Since the 1970s, evangelicals have discovered a number of spiritual disciplines from other Christian traditions. While this has largely been a positive development, it has sometimes given the impression that evangelicalism has no such spiritual disciplines of its own. In actual fact, it has a rich spiritual set of practices for fostering spiritual health and growth. It’s just that some are so familiar that we evangelicals don’t even think of them as spiritual disciplines. Only when we share our experiences with other kinds of Christians to we discover that these practices are not as universal as we thought, and we realize that we, too, have something to offer to our fellow Christ-followers.
Evan Howard wrote the chapter on evangelical spirituality for the book Four Views on Christian Spirituality. As helpful as this material is for other Christians to understand the evangelical spiritual experience, it also allows evangelicals to consider the lens through which we see the world and experience God. Just as a fish doesn’t know that it’s wet, it’s hard for someone to reflect on their own spiritual culture. Howard helps us to do just that.
Whether consciously acknowledged as such or not, evangelicals have nourished and expressed their relationship with God through a number of practices characteristic of the evangelical tradition.
- Reading, Studying, and Meditating on Scripture. Bible study is the discipline of evangelical Protestantism. Pietist conventicles were designed especially for lay exploration of Scripture. Puritan diaries document their intense study of and meditation on sacred text. Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797–1878) proclaimed the following: “We cannot make progress in holiness unless we devote much time to the reading, hearing, meditating upon the word of God, which is the truth whereby we are sanctified. The more this truth is brought before the mind; the more we commune with it, entering into its import, applying it to our own case, appropriating its principles, appreciating its motives, rejoicing in its promises, trembling at its warnings, rising by its influence from what is seen and temporal to what is unseen and eternal; the more we may expect to be transformed by the renewing of our mind so as to approve and love whatever is holy, just, and good.” One can recognize in this quotation the well-known elements of lectio divina: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating (and obeying). Perhaps it is time we acknowledge lectio as a practice that pervades evangelical literature.
- Preaching, Hearing, and Reading Sermons. Martin Luther avowed that “to preach Christ means to feed the soul, to make it righteous, to set it free, and to save it, provided it believes the preaching.” From this point on, preaching became a central means of grace for Protestant — and particularly for evangelical — Christians. The discipline of hearing sermons was explicitly developed by evangelicals in manuals of spiritual life, describing how to prepare, to listen, and to respond. The art of preaching sermons was similarly developed, with guides to the composition of sermons appearing throughout evangelical history. With the advent of publishing, the practice of reading sermons became a popular discipline, and many evangelical devotional classics were (and are today) edited collections of sermons.
- Family Worship. From the time of Luther’s Small Catechism (written for the instruction of children), Protestants — and particularly evangelical Protestants — have emphasized the importance of family devotions. Puritan classics such as Benjamin Jenks’s Prayers and Offices for Children and James Janeway’s A Token for Children were popular in later evangelical awakenings. Many revivals (e.g., the Great Awakening in Northampton and the Welsh revival of 1904) were stimulated by God’s work among young people. One cannot read accounts of revivals without hearing about the rekindling of family devotions as a consequence of the work of God. Evangelical guides to family devotions continue to be published, although the discipline is often neglected in contemporary practice.
- Song. It is odd that song is not more often identified as an intentional spiritual discipline, especially among evangelicals. In the late medieval Roman church, music was primarily the preserve of those who led the service of worship or the monks who sang in choirs. As Protestants made worship available in the vernacular, song became an important part of their worship. Luther himself wrote music for worship, evangelical Isaac Watts pioneered hymn writing in England, Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns, as did Fanny Crosby. Then there is the phenomenal impact of African-American music. More recently, we can simply recall the impact of the Maranatha Scripture songs, Vineyard Music, and the phenomenon of Contemporary Christian Music.
- Intercessory Prayer. Whereas other Christian traditions have modeled fixed-hour prayer, the Jesus Prayer, or the simple deist prayer of thanksgiving, evangelicals have specialized in intercessory prayer. Martin Luther’s treatment of prayer, offered to his barber, welcomes a simple petitionary approach to prayer. The orphanages of August Herman Francke and George Mueller were large-scale experiments in intercessory prayer. The move of God in the Herrnhut community (1727) gave birth to a hundred-year-long 24/7 prayer session and a vast missionary movement. Prayer meetings have been a fixture of evangelical spiritual life, and manuals were written to instruct leaders how to conduct these meetings. Andrew Murray, E. M. Bounds, Thomas Payne, and Rees Howells all taught and modeled intercessory prayer. While not neglecting mystical intimacy with God, evangelical spirituality is characterized by its confidence to pursue God for saving intervention in human life.
The above are only a few samples of the practices of evangelical spirituality. Space does not permit discussion of small groups, revivals, testimony, Sabbath keeping, journal writing, and more. Nevertheless, from this presentation one can begin to get a feel for the rich heritage of evangelical spiritual practice — a wealth that has only begun to be explored.