Private Worship Marks of a Healthy Church 6
And He withdrew Himself into the wilderness and prayed.Luke 5:16
An Australian research company surveyed thousands of Christians, pastors and churches, and their question was: What would be the best way of strengthening the church? And this was the finding of their research:
If [churches] could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ…they would inspire, encourage and equip their people to read the Bible – specifically, to reflect on Scripture for meaning in their lives.Move, Hawkins and Parkinson, 2011.
So if pastors could do one thing that would maximize the church’s strength, it would be to teach people how to read their Bibles. A LifeWay Research, an American research company, found that “spiritual maturity comes through intentionality,” through the holy habits of daily prayer and worship. And yet, what do we find? Here are some sad statistics. The same Australian research found that two out of ten Australian Christians are engaging with God on a daily basis (that was not two out of ten Australians; that is two out of ten Australian Christians – and I do not think we should think that is only true of Australians). American research found that when people were asked, “How does God speak to you?” the number one response was, “Through my pastor.” And the conclusion was that is perhaps the only time in the week when people spend time in God’s Word. In fact, when people were asked the various ways God spoke to them, the Bible only came in at number seven in the list!
So we have here a significant contradiction and problem, don’t we? That private Bible reading, prayer, and intentional private devotional habits are the primary route to spiritual growth and the strengthening of the church, and yet they are so, so lacking and absent in many Christians’ lives. In fact, we really are facing even greater difficulties today and increasing difficulties because of the digital revolution. Because of the impact of all the data that we are consuming day by day. It is like a digital deluge which is flooding, swamping and drowning devotional life. I would like to try and help us as individuals, and as families too, to strengthen our personal, private devotional life, especially in the face of such a digital deluge, with the aim of strengthening us as a church.
It may be that some of the older ones are thinking, “I don’t have a cell phone, and I don’t use the internet and a computer and all that; this has nothing to do with me.” Well, you have your own temptations. I am sure you can use your mind to apply some of these things in your own situations, but I would also ask you to have a thought – a concerned, anxious, prayerful thought – for the upcoming generation and the future of the church. I want you to know the difficulties that the younger generations are facing. And you really need to know this for your children, for your children’s children, and make it a matter of serious and ongoing prayer.
What Is a Devotional Life?
First of all, I would like to give a definition of what I mean by a devotional life. Here is my definition: The spiritual disciplines of prayer, praise, Bible reading and meditation that God blesses to give, maintain and grow spiritual life in individuals and families for the growth and good of the church. I am going to break that down a little for you.
Devotional life is the spiritual disciplines of prayer, praise, Bible reading and meditation – four main components of any personal devotional life. But we need God’s blessing. We can fall into two extremes when we think of our devotional life. One is: Well, I don’t need to do anything; it is God that blesses, and I just need Him to bless my soul. No, He gives us these means of prayer, praise, Bible reading and meditation (thinking upon what we have read). The other extreme is: If I do all these things (prayer, praise, Bible reading and meditation) and if I get them all right and I do them in a formal way, then God will bless. Well no, it is not automatic and mechanical like that. Yes, God uses means, but we still need His blessing upon these means.
Devotional life is the spiritual disciplines of prayer, praise, Bible reading and meditation that God blesses to give, maintain and grow spiritual life. He uses these means to give spiritual life. Yes, even non-Christians should be engaging in these disciplines, because God blesses personal Bible reading and prayer and praise and meditation. I would encourage everyone here, wherever you are in the spiritual spectrum – fully alive or fully dead – to be using the means of life, because God can bless it to give you life. From the youngest here, to the oldest. Don’t think, “I am too young”; don’t think, “I am too old and I am past it.” God uses these means to give it, but also to maintain it and to nourish it. Just like a marriage or any relationship. Friendship needs contact and needs communication. So if spiritual life is not to stagnate or decline, we need these disciplines in our life, just to sustain our spiritual life and even to keep it at the same level. If we do not have them, we will inevitably backslide. But God also uses these means to grow spiritual life and to grow us in spiritual graces and gifts.
