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Weekend Reading: Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney

If our goal in this life as followers—or disciples—of Jesus is to be more like him, then we must follow the instructions of the Apostle Paul to the young minister Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:7b to “train yourself to be godly.” Godliness, or holiness, is what it means to be more like Jesus. Disciples of Jesus must pursue godliness. We do that by practicing the Spiritual Disciplines. That is the argument Donald S. Whitney makes in his work, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (2014, NavPress). Originally published in 1991 and revised and updated in 2014, Whitney’s book is regarded as a modern classic in the field of Biblical Spirituality and the Spiritual Disciplines. And for good reason.

I re-read Spiritual Disciplines for a teaching series I and my associate pastor recently completed at New Beginnings in Bryan, Texas. We based the structure of the series around the structure of the book. We also utilized the accompanying study guide (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life Study Guide, 2014, NavPress).

Perhaps intuitively, when we hear the work “discipline”, we think negative thoughts. Sometimes it is about punishment. Other times it is just about hard work. What we almost never think about in relation to discipline is freedom. But Whitney says that is exactly what discipline leads to and provides. It is only through hard work and discipline that we experience freedom.

I have virtually no musical ability. I can read music a little bit, but I can’t do anything with it. My friend Will is a great guitarist. But he didn’t just pick up a guitar and decide to be great. He can play beautifully. He can play beautifully because he has spent countless hours practicing, honing his skill, exercising discipline. All that time spend disciplining himself in practice gives him the freedom to play pretty much anything he wants to.

Whitney begins by laying a foundation of why followers of Jesus must practice the Spiritual Disciplines. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction to the book, and this is where the author lays this foundation.

I will maintain that the only road to Christian maturity and godliness (a biblical term synonymous with Christ-likeness and holiness) passes through the practice of the Spiritual Disciplines. I will emphasize that godliness is the goal of the Disciplines, and when we remember this, the Spiritual Disciplines become a delight instead of drudgery. (page 4)

After a very solid introduction in Chapter 1, Whitney lays out his list of Disciplines and defines, defends with scripture, and applies each one.

  • Bible Intake
  • Prayer
  • Worship
  • Evangelism
  • Serving
  • Stewardship
  • Fasting
  • Silence and Solitude
  • Journaling
  • Learning

Whitney closes the book with an important chapter that would be easy to overlook. In it he discusses the importance of persevering in the practice of the Spiritual Disciplines. We all are busy people with lots to do. Adding the practice of the Disciplines to the list could be seen as a real burden. He emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit, the role of fellowship with other believers, and the role of opposition to help us persevere.

I want to offer a real compliment to Dr. Whitney. I have had the pleasure to meet him in person on two occasions. The first was at the Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, Texas. The second was at Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee. I know that Dr. Whitney is Calvinistic in his theology. Reading Spiritual Disciplines, you might not realize that. Many modern Calvinists would find a way to work it in to every element of the book. Dr. Whitney knows what he believes and can defend it, but doesn’t live and die on his Calvinism. For this I say, “Dr. Whitney, thank you!” This book is truly helpful for any and all Christians.

Another observation is that Whitney is clearly a big fan of the Puritans. Several Puritan writers are quoted in most of the chapters. I can’t say with any authority, but it seems they had a firmer grasp of the Disciplines and how to practice them and live them out than we do.

But the highest compliment I can pay Dr. Whitney in relation to this book is his obvious love and appreciation for the Word of God. This work is rooted in scripture. Every point is defended with scripture. The Bible is the sole authority for the Disciplines Whitney articulates in this work.

Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life was immeasurably helpful to me both in the preparation for this teaching series and to reemphasize to me the importance of the Disciplines in being a follower of Jesus. May we all heed the words of Paul in 1 Timothy 4 to “train yourself to be godly.” Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney is a wonderful tool to help you do that. I highly recommend it.

Feel free to share comments and thoughts about this book and book review in the comment section below.

If you would like to hear the messages from New Beginnings on the Spiritual Disciplines, click here.

Don’t Rescue Me!

