Everyone of your parishioners needs to exercise. Everyone of your parishioners needs to eat. But not everyone will exercise in the same way. Some will take walks, some will run marathons, some will play basketball, others may prefer to bike. When it comes to eating, some may lean organic; others may eat fast food six days a week.
If what we mean by “exercise” and “food” differs so widely, wouldn’t it make sense that personal times of devotion will as well? Everyone needs to pray—but the way we pray, where we pray, and when we pray, may differ widely. Everyone needs times of interacting with Scripture and heartfelt times of worship but when, where and how we do these essential spiritual practices can vary as widely as exercise and eating.
Wise pastors will release themselves and their churches to find the pathway of personal devotion that mixes discipline with delight. If we can help believers find a way to connect with God that they truly enjoy, to the point that they look forward to it more than they see it as something to check off their “to do” list, we’ll lift them into a new realm of spiritual devotion and please our Heavenly Father who treasures the personal attention of His people.
If those we serve admit that their devotional times are marked more by angst than ardor, it may not be God that they’re reacting against; it very likely could be that they’re practicing a form of prayer for which they’re not particularly suited.
No Cookie Cutter Christians
When my kids were young, each of them liked to do different things with me. My youngest daughter loved to go to IHOP and eat pancakes. My son liked to be competitive. If we weren’t competing with each other, we watched someone else compete. And my oldest daughter preferred relationship-centered talks, preferably at an independent coffee shop while drinking a latte.
I would never even think of telling my youngest daughter that the only place I’ll meet with her is on the way to a Seattle Seahawks game, just as I would never tell my son that unless he wants to get together at Starbucks, he can go find another dad to talk to. In fact, I like having a different relationship, and doing different things, with each of my kids.
And then it hit me: why would my heavenly father be any different? After all, he made us! Don’t we celebrate his creativity when we learn to love him in different ways?
Both Scripture and Christian tradition present a wide variety of devotional approaches to God, all equally acceptable, and all open to the fact that God makes us with different dispositions and personal preferences. Some forms of personal devotion that seem to fit us just right might be too noisy, too quiet, too liturgical, or too strange to someone else. When it comes to abilities and preferences, we are not the same. And when it comes to the issue of loving God, we should not get tense and uptight when we don’t worship the same way as others.
When I read through the Bible, I see Abraham building altars, David dancing or writing a psalm, Mary sitting adoringly at Jesus’ feet, Peter’s mother-in-law serving—yet all of these people loved God and were worshipping Him while doing different things. Can you even imagine Jesus looking down on Mary and saying, “Quit looking at me with those doe eyes! If you really want to show your love, go build me an altar, just like Abraham did! Those were really cool, and I’d like more of them.”
We wouldn’t expect the people in Zaire or Peru to worship God exactly the same way that a Baptist from Texas or an Episcopalian from Boston would do, but often when we deal with young people, we expect the energetic kids and the meditative kids to fit into one mold when it comes to devotions or quiet time. I found that it just doesn’t work that way. God didn’t use a cookie cutter to create us; He has designed us with such variety that it’s only natural we will worship Him in different ways.
Some may have their hearts opened up to God when they get out of doors. God seems more real to them when there’s a mountain in the background, and they’re hiking under a big expanse of sky. Others really like books—even the reference kind. They’re moved by concepts, and they want to come out of their devotional time with some new understanding. Still others may be more aesthetically inclined; they’re the artistic type, and prefer creative and original music or even good architecture to open their heart to God’s presence.
Here’s one of the most freeing things we can tell people: if there’s no stereotypical quiet time in Scripture, why do we make ourselves conform to an artificial one today?
Desire or Discipline?
If you’re like me, you tend to do what you like to do. I can make myself do certain things out of obligation, but if I’m going to devote myself to something, I have to enjoy it. When I’m training for a marathon, I look forward to the long runs. I love doing them and have to force myself to take an occasional day off.
But when I’m injured and am trying to stay in shape by using exercise machines, I have to force myself to get active, because there’s no fun for me in working out inside on a cross trainer. The consequence is, if I’m not running, I’m not usually in very good shape. Why? I do what I like to do.
The church spends a lot of time talking about discipline. In one sense, that’s good, because discipline is an essential element of faith. (“Fools despise wisdom and discipline.” Prov. 1:7) But I’ve found another “D” word, equally as powerful as discipline, and it’s called desire. When I desire something, it doesn’t take much discipline to do it. Desire can be an equally powerful force as discipline, as long as I desire a good thing.
If I can find a form of devotion that I genuinely enjoy and look forward to, I’m going to spend much more time with God. A foundational verse for me has been Jer. 30:21b: “‘Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?’ declares the Lord.” If I’m going to devote myself to being close to God, I need to find a way that I enjoy meeting with God—or I just won’t do it. At least, not enough to call myself “devoted.”
The nine “sacred pathways” consist of nine different “windows” through which we can help people encounter God’s presence. They summarize and explain the wide variety of personal devotion that exists within the Christian faith. I want believers to experience new freedom in their personal devotion that is invigorating, exciting, and nourishing. To do that, I believe we have to get rid of the “one size fits all” approach and find a pathway uniquely designed for who God made us to be.
There is only one Savior—Jesus Christ. But there are many ways that his people can express their love and devotion to Him.
Gary Thomas is a writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and an adjunct faculty member teaching on spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and Houston Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas. He is the author of nineteen books, including When to Walk Away, Sacred Pathways, Cherish, and Sacred Marriage—over one million copies sold. He has a master’s degree from Regent College and was awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity from Western Seminary. Gary has spoken in forty-nine states and ten different countries.