The seven practices of evangelical spirituality

Evangelical identity is often thought to be best defined by the four aspects defined by David Bebbington in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989; London: Routledge, 2003):

There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.

But Bebbington never intended this to be a definition, rather an observation; it is not a very theological description; and it fails to connect the importance of the Bible as the centre of evangelical thinking with the other practices.

We need a fuller, more biblically rooted, and theological understanding of what Scripture calls us to in the spiritual life, and I have identified seven markers in my new Grove booklet, The Practice of Evangelical Spirituality in the Grove Spirituality series. This is how I introduce them.

Is there such a thing as ‘evangelical spirituality’? I was recently in conversation with an evangelical clergy colleague, and mentioned that I was writing something on evangelical spirituality. ‘That’s a bit of an oxymoron!’ came the immediate response, followed by laughter. Some years ago the late Michael Green, former Principal of St John’s College and Rector of St Aldate’s in Oxford, had a similar conversation with a colleague also writing in this area. His response was simply ‘That will be short!’

This is in part because evangelicals have been perceived to be very activist—one of the four things that David Bebbington identified as characterising evangelicalism. Derek Tidball expresses this perception well in his book 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 (page 196).

By contrast, spirituality has been understood to focus on the inner life of contemplation and prayer, and other traditions have stolen a march on this. 

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.’ (Evangelical Anglicans ed R T France and Alister McGrath (London: SPCK, 1993) p 59.)

This distinction actually rests on a false separation between the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ life; scripture consistently portrays humanity as a ‘body-soul’ (‘psychosomatic’) unity, and the teaching of Jesus’ constantly calls us to have an integrity of life, where our heart convictions are expressed in practical action. John Wesley expresses the desire for an integrated spirituality in startling terms:

It has been the endeavour of Satan, from the beginning of the world, to put asunder what God has joined together; to separate inward from outward religion; to set one of these at variance with the other. And herein he has met with no small success among those who were “ignorant of his devices.” 

Many, in all ages, having a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, have been strictly attached to the “righteousness of the law,” the performance of outward duties, but in the meantime wholly regardless of inward righteousness, “the righteousness which is of God by faith.” And many have run into the opposite extreme, disregarding all outward duties, perhaps even “speaking evil of the law, and judging the law,” so far as it enjoins the performance of them. 

It is by this very device of Satan, that faith and works have been so often set at variance with each other.

Even though different theological traditions are sometimes parodied by their opponents as falling into one error or another, all are liable to this mistake. It is not a little ironic that many Protestant churches, supposedly emphasising salvation by grace, appear to make ‘works’ of the utmost importance!

But because we are body-soul unities, it is actually possible to shape our inner life by inhabiting healthy outer practices. I have recently been enjoying Michael Mosley’s recent series on Radio 4 (and the BBC Sounds app) called ‘Just One Thing’. 

If you were going to do just one thing to improve your mental and physical well-being, what should it be?…Each episode will explore one thing you can start doing today to improve your life in ways you might not expect. 

Mosley does explain why each habit brings change and health, from a medical point of view—but he also each week asks someone to simply take up the habit, with no explanation, so they can simply see the benefits. The same is true for the spiritual life; we might want to understand why certain spiritual habits work—but we can just also do them, and they will improve our spiritual life.

So I in this booklet I will focus on seven practices (grouped into the following five chapters) which seem to me to be core to evangelical practice of spirituality both in the past and in the present, and common to people across the range of the ‘evangelical’ label—Changing, Gathering, Reading, Praying, Fasting, Sharing, and Serving. It is very helpful to understand where these come from, why they are important, and how they might shape us. But that is not as important as practising them, and encouraging others to do so as well. ‘Do this, and you will live’ (Luke 10.28).

Questions for Reflection

1. What healthy habits of life have you been taught—spiritual or otherwise?

2. Do you feel the need to understand why these habits work before taking them up or seeing the benefit?

3. Have you noticed the adoption of outward habits shaping your inner life?

4. What new habits and practices might you need to add? What old habits should you drop?

Changing: the need to be converted

I trudged up the hill, and reached the street near the top, and found the house I was looking for. When I knocked on the door, I was greeted by John, a faithful old saint, strong in the faith though frail in the body, especially since his wife had recently died. He made me tea, and then we sat down and he put on a long-playing record for us to listen to. 

Except ye be converted, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven!

Thus boomed out the insistent southern tones of Billy Graham, preaching during his mission in the Harringay Crusade in 1954; John loved listening to recordings of all his preaching. 

There are some fascinating things for us to note about this phrase, which comes from Jesus’ teaching about greatness and servanthood in Matt 18.3. 

