Following Jesus is Deep Work
Every year, Citizens commits to a handful of goals and prayers. Our church can’t mature all at once, so it makes sense for us to focus on just a few areas of growth each year.
At last week’s Vision & Prayer meeting, we reminded members about our four 2019 goals and then I took some time teaching through our third goal: to commit ourselves to basic, Christian spiritual disciplines (of Word, prayer, and fellowship).
Why is this goal important to Citizens?
Most Christians agree that spiritual disciplines are important (even if most of us struggle to do them regularly). It’s unsurprising for pastors to tell their people to read the Bible and pray and go to church. Isn’t that what we’re paid to say?
But, for C.J. and myself, this is no generic goal. We are increasingly convinced that Citizens Church will not survive without a mature leadership and increasingly mature membership. Citizens will not thrive. We will not grow. We will not multiply disciples. We will not accomplish our vision or measure up to any of our distinctives if our faith is not exceptionally strong.
We are just up against too much in this city. Life in San Francisco is hard. Satan’s grip here is strong. We will not make a gospel-sized impact on San Francisco if we are not allowing God to make a gospel-sized impact on us.
We need strong faith, and the God-ordained means for strong faith is the regular pursuit of spiritual discipline. We don’t need a new strategy or technique. We just need to commit ourselves to the boring, slow, unimpressive, mundane, centuries-old habits of grace.
The 19th-century pastor J.C. Ryle wrote,
I lay it down as a simple matter of fact that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification. I can find no record of any eminent saint who ever neglected them. They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul and strengthens the work which He has begun in the inward man… Our God is a God who works by means, and He will never bless the soul of that man who pretends to be so high and spiritual that he can get on without them. (J.C. Ryle, Holiness)
Your spiritual discipline is not just for you and your flourishing. Your spiritual discipline is also for me and my flourishing. (And it’s also for the flourishing of Citizens and San Francisco!)
Maturity only happens in people who are consistently engaged in Scripture, prayer, and fellowship. As David Mathis writes in Habits of Grace (free download or purchase), Christians must “hear God’s voice, have God’s ear, and belong to God’s body.” There’s simply no other way to experience closeness with Christ and to become more like him. It’s not about guilt or shame; it’s just the way our relationship with God works.
But why are spiritual disciplines so hard today?
I’m sure that spiritual disciplines have been hard in every generation. The Proverbs are proof that laziness and misplaced priorities are ancient problems. But I think there is a case to be made that spiritual discipline is especially hard today.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport documents how the ability to work in “a state of distraction-free concentration” is increasingly rare. Even during hours when our phones don’t ping us, our brains do. This is not altogether our fault. Billions of dollars have been spent fine-tuning the apps on our devices to exploit our nervous system and grab our attention. In his introduction to another book, Newport writes,
A common term I hear in [my] conversations about modern digital life is exhaustion. It’s not that any one app or website was particularly bad when considered in isolation. As many people clarified, the issue was the overall impact of having so many different shiny baubles pulling so insistently at their attention and manipulating their mood. Their problem with this frenzies activity is less about its details than the fact that it’s increasingly beyond their control. The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life. (Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism, x-xi)
Clearly, this is not just a problem for our professional lives. This is also a problem for our spiritual lives.
Christian discipleship cannot survive on “tiny shards of time.”
We’re not just talking about Bible reading and prayer, either. All aspects of Christian living are compromised—relationships, community, hospitality, deep conversation, evangelism, sacrificial living, worship. To meaningfully engage in these fundamental human activities, I need full presence. (And I need the full presence of others.) Following Jesus is deep work. We cannot do deep work while being distracted.
Practically speaking, at a minimum, this means that Christian practice should mostly be device-free zones.
Personally, I try to read from a physical Bible both personally and in group settings. We’ve just passed out Luke journals to members for our upcoming series. Additionally, my phone is often in another room or buried in my backpack when I’m trying to focus. (And, even then, at some point, I will have to resist the urge to get up “just to check something.”)
When praying, I don’t listen to music because I inevitably want to switch songs or adjust the volume a dozen times. And, of course, silence and solitude must include digital silence and solitude.
Corporate disciplines are also best experienced device-free. Studies have shown that even having a phone upside-down on a table inhibits deep conversation. And be honest: When was the last time your relationship with someone was furthered by something someone shared from their phone? Did it serve the time, or did it fill a silence that left lingering would have resulted in something deeper? And, in case you’re worried about being out of reach, when was the last time you were interrupted by something that truly couldn’t wait till the end of lunch?
It’s amazing how much the thought of being phone-less scares us. A ridiculous survey in 2018 found that 23 percent of young adults would rather give up one of their five senses and 10 percent would rather lose a finger than give up their phone. Of course, that’s a silly question that we’ll never have to actually answer. But deciding between our devices and our capacity for depth and maturity—that is a fair question we all must answer. If we don’t decide ourselves what we want from life, our lives will be decided for us by corporations which care nothing about our relationship with Jesus.
We’re asking members to pick a few disciplines to invest in between now and our next Vision & Prayer (in June). Using the categories of Scripture, Prayer, and Fellowship (hearing God’s voice, having God’s ear, and belonging to God’s body), what are 2-3 practically steps can you take to increase your faith and move closer to Jesus in 2019? And what if you did them without any distracting devices nearby?
None of this is fast or flashy, but it will bear fruit. By putting yourself expectantly in the way of grace, you will personally grow in Christ (and grow happier in the process). Citizens will mature, and we will see the Kingdom of God advance in San Francisco.