The most important spiritual discipline for new disciples

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.

4 thoughts on “The most important spiritual discipline for new disciples

  1. leaker

    Interesting. I remember a Sunday school lesson I heard once that was supposed to point to the example Christ set for “daily devotions”. The passage used was Mark 1:35–“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (ESV). The idea was that Jesus had a set time, set place, and set task. After reading your post, however, I realize that the example wasn’t about doing our “daily chapter” at all. The set time and set location could even be a stretch. But, he did pray, just as we are told he did often–going off alone some place to pray.

    Sometimes I wonder about the dangers of (I promise not to burn you if you promise not to burn me…) all of the Bible reading schedules we have. Now, I have nothing against setting a goal for reading/studying, but I think sometimes it can be used as a weapon against us.

    Last summer, as I talked to families about Bible reading, one of the things I heard a lot was how they would start on a schedule, but after missing a day it would mess them up, requiring makeup reading, putting them even further behind. Soon, they wouldn’t be reading at all. I, too, have started many times at the beginning of a year on a 1 year plan, only to give up by the end of January. As I would hear the same stories over and over from different people, I couldn’t help but wonder, “If they hadn’t set themselves on such a schedule, would they still be reading?” For people who are just starting to get serious about reading, are plans like these turning what should be something they look forward to daily, into a task, a job, a burden, a checklist that HAS to get done?

    The question, then, (I suppose) would be: How much more could they/I be encouraged/grow/learn by investing that time in prayer, rather than a reading schedule.

  2. chris Post author

    Thanks for the feedback, Daniel, and no, I won’t burn you. I think you ask an interesting question at the end, and one that bears investigating. Again, our purpose here is not to dog on reading the Bible. Studying the Word is important, no doubt.

    The issue I see is that as humans we are so prone to drifting towards empty religious rituals and away from a vibrant relationship with God. I think that heavily emphasizing Bible reading to new converts communicates to them that there is a to-do list that they have to check off and that will keep them in good standing with God. Prayer, however, draws us into communion with God. New converts (and old ones!) need to focus above all else on loving God with everything, and that will lead to loving others. Relationship, not religion.

    In our context, culture adds another important factor. A lot of people in our area just aren’t the book studying types. It doesn’t mean they don’t love God’s Word – they often really get into Bible stories, and they enjoy hearing the Bible read. Our neighbor was really excited this week to get audio recordings of the Bible, because she says she has always had a hard time reading Scripture, but she would love to listen to it. I feel like we do people here a disservice if we start off their Christian lives by communicating that they aren’t good Christians if they aren’t reading the Bible every day.

  3. Rick

    Hey Daniel,I read your post and I certainly will not burn or stone you.I’m just gonna lay it all out for you my friend as the the Lord has laid it out for me over the past 4 years.All of theses spiritual disciplines the Lord Jesus had taught His disciples came after He had asked them to “first” be with Him.This tells me that the Lord Jesus wanted to develop a personal love relationship with each of His disciples first.Then Jesus demonstrated (in His own life) to them the needs to discipline their lives spiritually to guard against their own tendency to sin and defend against the devil.So, I believe that there is no one all important spiritual discipline. They all work together in our walk and communion with the Lord. Amen?I think you would benefit greatly from a Ministry called Communion with God Ministries. The fella that started that ministry has written several books about hearing God’s voice. They are tremendous reading. Please write me back when you get the time.

  4. Cindy

    I read your post and am encouraged by it. No, there will be no burtn offering. However, in my life as a Bible believing Christian. I realize that even if prayer is the easiest discipline to get back to, it is often the most neglected. That’s why Jesus Himself showed us that it was very important. Communion with God to me, involves two things, speaking to Him and hearing from Him. Prayer and His Word go together. So, to me there is no one most important discipline. We may need to emphasize the power of the Word in one’s life, “Thy Word I have hidden in my heart that I may not sin against You” The Word, the truth sets people free, we need therefore to come alongside our disciples and share God’s Word, lifechangeing Word with them, encourage them to memorize Scripture, read the Word to know God more and draw near to Him in prayer. I struggle daily with this, but am not drawn to despair when I miss it. I agree, that people who have a reading guide do fall into the trap of just reading, missing their reading, catching up in guilt etc. So, as the discipler, we need to be prayer warriors, encouragers, teachers and then allow God to work in them by the power of His Holy Spirit. Praise God for you and your post. Cindy from Manila, Philippines

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