Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Practice of Spiritual Direction: One on One Guidance in Faith




            The discipline of spiritual direction is defined by the classic work, The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun as follows: “to give caring attention to my relationship with God, accompanied by the prayerful presence of someone who helps me listen well to God” (Calhoun, 2015, p. 16). 
Essentially the practice of spiritual direction is one person receiving Christian guidance from another person.  This example is quite common in the pages of the Bible.  We see John the Baptist teaching his disciples and helping the lost to prepare themselves for the coming of Jesus Christ.  We see Paul calling himself the spiritual father of his young mentee Timothy. We see it in the Old Testament relationships like those between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro, where one seeks spiritual advice from the other.  We see relationships like those between Elijah and Elisha, Samuel and David, Jonathan and David, Ruth and Naomi, Moses and Aaron, Abraham and Lot, and Paul and Philemon just to name a few.  Of course the greatest example we see in the Bible in the practice of spiritual direction, comes from Jesus himself who actively mentors and advises his twelve disciples. 
One powerful example from the gospels is the example of Jesus as spiritual director to Peter.  Jesus tells Peter that when he falls into the hands of sinners, and is betrayed and arrested, Peter will deny him three times. But he encourages Peter, and tells him that he has prayed for him, and reminds him to encourage the other brothers and sisters after this happens (Luke 22:31-62 NIV). Jesus instructs Peter spiritually, by reminding him that though he will deny his savior, he will “turn again” and then will encourage the others.  The conclusion of this saga comes when Jesus is resurrected and talks with Peter, asking him three times: “Peter, do you love me?” (John 21:15-25 NIV). Jesus gently guided Peter back into right standing, encouraging his repentance through three declarations of faith and love for his savior, cancelling out his three denials.  This is the epitome and greatest expression of spiritual direction. If only we could all be so lucky as to have Jesus himself as our personal teacher and spiritual director.
The timeless classic, the Pilgrim’s Progress seems to picture the character “evangelist” as a sort of spiritual director helping guide Christian toward the fullness of God, along the pathway to the eternal city. Bunyan wrote in his classic, “Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, Do you see yonder Wicket Gate? The man said, No. Then said the other, Do you see yonder Shining Light? He said, I think I do. Then said Evangelist, Keep that Light in your eye, and go directly thereto, so shalt thou see the Gate; at which thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.”  Christian could not quite see beyond the wicked gate, but evangelist pointed Christian toward the prize. He didn’t point to himself, or take any sort of direct authority, but simply pointed and guided Christian in the right direction.  That is the true task of the spiritual director, to guide the directee closer to the honest fullness of God.
“A spiritual director listens with one ear to God, and the other to the directee, always encouraging the directee to recognize where God can be found throughout the journey” (Calhoun, 2015, p. 133).  The idea is to help guide the individual seeking God even closer to God, and to be one whom the Spirit of God speaks through to help guide the individual. This is one of the reasons Christians are commanded to be engaged together in regular fellowship. One person can and does help another to grow closer to God, through various intentional practices. As the scriptures say, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverb 27:17 NIV). It’s interesting that in the pattern for church discipline described in Matthew chapter eighteen the first step is to go to the person directly, one on one, and seek the repentance of the individual in question.  Of course the spiritual director must be a mature Christian who is experienced in guiding Christians closer to God.  But it shouldn’t be understood as something that only a priest or trained lay leader is capable of doing.  All Christians can and should partake in spiritual direction.  Calhoun (2015) indicates the true and clear purpose of spiritual direction; the goal is to longingly drink from the waters of the river of life (Jesus Christ) and to partake in a deeper intimacy with the Trinity (p. 133).  Spiritual direction as a spiritual practice is quite popular in Catholic circles, though it has gained some popularity in protestant circles as well (Calhoun, 2015, p. 133). 
Historically the practice of spiritual direction goes back to the middle ages. It was seen as highly important and necessary to Christian faith and practice. “…not even the greatest saints attempted the depths of the inward journey without the help of a spiritual director” (Foster, 2018, p. 185).  Spiritual direction goes all the way back to the desert church fathers, many of whom were sought by travelers in the wilderness, just to receive a few words of truth or “words of salvation” as it known then (Foster, 2018, p. 185).  The Apophthegmata Patrum is one printed discourse illustrating some of the sayings of these monastic desert fathers (Foster, 2018, p. 185).  The practice of spiritual direction was also practiced by twelfth century English Cistercian laybrothers who were well known for their ability to help read and guide souls (Foster, 2018, p. 185).  The 17th century Benedictine mystic Dom Augustine Baker wrote that the purpose of the spiritual director was to be God’s usher, leading souls in ‘God’s ways’ (Foster, 2018, p. 185).  
The practice of spiritual direction can be as simple as meeting with someone weekly or monthly and sitting down in prayer, discussion, and listening that helps foster a union that draws both to deeper closeness with God.  It involves expanding one’s prayer and spiritual life to another person for the purpose of receiving help from the director to discern the voice of God and the will of God.  When meeting the two individuals involved should examine the life of the directee and help them to see where God is at work in their life.  They should pray together and ask for God to reveal His will for the directee.  The director should not set the direction of the discussion; both the director and the directee should seek to allow the Spirit to direct and control the discussion.  The director often will act as a voice that helps the directee to correctly interpret the experiences he or she is having, and how God is speaking through those experiences. This practice of spiritual direction can help the directee pay greater attention to the experience of God in their life, discerning the voice of God, mending any splits between the head and the heart, growth in prayer, finding closeness with God in the dark times, and in experiencing deep inner healing from past hurts and troubles (Calhoun, 2015, p. 132). 
            Today the practice of spiritual direction might be seen in some limited expressions within evangelical Protestantism. One could point to the practice of accountability partners who hold each other accountable in areas of sin and holiness.  Usually accountability partners will meet together regularly, or attend groups together, working to hold one another accountable before God.  This is not really a full expression of spiritual direction, but in a limited sense it does represent spiritual direction in some areas, like sin and holiness.  Another expression might be in the practice of pastoral care and pastoral counseling one on one. Often times individuals in the church will meet one on one with the pastor to discuss important spiritual concerns.  Often times we’ll see mentoring relationships develop in a more organic way between younger and older Christians who seek to help each other grow and develop in their faith.  But the truest historical expression of spiritual direction between a spiritual director and directee, prayerfully meeting together, and helping the directee to carefully discern the direction God is leading them in their life, and give words of prophecy/discernment, and prayer for the directee as they grow in their faith walk, has little expression in modern day Protestantism, though it does find some expressions in modern Roman catholic monasticism.  In these times when it is often difficult to discern the will of God, and live holy and free from sin, and find quiet time to draw closer to God, one can easily see how a renewed emphasis on spiritual direction could be a great and mighty blessing for present day protestant and catholic Christian communities.

