Three of our mission training school students have been working with a church group here that is in its formative stages. This past week, they sat me down to ask my advice on a couple of things. (At this point, I should acknowledge their humility in doing this, because although I oversee our church planting team, I still know very little, especially by way of practical experience. This is not false humility on my part; this is the reality of us being desperate for leaders in a quickly growing ministry.) I did have one thought that literally crystalized as it came out of my mouth, and I wanted to share it here. It came as they were talking about the challenges in trying to get their disciples to do their daily devotions.
My concern in sharing this thought is that I think it could possibly get me burned at the stake in a lot of churches if we still were doing that kind of thing. It’s hard for me to fully express myself in a short blog post, so if this strikes you wrong, then please dialogue with me about it to get at my real meaning, before writing me off as a heretic. (The comments section of this post would be a good forum for dialogue, hint, hint.)
What is the most important individual or internal spiritual discipline for a new believer to be developing? When I’ve gone through evangelism training, I’ve always been given a short list of things we’re supposed to tell new converts to do–read your Bible, pray, go to church, witness to others, etc. If there is one of those that we emphasize above the others, I feel like it is reading the Bible. It’s tied up in the whole idea of personal devotions. But the more I think about it, I disagree that studying the Bible is the most important spiritual discipline for a new believer. Consider this:
- In its simplest form, discipleship involves teaching people the commands of Christ (Matt. 28:18-20–see my recent posts on this topic here and here). The earliest believers, including the ones in all those churches Paul planted, managed to follow Christ without having a complete New Testament, so there must be some way to create good disciples even when all 66 books are not available. However, we were commanded to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
- Jesus never gave a Bible study model, but He certainly gave a model prayer (Matt. 6:5-13)
- Jesus read the Scriptures in the synagogues on Sabbath days, but He spent many late hours at night praying. I’m going to guess that He made it through his 40 day fast without a scroll in hand. The point I’m making is that the Gospels give me the feeling Jesus’ Bible reading probably happened on a weekly basis, but I think His prayer was much more frequent.
Before you go out looking for firewood to roast me with, think through what I’m saying. Do not hear me saying that studying Scripture is unimportant, but do hear me saying that prayer is important, and maybe we should shift our focus to more prayer emphasis when helping our disciples grow spiritually. I would put forth that the new believer’s prayer life is a far better measuring stick of his spirituality than the number of days a week he reads his Bible.
We North Americans are studious book learners, so I think this can be tough for us to swallow. But put yourself in our shoes here in Oaxaca, or maybe in the shoes of some tribe in Africa or down in the Amazon. A lot of cultures are much more group oriented than we are. We’re very individualistic, as seen in terms like “personal devotions” and “personal Savior”. Especially for other cultures, reading the Bible once a week in a meeting, as was probably done in New Testament times, makes a whole lot more sense than emphasizing personal devotions where you read a passage of the Bible. Many people are not literate. But they can all pray. I think it’s reasonable for prayer to be an always-happening, group or individual activity, and for Bible reading and study to be more of a group activity. I think there is decent support for this in the New Testament.
We say that following Christ is about a relationship and not just head knowledge. Prayer emphasizes relationship, whereas Bible study increases head knowledge.