“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Galatians 5:6
Join us this Fall at Vineyard North as we read “The Good and Beautiful Community” and continue our ‘Soul’ training exercises together. This is the third and final book in James Bryan Smith’s “Good and Beautiful” Apprentice Series. We’ll spend the next 10 weeks examining and practicing the second part of the Great Commandment – loving our neighbors as ourselves. You can join in by reading the book, attending a small group and selecting some exercises to try out on your own. (PRO TIP: install the Vineyard app for easy access to this guide and weekly updates.)
The Soul Training Exercises
Select some new habits and activities from the list below to try out during the next 10 weeks. We’ve compiled a list of Soul-Training Exercises from “The Good and Beautiful Community” to serve as a guide. They’re based on historic practices known as Spiritual Disciplines. For each one, we’ve included the Basic Practice, Extra Practice and Family Practices. Read through the list and see what stands out. Ask God to highlight certain ones. This is your Soul Training. May God awaken, encourage and empower you this Fall season. Enjoy.
“We don’t have the power to make the sun rise, but we can choose to be awake when it happens. Spiritual disciplines help us stay awake.”
– Sharon Garlough Brown, Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey
We need to keep a balance between spending time with God and caring for others. To lose one or the other is a common, but deadly, mistake. We must wed contemplation with action, personal piety with social justice.
The Two-by-Four: Spend two hours focused on God and do four intentional acts of kindness. Don’t try to cram it all into a few days. Spread the two-by-four out over a week. Need some ideas on how to spend time alone with God? Click here. How about some ideas for acts of kindness? Check this out.
Gather a small group of friends, coworkers and/or neighbors to spend time reading the Bible or a devotional together. Ask others how you can pray for them and spend part of your two hours praying for requests you’ve gathered throughout the week. Ask others to join you in doing the acts of kindness – transform the culture of your office, your neighborhood, your school, your home. Extend the two-by-four challenge from one week to 30 days.
Read the Bible as a family. Start doing devotions together. Take a look at these suggestions. Discuss how each of you connect with God best – worship, Bible study, prayer, nature, journaling. Take turns throughout the week trying different ones your family members highlighted. Invite your family to brainstorm acts of kindness. Make a plan and do them together.
Sharing Your Faith
We are always witnessing, whether we know it or not. People are watching us, and our actions communicate something, for good or for ill. But we can become even more intentional about reaching out to others and sharing our life of faith with them.
Find out something new about a coworker or neighbor. Share a personal God story with someone who doesn’t know Jesus or is new to faith.
Invite a neighbor or coworker (anyone you don’t know well!) over for dinner or out to coffee. Ask deeper questions – “How are you feeling about life right now? What’s working? What’s missing?” Share your faith story or some relevant personal God stories. Offer to pray for them. Invite someone to church or to join you at a small group.
Identify as a family who you’d all like to get to know better (outside of the church). Invite them over for a BBQ or to dinner. Plan something fun. Make prayer popsicle sticks with your kids. Pray with your kids on the way to school or practices, “God, show us who to reach out to today. Who needs to be loved on?”
Treasuring Our Treasures
It is key to put on the mind of Christ and to see others as He sees them: treasures. Then we will naturally move to treasuring them, which makes putting their needs ahead of our own not only possible but likely.
Live unselfishly in simple ways. Ask a coworker how their day is and if there’s anything you can do to help lighten their load. Make coffee or bring some treats into the office or to neighbors. Take a parking spot farther away. Let other people into your lane. Allow people to cut ahead in line at the grocery store.
Write an encouraging note to someone who would never expect it from you. Ask forgiveness from someone you’ve treated like less than a “treasure.” Take someone out for coffee and spend the evening listening to and encouraging them.
When deciding where or what to eat, ask the others in your family where they’d like to go. Give your children the honor of choosing how to spend one evening during the week – any way they want. Brainstorm ideas of how to be more unselfish around the house. Challenge every family member to focus on one of those for the week.
Loving Those We Disagree With
We must view all who call on Jesus as our brothers and sisters regardless of doctrine or race or practice. It is crucial that we stay unified even if we disagree.
Pray for the success of someone who is different from you – religious beliefs, race, occupation. It could be a family member, a coworker, a business owner or a neighbor. Pray for them a few minutes each day. Focus on what you have in common. Speak kindly to them and about them.
Invite that person out to lunch (maybe after you’ve been praying for at least a few days). Ask them questions, get to know their heart. Write the person an encouraging note (only if it’s genuine). Discuss ways to work together better.
Research some different countries in the world together. Find out about their religious beliefs. Pray together for them. Invite a family over for dinner with a different background than you. Attend a local cultural event.
God has given us all a message of reconciliation – that God, in Christ, has reconciled the world to himself. The first place we are invited to practice this reconciliation is with one another. Forgiveness is a gift we receive and a gift we give.
Watch Les Miserables. Spend 30 minutes afterward praying and reflecting.
Have an honest conversation with someone you’ve distanced yourself from over an offense (yours or theirs). Choose to forgive someone who has hurt you. Humble yourself and ask for forgiveness from someone you have wronged. Invite someone new to take Communion with you. Share about how Jesus’ forgiveness has changed your life.
Share around the dinner table about a time you had to forgive someone and a time you had to be forgiven. Brainstorm about famous stories of forgiveness (Corrie Ten Boom, Nelson Mandela, Amish schoolhouse shooting). Take Communion together as a family. Talk about its meaning and significance.
Finding an Accountability Friend
No matter who we are, no matter how deeply we live in the kingdom, we still need to be encouraged, admonished and challenged to grow in Christlikeness; we need to be accountable to an encouraging community.
