worked with at least one partner. The one exception to this was his time in Athens (Acts 17)—which is notable by the small effect it had compared with his ministry in other places. Many of Paul’s letters are co-authored (1 Corinthians with Sosthenes, Colossians and Philippians with Timothy, 1 and 2 Thessalonians with Silas and Timothy), and Romans 16 offers us a long parade of Paul’s co-workers and partners in mission. There is little evidence of monarchical leadership in Pauline churches; the more typical pattern is of shared leadership like that in Antioch (Acts 13.1).

For some, a small cell group of people who trained together in leadership offers a robust context for mutual accountability and support where the depth of friendship grows over the years. For others, having a ‘spiritual director’ or mentor, who is outside the immediate context of ministry, offers something similar. For others still, long-term friendships can provide this kind of mutuality.

Mutuality in ministry needs to extend not just to peers in leadership but also within congregations. I am not sure Paul, who was ‘in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed’ in the Galatian Christians (Gal 4.19) would recognize the clergy/lay divide expressed in the idea that ‘You cannot make friends with members of your congregation.’

These four disciplines of Sabbath, fasting, silence and mutuality are the spiritual antidote to workaholism, autonomy, talkativeness and individualism which are the frequent failings of evangelical leadership. Instead of pushing power, ideas and language out from the leader, they create a hospitable space of welcome for both the other and The Other to be received.

Questions for reflection

Personal: how far have you embraced these spiritual disciplines? Do you have a mature and developing ‘rule of life’, a pattern of spiritual disciplines which nourish your own discipleship and your life in God? Do you give space to God, and not just to the things of God?

Communal: is there an awareness within the community you lead of the Christian life having shape and texture through a shared sense of spirituality? Is coming to faith seen as induction into communal spiritual disciplines?

Programme: what opportunities are there within your community for people to develop their ministry, and share in leadership? Where do you explore spiritual disciplines together?

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3 thoughts on “Lent disciplines for evangelical leaders”

  1. Ian – thanks for this, very helpful and not just for Lent. As you suggest we have much to learn from others.

    I baulk slightly at the common practice of drawing a ring around ‘Spirituality’ so that it includes chiefly ‘devotional’ things and excludes practical or physical discipline. For example I am continually surprised that sacrificial giving rarely appears in ‘Spirituality’ conversations – and I think this is something that evangelical Christians get more right than others.

    But even thinking about inwards devotions, while there is no doubt less bible reading and study than we think there was in the past, this core Spiritual Discipline is more likely to be spread among the ‘rank and file’ in evangelical congregations that others. Perhaps our weakness is to offer a simplistic package of ‘Quiet Time’ that seems shallow after a while. But things are changing (as your article is evidence of). Indeed I wonder if the time is approaching when as many (or as few) evangelicals take retreats and have spiritual directors as catholics.

    I think evangelicals should not sell themselves quite so short as Michael Green’s flippant comments suggests we do.

  2. Hi Ian,

    I must admit to getting a little twitchy when people talk about the spiritual disciplines, especially when talking about the rather nebulous phrase ‘spirituality’. So much of what you say is good, but I do feel like it can be unhelpful to focus on the ‘disciplines’ when God is the one who works in us.

    Back in 1994 Don Carson wrote an article in JETS – When is Spirituality Spiritual? which I think is quite helpful. I think his conclusion is quite apt:

    People speak of the spirituality of sacraments, or the spirituality of poverty, or the spirituality of silence. It is true that God may become very real to his people in the context of poverty. It is true that the corporate celebration of the Lord’s supper may be a time of self-examination, confession,
    forgiveness, joy in the Holy Spirit. There are many means of grace. But perhaps the most important means of grace, certainly the means of grace almost entirely unmentioned in current publication on spirituality, is the Word of God.

    On the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17)—and there will never be much sanctification apart from the word of truth. It is the entrance of God’s Word that brings light. It is constant meditation on God’s law that distinguishes the wise from the unwise, the just from the unjust (Psalm 1). I do not deny that certain kinds of Bible study can be singularly arid, skeptical, merely formal, just as certain approaches to the Lord’s table may do more harm than good (1 Cor 11:17 ff.). But the heavy stress in Scripture on understanding, absorbing, meditating upon, proclaiming, memorizing (“hiding it in one’s heart”), reading, and hearing the word of God is so striking that it will be ignored at our peril. That is why the best of the evangelical heritage has always emphasized what might be called the spirituality of the Word.

    It is within this framework that other “techniques,” rightly deployed, may be of some value.

    I like what you say about Sabbath and mutuality. I’m not convinced that fasting should be a regular thing for Christians, although I think you make a good case. But I’m not convinced that ‘silence’ in and of itself is particularly beneficial (Well, unless one thinks of Prov 17:28, maybe I should have heeded it before writing this comment!) I feel that often people talk about ‘silence’ as if it is beneficial in and of itself – but I think silence is only beneficial if it helps you to serve and obey the Lord. If you go too far down the silence road you end up with contemplative prayer, which … well, let’s not go there!

    Anyway, thought provoking post, thank you!

  3. fantastic again ian. iknow i need to apply all this stuff to me. fasting is just not about food it is about fasting from anything that takes over from god. i am well aware i need to try and fast from the phone and social media sometimes as well as food. food is hard as my new meds has given an even bigger appetite! my new challenge? it is important to fast joyfully and not moan about it. jesus said that, please let me know where. it’s where. he said not to fast as the pharisees fast! stillness and silence before god are SO important especialy when you have an active mind which you intentionally have to switch off(like myself).also in the silence i don’t think we should expect to hear from god. just waiting on him honours him.we may “hear! weeks,or months later!! accountabilty is so important, i fully believe what it says in james about confessing our sins to one another as wel as god. i would like to be accountable to someone i can trust and who is non-judgemental.i would like more fellow christians round me. i would LOVE to join a small group. please put agood word in at sml for me!!!


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