Bivocational PastorI am the pastor of a small church, and I love the church I am privileged to serve. One of the issues with small church ministry is that many cannot afford to pay a pastor a full-time wage. Such is the case with my church. This was not a surprise; we moved here and joined this church with that understanding. And so for the past several years, God has financially provided for my family through my wife’s income. A few months ago I had the opportunity to join the larger workforce. I began working part-time at first, then full-time with a local funeral home. It is emotionally difficult but incredibly rewarding work. I feel honored to serve the families who trust us with the care of their loved one.


There are a great many things I could write about bivocational ministry, and perhaps I will write more on this in the future. I want to focus on something I read earlier today.


There is a short article at titled “Bivocational Pastor: The Strategic Future”. This article includes a short discussion of some of the issues bivocational pastors like me face, including time management, lack of respect (presumably from others in full-time ministry and perhaps the larger community), and an absence of role models and training. I will definitely grant the truth of this, at least for the most part.


The article goes on to quote Todd Wilson, director of Exponential Network, an alliance of church-planting networks.  Allow me to include part of the article here:

But the current model of bivocational ministry will have to be different, Wilson says, as he relates an emerging idea among church leaders that megachurches would become the distribution system for incarnational church planting in America.

“When we talk about bivocational ministry, there are so many dimensions to it,” Wilson says. “The bivocational of the future is not going to be about pay; it will be about role and releasing people to do ministry where they are. For example, I live 40 minutes from the church I attend. I’m not going to convince my neighbors to drive 40 minutes to church with me. What if my church equips, coaches and supports me to start a church in my living room? I don’t quit my current paying job, but my church releases and sends me to minister to my neighbors and essentially be a campus pastor.”

Did you catch that? Apparently, the megachurch is here to save us poor, small, bivocational pastors! What would we ever do without you? (Feel free to read sarcasm here.) Perhaps I am a tiny bit oversensitive about this, but I am less than convinced the megachurch is the answer to every perceived problem. Who says this is a real problem, anyway?


Please don’t misunderstand me; I love the large and mega churches! There is much that is available to help the small church due to the generosity of larger churches. I really do appreciate this. I just don’t believe Mr. Wilson’s assertion that the future is megachurches planting small churches with bivocational pastors. It seems the data just doesn’t back this up:

Churches of 200 or less are four times more likely to plant a daughter church than churches of 1,000 or more. The pattern continues: The smaller the size of the church the more fertile they are in planting churches. –Lifeway Research (as reported in Outreach Magazine)


I have had a good relationship with large church pastors, and I want that to continue. We don’t need supposed leaders drawing false dichotomies between us. There is a place for each at the table. Small churches and their leaders need the encouragement and support of our large church counterparts; we don’t need to be rescued.


Thinking Like a Great Small Church (Seminar) – Part 7

For several weeks I have been sharing—in sections—a seminar I was invited to present at the National Association of Free Will Baptists (NAFWB) annual convention in July of this year. The NAFWB is the denomination of which I am a member. I pastor a small church and had been doing some reading about pastoral ministry in general and small church ministry in particular. After posting on this subject on this blog, I was invited by the ENGAGE Leadership Network to prepare and present a seminar on small church ministry at the convention.

I have shared the content of that seminar with a number of leaders, as well as here on my blog. Today, we come to the conclusion. This is by far the shortest section. A key part of the conclusion is a short list of resources I recommend. Since I prepared this material, I have discovered a few more I would add to the list. I will, however, refrain from that today and instead I will write about those in the future.

Have you read any of the books I list below? What are your thoughts on them? What other resources would you recommend? Thanks for hanging in there with me. As always, I pray this has been an encouragement and help to you. Please share any thoughts in the comment section below.

Swiss Army Knife


Small churches are here to stay. They have existed since the beginning of the church. As a small church pastor, I want my small church to be a great small church. Every small church can be a great small church. I believe one of the keys to this is for our small church pastors to get out of their own heads. Please don’t spend your time comparing your church to others. Don’t succumb to The Grasshopper Myth and you won’t just think like a great small church, you will be a great small church.