Go out with a friend (or at small group) and share something good that God is doing in your life and share how you would like to grow in an area. Go up for prayer on a Sunday morning and ask someone to pray for you about something.
Set a personal and/or professional 90-day goal. Ask someone to be your accountability partner for those 90 days. Invite someone to be your accountability partner and start meeting once a week. Ask questions like, “How is your soul?” “In what ways do you need to be encouraged right now?” “What is holding you back from living more fully for God?”
Take each of your children on a date. Ask them how they see God moving in their life and how you can encourage and pray for them. Set a 90-day growth goal as a family. Here are some tips on how to create a culture of accountability in your home. Or, check out the 5 A’s of teaching children accountability.
Stewardship of Resources
If we live with gratitude and thanksgiving for what we have been given, we will naturally give of our time, talents and treasures to those in need.
Write a paragraph or two naming specific people in your life and the way they bless you. Then take action – send them a card, give them a call.
Start a thankfulness journal and write about what you’re grateful for each day. Brainstorm two ways you can trim less meaningful activities (watching TV, Internet) or spending from your schedule, so you can invest in others (Go for a walk with a friend. Take someone out to coffee. Volunteer at church. Give to a charity or a person in need. Surprise someone with a gift.).
The sooner your child starts giving back the better! It helps them realize they can make a difference! Click here for a list of 10 ideas to teach your children (and you) generosity! If that’s not enough, here’s 22 more.
Can we live the Christian life without a worshiping community? Yes, it is possible – all things are possible with God. But the better question is, why would we even want to try?
Prepare your heart for worship on Sunday morning by going to bed early Saturday night and arriving early Sunday morning with a holy expectancy (“Spirit, speak to me. Jesus, teach me. Father, let me experience your love and power.”). Focus on one aspect of worship for the week (sermon, Bible reading, singing, Communion). Reflect on its meaning. Then focus on something different the following week.
Attend the 9:30 a.m. prayer meeting before the Sunday service. Ask God throughout the week and before the service to speak to you about what He wants to do on Sunday morning. Apply one thing this week that God is asking you to do. Is there someone you need to speak with? A change you need to make? A new practice you need to make as you walk with God? Worship begins in holy expectancy and it ends in holy obedience.
Make sure everyone gets to bed early on Saturday night and knows why – “To prepare our hearts for worship.” Wake up early Sunday morning and give yourself plenty of time to get to church without being rushed. Pray in the car together for the service and for your children. Follow up on the way home or over lunch – “What did you see God doing at church today?” “Did God speak to you this morning?” “How can you put into practice what you learned today?”
Writing a Soul-Training Plan
Creating a plan for continued growth developed by you and God, and perhaps others, is extremely helpful in your life with God. And yet, it is something very few Christians do. For some reason, we think that our life with God does not require effort or planning. Unfortunately, it never does. Nothing in life happens without planning, without a strategy.
What does a strategy do for people? It is a balanced and wholesome pattern that helps define how we want to live. It is a constant reminder of how we would like to live. It can help us to go beyond merely good intentions and into action.
“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40
The first and greatest commandment is that we love God with all that we are. The second commandment is that we love others as we love ourselves. This implies that we ought to love ourselves. Love is to “will the good of another.” We are labor to care for ourselves and for one another. Love God and take care of yourself and each other. If this is our greatest task, then we need a plan to ensure that we are doing it the best we can. A helpful way to do this is to practice ways that allow us to do all three. Below are 33 soul-training exercises that have been recommended in this Apprentice series (Good and Beautiful God, Good and Beautiful Life, Good and Beautiful Community).
Silence and awareness of creation
Counting your blessings
Praying Psalm 23
Reading the Gospel of John
Writing a letter to God
Living one day devotionally
Reading a devotional classic
Reading the Bible during free times
Two hours with God
Keeping the Sabbath
Finding an accountability friend
Praying for the success of competitors
A day without gossip
Four acts of peculiarity
Sharing your faith
Treasuring our treasures
Loving those we disagree with
Stewardship of resources
Step 1: Picking from the list. The first step in writing your plan is to pick several (5-10) exercises from the lists that were especially transforming for you. Pick ones that will help you grow the most.
Step 2: Add practices not on the list. The exercises listed are not the only way people can nurture their life with God. You may have other spiritual exercises you enjoy or other nurturing/self-care practices you engage in (hobbies, exercise). The latter may not seem “spiritual,” but if they affect your well-being they are spiritual. Add three to five more of these practices to your list. Your total list should have 10-12 practices that you believe will help increase your love for God, self and neighbor.
Step 3: Timing and frequency. Determine how often and how long you will practice these exercises. Think about how much you need to engage in these exercises to get the most benefit, without overdoing it.
Step 4: Creating a plan with balance and moderation. Is your list balanced? Are there the right number of exercises in each of the three areas?
Step 5: Allowing others to shape your plan. Have others look at your plan and offer their input, especially in terms of balance and attainability.
Step 6: Just start. It’s time to put your plan into practice. Simply having a plan will do you no good; you have to live it. Look over your schedule and plan when you will engage in these practices. Keep your plan in front of you. Make copies and hang them up.
Step 7: Living your plan in community. Find some people who can meet regularly to ask, “How’s it going with your plan?” The following questions can be used to help you analyze how God is at work in your spiritual training program.
Examen for Individuals
1. How am I seeing God at work in what I am doing?
2. Which practices am I enjoying the most? The least?
3. What, if anything, needs to be modified or changed in my plan?
Examen for Groups
1. Which old, false narratives have you struggled with since we last met?
2. How are you doing with your plan?
3. What is God teaching you through the practices in your plan?
4. How can we support you?