In the previous column, we looked at the Amputation Approach to changing your primary story. It’s the call to radically reorient your life to the Scriptural Story by attacking the idols that lead you to live according to lesser stories. To dethrone the idols and rob them of their power to give meaning and significance to your life, you ruthlessly eliminate certain habits or practices in order to reestablish your focus on seeking first the kingdom.
Not every case requires the Amputation Approach, however, especially when the idolatrous pull of lesser stories vies for allegiance but doesn’t always win. You may recognize something of yourself in these three case studies: Cameron’s focus on career at the center of his life, or Pam’s obsession with politics, or Greg’s maximization of leisure and entertainment. But perhaps the Scriptural Story has never been totally supplanted in your heart. You recognize the danger of these lesser stories but do not believe you are captive to them.
Many Christians fit this situation, which is why when suffering crashes into their lives, the reorientation is significant, but not severe. What if the Scriptural Story gets pushed from the center occasionally but is never altogether absent?
General Habits Approach
In order to keep the Scriptural Story primary—the public truth of the gospel and the personal implication of growing in Christlikeness—many church leaders recommend what I call the General Habits Approach. The focus here is on particular practices common among all Christians. The three big ones are:
- Attending church
When you listen to pastors, read discipleship books, or talk to believers about the common practices that should be true of Christians, you hear these three come up again and again.
- Read the Bible—preferably every day—in order to hear from God and reorient your life to his Word.
- Pray regularly, in order to keep your relationship with God, the importance of his kingdom, and your dependence for daily bread at the forefront of your mind. (I remember as a child singing this formulaic song: Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.)
- Church attendance comes in third. The Bible tells us to gather with other believers in worship and renewal. The weekly rhythm of worship, in which we lift our voices alongside others to the Lord, and listen together to his Word and enjoy fellowship with him and other believers at his Table is an integral part of the Christian life.
General Habits and Lesser Stories
The General Habits Approach to the Christian life is how church leaders often encourage people to keep the Scriptural Story at the center of their lives, so that the lesser stories (career advancement, political battles, or entertainment and leisure) don’t become our source of ultimate meaning and significance. It has much to commend it.
The problem is that it’s possible for Cameron, Pam, and Greg to take on these general habits and still live according to the other stories. And as I mentioned in an earlier column, it’s possible for the three of them to appeal to their faithfulness in keeping these practices as justification for the lesser stories they live by!
- Cameron reads a little from his Bible a few days a week, prays on his way to work for a few minutes, and takes his family to church at least two or three times a month.
- Pam posts verses on Instagram, prays for her candidates to win the election, and doesn’t miss a Sunday.
- Greg plays the drums in the church’s worship band, prays when he remembers, and reads his Bible at least some every week.
In each of these cases, the “general habits” approach looks like it’s working fine. By all accounts, these are spiritually active people in church.
Doubling Down on General Habits?
What’s the solution, then? Frustrated church leaders often think the task is to double down on the general habits. They need to do them more. The only way the Scriptural Story is going to compete with the lesser story of career advancement is if Cameron goes to church more regularly. The only way Pam’s political narrative will be challenged is if she spends as much time in the Bible as she does watching cable news. The only way Greg will overcome his obsession with entertainment is if he reads the Bible more and forces himself to pray.
This solution has merit. It’s true that the more we engage in the three general habits for all Christians, the more likely we will overcome some of the lesser stories that vie for our attention. But there’s something about it that gives me pause. I’m haunted by cases throughout church history in which people who, on all accounts, were considered devout in their general habits but missed the ways in which true Christian faithfulness would have been demonstrated in their time.
- The practicing Lutherans in Germany who, as the trains chugged over the tracks near their church, carrying countless Jews to their deaths, responded to the noise by singing louder . . .
- The theologically robust Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the South who engaged Christian practice with seriousness and yet never opposed a system intended to prop up their “benevolent” rule on the backs of their black brothers and sisters . . .
- And what of the religiously devoted Pharisees in Jesus’s time who ignored the weightier matters of the law, or the Sadducees whose compromising stance led them to dismiss the kingdom in favor of the lesser story of the ruling elites?
Read your Bible and pray every day, and you’ll grow? Not necessarily.
So what is a better solution? More on that in the next column.