Suggested Resources




  • Facebook – Small Church Pastor
  • Facebook – I Am Free Will Baptist (for Free Will Baptist church leaders)
  • Create your own local network of small church pastors!

Thinking Like a Great Small Church (Seminar) – Part 6

Sorry for the extended break. Now, back to our program already in progress.

I have been sharing—over an extended period of time—a seminar I presented at the 2014 National Association of Free Will Baptists convention. The seminar was sponsored by the Engage Leadership Network. Over the past several weeks we have introduced the concept of the great small church (Part 1); we took an overview look at some church statistics (Part 2); we pointed out three undeniable realities of pastoral ministry (Part 3); we discussed the importance of establishing and aligning our values, mission, and vision (Part 4); and we emphasized the importance of protecting our focus, as well as both human and financial resources, by adopting a “one in; one out” principle (Part 5).

As before, all footnotes are from the original seminar; all links were added for the sake of this post. I hope and pray this is encouraging and helpful in your ministry context, whatever that may be.

human numbersPeople Instead of Numbers

I don’t know a single evangelical pastor who would say having a large church is more important that the people who make up that church. The problem is that we often act like it is. We become so active building good ministry that we lose sight of who that ministry is to benefit.

Sometimes we begin to look at what that ministry or event or activity will do to benefit our church, especially in terms of numbers and dollars. Don’t get me wrong; we have to be concerned with numbers and dollars. But we have to be more concerned with the life-change that is produced in the lives of those we engage. This is an important principle. Make it a priority to invest in ministries that produce life-change even if they don’t add numbers. To borrow an illustration from the apostle Paul, “If anyone builds on this foundation [Jesus Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” (1 Corinthians 3:12-13, NIV) Be sure to use the gold, silver, and costly stones of life-changing ministry rather that the wood, hay, or stubble of crowd-building alone. There is nothing wrong with growing a large church or attracting large numbers, but that must not be our focus. Rather, life-change in our congregations and communities along with faithfulness to our calling must be the measure of success.

One of the ways we often try to build and grow is through the use of technology. Just earlier today I heard a purported leader say that if your church cannot be “Googled” it is dead or irrelevant or some such ridiculousness. Please do not misunderstand; I am not against technology. I utilize it regularly. But being a great small church is not dependent on your website, Facebook presence, Twitter followers, or any other measure of technological advancement.

Your community is not looking for the church with the best entertainment production value. Please do not try to even go there. If you have a smart phone in your pocket, you have more entertainment at a higher quality than anything you or your team at church can likely produce. Don’t even try to compete with that. What most members of your community are looking for is relationship. Realize that technological expertise is no substitute for genuine relationships. This is where the small church excels.

Faith Perceptions is a company that, among other things, operates a church Mystery Guest Program. A local church can hire them to send an anonymous unchurched person to attend their worship services and evaluate their experience. They recently released a study based on an analysis of data that covers surveys of 4,288 separate and unique church services using the same questions and criteria. Two categories, Micro Church (0-80) and Small Church (81-150), scored “Very Good” or “Good” in the following categories: Greeting Upon Arrival, Pre-Service Atmosphere, Seating, Post-Service Atmosphere, and Friendliness.[1] In other words, every category that was relationally driven, small churches score well in; and this was recognized by the unchurched individual sent to evaluate. When people need relationships the small church can be, and should be the answer. This can be the case when we focus on people rather than numbers.

[1],_2014_FINAL.pdf. Accessed July 23, 2014.

Thinking Like a Great Small Church (Seminar) – Part 5

Here is the next section–and the second practical suggestion–for helping you think like a great small church. Feel free to follow the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. While the last section dealt with the importance of understanding your church’s values, adopting a mission, and casting a vision, this section has to do with busyness and the need to evaluate what your church is doing and why it is doing those things. Please feel free to comment below.


One In; One Out

FullClosetWhile I have lived in a pretty big city, I have never lived in a truly large, urban area. I have watched enough real estate and remodel shows on HGTV to know the homes, especially apartments, are small—really small. I have been told that because of this situation, many people choose to follow a simple rule: When you buy something new, you get rid of something old. When you buy a new pair of pants, before you put them in your closet you have to get out (ideally) your oldest pair of pants. In addition to making sure you have enough room for all your belongings, there is the added benefit of keeping your wardrobe fresh and up to date.

