Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
“Spiritual disciplines are activities in our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.” – Dallas Willard in The Great Omission.
There is something so true about this statement. Spiritual disciplines are the way we train to become what we cannot become in any other way: Christlike.
Yet they have a bad name. Because no one likes discipline and no one actually likes hard work. If you plan to run the London Marathon, you don’t go on training runs in the wet grey of the London streets with the traffic thundering because you actually like said experience. But you go because you have seen the glory of the prize. You go because at night you dream of crossing the finishing line and in the day you live and breathe the vision of what could be. You do the training because you long for the goal and you know that training is the one thing in your power to do which will enable you to do that thing you cannot do by direct effort – getting out of bed one day and running 26.2 miles.
And spiritual disciplines are the same. Those who have walked long and faithfully with Christ have stayed the course not because they strained for what was impossible but because they understood that faithfulness is made up of daily decisions to pray, to read the Bible, to give, to worship, to celebrate and gather in community, to fast or to serve another without gain.
Yet there is a generation coming for whom discipline is perhaps even worse a word than it is for us. There is a generation coming – or perhaps half-generation in reality – of those in their twenties, many of whom do not see any reason to do that which is personally costly in their discipleship. They are Christians, yet many do not read their Bibles, they pray only snatched words as they run for the bus in the morning, they spend their money freely on going out but balk at the idea of saving to go on a missions trip or a training day to equip them as disciples in their workplaces.
I want to be as fair as I know how here and so I must say that I know many in their twenties who are not like this but I have also never seen a generation for whom there seems to be such a rise in the tide of the rejection of spiritual disciplines. I sometimes wonder if we are on the front edge of it here in London, a place where the internet and mobile culture of hyper-connectivity has taken hold so strongly, a place of many broken and complex family situations, where parents exhausted by the pace of city life have no strength at the end of a working day to discipline their children and so allow the children to bring themselves up within their own tribe of ‘young people’.
Perhaps it is not as pronounced elsewhere in the country but here we are beginning to see the effects of this culture on those who have hit their twenties. It is there in those of us in our thirties too, but to a lesser extent, I think, presumably because fewer of our teenage years were formed by this culture of hyper-connectivity and immediacy. After all, I was 15 before we got the internet at home and I didn’t send an e-mail until I was 18; I also didn’t have a mobile until I was 22. Those facts alone are more than most of the twenties I lead can believe; it also makes me ancient to the teenagers who send between 3000 and 5000 texts each month. (Work that out as texts per waking hour – you might start to feel ill!)
There is a spirit of independence in this new generation: these men and women have grown up knowing how to take care of themselves and their experience tells them that no one else knows like they do what is best for them. They don’t tend to save much because there is a despair about that: they know they won’t get on the housing ladder unless they get help from parents or land themselves a professional job and they don’t even care what saving for a rainy day might mean because all that matters is surviving in the now and having as much fun as possible.
And fun means hanging out with the tribe, clubbing, drinking and then posting the pictures on Facebook. Because that is how community is created, community which depends on the shared memories of a Facebook timeline and which is fuelled by instant messaging via BBM or whatsapp. They don’t talk by phone any more really, it seems; that is too intrusive, so it is all about exchanging messages which can be interacted with as and when it is convenient to the recipient.
When it’s time to relax, the answer is screen time. Even for those who admit to once having been readers. They freely tell you that it’s easier to check Facebook, to watch TV on demand, download a film or surf the web randomly. And I know this is true because I have noticed changes in my behaviour over the last three to five years, during which time the internet has increasingly become an option for diversion. I have seen my concentration span drop off slightly; I have seen my efforts to multitask increase, although productivity is almost certainly inversely proportional! So, I understand the temptation, its insidiousness as this hyper-connectivity worms its way into our lives, destroying our ability to concentrate, to engage with anything which requires something of us personally other than to be an observer.
And then, in the face of all of this, as a disciple-maker I am bringing a message about spiritual disciplines. A message to a generation which has already largely decided that they alone must be the arbiter of what is right, that anyone who suggests that there must be a better way is automatically pressuring them.
It’s not only that even the very gentlest of calls to discipleship by another are still perceived as a massive and unacceptable threat to their own authority over their lives; it’s also that this is a message about a faith which cannot simply be added to one’s life as another interesting diversion but which demands to be worked into every part of our life, a faith which requires participation not observation. A faith which requires submission to spiritual disciplines as our guides in the process of becoming.
And, despite all the joys over those who ‘get it’, I despair some days.
I wish I didn’t. But I do because I feel utterly unprepared for ministry which looks like this. My training, such as it is, is largely outdated already, save in so far as it has taught me how to think theologically and to innovate in a context of rapid and discontinuous change. I don’t know how to reach a generation which claims Christ as its own yet which has little concept of discipline, of preparing for a future day.
And, in a way, why should they? That’s not embedded in the culture anymore, that we would make preparation for our future, because our future looks bleak. If we haven’t run out of natural resources by then, if we haven’t seen the kick-off of World War III, if we haven’t lost the war on global terror and if we haven’t seen the melting of the polar ice caps or a worsening of the hole in the ozone layer, we’ll certainly all be working until we’re 90 and then paying extortionate nursing home fees until we die.
We don’t have the culture on side anymore for emphasizing the value of preparing for a happy future. This generation doesn’t even think about the future because it’s not attractive and so it is to them as if the future will never come. And if the future will not come, then a future experience of heaven and the goal of a journey towards Christlikeness might as well also be a pipe dream.
In the face of all of that, why would you invest yourself in spiritual disciplines now? When reading the Bible is hard and sitting still to pray for even ten minutes nigh-on impossible without checking Facebook at least once, why would you pay that price now if you have no concept of the future it’s preparing you for? And who would run London’s rain-slick pavements as the cold bites and the traffic fumes choke if there was never an expectation that there would one day be a marathon to run and a medal to claim?
And that is where I end up with this. I long to make disciples, to teach them of the power of spiritual disciplines to form character and habits, to introduce them to how a progressive laying aside of lordship over one’s own life is a journey of the most incredible becoming that ever was. And, God knows, in this church we will keep trying. But I am more and more convinced that what is needed more than anything else is a move of God where thousands upon thousands of this new generation have an encounter with Christ which is more real than Facebook, more tangible than instant messaging. An encounter which will have them dreaming at night of crossing the finishing line, knowing whom they have believed. An encounter which, in the daytime, will see them living and breathing the vision of what could be. An encounter which will empower them to do the training because they now long for the goal like never before and know that training is the one thing in their power to do which will enable them to do that thing you cannot do by direct effort – getting out of bed each day and running the race.
I long to see the work of God in this generation of twenties and thirties and in those who are still teenagers. I long to see the things of which I first began to dream twelve years ago when I started to hear God speaking to me by his Spirit about the church in the UK. And I am becoming increasingly convinced that – though the church’s leaders may play their part, struggling as we toil – the work can only be achieved with his energy which he so powerfully works in us as we struggle to present everyone mature in Christ. Today, perhaps like never before, I am utterly convinced that, in this disorienting new world of never-ceasing and rapidly speeded-up change, the future of the church in this nation depends on a move of God by his Spirit to give us a new encounter with Christ.
And it breaks my heart to think what kind of church we will see in fifty years’ time if I don’t see that in my lifetime.
Picture credit: some rights reserved by Lieven Soete