The first is that this language has fundamentally shaped evangelical spirituality. Bebbington identifies ‘conversionism’ as the first of the hallmarks of the evangelical movement, and there is no doubt that Billy Graham helped to cement this in the modern era. Yet here is the paradox: this is the only place in the New Testament where ‘conversion’ language arises, and it is found only in the Authorised Version of the New Testament! It is therefore not surprising that, when I have asked evangelical friends and colleagues where the term ‘conversion’ comes from in Scripture, they cannot find it. In fact, it is unique to Matthew; the parallels in Mark 9.37 and Luke 9.48 talk about ‘receiving a child’ not becoming like one, and on another occasion Jesus talks of ‘receiving the kingdom like a child’ (Mark 10.15, Luke 18.17). It is extraordinary that this powerful idea has arisen from the language of a single verse in a single translation in a single gospel! 

Central Idea

And yet the word does represent a central idea in both the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Modern translations render the phrase ‘unless you change’ or ‘turn’ or ‘turn around’, translating the verb strepho; this verb, and its cognate epistrepho, are used in the Greek OT (the Septuagint, LXX) to translate the Hebrew verb shuv. Both verbs are used to describe a literal change of direction but also serve as a metaphor for what Israel needs to do in leaving its life of sin and returning to live in obedience to the holy commands of God. 

In the New Testament, epistrepho is a synonym with the more common verb metanoieo, usually translated ‘repent’. At the beginning of his gospel, Mark summarises Jesus’ preaching as he bursts with energetic dynamism onto the scene in Galilee, in this way:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1.15)

In Jewish, biblical terms, that moment pointed to by the prophets, when God himself would visit his people to liberate them and renew them, had come. In the language of apocalyptic (which pervades the whole New Testament), this old age was coming to an end, and the new age of God’s reign was at hand. The only appropriate response to this was to turn from sin and receive the good news of God’s coming to reign amongst his people in the person of Jesus. 

Even though the call to repentance was not always the first thing that Jesus announced, it was a consistent and persistent feature of his ministry. He spends time with those on the margins and the fringes, not because he was a social worker, but because (he said) they were sick with sin and they needed the healing of a doctor. 

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5.31–32).

In announcing this longed-for new age of the kingdom, Jesus’ disciples also preach a message of repentance as he sent them out: ‘So they went out and preached that people should repent’ (Mark 6.12). And they continued to do this after Jesus ascended; Peter’s speech at Pentecost tells his hearers that the last days prophesied by Joel have come, that God has poured out his Spirit, and that this shows that he has vindicated Jesus, who will return in judgement—so they need to repent (Acts 2.16–36). When they ask what they should do, Peter does not hesitate: ‘Repent and be baptised!’ (Acts 2.38). In fact, it is striking that, all through Acts, the message is not so much ‘God loves you and has a plan for your life’ but ‘God has come to us in Jesus and is the judge of all the world so you need to turn around!’

The chapter goes on to explore whether conversion is a personal or a social issue, whether it must happen in a moment or continues as a process, and what it implies about our relation to the context we live in.

Further chapters in the booklet then explore: the importance of gathering with others for worship, teaching, and the sacraments; centrality of Scripture in evangelical spirituality; the vitality of prayer and the practice of fasting; and the disciplines of active service and joyful proclamation of the good news.

You can order the booklet post-free in the UK or as a digital booklet in PDF from the Grove Books website here. If you would like a review copy that you will write about in a publication or online, please contact me.

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19 thoughts on “The seven practices of evangelical spirituality”

  1. This is timely and very important. Thank you Ian. I am reading Luther for myself for the first time, and finding the “song note” in his work, rather than the dry, cracked note of disputation, condemnation, and oughtery that I was expecting. He was called “the Nightingale of Wittenberg” for good reason: his theology was so sweet, so mellifluous, and that has largely passed me by. Maybe I have tuned it out? But if that is the case, I believed either the wrong God, or heeded the wrong people. Thomas Merton set me free! “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centred ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.” He talked about “the fetish of action” as being the American disease. We only tackle it, and save our souls, by taking time to hear the sweet song of truth, and it’s never too late.

    • I found Thomas Merton profoundly helpful too, not for teaching any specific technique, but for the ‘song’ in his writing. That then led first to Therese de Lisieux, then via Teresa de Avila to the superb ‘Third Spiritual Alphabet’ of Francisco de Osuna. At the same time I was being supported by a convent and sisterhood, and I found great help there (and continue to treasure that help). My experience has been that it’s not ‘either the inner life or the outer life’… but that the inner life is hugely beneficial. At the time I started consciously practising Christian contemplation, it seemed quite a contrast with my highly practical life as a nurse. However, as the practice of the inner life grew, I found that it infiltrated and empowered my busy nursing life on acute and critical care wards, and that the inner life in Christ fed through to the blood, human fluids, and human need and all their practicalities. It was not ‘either… or’. It was opening to God, so the power of the Love of God could flow into action, albeit through the very fallible conduit of my little life.

