The practices, or disciplines of the Christian life function to nurture correspondent love. The disciplines are not themselves the sum and substance of communion with God. Instead, they are the gymnasium, or rather the exercises, that develop and strengthen ordinate love for all of life. The process of experiential communion with God extends to family life, vocation, avocation, recreation, evangelism, and discipleship. It is not merely an exercise in one’s private devotions or in corporate worship. One can love God correspondently in all of life. Nevertheless, the disciplines are concentrated, repetitive forms and practices that nurture that love. The disciplines provide the greenhouse in which desire for God thrives. How so?
First, these disciplines provide the opportunity for communion with God to occur. The spiritual disciplines, rightly used, are the moments when one can give clearest attention to the process of communing with God, confessing sins, and conforming one’s life to Christ. It is no wonder that some have mistaken these means as ends, for they provide some of the most concentrated experiences of communion with God.
Second, the spiritual disciplines form and shape the Christian imagination, filling the mind with analogies and metaphors by which to understand invisible and ultimate realities. The spiritual disciplines are not simply conveyors of information. They shape the imagination on a non-cognitive level through their form. The pattern of correspondent life is imprinted on the mind. They also create a rhythm of life that shapes the imagination (Deut. 6:6–9).
Third, the spiritual disciplines unite the pattern, position, and process of the Christian life in one act. They shape and strengthen the other three pillars of correspondent love. Like those tasks in life that require one to combine and co-ordinate several actions at once, practice is necessary. Practical disciplines give the soul practice at combining these.
Many spiritual disciplines have been suggested. We suggest three major categories of practices: the prescriptive practices of corporate worship, the derivative practices of private worship, and the formative practices of developmental worship. Why these three? The first two were considered the “means of grace” by the first Puritan generation. The third is derived primarily through the Lutheran and Moravian traditions.
1. The Prescriptive Practices of Corporate Worship
The Regulative Principle of Worship states that only what the Word positively prescribes to be used in corporate worship should be included. The prescribed elements of corporate worship are then concluded to be the public reading of Scripture, the preaching of Scripture, public prayer, song, the collection, and the ordinances. This holds for corporate worship, since that is where the consciences of God’s people are bound to the shared practice. Corporate worship stands at the head of all practices, because of its powerful shaping influence.
Although the elements of corporate worship have been prescribed, the circumstances have not. The circumstances refer to the form each of these will take: the kind of music, the type of prayers, the length and presentation of the elements, the shape of the liturgy, the architecture of the meeting place, and so on.
2. The Derivative Practices of Private Worship
Private worship refers to acts of communion performed alone or (where available) in solitude. The prescriptions for corporate worship do not necessarily apply when it comes to private worship, but the practices of private worship are assumed by example (Dan. 6:10; Ps. 1:2; 5:3; Matt. 6:6; Mark 1:35; Eph. 1:16) and commanded in the form of principles (Col. 4:2; 1 Thes. 5:17). Private worship derives its practices from corporate worship: some form of reading Scripture, meditating on Scripture, praying, or singing (which is a form of prayer). Added disciplines such as memorisation of Scripture or journaling are really additional ways of meditating on Scripture. Missing from private worship are those elements that cannot function in solitude: the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and the collection.
3. The Supportive Practices of Developmental Worship
The supportive practices are those practices that aid in developing the skills, judgement, discernment, and aesthetic literacy that support corporate and private worship.
Christians have not only taught the people they evangelised to read (so as to read and comprehend the Word), they have taught them to sing and make poems (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”) and tell their stories. Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 imply that Christians are to make music and poems.
The arts are not mere embellishments for cognitive and didactic truth; they are formative and substantive. They are a transmission of emotional knowledge. One cannot worship without art, and one cannot then worship intelligently unless some aesthetic literacy is present. Public and private worship are hamstrung without aesthetic literacy. The advent of audio and visual recording, and storage and playback technologies have increasingly turned much of the modern population into art consumers, rather than producers.
What aspects of beauty or art should Christians produce? At least two are suggested by Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16: music and poetry. A third can be implied by the dominance of narrative in Scripture: Christian stories and histories. Christians should be hearing, learning, and making music, poetry, and stories that reflect the Christian imagination.
These practices are supportive in the sense that they support and shape the prescriptive and descriptive disciplines. They are not themselves prescriptive: it would be tenuous to say that Scripture commands all Christians to cultural production in the same way that corporate worship is commanded. J. K. A. Smith asserts that “[M]usic and singing whilst not of the esse (i.e., essence or being) of the church are vital for the beneesse (i.e., the health or well-being) of the church”.
Some presence of these practices is, however, assumed by Scripture as normative. Christian history has similar examples of this artistic production. The Lutheran tradition is one. Luther made sure musical training was present in all three divisions of Lutheran schooling.
Similar to the Lutheran tradition, American Moravians wove musical literacy into the education of their young. At all four levels of instruction, nurseries, primary schools, academies or seminaries and the ‘choir’ houses of Single Brethren and Sisters, music was integral
Where and when these supportive practices have waned, corporate and private worship have suffered. Lacking these practices on a widespread scale, Christians are cut off from a living tradition, and default to the aesthetic production of their surrounding popular culture. Without these supportive practices, Christians lose aesthetic judgement, and must borrow the judgements of their leaders, who themselves may be aesthetic illiterates.
As artistic production ceases, the choices for circumstances of worship are cast upon an evil choice: to seek to repristinate fossilised ancient practices, or to attempt to “Christianise” artistic forms foreign to historic Christianity and lacking in reverence.
Christians steeped in these supportive practices develop aesthetic judgement, gaining the skill not only to worship more meaningfully, but better to judge the circumstances of corporate and private worship. When a large groundswell of Christians standing on the shoulders of their tradition are making music and poetry, emerging from the mass will be a few works of high excellence, that enter into the worship of the church universal.
The prescribed practices of corporate worship, the derived practices of private worship, and the supportive practices of developmental worship find their support in Scripture and Christian history. These will greatly nurture correspondent love for God, through which we know and love God’s beauty.