This year’s theme is “The Life.” Today we explore that theme with….
The Life of Discipline
Andy is the Minister to Students at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.
I recently attended a summer youth program in worship leadership with a small group of students from our church, and one of the artists-in-residence was a talented spoken word poet. The students were compelled by his performances in worship but, surprisingly, just as much by a talk he gave in a workshop on “creative disciplines.” Insisting that there can be no creative output without quality input, he shared that observing and engaging good art are the basic fuel for creating good art. By demystifying (lightning strikes of) inspiration in the creative process, he made clear that creativity cannot be conjured up on the spot. Finally, as he reiterated the amount of work and protected time and space necessary to become masterful at a craft, the poet laid out a practical plan for how to do this work, which included specific practices for beginning where you are.
I couldn’t resist mentioning to our church’s youth that this isn’t a new way of thinking. I had to tell them how humans have known this for practically forever and that these principles apply not just to the creative process but to the Christian life as a whole. Growing in Christlikeness requires the same kind of approach. Christlikeness is not automatically infused at baptism, and we can’t conjure it up out of nowhere in our time of need. They seemed to “zone out” a bit as I tried to expound the parallel.
It wouldn’t be surprising if artistic expression itself was more effective in drawing youth in than, say, monologues from a camp preacher, parent, or youth minister. We are seldom moved by mere telling. I wondered if, in this case, the artist’s art primed his listeners for hearing (and embracing) a straight lecture. Maybe the novelty (for our context) of his craft, or the excellent performance of it, heightened attention. Maybe students being more than 24 hours into a week away from “real life,” on a break from having to manage typical distractions and immersed in multi-layered learning and worship experiences, had something to do with it. Perhaps it was just him—his informal communication style, his charming demeanor, or, well, his character that made the difference. By the end, not just of the day but of the week or of adolescence, will his message of discipline have stuck? Will mine?
As hard as it is to get people’s attention, the more difficult task is to sustain it. For our youth, what made a disciplined lifestyle appear not just attractive but possible was the artist’s humility. Without “humblebragging,” he admitted his own weakness and cautioned against trying the suggested practices all at once from the start. In turn, he was honest about how his life and work flourish when the disciplines are a mainstay, not something just dabbled in. In being himself, teaching sounded less like telling and more like testimony. The artist seemed to know that amusement captivates for only so long. His talk was on a “high reading level.” Young (and all) people long for depth and transcendence, for “something more,” and the workshop provided it. And we know that the disciplines provide these even more so.
If a congregation, youth group, or other groups are going to grow together—to go through the same growth process at the same time, while also growing closer to one another in spiritual friendship—it will not be because current marketing trends were taken into account in promoting the abundant life (not that they shouldn’t be). It will not be because the right program or mass-produced curriculum was chosen. Not even “dynamic” personality, which may energize momentarily, can sustain a long-term journey of transformation. A strategy to bring about the spirit of the disciplines in communal life will rely much more heavily on the integrity of the teacher.
I’m not sure if this is more frightening or encouraging to me. On the one hand, I am relieved to remember that practicing effective ministry, making disciples in my context, means actively tending to my own transformation—and is not ultimately reliant on any number of things I may not possess (namely, certain tricks of the trade, personality traits, or impressive ideas). On the other hand, I know I have lived long stretches of my life worrying more about the latter than the former. I am afraid my muscles have atrophied and that my ministry lacks staying power.
Yet, on the other other hand, I know that I’ve never been fueled by performance or attracted to programming. I’m a minister because I just want to be close to God, to study the Christian life, and to live it. I know the task ahead is not to figure out how to get our youth, or our church, to listen but to make sure I do. Perhaps the difference between cultivating communal growth and perpetuating stagnation is a leader speaking from experience.