When I became a Christian, one of the first things that was drilled into my head was the importance of daily, personal (i.e., individual) devotions. I was encouraged to spend 10-15 minutes each day studying the Bible (usually through a devotional booklet of some kind), praying about what I’d learned, and jotting down ideas how to live out the principles and truths I’d been exposed to. It was a practice that served me well as a teenager, and one that has continued to shape my spiritual formation as an adult.
However, over the past few years I’ve really begun to question the effectiveness of personal devotions. Obviously they aren’t bad (millions of Christians would claim they are an integral part of their spiritual walk with Christ), but when I take an honest look at the times in my life that have been the most powerful in terms of wrestling with the Bible and letting it (re)shape me, there is one common thread: at least two or three were gathered (cf. Matthew 18:20).
In high school, my best friend Mike Garner and I would do personal devotions each morning (sometimes the same one), but we’d discuss it (and sometimes debate it) during our walk to and from school. I can still remember particular conversations we had–moments standing on a street corner for an hour talking through an idea or Scripture. For the life of me I can’t remember one personal devotional time during that same period in my life.
In university (Redeemer University College), our weekly dorm devotions were some of the most incredible, intense times of faith formation, and not because they were full of kumbaya moments either; they were often heated, challenging, and relationally demanding. I can still remember conversations and interactions that even to this day bring back a flood of fond memories. I know I did countless personal devotionals during my time at Redeemer, but once again, I cannot recall even one.
Even today, I might have to point to Elevate (Grindstone church’s high school group) as one of the most significant arenas through which God continues to stretch me in terms of my understanding of Him, His word, and His calling on my life. I can say unhesitatingly that Monday nights with our Elevate leaders and students are amongst the most influential in terms of my own spiritual journey.
I once heard someone remark that sermons (and for the purposes of this discussion, personal devotionals) are like meals. Often, we can’t remember every meal we’ve eaten, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been the source of energy through which we’ve grown and been strengthened. That’s why I wouldn’targue that personal devotionals are unnecessary. But I have begun to push myself and others to consider some of their limitations:
a. Personal devotionals are one-dimensional. The one-dimension? you. Like, literally, it’s just you in the room (well, God’s there, but you know what I mean).
b. Personal devotionals aren’t an intuitive learning style for many people. Many people do not learn well in a context of social isolation and invidual reflection.
c. Personal devotions aren’t often energizing or interesting. Because there’s no one there to build on your thoughts and reflections (or disagree with them), it’s easy to just go through the motions and check it off the discipleship “to-do” list.
d. Personal devotions often feel like an uphill battle. Maybe this is the most telling limitation of them all. Many people spend tons of energy trying to be faithful to a daily devotional habit, but with very limited success. Maybe the continued frustration we experience isn’t because we’re spiritually lazy or weak–maybe it’s because God’s Word was designed to be read, studied, and wrestled with (primarily) with other people and not in the corner of the room by ourselves.
I’m no expert on the ins and outs of devotional practices throughout historic Christianity, but I do believe that the Scriptures have traditionally (and predominantly) been engaged with through community–where two or three are gathered. In fact, I’d love to find out exactly when the evangelical obsession with personal devotionals came into prominence.
The more I think about it, the more difficult it is for me to picture Jesus sending off his disciples to complete their personal devotions. Throughout the Bible, community and spiritual formation seem to be assumed partners, not optional tag-ons or extra credit for keeners. While men and women of faith clearly had an intensely personal commitment to God, worship, prayer and Scriptural study were collaborative, community disciplines. To grow in their faith, people gathered–they didn’t scatter.
Again, I want to be careful not to slam personal devotions, but I wonder what kind of difference it would make if I/we did fewer personal devotionals and did more collaborative devotionals–devotionals that were structured the same way as personal devotionals, but were done with at least one other person.
Clearly, this is done already: bible studies, small groups, etc. But I’m asking a slightly different question. I’m asking what difference would it make if the default mode of engaging the Bible was through community study and not, as it so often is, via individual study?
I know so many people (especially students) have an extremely difficult time reading/studying the Bible alone. I think a lot of those difficulties can be traced to the limitations I cited above. If we eased our emphasis on personal devotions and encouraged group or even tandem studies more, would more consistent and transformative encounters with the Bible emerge? I’m increasingly suspicious that’s exactly what would happen.
Some immediate ideas I’d like to try:
1. Limit myself to 2-3 personal devotional times a week, while attempting to do a tandem or group devotional study 3-4 times a week.
2. Encourage students to take a hiatus from personal devotions and instead encourage them to study and discuss a devotional with a member of the same gender 4-5 times a week (i.e., tandem study). This may include reading the devotional alone at one point in the day, but making sure to discuss it with your study buddy later in the day.