A second theme that surfaces when people tell their faith stories revolves around the development of a private devotional life. Somewhere along the way, Christians begin to pray. Alone. They begin exploring the Bible on their own. They memorize their first Scripture verse. It’s not uncommon to hear people speak of getting up a little earlier in the morning to spend time with God. Personal spiritual disciplines introduce a sense of intimacy and accountability to our faith walks. Private spiritual disciplines tune our hearts to the heart of God and underscore personal accountability to our heavenly Father.
There is a direct correlation between a person’s private devotional life and his or her personal faith. And regardless of how long you’ve been in ministry, this is something you can’t afford to lose sight of. When God speaks to us personally through his Word or answers a specific prayer, our faith is strengthened. This is why private disciplines is a faith catalyst. One of the most impactful things I heard my dad say growing up was, “The most important thing in your life is your personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” That’s direct. And I have found it to be absolutely correct. As my personal devotional life goes, so goes my faith, my confidence in God. And I don’t know if this is true for everybody, but as my confidence in God goes, so goes my personal confidence.
When it came to maintaining a private devotional life, first-century Jews were at somewhat of a disadvantage. They didn’t have copies of the Old Testament they could cart around in their backpacks and purses. So that element of their devotional lives was limited to prayer and recitation. But during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus threw in a couple of additional components: giving and fasting.28 These “acts of righteousness,” as he refers to them, were to be done in secret. They comprised the private, intimate side of faith for first-century Jews. Jesus underscores that idea when he states:
“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret …”
Don’t run by that too quickly. Jesus says your heavenly Father sees what is done in secret. I’ve been a Christian since I was six, and that’s still a pretty staggering thought. God sees me pray, give, and fast. But Jesus doesn’t stop there.
“Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)
God responds to our private acts of righteousness. Jesus uses the term reward to describe his response. Ever had an answer to prayer? What happened to your faith? Remember the last time someone in your church or student ministry rushed up to you and poured out a story of answered prayer? That peron’s faith got bigger, didn’t it?
The same thing transpires when individuals begin giving for the first time. Percentage giving is an invitation for God to get involved in our personal finances. The percentage isn’t the issue. I tell new believers to pick a percentage and start there. The point is to learn to trust God financially. When people experience God’s faithfulness in the realm of their personal finances, their faith expands. Money loses its grip. They are no longer possessed by their possessions.
The secret side of the Christian experience is a really big deal to me. I’m not sure I would be doing what I’m doing today if it weren’t for something God whispered to me during a quiet time in college. I’ve shared this story in a prior book. So I’ll spare you the details. Bottom line, when I was a junior in college, I was in my closet praying. Literally, in my closet praying. Since I “wrestle with” so much of what Jesus taught, this seemed like a reasonable trade-off.
So during college I created a prayer closet under the stairs in the basement of my parents’ house. One morning, as I was praying, I told God how committed I was and how I would do anything and go anywhere and marry anybody. Okay, go anywhere and do anything. I just wanted to be used. Right in the middle of my sign-me-up-for-anything diatribe, a thought popped into my mind that was so strong it was like a voice. The thought went something like this: You cheated on two exams your freshman year and … The “and” related to a prank that went terribly wrong and resulted in a terrifying evening for a family I knew—still makes my stomach churn to think about it. Bottom line, I had never owned up to it. Honestly, I was afraid I might be arrested. Besides, I was in high school when the incident took place. These memories were so shocking I literally stopped praying and looked around the closet. Sure that it was the devil trying to distract me, I closed my eyes and went right back to it. But all I could think about were those two dishonest grades and the family that I had sinned against.
Gee, I hope my kids don’t read this … like my kids would actually read one of my books.
For the next several months … yes months … every time I got on my knees to pray, I couldn’t pray. I’ve never heard God’s voice. But the message was unmistakably clear. Before we go forward, we have to go back. Overactive conscience? Nope. I’ve never struggled with that. It got to the point where I felt that my potential for future ministry hung in the balance of how I would respond to that not-so-still, not-so-quiet voice screaming in my head. So I retook both college freshman classes during my junior year. There was no point confessing. There was nobody to confess to. I retook the classes and paid for them myself. And eventually I drove over to the office of the man whose family I had terrorized and confessed. Hardest thing I’ve ever done. All because of a quiet time. Some reward, huh?
From the beginning we have looked for ways to coax, bribe, bait, and equip everybody from kindergarten up to engage in some kind of private devotional exercise.