      At the same time, in the opening up, there is also huge personal blessing in the way we learn ‘trust’ in relationship with God, and God’s devotion, and also encounter the reality that we have souls, and also the expanse of the Love of God, and what sometimes happens in contemplation ‘when perfection comes’. We all look through glass darkly, and indeed contemplative discipline is often ‘waiting’ and ‘gazing’ into a ‘cloud of unknowing’. And yet… God is there, gazing back at us. The time devoted to contemplation may seem selfish and indulgent, but my experience is that it bot only deepens relationship with Jesus Christ, but opens us to the power of the Love of God, which can flow and inhabit our outer lives and actions. I read your review of Maxine Green’s book, by the way, and I do think the Church needs to reclaim some more of its mystical tradition, and could also learn a great deal through closer engagement with some of our religious houses.

      • This mirrors my experience almost exactly, Susannah, but recently I have found the pull of the convent causing a split in my ability to live in the world. I want so profoundly to commit to one thing or the other that I have almost gone mad, and had to pull back. It informed and strengthened my resolve in hard service in the world for many years, so I am puzzled by this recent turn. Thanks for following up!

        • Jenny,

          I think it’s important to know that either route can be acceptable to God. In the end, I think what God desires is givenness and trust. I felt the pull of convent very much, and on Ash Wednesday 2015 I was to move in to the convent and begin the journey as a postulant (after 5 years of guidance before that). However, there were compassionate reasons why I decided at the last minute to pull back. I dearly wanted to give myself to religious life, I was willing to, but God presented me with certain needs of people beyond myself, and I went the other way because of them.

          Of course, I still belong to the Fellowship of my convent, I still practice contemplative discipline, and I have felt enriched and blessed on my journey and in my life. But it was a hard two-way pull at the time. As I say, I think God wants us to give ourselves, and to be willing, but if we devote ourselves to God (fallibly of course, but with sincere intent) and seek to journey with God, and grow in trust in God’s Love, then I think it’s not just one way, but rather, God seeks the heart and wants to journey with us, whichever turning we take.

          I do think spiritual life – and people may pursue that in many ways – can feed into our active lives, so in the end I found on the business of the hospital ward that my service itself grew to be a kind of contemplation in practice. I do hope you find God’s grace and blessing in your unfolding life, and that quiet spirit which may ground us when we come to God and pray, and find quiet spirit between us. That grace of God be with you.

    • While I’ve found benefit in some of the writings if Merton, in Seeds of Contemplation and other books, I’d add a note of caution: it is where he veers off into Eastern mysticism.
      Puritans get bad press, but the writings of Richard Sibbes and John Owen and others have a spiritual profundity, recently promoted by evangelicals Mike Reeves and Dane Ortlund.
      Do we in the furnace and fury, contemplate God, mull over, ruminate, chew over, meditate on Scripture. Do we waste time with God.
      Our minister recently returned from sabbatical. During previous sabbaticals he has studied in depth, books of the Bible. This time he spent his first week in the first few verses of Ephesians.
      One evangelical? of old has a book *The Practice of God’s Presence*-Andrew Murray.
      Another of his books was of great solace at a time of heart surgery: Abide in Christ, first edition, used as a daily devotion in hospital for some weeks prior to surgery.
      ( It was a time which I clearly.recall, taught me how much performance- based much of what passes for Christianity, is. Try harder: do, do, do; not done, done done .
      The books of his, and I still have a number, are likely to be categorised as the deeper Christian Life and hence fall foul of some evangelical cohort.

      • Thomas Merton. For a fuller critique of Merton and his underlying pantheism, Buddhist, Taoist influences, which were in the back of my mind a quick search reveals critiques which serve as a warning to unsuspecting Christians and which put him outside of mainstream Protestant and Roman Catholic theologies, let alone counterfeit Holy Spirit, Triune God spirituality.

      • Thanks Geoff. Over the years I’ve read only a little about spiritual practices. I read Tozer in youth. More specifically Donald Whitney on Christian disciples. Lovelace on dynamics of spiritual life. I’ve never been really drawn to self-confessed ‘spiritualities’ for they tend towards a mysticism that easily becomes unmoored from biblical truth. It’s easy to be ‘spiritual’ if it means going wherever your emotional and cognitive whims lead.

        When we read the psalms the spiritual experiences of the writers are always firmly grounded in the covenant. In the face of circumstances they may wrestle with a covenant which seems to let them down. More often than not they move in perspective to one of deeper faith allowing God to be God.

        God, however, is emphatically the God of the Bible and of the covenant. Every other God even in contemplation is a false idol.

