Terms like “discipleship” and “spiritual formation” can feel abstract, making it tricky to know exactly what they mean for everyday life. Tuck Bartholomew understands the challenge, and he and his team have given it some thought.
Tuck is founding and senior pastor at City Church Philadelphia, a congregation of about 350 people worshiping at two sites in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the last few years, the church has been intentional about naming spiritual disciplines and incorporating them into daily discipleship.
Daily spiritual disciplines
They have identified eight spiritual disciplines that ground discipleship in something tangible. These are things that Christians have been doing for as long as Christians have been around. As you participate in these simple activities, you’re formed more and more into the image of Jesus Christ.
“The practices lead us experientially and habitually toward greater awareness of our life with God,” says Tuck. “When we are aware of his presence and love, we are able to engage neighbors or colleagues without being anxious about faith, or afraid of the different questions and doubts, or even opposition.”
The spiritual disciplines themselves are nothing extreme; Tuck calls them “ordinary habits and practices that fit into daily life.” You might find that you’re already doing some of them!
A good reminder
But Tuck also offers several cautions as you embark on a practice-based approach to discipleship.
“Sometimes in the church, we’re looking for a silver bullet, something that will work in every context and with every person. But there’s no secret sauce to formation,” he says. “These are habits and practices we take up … so that we grow in love and actually desire God’s coming kingdom.
“We also need to be patient. Not everybody can do all eight practices all of the time. If you’re already in a small group, think about what additional practice you can take on this year.”
Without further ado, the eight spiritual disciplines:
1. Common worship
City Church believes deeply in the importance of worshiping together—of simply going to church.
“For a long time, I’ve thought of public worship as the principal context of formation, the starting point,” says Tuck. “The things we do more personally build out of what we do in gathered worship. So, the things we’re learning in worship—liturgical narratives and expressions—hopefully begin to translate into everyday life.”
Go to church not to avoid feeling guilty for having a leisurely morning at home. Go to church because it’s where, through songs and prayers and hearing God’s Word, you learn what it means to belong to the family of God.
2. Education and study
Christians have long valued learning as a way to help us better understand our faith and the way it interacts with our world. As our understanding deepens, our faith deepens, too.
“Insight and knowledge are important. We offer classes and seminars around topics we want to grow in our understanding of. If there are things that people are particularly interested in, we try to organize [related] educational opportunities,” says Tuck.
3. Small groups
Being a Christian necessarily means being part of the body of Christ; you can’t be a Christian alone.
“The group experience creates space for people to know one another more personally—share their stories and hear the stories of others; bear each other’s burdens. It’s a practice of spiritual friendship,” says Tuck. Spiritual friendship differs from other forms of friendship in that it “is intentional about helping one another think about how our relationship to Jesus changes the way we experience and live with our own life stories.”
4. Praying the daily office
This falls into the same category as “devotions” or “quiet time”—dedicated time for reading the Bible, praying, and turning our attention toward God.
But there are thousands of devotional guides on the market, and not all of them are helpful. So City Church turned to the daily office, a pattern of prayer and Bible reading that’s been around for centuries and is embraced by many strands of Christianity.
“We wanted to shift the focus a little bit [from a daily quiet time],” says Tuck, “pushing for routine habits of praying the Psalms, systematically reading through Scripture, and praying prayers as part of the body of Christ at large. At City Church, we offer a daily email based around lectionary readings to assist people in this.”
Learn more: Another form of prayer is St. Ignatius’s daily examen, a prayerful reflection on your day in order to notice where God was present. Jim Manney’s A Simple Life-Changing Prayer is a good introduction to the topic. The practice of listening prayer may also help you to hear God more clearly in prayer.
5. Sabbath and retreat
Sabbath—a weekly day of rest—was established in the creation story; even God took a break from work. And it’s essential for keeping us from becoming enslaved to work, as the Deuteronomic version of the Ten Commandments explains. A regular Sabbath gives us a proper perspective on our humanity, reminding us that we don’t keep the world spinning. God does.
The practice of retreat affords us the space to reflect on our relationships with God, with ourselves, and with others. It is often restorative and can reinvigorate our sense of purpose.
“This practice is about developing rhythms in our lives, taking rest seriously, and having seasons to pull away in a retreat space. This is an important counter to the habits and practices of our culture’s busyness,” says Tuck.
Learn more: In Living the Sabbath, Norman Wirzba offers a picture of what Sabbath-keeping means for contemporary life. Tuck also recommends Marva Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting, Walter Brueggeman’s Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, and Mark Buchanan’s The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath.
6. Confession and spiritual direction
“This feels the most new to people in our community, so it’s one that has been challenging,” says Tuck. “Spiritual direction is an old practice that is about processing our life with God across all types of experiences and situations. The aim is to grow in our life with God with the guidance of another.”
Spiritual direction is different than counseling because its focus is not necessarily on moments of difficulty or trauma; it helps us pay attention to God in ordinary moments, too.
“Confession of sin happens weekly in gathered worship, but we also want to cultivate the practice of meeting with someone to sort out those places in life in which we have struggled or failed in some way,” says Tuck.
In addition to informal confession in conversation with friends, City Church recognizes that sometimes people struggle to hear and accept God’s love and mercy. “In these times, confession to a pastor or lay leader may be particularly used by God to help me put words to the sin as I understand it, and hear the greater word of Christ.”
Learn more: Tuck recommends The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A. Barry and William J. Connolly. But, he says, “the best way to learn is to find a spiritual director and begin meeting regularly.”
7. Generous giving and stewardship
While Christians give away more of their income than non-religious people, the numbers are still shockingly low. Some studies put current giving on par with or lower than that during the Great Depression.
But God is a God of abundance. And putting our trust in God rather than material or financial security is always wise. God calls his people to be generous with what they’ve been entrusted.
“How do I think about my whole life as a stewardship project?” asks Tuck. “It’s not just giving to a church budget, but understanding our various vocations, and talents as something to steward in light of life with Christ.”
8. Fasting and feasting
God invites us out of our ordinary patterns of eating to experience him in new ways. When we fast, we voluntarily abstain from food for a short period of time. That strips away our preoccupation with food—from grocery shopping to meal prep to washing dishes—and gives us more space and time to encounter God. Plus, our hunger is a great reminder of our human frailty and reliance on God. City Church often says, “Fasting is feasting on God.”
Feasting, on the other hand, is a celebration of God’s abundant provision. God created us with the capacity to enjoy eating; our taste buds aren’t for nothing! Feasting is also communal, a corporate practice of gathering to delight in God’s goodness.
“City Church tries to inhabit the liturgical calendar in practical ways, so we acknowledge fasting in Lent and celebrate practices of feasting as well,” says Tuck. “Similar to Sabbath and retreat, there are rhythms to our everyday lives. In North American culture, we lean a little too much into the feasting space, but we don’t appreciate it because we don’t pause to sit with loss and lament. If every meal is a fantastic meal, how do you appreciate it as a feast?”