He does this in an individual way (as we read and pray and praise and meditate as private individuals on our own), but also as families. I am just going to concentrate today on personal, private devotions. Maybe at another time I will focus on family devotions. There are a couple of books that you might want to use: Jason Helopoulos’ book A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home – a small, readable, accessible book on establishing and developing and getting the most out of family worship. Joel Beeke has also produced many resources on family worship.
But our focus today is on personal and private worship. So let me give you the definition again that we have tried to break down: The spiritual disciplines of prayer, praise, meditation and Bible reading that God blesses to give, maintain and grow spiritual life in individuals and families for the good and growth of the church.
I absolutely, totally, one hundred percent agree with this finding of this research that it is the key to the strength of this church. We have looked at public worship the last time we were looking at the marks of a healthy church. But really there cannot be healthy, God-honouring, God-glorifying public worship if there is no private foundation to it. That just becomes a show; it is a shell and a farce. Public worship should be the overflow of our private, personal devotions, not the sum and total of our devotions.
I want to look at the difficulties especially the young in this generation are facing. We will look first of all at the digital deluge, and then secondly at how to put into practice a private devotional life in the face of these difficulties and temptations.
The Consequences of this Digital Age
First of all, what are the consequences of this digital age that we are living in? What are the difficulties that we are facing? We have to face up this. It maybe that we do not realize it. It did not actually happen in one day; it was not even forty days like Noah’s flood. This digital revolution has happened over five to ten years, and there has been a process where we got used to it and we just absorbed it and it has become part of us. A lot of us do not really realize the way it has impacted many, many parts of our being, including our spirituality.
Loss of Boundaries
First of all, there is a loss of boundaries. It used to be that we would work in one place for set hours. That no longer happens for most people. Work travels with us, because our workstations and our computers and our phones travel with us. We work anywhere and everywhere. Hours no longer have a start and a stop point. We bring work home. We work on weekends; we work on vacations. 75% of 25-29 year olds sleep with their cell phones (and I do not mean sleep with it on the bed stand beside them, but actually in the bed with them)! 25% of people today believe that they must stay connected to their employer 24/7 for job security reasons. There are no more boundaries. They have all been blurred.
Loss of Concentration
Secondly, there is a loss of concentration – an ability to fix our thoughts on one thing for a sustained period of time. When people are asked, “How many times do you check your email?” most people reply with maybe ten or eleven times an hour. But when they actually watched and observed and filmed, it is in the realm of thirty to forty times an hour! There is this constant flicking and changing and moving from one thing to another to another, and hardly one to two minutes are spent concentrating on any one task at one time! One in four check their cell phones every thirty minutes. One in five check their cell phones every ten minutes! And all this is having a serious detrimental, damaging effect on people’s ability simply to concentrate on a task. So much so that when people are separated from their cell phones, anxiety can actually be measured in their brain activity and in the chemicals in their bodies.
Loss of Reading Ability
There is also a loss of reading ability (and that really flows on from the lack of concentration). I have felt this myself, as I am sure everybody has felt it. Maybe we used to be able to sit with a book on a Sunday or through the week and read for an hour or two or more. Now five or ten minutes is a struggle. An hour is almost torture for some people to just sit and simply read a book. And that obviously, with the focus on Christianity of reading, has a significant impact on devotional life. Even the method of reading today: we have been trained through scrolling to scan. If people’s eyes are watched as they are reading on the internet, they actually are reading mainly a central column at rapid speed. Speed reading – we have learned how to do it without even been taught. Scanning rapidly. And then we come to the Bible and it is so difficult to stop that. That has become our method of reading, and the Bible does not yield its fruits to scanners.
Loss of Meditation
There is a loss of meditation. Not just long thought, but deep thought. The ability to stop with one verse and even one word and just hold it in the mind and turn it around and look at it from different angles. To chew on it and suck out the spiritual juice from the truths and the words of God. The mind is flitting everywhere.
Loss of Memory
There is a loss of memory. This is well-proven today. We used to have to memorize Scripture if we wanted to be able to use it in evangelism or in discussions. The psalmists themselves say, “Thy Word I have hid in my heart that I may not sin against Thee.” He is storing it up, he is memorizing it, and then it has a sanctifying effect. But we do not need to memorize Scripture now. We just need a couple of words from a verse, we think it is in this book, we quickly search for it, and up it comes. We do not need to have it internally, because we can get it externally so rapidly without much effort.
