When was the last time you went to the movies? If you're like most Americans (67 percent), you've been to the theater at least once in the last year. Next question: when was the last time you visited the dentist? Or had the oil changed in your car?
These are just a few of the activities that Americans engage in as often or more than churchgoers engage in the practice of spiritual disciplines, according to a recent study by Lifeway Research.
The Lifeway Research team recently surveyed Protestant churchgoers on the frequency with which they engage in the following spiritual disciplines:
- Reading the Bible
- Fasting in order to concentrate on prayer or meditation
- Scripture memorization
- Obedience to God
The study showed 19 percent of churchgoers read their Bible every day compared to 68 percent of pet owners who exercise their pets daily.
It also showed that 48 percent of churchgoers pray every day. That's almost as many Americans who floss every day (49 percent). Almost half (49 percent) of Americans visited the dentist in the last six months, while only 15 percent of churchgoers fasted in that same time period.
While I advocate good dental health, our spiritual health is immeasurably more important. It seems we're more concerned about our teeth than we are about our souls.
"Things that matter in life require personal investment," said Scott McConnell, director of Lifeway Research. "Too often, we as American churchgoers invest more of ourselves in caring for things that won't last 100 years from now than we do in caring for our relationship with God that matters for eternity."
The sad reality is the daily lives of many people in our churches mirror those of nonbelievers. We must ask ourselves if the lives of churchgoers are not transformed, is true discipleship taking place?
Our entire mission as believers and churches is to "make disciples." Unfortunately, the facts show a discipleship deficiency in much of the church in North America. The fundamental reason your church exists is to make disciples of Jesus.
"God shapes congregations through the shaping of individual lives. This shaping of individuals doesn't just happen; it's through intentional effort on the part of both leaders and church members," said Lifeway President Thom Rainer.
We aren't talking about behavioral modification here; we're talking about heart transformation. God does not want to tweak our behavior; He desires to transform our lives. The kind of transformation we should desire can only come through discipleship centered on Jesus. When true transformation occurs, behavior follows. When behavior is merely modified, legalism follows.
The spiritual disciplines are not activities reserved for the super spiritual of another historical age. They are for every believer, in every age, in every culture and are an essential part of our everyday lives. The spiritual disciplines are not the end result for themselves but provide a relational space for the presence of God in our lives.
The spiritual disciplines turn our hearts toward God. They provide a tool for God to deepen our relationship with Him.
As leaders, we know that for people to develop in their faith, they must prioritize God and His work in their lives. It takes intentional effort on the part of the pastor to create a church culture in which church members grow spiritually. Here are some ways to get started:
1. Spend time with God studying His Word and being a person of prayer. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you what needs to be done next in the discipling ministry of your church.
2. Find a way to help those in the church assess their own discipleship journey. Many in your church are painfully unaware of who they are in Christ, where they are in their spiritual journey and what is supposed to occur in discipleship. Lifeway's online Transformational Discipleship Assessment (TDA) delivers both individual and group reports on spiritual maturity and provides leaders with next steps for spiritual development.
3. Decide when and how you are going to start talking about discipleship in your church. Make an intentional effort to teach, preach, discuss and have private conversations about spiritual transformation. The church needs to know if growth is a priority for God, then it is a priority of the leaders of the church.
People will grow. Not because of some special program, magic formula or church mantra, but by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the church. The spiritual disciplines are a set of practices used to draw us closer to God. Believers should use the disciplines to give a place for the Holy Spirit to speak and use God's Word in our lives.
One of the most beautiful images of this kind of spiritual growth comes from Jeremiah 17:7-8: "The man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence indeed is the Lord, is blessed. He will be like a tree planted by water: it sends its roots out toward a stream, it doesn't fear when heat comes, and its foliage remains green. It will not worry in a year of drought or cease producing fruit."
Reading the Bible, praying, fasting and all the rest are the means by which you position your life to receive the life-giving breath and strength of the Spirit on a daily basis. Every time you practice these disciplines, you put yourself in that position – a position that is radically dependent on the Spirit of God.
Isn't it time you took your church on the journey that will change how they view God's Kingdom and all of life?