        Personally I feel I am very poor at contemplation and meditation. However, in so far asI experience it, I find my mind reflecting and resting on some truth about God discovered in Scripture. Worship is ‘in truth’. It is glorifying God for who he really is. Meditation is ‘on truth’. And so on.

    • Thank you for this link, Geoff. There is much fuel for helpful meditation. He captured me with this early sentence:

      “In this final passive act, the Queen called us to acknowledge not our inner selves, or our felt selves, or our authentic selves, or whatever the latest psychobabble bon mot is that describes incurvatus in se, (the self curved in on itself) – but God Himself above. “

  2. I took a while to drop a comment on this thread, basically because when I first read it, I didn’t understand it. I’m not at all sure what ‘evangelical’ actually means (who is in? who is out? did T.F. Torrance sneakily change the definition of evangelical when he described Karl Barth as a biblical and evangelical theologian?)

    Also, when I saw ‘evangelical spirituality’ described as an ‘oxymoron’, I then didn’t understand at all what was meant by ‘spirituality’. At this point something clicked and I wonder if ‘spirituality’ is generally taken to mean some false, touchy-feely ‘feeling the Holy vibes’ sort of thing.

    Spirituality, at least for me, is having the rational, thinking mind directed towards God. My `spiritual’ habit is praying each morning – and taking the Lord’s prayer as the guideline for the topics we should be praying about, where we see that first of all we pray that His name be hallowed, His kingdom come, His will be done on earth as it is in heaven – the prayer is outward and God-ward; we are spiritual when we put ourselves at His disposal. Only after this are we led to pray for essential things for ourselves; daily bread, forgiveness for past sins and not to be led into future sins – but the order of the prayer here is very important – firstly praying for His name, His kingdom, His will to be done – which strongly suggests that we have confidence that the Lord is looking after the petitions for ourselves (if we didn’t have some confidence that he was looking after us, then the daily bread, forgiveness of past sins, lead us not into future sins, would be the overwhelming priority in prayer).

    So I see the Spiritual life as one where the thinking mind is directed God-ward. That, of course, requires a renewing of the mind (or ‘conversion’ if you want to call it that way).

  3. I’m with you Jock. I also use the Lord;’s prayer as a structure for my own prayer. If at times this can be a bit wooden nevertheless it keeps me from straying into priorities that are not God’s and from becoming woolly in my petitions

    In the psalms there is a certain similarity even if writers and their situations vary. The reason is they are ‘confined’ by the revelation of the covenant which framed their response. We have a much wider range of revelation in Christ but we are ‘limited’ to what is revealed. It is what is revealed that informs and nourishes our spirituality.

  4. I find it quite disappointing that, at the time of writing this, there have been only 12 posts on the fundamental topic of spirituality. This is compared to 146 posts on the two preceding articles on sex, 318 comments on the article about LLF, and 223 comments on the earlier sex article at the end of April.

    I have tried to participate on the spirituality article, and have appreciated the exchange with Jenny Taylor.

    But what does this say about the relative preoccupation and priority among conservative evangelical contributors to this website?

    Isn’t spiritual practice a topic which should fire people up to comment and share? I mean, it’s a huge part of being a Christian, and the daily relationship we have with God.

    • I don’;t think it says anything about the ‘conservative’ commentators, but much more about the ‘liberal’ ones.

      By and large, the ‘conservative’ comment on all sorts of posts. I cannot recall people like Andrew and Penelope *ever* commenting on posts other than sexuality.

      • Well, perhaps I was wrong to single out ‘conservative evangelical’ contributors the way I did. I should have made a more generalised observation. It just seems clear that people (and I include myself) have been far more expressive on the subject of sex than on subjects like this spirituality one which are integral to Christian daily life. For my part, I appreciate many of your bible studies for their insights and detail. Many articles are really interesting. I won’t lie, I really struggle with some of your views, as you know. But I came to the conclusion that, to avoid individuals dominating discourse, including myself… I will only post a maximum of 3 posts on an article (unless replying direct to you), and try to make them responsive to the article… because in the articles which run to hundreds of comments, certain voices have dominated and I don’t want to do that, and I hope others see the value of making space for a range of other commentators. Things have sometimes got out of hand, and that is not exclusively because of ‘liberal’ commentators. I agree – we *all* need to try to participate constructively.

    • I feel uncomfortable in this discussion now. And sad that one mention of a noted Roman Catholic writer, Thomas Merton, has triggered anything but an interesting discussion on what he had to say about American activism – the bane of the world, surely with its accompanying mania about “growth” and all that that has already meant for cultural and environmental devastation. He was right, whether he was a mystic, interested in Asian spiritualities or not. Were we to jettison the work of serious thinkers because of error, without curiosity, we should surely long ago have rejected Calvin and all his works because he had Servetus put to death! There is more to religion – and being human – than right thought, even though I obviously agree it should not include wrong thought!


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