Loss of Problem Solving
There is a loss of problem solving. When in the past we used to have a problem, we would work at it. Maybe a problem with a passage of Scripture – a verse or a truth we did not understand – what did we do? Well, we would pray about it and we would wrestle with God. We would ask Him for light and we would wait upon Him and we would try and think it through through the day, and again search the Scriptures. Today we do not need to do that. We just Google it. We ask the question online and we get a rapid range of answers supplied to us. Therefore, we are losing our ability to problem solve. To work things through with the help of God.
Loss of Social Connection
And that is also causing a loss of social connection. Again, when we had problems in the past – not just spiritual problems, but any problems – we would need someone to help us. Maybe a son would go to a father, or a daughter would go to a mother, or a friend would go to a friend, and say, “I have this problem. Can you help me with it?” Thus social connections were born and strengthened. And now we just go to YouTube for a video: How do I change a tire? How do I tie a tie? How do I read the Bible? How do I understand this? Somebody actually wrote an article recently entitled YouTube is my Father. It was written by a man who had been raised by a single mother, and he came to realize eventually that, “I have not had a dad, and yet, I have not really missed out, because the things I would usually have asked my dad about I just go to YouTube for!” He had learned everything through YouTube videos. Which is wonderful in one way, but again, you think of the loss of social connection and of interdependence – not just in the world, but in the church as well.
Loss of Sleep
There is a loss of sleep. Technology used to certain degrees for many hours and late hours has been shown to have a detrimental effect both on the length and the quality of sleep. Many of the people I have spoken to and counselled with depression have often spoken of their technology habits. Reading on the internet, surfing the net, doing email and other things right up to eleven and twelve at night, and then expecting the brain to shut down and go to sleep immediately and deeply. It does not happen! There is a serious loss of sleep. Young people are devouring eleven hours on average of media every day from TV and internet sources. Eleven hours of media consumption a day!
Loss of Quiet
There is a loss of quiet. It is almost impossible to get that quiet corner, that silent place where it is just you and God. There are beeps and updates and buzzes and flashes and continual interventions in our lives.
Loss of Friendships
Loss of friendships. One of the most common problems that people speak about today is the loneliness. The sense of just being utterly alone. In a world of never greater connection, people have never felt more disconnected in reality.
Loss of Family
There is a loss of family. It used to be that people would come home and the world was “outside.” Friendships could only come into the home via, for example, the telephone, but when you were at home you were at home, and it was with your family. You had to talk with them and listen to them and spend time with them. Now the whole world is in your home via Facebook and Twitter and other social media! Friends cannot be kept at arm’s length and actually are continually with our children in the home and in the bedroom. Who needs family when you have all that?
Loss of Privacy
There is a loss of privacy. Not just that people are exposing private things very publicly that was never done before, but also just the amount of data that is being hoovered up continually from us, changing our whole perception of any kind of private life. We have more or less given up on preserving any kind of confidentiality and anonymity. Even our government is securing information over the years that we hardly dare to think how it will be used down the line.
Loss of Time
There is a loss of time. Think of how much time is spent on social media, on the internet, and the subsequent loss of time for Christian devotion and Christian service.
Loss of Purity
There is a loss of purity. The temptations online are just so manifold, so multiple, so serious. There is an unprecedented plague of immorality impacting individuals, families and churches. Every pastor will tell you it is one of the most common issues that they are confronting. The use of porn in Christians, not just non-Christians. Young men who are going to marry your daughters – Fathers, you have to put them up against the wall and you have to find out exactly what kind of man this is. You have a right to know how much time he spends, what hours he is spending and what he is doing online. I would say that every father has a right to know the media habits of prospective husbands of their daughters. You are not going to give your treasure to trash! You need to know and you should demand the Covenant Eyes Report! You should demand he has it and insist that it is sent to you every week. This is so critical. People are going into marriage and they are marrying moral monsters. There is a horrific loss of purity, even amongst the church.
