Do ordinary, busy Christians fast anymore?
That was the question that popped into the mind of our board-of-elders chairman, Austin Chapman. Pastor Anderson had mentioned fasting in a sermon, and now the lay leader was getting practical: What about it? Should we—a large, modem church in a Minneapolis suburb—take fasting seriously?
John Wesley once said, "Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it." We certainly knew which category we were. So we did what any group of uneasy churchmen would do: we referred the matter to the discipleship board for further study.
In a matter of weeks, board member Jeff Jonswold presented a report that didn't let us off the hook at all. He noted, among other things that:
- Fast and other forms of the word are used 78 times in Scripture.
- Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Jesus, Anna, the disciples of John the Baptist, Paul, Barnabas, and others all fasted.
- Jesus seemed to think of giving, praying, and fasting as a trio of spiritual disciplines. Jeff listed four reasons to fast: (1) to better focus the mind on God; (2) to share, in some small measure God's own grief over sin; (3) to turn attention away from material needs toward the One who supplies all; (4) to intensify our praying.
He concluded with eight practical guidelines for those who fast:
- Reach a personal conviction on the subject through a careful biblical study.
- Make sure you are medically able to fast before attempting it.
- Enter with a positive faith that God will reward those who fast with the right motives.
- Begin with short fasts and gradually move to larger periods of time.
- Be prepared for some dizziness, headache, or nausea in the early going.
- Mix your prayer time with Scripture reading and singing or devotional reading.
- Keep checking your motives during the fast.
- Break a prolonged fast gradually with meals that are light and easy to digest.
These ideas were officially discussed at a special joint meeting of all boards. Within two weeks, George Penland, chairman of the discipleship board, sent a letter to all who were present encouraging a trial period of prayer and fasting. He asked us to report our experiences and conclusions anonymously.
During the next two months, responses trickled in. One wrote: "I used lunch and supper to dwell upon (God's greatness) and (the same God reached down to us). A very valuable time. It required much discipline and concentration. Nothing magical happened—it's a learning process. Conclusion: I plan to set aside one day a month to fast and pray and meditate."
Another wrote: "It's changed me. I first fasted for a specific prayer request—trying to change God and make something happen. Now, I reflect on God himself. I go to him to have my perspective and attitude changed instead of God's. It has humbled me. My goal is to do it once a week."
One who ate only breakfast for two days wrote: "I was aware of physical discomfort, but I felt that was good. It heightened my awareness and appreciation of God. It's improved my prayer life. I plan to do this again often."
Of those who reported, none were negative or even neutral. All saw fasting as a "helpful," "positive," "uplifting," or "life-changing."
So the discipleship board voted to take the next step: encourage the church to participate.
People were asked to spend regular mealtimes in prayer for "the nation, its new leadership, our church, the new building project, and our personal lives." We had corporate prayer at the church at 7 a.m., 12 noon, and 7 p.m. I led some Scripture readings and responsive readings in four basic categories: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Hymns and praise choruses were interjected throughout. We prayed in large and small groups, sometimes silently, sometimes vocally. Daytime participation was small (20 to 30) but positive. The evening gathering drew 185 (out of a Sunday worship attendance of 1,400). Nevertheless, those who participated were enthusiastic, and many encouraged the idea of all-church fasts.