One crisp fall morning, I watched my son’s first-grade soccer team attempt to play soccer. Many of his teammates had not played the game before that season. Even a few weeks in, the young athletes were struggling.
While watching, I thought back to their practice earlier in the week and found myself intrigued. During practice, they had executed drills without any problems. They had dribbled, taken shots, and even passed the ball to one another. They looked like they could play soccer—but their practice did not translate into the ability to play a real, live game.
I began to wonder: Why was there such a disconnect between the practice and the game? Were their practices really preparing them to play the game of soccer?
Then I began to think of our churches and ask similar questions. Like my son’s soccer team, don’t we sometimes experience a disconnect between real life and what we “practice” at church? Are Sunday school classes, small groups, and spiritual disciplines the equivalent of ineffectual soccer drills? Perhaps, even when Sunday school classes are full, small groups well attended, and spiritual disciplines regularly practiced, these practices are not helping us know how to love God and our neighbors in the nitty-gritty of real life.
Vertical and Horizontal
These are the kinds of questions Kyle David Bennett asks in Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World. Bennett, a professor of philosophy and director of The Spirituality and Leadership Institute for Young Leaders at Caldwell University, is eager to show believers what it looks like to follow Jesus on the ground. Bennett believes that spiritual disciplines are supposed to help us as we seek to follow Jesus, but he is deeply concerned that spiritual disciplines, as practiced today, actually keep us from living as Jesus would have us live.
For most of us, spiritual disciplines are primarily about our vertical relationship with God. As we do them, according to Bennett, we are often driven most fundamentally by a desire to feel his presence more closely. And we usually practice them first and foremost as individuals, wanting to help our personal relationships with God.
At least that’s how Bennett approached his practice of spiritual disciplines until he read Isaiah 58. In this passage, God tells the Israelites that they are being selfish: While they are fasting to demonstrate their love of God, they are neglecting to love those around them. In the face of a passage so clearly emphasizing the horizontal dimensions of practices like prayer and fasting, Bennett found himself questioning his vertical approach to spiritual disciplines. Likewise, he invites us to consider our own approach—are we, like the Israelites, unwittingly being selfish as we pray, fast, and read Scripture? Have we ignored the horizontal dimensions of these practices?
When we look both at Scripture and at our forefathers in the Christian faith, Bennett argues, we find that spiritual disciplines “were not really practiced for us at all. Rather, they were practiced for others. They were practiced to help and benefit others. They were seen as acts of love toward one’s neighbor that bring life and health and vitality to the world.”