Loss of Patience
There is a loss of patience. We are so used to instant results and instant access, and that is not how Christian life grows. It grows slowly and imperceptibly. Therefore, people lose patience with the devotional life and with church life. It is just so slow and so painful.
Loss of Wisdom
There is a loss of wisdom. People’s knowledge now is being held largely externally. It used to be that we needed to memorize things and to study things. I notice this even in classes. You are teaching subjects and you realize students are not taking notes, and you enquire privately, “Why are you not taking notes?” They say, “I can get that all online.” Therefore the knowledge is being kept online and not taken into the brain and the mind of the student. You might think, “What is the big deal if it is all online and it is all accessible?” Here is the big deal: you end up with separate silos of information and data on line. Here is where we get some theology…here is where we get some morality…here is where we get guidance on this… So it is all out there, but they are all disconnected. When we used to have to take information in, the brain would process it and organize it. It would make connections. It would grow wisdom. Now who is to say what are the connections between these different silos of data and information? We know more, but we have become utterly foolish.
Loss of Humility
Even secular journalists are recognizing this. One wrote: “When the internet becomes our repository of knowledge, it is easy to overestimate our abilities. The limits of our own minds are rare for us to recognize, and therefore we lose humility and we grow in pride” (This is your Brain on Google, 2013, Kate Shellnut). A loss of wisdom results in a loss of humility.
Loss of Routine
And there is just this general loss of routine – the loss of system and regularity in our lives. Everything is chaotic. Nothing is predictable. Nothing is the same one day to the next. And God is a God of order! He is not a God of confusion. Spiritual life flourishes (as every part of life) with discipline, with regularity, with rhythm, with system. And when we lose that from our lives, we lose God, because that is how He usually works.
I am scratching the surface, but these are serious damaging effects on our bodies, on our minds, on our consciences, on our emotions and on our wills that we have to recognize. It might surprise you after all this to hear that I am personally very positive about technology. I use it a lot. I think it is a tremendous resource. There is so much good that can be done with it and is being done with it. People are being reached that would not normally be reached. There is a wonderful spread of information where it was not going before. There are many ways in which we can connect and communicate through the week that maybe we could not before. There are good things. But we have to recognize the downsides, the dangers, the difficulties, and the damage if we are ever going to find some solutions and pursue them for our own spiritual benefit.
Developing a Personal Devotional Life
And that is where I would like to go to now. I would like to give you a number of tips and helps to start, to maintain and to grow a personal devotional life in the face of this digital deluge. I believe it is possible to still have this successfully in our lives, but we need to take very deliberate, determined steps!
Take Your Guilt to God
First of all, let’s take our guilt to God. Maybe some of you have heard what I have just said about all that we have lost and you have ticked all the boxes – “Yes, I have lost this, and I have lost that…I have lost it all!” That is incredibly demoralizing and demotivating. You think, “Oh, the guilt, the barrier between me and God.” We take that guilt to God. All these losses, all the ways we have damaged ourselves, we take it to God and we say, “Forgive. Take it away. Give me a fresh start.” He can do that. He is willing to do it.
I remember playing a soccer game in the summer. I was on the losing side – it was 5-1. It was almost time to wrap up, and somebody in the opposing side said, “Let’s say that the next goal is the winner!” It was amazing how it transformed my own team. We had been just going through the motions (what is the point when you are 5-1 down), but when you are given a clean start again, you get new energy, you get new strength, you get new motivation! That is what forgiveness does for us! It re-motivates and it re-energizes. I have a clean start. I can start afresh! This is where we begin with our devotional lives – with asking for forgiveness. We take our guilt to God.
Turn Off Your Phone and Avoid the Computer
Very practically: turn off the phone and the computer first thing in the morning. It is the most common thing people do first thing today: check email, check Facebook, check Twitter, and check the news. By that time there is so much information and data from so many different people and so many directions that the mind is already swirling. It is already stirred up and it is in no fit condition for a quiet time of devotion with God. Make it an unbreakable rule: I will not check my phone or my computer until I have checked in with God and until I have had time alone with God. If you do not do that, you just will not make any progress whatsoever.
