Planting Through Practice

Photo by Cathryn Lavery

“Discipleship, we might say, is a way to curate your heart, to be attentive to and intentional about what you love.” - James K.A. Smith

The church is in the business of change. From our inception, we’ve been called and commissioned to join God’s redemptive work in the world of making all things new. It’s a job we do not own, but one we simply participate in.

Nothing about that is all that shocking. Almost every church shares a similar heartbeat of missional calling — plastering statements on walls and websites that look almost identical. We all want to see God work through us to help change the world.

On an individualistic level, the goals are the same. People join and participate in the church to see change happen in their own lives, and to be part of the transcendent storyline of seeing God use them to bring change to the world.

All of this seems pretty straightforward and basic.

But what if it’s not? What if the change we so deeply desire happens differently than the church often assumes it does?

Recently, there has been a tidal wave of literature, both from inside and outside of the Christian community, on what impacts us the most. Despite Western culture’s obsession with new knowledge, it is actually our habits, rituals, and practices that shape us the most. Now don’t misunderstand this, it’s not that knowledge isn’t important, it is, it’s just that it doesn’t matter as much as we believe it does.

In fact, James Clear’s new book, Atomic Habits, is on about every bestselling list hammering home this very point. The premise is basic, that our goals and hopes for change don’t actually create that change as much as the framework and systems we put in place. In fact, Clear tells us that our change is the byproduct of daily habits becoming compounded. He states, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

Now Clear is talking about self-improvement, but the principles apply to discipleship as well. Many in the Christian community, most notably James K.A. Smith in his extensive “Cultural Liturgies” series, have been talking in a similar fashion. Smith, in particular, critiques our treatment of people as “brains on sticks,” and warns that filling our heads with facts and arguments is insufficient in ultimately changing the heart. He goes onto adopt the Augustinian insight, “that we are what we love,” and that what we love is shaped unconsciously by the habits and daily “liturgies” that exist in our lives. In other words, we don’t simply think our way to holiness. He ponders this in You Are What You Love:

“Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do? Have you ever found that new knowledge and information don’t seem to translate into a new way of life? Ever had the experience of hearing an incredibly illuminating and informative sermon on a Sunday, waking up Monday morning with new resolve and conviction to be different, and already failing by Tuesday night? You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike; yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a way of life.”

It’s hard not to resonate with that on some level. We’ve all been there.

This echoes Clear’s thoughts, too. That true change happens on the ground level of our daily rituals first. If new beliefs and convictions are to take root, we first have to change the soil. The way you spend your day is the way you spend your weeks. The way you spend your weeks is the way you spend your years. The way you spend your years is the way you spend your life.

Another way to more simply state this is that we are worshipping creatures. Without careful attention to our rituals, we will begin to give our hearts in worship over to where we habitually spend our lives. Justin Whitmel Earley gives this example:

Habits form who we are, because habits are little liturgies of worship.

Think about it. A habit is something you do over and over without noticing it. We wake up and we scroll Instagram. We roll up to the stoplight and check our texts. We get a controversial work email and check the news headlines instead of facing the task.

We might be vaguely annoyed at these things, but we probably don’t think of them as deeply formative. We are terribly mistaken…At the root of each of these little liturgies is a search for something fundamentalour eyes search the photos for a vision of the good life; at the stoplight we itch for a connection with another human; in difficult work moments we realize we’d rather numb ourselves with distraction than face the pain of life itself.

Now, all of this has massive implications on the church. For example, as Earley alludes to, technology is the biggest factor in most of our culture’s habits (which impacts consumerism, individualism, and identity). As technological innovation continues to advance at its current rate, we should expect our daily lives will undergo constant disruption. Our habits, relationships, and communities have never been more fragile than they currently are. From hours of screen time to social media to advertising to entertainment, we are being shaped quicker and distracted faster than we realize. In fact, as philosopher Charles Taylor described, technology is a factor that contributes to us being in an insulated reality he calls the “immanent frame,” which keeps us from having space in our lives for transcendent ideas or purposes.