References
Bunyan, J. (1678). The Pilgrims Progress. Boston: Judson Press.
Calhoun, A. A. (2015). Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.
Evans, J. (2015). Experience and Convergence in Spiritual Direction. Journal of Religion and Health, 54(1), 264-278. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24485255
Foster, R. J. (2018). Celebration of discipline: The path to spiritual growth. San Francisco: HarperOne.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Church Growth: How can we make sure our churches are reaching new people?


Church growth: How can we make sure that our churches are growing and growing and reaching new people? Now the goal is not simply to fill up the seats for the sake of filling up seats. The goal is to win lost people to the gospel of Jesus Christ so that they can have eternal life, and not end up in eternal torment. The urgency of this mission is exceedingly high. People die every day, and they need Jesus Christ for their souls to be safe after death. So how do we do this? How do win people to Jesus Christ, and bring them into the church, where they can learn to grow into the likeness of Christ, and maintain their salvation in Christ? I see three key approaches to building the church of Christ, they are street evangelism/door to door ministry, developing intentional relationships, and holding powerful worship meetings.

First of all, we consider street evangelism and door to door ministry. The church has sometimes struggled with simply ministering to strangers. But it’s amazing the number of stories we hear about people who got saved by strangers who came up to them and talked to them about Jesus. Some churches do very little with street evangelism, and I’d put The Salvation Army high on that list. But it wasn’t always that way. The Salvation Army started out on the streets, ministering to drunks in bars, on street corners, and at open air meetings. Yet we seem to think these methods just don’t work anymore. But I really question that assumption. I’ve seen amazing churches like Metro Praise International and their ministry “Chicago for Jesus” where they are engaged in street ministry almost every day of the week! They go out to communities throughout Chicago and set up and start talking to people about Jesus. I participated in this once, and I was amazed how the Holy Spirit moved, and how people stopped and talked to us, and were willing to listen to the gospel presentation. Research shows that the churches who do evangelism the best don’t have an “evangelism ministry” instead evangelism is “baked in” to everything they do. If they have a Bible study, afterward they go out and evangelize. If they have a meeting, afterward they go out and knock on doors. They come to their building, have a short devotional, some worship music, and then they go out. And that is exactly the purpose the building is supposed to have: It’s a launching out point to the community. We’ve sometimes become inwardly focused, trying to serve all the needs of the few people who come to the church. But instead we need to adopt a new mindset: This is our staging area for going out into the community. Street evangelism can be as simple as going to a local park or busy intersection once or twice a week, and handing out tracts, Bibles, and so on, while praying with people and sharing the gospel with people. Then you point them back to your church. But really encourage them to get plugged in at any local biblical church. This can be for as short as an hour or two. This is a great way to bring new life to a dying church. And as momentum grows one could have evangelism several times a week, like Chicago for Jesus.