Wake Yourself Up
Wake yourself up. For myself, I have tried many routines in the morning to try and get the best pattern for myself. This varies for different people, but I think in general you want to have your breakfast and get the blood sugars up again. Your brain needs that energy and that fuel. Have a shower and get the skin tingling and the blood flowing. And then you are ready and you are refreshed and you are awake and alert to start this most important part of the day.
Do Not Share Your Personal Devotions on Social Media
Do not share your personal devotions on social media. It is very tempting for young people: “I have read a great verse and I am going to share it…I have had a great thought on this verse and I am going to share it!” That changes the whole nature of personal devotions, because it means you are then doing personal devotions for others. In personal devotions you have to be utterly “selfish.” You have to focus on your own soul. There are other times and other things we can share, but if you bring in social dimensions to personal private devotions, then it is no longer personal and it is no longer private and it is no longer devotion. Get into that habit of: This is just me and God.
Establish a Regular Time and Place
Establish a regular time and place. Ideally, I think, for most people it is first thing in the morning. There may be circumstances which make that difficult, but in general terms from pasturing people and my own experience, that is really the best time. A fixed time each morning in a quiet, undisturbed place. Not in the kitchen where people are going to and fro – find a corner somewhere. It might even be out in your car. It might be on the way to work – whatever. Find a place where it is just you and God and it is going to be quiet and undisturbed.
Get to Bed Early
Get to bed early. The most common reason people do not have personal devotions in the morning is they are not getting to bed early enough in the evening. That is where it really begins. Your morning devotions begin the night before. Get to bed early.
Build a Systematic Routine
Build a systematic routine. Do not just pick up the Bible and say, “That is a nice place to read today.” Have a plan. Have a system. Be reading maybe a part of the Old Testament and a part of the New Testament, and ideally have a Psalm to sing through –a song of praise to God. Maybe work through a psalter or a hymnal or something like that. In one of his sermons Pastor Martin spoke about how in his own devotions he always had a song or Proverb to begin his worship – the song to stir up the devotional life, the proverb the more practical life. But work through these systematically. It does not need to be ten chapters; just what you can manage.
Begin small. Do not start tomorrow morning with an hour – you will finish in five minutes because you will realize it is impossible. Start with five minutes, if you have not started at all. Or start with ten. Just start small. Start manageable. Keep the bar low, and as you get used to it and you build the habit, you can raise the bar higher.
Read Easier Parts Together with More Difficult Parts
Read easier parts with the more difficult. If you start in the Old Testament and you read Genesis and you read Exodus, when you get to Leviticus most people stop, because it is too difficult. Now if you get to that, then read an easier part of Scripture with the harder part. Maybe read half of a chapter from the Old Testament and then read some of the Gospels. Keep your momentum going. Do not go for weeks and months in a book that you are getting no profit from. You will be discouraged and you will give up.
Start a Short Prayer List
Start a short prayer list. You do not want a shopping list as long as your arm – that just becomes mechanical and robotic. But do have a notebook so you can write down prayer needs. Do not feel the need, though, when you do that that you have to pray through it every day – that then just becomes a bondage. Maybe some days you just pick one person on it and pray deeply and long for that person in detail. Other times you will maybe pray them all. But have some kind of reminder and be flexible with the use of it.
Sing and Speak Out Loud
Sing and speak out loud. If you are anything like me, if you are just singing inwardly without singing it out or reading, it is so easy for the mind to wander. There is something about singing out loud and speaking out loud what you read (it does not have to be a massive volume) that keeps you focused. The same with prayer. Do not just mumble away – your mind will wander. Speak it out. It does not have to be so that the whole house hears, but again, there is something about hearing what you are saying that makes you realize whether you really are in earnest or not and whether you really are even logical in what you are asking or not.
Turn your Songs and Bible Reading into Prayer
Turn your Bible reading into prayers. Sometimes it is difficult – “What will I pray for?” Well, use your Bible reading. Go to your Bible reading. Go to the chapter we read, for example. Here we have read about a man with leprosy. Turn that into a prayer: “Lord, I am a leper. Sin has infected me. If you will, you can make me clean.” Then when we go on we see about forgiveness – “Man, thy sins are forgiven” Turn that into: “Lord, forgive me, and help me to bring that message of forgiveness to others.” Turn your Bible reading and Psalm singing into prayers.