What this means is that the church has to realize that its message is being proclaimed to preoccupied listeners who often lack the framework to change. What this means for the average Christian is that they’re hearing the message without the margin and/or habits in place to ever implement it. That’s a problem for a movement in the change business. Even with faith in the Holy Spirit to do the work of change, where is the margin for that to happen?

This also forces the church to ask critical questions about its methods. Does just getting better at our communication or more excellent in our production value really bring the changes we desire? Or, even more difficult, how do we deal with technology? Western churches often view technology from an almost completely positive mindset, grabbing ahold of the latest trends to “reach” people. Yet, maybe we should be asking if the medium we’re using is only contributing to the problem.

If nothing else, we should definitely be looking to find ways to disciple people beyond simple doctrine classes or applicational sermons, and should also be working on the rituals and habits people already have. It’s for this reason I’ve heard ministers like Mark Sayers issue challenges to their congregations to buy alarm clocks so their smartphones aren’t shaping them the moment they wake up. Or, the aforementioned Justin Whitmel Earley, creating The Common Rule, a rule of life template to change daily and weekly habits for Christians. Or, Andy Crouch’s challenge for families to take back their lives from technology with healthy habits in his resource The Tech-Wise Family.

Still, these few resources aside, we’re way behind in the church in our thinking and understanding of change, especially in our current cultural moment.

It’s for that reason — I wonder if it’s time for us to return to our ancient roots. For example, in his incredibly formative book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider hits home that part of the improbable rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire was due to cultivating a strong “habitus” where people were transformed in the midst of tight-knit Biblical community. They were focused on the framework for change, and not just teaching change. In fact, he states that the early Church Father Irenaeus,“ insisted that the church’s overarching goal was ‘renewing [people] from their old habits into the newness of Christ.’” No doubt, the proclamation of the Gospel held more weight with people living radically transformed lives in the countercultural way of Jesus.

Maybe the ancients knew what we’re just being reminded of now (and to sound less ethnocentric — what current Christians around the world know too).

Now, I write all of this not as an expert or as a cultural commentator, but as an average church planter in his first few months on the ground. I walk through the above information on change and how it happens (rather ironically), not simply to sound the alarm, but so that those following our journey will understand that it is shaping how we plant our church.

In the kaleidoscope of church planting methodologies, our plant sometimes gets labeled in the group of contrarians who just want to do church “like it has never been done before.” It’s not hard to see why. Rather than parachute in and start services as soon as possible in a local school or theatre, we’ve made the decision to plant slowly by creating a network of microchurches or huddles. We’ll be majoring in the perceived minor things, strengthing the spiritual formation and daily rhythms of these smaller communities so they can live out the way of Jesus where they live, work, and play.

But for us, this has nothing to do with bucking the status quo or to be seen as pioneers doing some new innovative work (there are plenty of others out there doing this under the radar). It’s about a return to our origins as the church.

This is also about understanding our culture and where change starts. It’s about creating tight-knit communities operating as spiritual families where habits can actually be practiced alongside other people. It’s about creating safe environments where people feel encouraged and emboldened to swim upstream in the midst of raging secular waters. It’s about having places where people are invited in, and not just informed but encouraged to actually do the things Jesus taught us in the midst of grace-filled community.

We’ve moved into one of the most secular cultures in the country, often in the most subtle of ways. We are in an urban environment completely saturated with busyness, distraction, and that is at the forefront of technological advancements. There is no way the church can keep up in any of those categories. Even seasoned Christians are being discipled by our culture faster than we know. What we can do, though, is to do what the church does best in every generation. Invite people to slow down, encounter grace, and dare them to experience “the good life” Jesus promised by putting it into practice. Our prayer is that by doing so we’ll be part of a new change, a new generation that has given their ordinary habits to Christ.

Bottom line — we believe in God’s redemptive work in the world to make all things new. We want to participate in that by creating a generation with compounded interest of daily rituals for Christ. Focusing less on theory and more on practice sounds like a great way to see God do something in our time and place. I’m all in for that.

Church planter & aspiring social entrepreneur in Boston. Also the hub director for Forge Boston. I write about faith, spirituality, and missional expressions.