Second, we look at the important church growth method of developing intentional relationships. This is a tried and true method. You train the people in the church to do evangelism with their friends and family. You have “outreach events” where you set up an event to draw people into the church. Families in the church invite their friends, and hopefully they stay with the church after the event. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. If you have a great godly congregation who is really energized to bring new people into the church, then this sort of thing can be great. But if you’ve got a sleepy congregation who’s used to things staying the same, you may find that no matter how many trainings, and seminars, and sermons you preach on relational evangelism, that very little will change. That’s why I would pair this approach with street/door to door evangelism. Both should work in tandem.

Third, we consider holding powerful worship meetings. Worship meetings can become very routine over time. It seems like nothing changes at all. It’s always the exact same formula. We have a call to worship, opening prayer, three songs, tithes and offerings, scripture reading, sermon, response song, and benediction. Now I’m not knocking those elements at all. Those are good elements to have in a worship service. But what if we reimagined what a worship service/holiness meeting might look like? How could it be done differently, to bring us even closer to God, and deeper into His word? Let’s consider some possibilities. Imagine holding times of personal testimonies, or having an entire testimony service. Imagine having a prayer meeting, or an open prayer time during the service. What if after the sermon message, we invited the congregation to break up into groups, just people around them, and then let each group share some of their reflections on how God spoke to them through the message. There are a lot of great ways to develop the service. I like to use short videos that highlight something about God, or something about the book of the Bible we’re studying. I like to use a good powerpoint with plenty of pictures and bullet points. I like to encourage people to take notes on the message. I attended a church in the past that had a quiet time of personal reflection. As an introvert I greatly appreciated this quiet time. What else could we do? Be creative! How could we reimagine the worship service? You know I don’t recall anything in the Bible that says we have to use this exact formula for every service. It says that nowhere in the Bible, actually. How could we adapt the worship service format to help fully engage current generations with the presence of God, the word of God, and the transforming power of God?

Another note on this: We have to make sure our services are of a high quality. Is that biblical? Yes it is. The Psalms say play the instruments with great skill. The music should be well practiced. The transitions should be smooth. The sermon should be well planned and prepared. And the presence of God should be felt in every aspect of the service. It’s so sad for me to see someone go up and read scripture like they’re reading a homework assignment. Read it with the presence of God, read it as the amazing word of God that it is. It’s sad to me when a worship leader goes up there and just starts the song. No, no, no! Guide the people into the presence of God! Help the people to realize they are not just singing a song; they are worshipping the creator of the universe! It shouldn’t be normal or routine. We have to feel the power and majesty of what we get to do! Then our people will feel it too. That is really what brings people to church. They don’t want fancy programs, they don’t want relationships, what they really truly want is to know God, experience God, and live out an authentic, real Christianity. We have to pray for our worship service throughout the week. I’ve been to worship services where you can tell not a word of prayer was prayed before it, because the presence of God is largely missing. We need to praise in worship songs where the worship leader has prayed throughout the week and before service for God to reveal himself through it. We need to hear sermons where the pastor has strained in prayer over the message, begging God to pour out his heart to the body of Christ through them. So overall we need innovative worship services, quality worship services, and prayerful worship services. The people will come because they feel the presence of God, and sense His Spirit at work. If they come to a dead spiritless service, well they may stay a while for the relationships and fellowship, but eventually they’ll probably move on. So bring God’s presence with you to every service. Amen.

In conclusion, I really believe that if we develop strong street evangelism, train our congregations in relational evangelism, and innovate and develop our worship services to be powerful, high quality, and prayerfully practiced, then we will see church growth. We will see lives changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We will see God at work in mighty ways. But ultimately all this must be done by God. He is the one at work. He is the one who blesses us. So probably the most important thing is that we as leaders are praying every day, studying the word, and living in personal holiness. If we’re living empty lives of debauchery and carelessness, why should God bless the work of our hands? It’s amazing how much success or failure rests in the hands of one person: The leader. Be that Godly leader, and lead wisely, and you will see God at work through your ministry. Amen.



References
Borden, P. D. (2006). Direct hit: Aiming real leaders at the mission field. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Chicago For Jesus - About Us. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2019, from http://chicagoforjesus.net/about-us/
Platt, D. (2011). Radical together: Unleashing the people of God for the purpose of God. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books.
Seven secrets of successful evangelism. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1996/02/seven-secrets-of-successful-evangelism
Southerland, J. (n.d.). Live on Mission – Evangelism Training. Retrieved May 10, 2019, from https://www.namb.net/your-church-on-mission-blog/live-on-mission-evangelism-training/
Thompson, C. (2016, June 24). Train Your Church to Evangelize. Retrieved May 10, 2019, from https://factsandtrends.net/2016/06/24/train-your-church-to-evangelize/

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