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Thinking Out Loud

On Being a "Practicing" Christian

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 08, 2016

Practicing ChristianI’ve been wondering about a common phrase and what the absence of it might say about the particular stream of Christian faith to which I belong, that is, Protestant Christian.

The phrase is, “practicing (fill in the blank).”

The word “practicing” is often used in this way to describe an active adherent to a religion. For example, someone might be described as “a practicing Catholic,” “a practicing Jew,” or “a practicing Buddhist.” A magazine to which I subscribe, Buddhadharma, describes itself as “The Practitioner’s Quarterly.”

So my question is why do we so seldom refer to ourselves as Protestant Christians in a similar manner?

Is it because Martin Luther’s “the just shall live by faith” (perhaps over-narrowly interpreted to exclude any human participation from God’s salvation of us) runs so deep in our Protestant bloodstream?

Is it because of the relative paucity of emphasis on the benefits of practicing the core aspects of our faith – what we traditionally called “the means of grace” – in contemporary Protestantism?

Or is it because of the high valuation placed on beliefs in Protestantism, even among the officially “non-creedal” branches of the Protestant family? Certainly, Protestants tend to identify themselves (and to separate themselves from others) based on their beliefs.

Perhaps it is a combination of these factors. Perhaps there are others. But, especially in light of the rich literature on Christian practices written in the 1990s and early 2000s, I find it fascinating that we Protestants don’t tend to describe ourselves as “practicing Presbyterians” or “practicing Methodists” or merely as “practicing Christians” much, if at all.1 For whatever reason, the language about “practicing our faith” has not really been integrated into the lives of many Protestant congregations, at least not to a degree as to shape the language of most Protestant Christians.

Indeed, as I was told recently by a very active lay person in a large Presbyterian church, “We need more help in understanding what it means to grow as Christians. Are there some things we can do regularly other than just ‘come to church’?” This person, an elder in her congregation, lamented that her Catholic neighbors seemed to have lots of resources and disciplines to utilize for the maturing of their personal faith. When she asked her pastor what we as Protestants offer, beyond talking about corporate worship, he had nothing much to offer.

Now, I think we would all agree that corporate worship – gathering to confess and pray, to praise and thank God, to hear the Word of God read and proclaimed, to receive the nourishment of the Lord’s Table, to participate in and witness Baptism – is the very core of the Christian spiritual life. And, while we may not use the term “means of grace” much these days, I imagine that most of us hear a good bit about the importance of prayer, reading the Bible, and participating in the sacraments.

Nevertheless, I think the person who spoke to me about wanting to learn more about ways to nurture her personal Christian life and to grow in the faith is articulating a concern that is widespread, and I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we have focused far more on beliefs than practices of our faith.

If I may offer a word of personal confession: As a young pastor, steeped as I was in Barthian theology, ever suspicious of the slightest hint of “works righteousness” or “natural theology,” I recall scoffing (in my heart, though not out loud) at a colleague who told me that he was using the exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in his spiritual discipline. I was, perhaps, not untypical of my generation. I suspect that today one reason that so many people, myself included, are turning to Ignatius, John Cassian, and many of the popularizers of spiritual disciplines too, is because we have longed for paths that will lead us into deeper spiritual understanding and toward greater maturity in our faith. We have not found many such paths of practice in the Protestant traditions.

Yet, even as a young pastor, while steadily working my way through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics in my study, I spent many an evening reading Thomas Merton and Henri J.M. Nouwen. And because of the influence of my teacher, James Torrance, I also quietly began to read Hans Urs von Balthasar, Lady Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Thomas á Kempis. These writers not only spoke to a spiritual need within me, but also from the depths of their own rigorous disciplines, whether as Benedictines, Cistercians, Carmelites, monks, hermits or anchorites. Whereas prayer for me had been divided between public (which I highly valued and on which I lavished great attention) and private (which remained largely a matter of intercession), over time this strict dichotomy between the public/private categories began to dissolve, and I came to see them as aspects of a single reality, our human response to the God who draws us deeper and deeper into relationship and ever more fully into an awareness of God’s loving purposes for all of God’s creation. This response in its corporate manifestation is never divorced from the yearnings of the individuals assembled; in its personal and individual expressions, it is upheld by the Spirit who enlivens the whole people of God.

But, I digress.

The practices of which many feel a great need provide a regular rhythm to life that supports us even in those days when we may not “feel like” praying. Whether one uses the Ignatian Daily Examen or follows a Benedictine Breviary, the “Daily Office” of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, or the Presbyterian Daily Prayer, submitting ourselves to a disciplined devotional “order” draws us into that contemplation or mental prayer that, as Thomas Merton has said in his little guide to Spiritual Direction and Meditation, awakens a consciousness of the Holy Spirit within us, brings our hearts into harmony with God’s voice, and teaches us to allow the Holy Spirit to speak and pray within us (p. 88).

While all of this may sound a bit exotic to some Protestant ears, such spiritual practices open the door to a simple reality that C.S. Lewis described in one of his best-loved books, Mere Christianity. In Lewis’s response to the possible query: “If we cannot imagine a three-personal Being [that is, a Triune God], what is the good of talking about Him?” Lewis responds:

“Well, there isn’t any good talking about Him. The thing that matters is being actually drawn into that three-personal life [of God], and that may begin any time – tonight, if you like. What I mean is this. An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God; God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God – that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening, God is the thing to which he is praying – the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on – the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary [person] is saying his prayers.” (Collins, 1955, Fontana edition, p. 139).

Sometimes the most ordinary Christian actions turn out to be doorways to the greatest mysteries. And these actions, these practices, have the power to transform us over time.

I wonder if we Protestants have shied away from talking too much about practicing our faith in part because we’ve taken to heart that old adage that “practice makes perfect.” We are suspicious of the whole notion of spiritual perfection. But, let us imagine, with Kathleen Norris, that “perfection consists in being what God wants us to be” [The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), p. 27]. Then, maybe, being “practicing Christians” fits us better than we might have thought.

1If I may mention just a few of these: Dorothy C. Bass, editor, Practicing Our Faith (Jossey-Bass, 1997, second edition 2007); Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, editors, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2002); and two resources which reflect on Christian practices in relationship to theological education: Barbara G. Wheeler and Edward Farley, editors, Shifting Boundaries: Contextual Approaches to the Structure of Theological Education (Westminster John Knox, 1991), which includes the now-classic essay by Craig Dykstra, “Reconceiving Practice”; and Malcolm L. Warford, Revitalizing Practice: Collaborative Models for Theological Faculties (Peter Lang, 2008).

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