Learn From Set Prayers
And you can learn from set prayers. Personally I do not use set prayers (written prayers), but I do read them from time to time. It is helpful to read other people’s prayers. You may realize that you are missing adoration, or you are missing confession, or you are missing thanksgiving, or maybe you are not at supplication enough. So reading these set prayers helps you to realize if your own prayers are on the right lines or not.
Be Careful with Study Bibles
Be careful with study Bibles. Study Bibles are excellent, but there is a real danger that we do not wrestle with Scripture ourselves. We just go to the notes at the bottom to find out what the Bible means. We are missing out on something there. When I came to the United States, I used a GPS. It was getting me everywhere, no problem, for months. Then the GPS failed and I did not have a clue where I was at any time, because I had never made the knowledge of the road system here my own. It is the same with study Bibles and other commentaries and helps – it can make us feel as if we are students of the Bible when really we are just students of other people’s reading of the Bible. So use them, but do not let them master you. Be careful to maintain that personal need of the Lord’s illumination on what you are reading.
Journal. Write down something each day. I do not mean a page or two in a diary. I use a little index card and write down one verse, or sometimes two that I have read. I keep it in my pocket, and when I am stuck traffic lights I will pull it out. Or maybe when I go to have a coffee, I will just pull it out for thirty seconds and read it. It just reminds you of what you have been reading that day. If you built up a store of them, maybe every Sunday you can go through them and trace how the Lord has dealt with you and spoken with you through the week. It is just another small help.
Do Not End Your Devotional Life
But do not end the devotional life with your devotions – that is really what I am saying there. It is very easy to simply shut your Bible, prayer done, and off we go into the world! No, take the devotional spirit with you. Carry it with you into the day and into your everyday life.
Dads, Help Young Moms
Dads here, encourage young moms. Encourage your wives. Sometimes it is extremely difficult, if not close to impossible, for young moms to have devotional times first thing in the morning. The kids beat them to it. They might think, “I have to get up at five in the morning, and that is impossible! I need my sleep!” Dads, when you come home from your work at night, you take these kids and you say to your wife, “Honey, go find your quiet place. These kids are mine for the next thirty minutes. Don’t worry. Your soul is so important. You must go and get this time with the Lord and trust me with these children.” So dads, encourage moms. And just talk about what you are reading together – “What did you read in your devotions this morning?” Maybe read the same passages so that you can share better at times.
Fight Formality and Self-Righteousness
Fight formality and self-righteousness. Sometimes we get into a good habit with personal devotions, but it then just becomes a habit – just formality, just a routine, just another dead mechanistic process. We have to fight that. Keep life in it. The other tendency is self-righteousness, where we begin to think, “I am doing thirty minutes a day of Bible reading and prayer – I am really doing quite well.” We polish our medals and we get proud and then we lose all devotion as we start worshipping ourselves. We have to right self-righteousness and formality.
Learn How to Meditate
Learn how to meditate. I have given a few addresses on that before. You can find A 10 Step Method to Meditation on my blog if you want to follow it up (www.headhearthand.org).
(Transcription of audio file from 41:37 to 42:50 omitted.)
If we do these things, I really believe we can keep our heads above the water in this digital deluge. God has given us the means and He has given us the helps so that we can follow the example of the Lord here. Jesus Himself clearly needed to withdraw Himself into a wilderness and pray. Luke 4:42: “When it was day, He departed and went into a desert place.” Time and again. If Jesus Christ had to do this, how much more do you and I, in the face of all the internal and external temptations and difficulties in our lives?
Let me remind you lastly of this research again:
If [churches] could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ…they would inspire, encourage and equip their people to read the Bible – specifically, to reflect on Scripture for meaning in their lives…
Reflection on Scripture is, by far, the most influential personal spiritual practice for every segment [of the population]. Move, Hawkins and Parkinson, 2011.
Be encouraged in your personal devotional life, and that will spill over into every area of life, including our church’s life.