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Developing Disciplines With an Outward Focus

While the disciplines are meant to refine our faith, it’s important to remember that they are meant to be practiced with others in mind.

We generally think of spiritual disciplines as meant for ourselves—disciplines universally practiced by Christians but, for the most part, experienced on individual terms. Why is that? At the crux of it all, spiritual disciplines are no exception to the missional lifestyle Christ compels us to live. They serve to engage us in community with God, equipping us to make disciples of others—meaning we should think of the disciplines in terms of missional application rather than self-transformation.

Disciplines such as service, evangelism, fasting and worship are not ideas we follow to qualify as better Christians. They are simply practices where the spirit is trained to spend time understanding God’s character. Craig Van Gelder, author of Ministry of the Missional Church and professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary, says, “Spiritual disciplines are not obligations—they grow out of this very unique relationship we have with the living God.”

While the disciplines are meant to refine our faith, it’s important to remember that they are meant to be practiced with others in mind. “It’s cultivating that relationship that leads to the possibility of a more fruitful engagement in reaching out,” Van Gelder says. “Spiritual disciplines are not merely for the individual’s transformation, but for the community at large.”

Dwight Zscheile, pastor and Ph.D. candidate at Luther Seminary, adds, “The spiritual disciplines add something that is an expression of the Christian life, the way into the Christian life that everyone is equipped to be familiar with and practice together in community in a relational way; it’s not only individual.”

Certain disciplines, more than others, lend themselves naturally to a mindset focused on reaching others. It is not difficult, for example, to find tangible ways to serve others, whether individually or as a group.

Chris Heuertz is the author of Simple Spirituality and the International Executive Director of Word Made Flesh, an organization dedicated to reaching the poor through teaching, discipleship and media. Word Made Flesh has discovered that simply fulfilling the basic needs of individuals speaks volumes. “We really just want to embody the love of Christ as we stumble into our love for Christ,” Heuertz says. “We try to be a good neighbor; we try to participate in these grassroots movements toward justice and equality as an attempt to proclaim that there is a good God in a bad world.”

Service is more than a mission; it is a mentality. It is the conscious awareness that the Church is to make itself the least, meant to place itself at the feet of the community. Through their community centers, drop-in centers, children’s homes and hospices, Word Made Flesh is able to develop personal relationships with homeless children, victims of sex trafficking and former child soldiers.

Like service, evangelism is an obviously others-focused act—but we can still seek to continually find ways to reach others in new and impactful ways; Zscheile has seen an increasingly broadened perspective not only on sharing Christ with others, but on how to do so. “We’re seeing more and more young people who are seekers, or unchurched, being drawn to experiential forms of evangelism,” he says. “Rather than presenting the Gospel in a propositional way, we see people inviting others to join in practices, to come to a prayer group or serve on a team in helping the poor. For the Church to practice the disciplines in such a way that others are able to be invited to come along is a powerful way to approach evangelism in the 21st century.”

More challenging are those disciplines that seem tailored for solitary pursuit. Meditation, for example, conjures up images of sitting quietly, alone, to spend time in the Word and in prayer. But meditation—as well as all the disciplines—should be approached from an intentionally missional standpoint. “It has to be taken in a holistic view, so that they all complement one another,” Van Gelder says. “If there’s a particular [discipline] missing in the life of a community or disciple, then that will impact the whole. Some of the disciplines are going to be more obviously outward-focused than others. But we who are disciples of Jesus in the world are deeply shaped by the disciplines we practice in private as well.”

Zscheile has seen how communities are increasingly taking on some of these more “solitary” disciplines in a missional way. These practices, he explains, help cultivate our spirit and provide opportunities to recognize our complete dependence upon God. “The end of cultivating a spirit of generosity and gratitude in us, if we practice them well, will lead to work in the world that stems out of that spirit of gratitude,” he says.

Not that it’s easy in today’s fast-paced, digital world. Glandion Carney, author and chaplain of the Christian Legal Society, acknowledges the challenge in pursuing practices that lend themselves to solitude. “Contemplation [is] difficult, whether it be prayer or meditation,” he says. “Most missional people are very focused on getting a job done. They are engaged in creating an environment of social and environmental change.” This may be an issue that needs to be addressed as small group leaders encourage their groups to pursue the disciplines.

Fasting is another concept that can be extended to a community. One of author Stephen James’ most memorable fasting experiences came when a friend was going through a difficult health situation. James and several others decided to fast on his behalf, and their experience was compelling. “It created some solidarity among us as a community, but it also really changed our hearts toward what he was going through and how that brought us together in his suffering,” he says.

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Prayer is also an important time of worship with a missional application. “We start with intimacy,” Heuertz says. “Intimacy with Christ is what we believe is the purpose and calling of humanity. And when we love God, the Scriptures tell us that we obey God.” Not only do believers submit to the will of God, but they also submit to other believers, putting the needs of others before their own. “Cultivating the disciplines changes us and makes us into more of that contract community,” Zscheile says. “For disciples to intentionally covenant and submit to one another is a powerful message.”

As leaders encourage their groups to live the spiritual disciplines, there are some practical steps they can take. Van Gelder recommends moving forward as a group to encourage commitment and accountability. “Making covenant with one another is an important step where we commit ourselves to be accountable to one another,” he says. “We commit ourselves to walk together, work together, engage in the practices together.”

Leaders must learn to take the reigns in promoting the disciplines. They must be willing to urge those in their groups toward living in a way that is intentional and disciplined, and this starts with leaders practicing the disciplines themselves first. “If you really want to help the individual come to live the practices, live the disciplines,” Van Gelder says.

“We think of leaders as environmentalists, conveners of spaces for experiential relationships in which people can encounter that in one another and in word and sacrament and the practices of the Church,” Zscheile adds. “Leaders need to create those spaces in which people can come together and taste these practices, try them out, grow in them—not in a legalistic way, but in an invitatory, open way.”

Dwell in the Word. Pray together. Engage in purposeful conversation. Carve out time to fast and worship together as a community so that the disciplines naturally become relational and missional. “It’s really reflecting on the past, where Jesus said, ‘Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself,’” James says. “He weaves into the passage the love of self, others and God. If we’re practicing disciplines that are just self-focused, we’re really missing two-thirds of the whole deal.”

So let’s not miss out. Now is the time to take on an others-focused heart and mindset and invite others to do the same. A missional perspective of the spiritual disciplines is the bridge between self-transformation and spirit-filled community. May we walk in stride together.

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