Actually, the entire episode did wonders for my faith. God saw me praying. He loved me enough not to lead me forward until I first went back. That’s a lot of love.
I bet you have your own story, don’t you? I bet you’ve heard that not-so-still, not-so-quiet voice as well. And as disturbing as it was, acting on what God told you did wonders for your faith, didn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great if all the teenagers, college students, and single and married adults in your congregation had devotional lives that put them in a position to hear from God? Imagine what would happen in our churches. If that level of personal discipline and focus is to become the rule rather than the exception, we must weave this value into the fabric of everything we do organizationally. Here are some ways we’ve attempted to do just that.
BACK AT THE CHURCH
From the beginning we have looked for ways to coax, bribe, bait, and equip everybody from kindergarten up to engage in some kind of private devotional exercise. I’m constantly telling people during the weekend services to go home and read their Bibles. The practical application for many of our messages is to go home and begin praying a specific prayer. Often, we will print the prayer on a card and hand it out at the end of a message or series. Occasionally, I will select four to eight passages that go along with a series and we will create memory verse cards to hand out to our congregants. Not an inexpensive endeavor. We encourage people to read ahead for the next week.
As mentioned earlier, one of our most important ministries, Starting Point, introduces seekers and returners to the importance of self-study and prayer. In that environment, attendees are given simple guides for reading the Bible on their own. In addition, they are given Bibles along with the curriculum.
On the giving side of things, we are very upfront with the importance of what I refer to as priority, progressive, percentage giving. Priority as in: give first, save second, and live on the rest. Percentage as in: choose a percentage and give it consistently. Progressive is a challenge to up the amount by a percentage every year. While I’m a big believer in tithing, people who have never given away a percentage of their incomes are not going to begin with 10 percent. Sure, some will. But if you are going to teach people to tithe, you may have to start with some baby steps.
On the family side, parents of elementary-age kids are given a Parent Card every month. This card is a simple guide to help parents lead their children in a daily devotion. Every year our middle school and high school divisions create a curriculum or weekend event around the importance of private spiritual disciplines. Recently, our high school ministry created an entire weekend experience around the theme To Hear God Speak … Hide and Seek. We build a gadget-free quiet time into the daily schedule of all our student camps. Each student is given a devotional to read and is required to sit alone for thirty minutes to read, reflect, and pray. One of the most emotional and memorable moments of my summer is standing on a hotel balcony and seeing eight or nine hundred high school students spread out along the beach reading their Bibles, scribbling notes, and praying. It gives me hope for our nation and our world. For many of those kids, that exercise jump-starts their devotional lives.
Now, before we move on to the third catalyst, there’s an important facet of this one I don’t want you to miss. The sooner we can get unbelievers reading their Bibles and praying, the better. You don’t need to be shy about pushing them to do so. But for it to work, you’ve got to put the cookies on the bottom shelf. The way you talk about the Bible on the weekend will determine their interest in the Bible during the week. You’ve got to make it accessible. You’ve got to give them permission to read it before they believe it. As I mentioned during the discussion of the first catalyst, if you present the Scriptures in helpful terms, you’ve just removed an obstacle.
This is another reason we print prayers and hand them out. People who don’t normally pray often don’t know where to begin. It may be second nature for you. It’s terrifying for some of them. Terrifying. They need printed prayers to prime the pump. Now, I’ve been around long enough to know that somebody out there in reader world is thinking: But does God hear the prayers of unbelievers? I’m inclined to think God hears whatever he wants to hear. Based on what Luke tells us in Acts 10 about Cornelius, the Roman centurion, we know God hears sincere prayers. Heck, Cornelius got a visit from an angel. I’ve never had one of those and I have a master’s in theology. So I wouldn’t worry too much about encouraging the seekers, skeptics, and Roman centurions in your church to start praying.
Here are a few other things to ponder:
- In your model, at what age do you begin teaching the importance of private spiritual disciplines?
- How and how often is this value reinforced with your students?
- What devotional and personal Bible study resources do you make available, and how accessible are they?
- How difficult is it for people in your church to get a Bible?
- When is the last time you did a weekend message on spiritual disciplines?
- How could you use the weekend to reinforce this value on a regular basis?
- What could you do to prioritize this in the mix of everything else you are doing?
- Are spiritual disciplines a priority in your life?
Stanley, Andy. 2012. Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.