What if we took the same approach with the ministries and activities in our local churches? What if we made it our policy that we do not add a new ministry or regular activity unless we evaluate what we are currently doing and choose to let one go? Church is complicated, probably too much so. I think church should be simpler—especially smaller churches. We usually do not have the financial resources, facilities, or manpower to conduct large numbers of ministries.

Adopting this mindset will help make one of the most difficult transitions an existing church needs to make. We need to move from a destination mindset to a process mentality. When most of our churches were started, whether 20 or 120 years ago, a way of doing church was established and has likely not changed much. It is as if the church has reached her destination. This at least partially explains why it is so difficult for churches to adapt and begin to decline as their communities change. We need to realize that if we drop less effective ministries and programs as we add new ones, the local church will continually be revitalized.

We do not need to change for the sake of change, but we have to be willing to change if we need to. Developing a process mentality will allow us to honestly evaluate our structure, programs, and ministries. Our culture and communities change so fast. If you do not evaluate the operations of your church at least as often as Microsoft releases a new version of Windows, you are running behind. That doesn’t mean you have to change that often, but you do need to evaluate.


Thinking Like a Great Small Church (Seminar) – Part 4

For the past few weeks I have been posting—section by section—the transcript of a seminar I had the privilege to present at the National Association of Free Will Baptists annual convention. That seminar was titled “Thinking Like a Great Small Church”. I have introduced the topic (Part 1), presented some statistics (Part 2), and addressed some realities of leading in a small church context (Part 3). In the next three sections (Parts 4-6) I will offer practical suggestions that I believe will help as you begin to think like a great small church. Part 7 will conclude with some resources that have been particularly helpful to me. I am sure you will find them encouraging as well. The footnotes are from the original paper and the links were added for this post. As always, I pray this is a help and an encouragement to you. Please use the comment section below to offer any feedback, positive or negative.


Barn Targets

Ready, Fire, Aim!

There was a man traveling down a country road when he saw another man with a bow shooting arrows into the side of his barn. The man traveling was curious, so he stopped. When he saw the arrows in the side of the barn, he was amazed. Every arrow was in the very center of a bulls-eye! He asked the man how he was able to hit those bulls-eyes so consistently. He replied, “Come with me.” Together, they walked around to the other side of the barn. The man with the bow pulled out and fired five arrows at random into the side of the barn. Then he took his paint and brush and painted a bulls-eye around each arrow.

A number of years ago, it was all the rage in church leadership circles to develop mission statements and try to implement them. What most churches wound up with was some generic statement that included bringing glory to God, believers together, and the lost to salvation. They found clever, catchy, clichéd ways to say this, but that describes most of them. What they did not include, for the most part, was any reflection of the character, culture, or calling of that individual church. For most churches this effort into mission statement madness appears to have made no discernible difference. For many this exercise was a failure that discouraged and set back the pastor and the church.

There are a couple of common views regarding mission statements. One of those could be summed up as: Without a concise mission statement your church will probably fail and die. The other is that the mission of the local church should be self-evident. Pastor and author Mike McKinley likens it to a major league baseball team.[1] No one expects the New York Yankees to have a mission or vision statement. Everyone knows what their mission is: Win!

I have chosen what I see as a sort of middle ground. I think mission statements are helpful, but not necessary. They are a tool. They help us to stay focused on the task at hand. Just like individuals have a call, gifting, and purpose, so do churches; and a church’s mission statement has to reflect that call, gifting, and purpose. Rather than write a mission statement and then try to conform the church to it, perhaps we should examine our church and write a mission statement that reflects it. I think there are three steps to this process:

1) Values:[2] Every church has things or traits it values. These are the things that make your church different from mine. Start by making a list of your church’s values. These are not the values you wish your church had. These are the actual things your church actually values. Over time you can try to grow this list to include the values you want, but start with the actual reality. I will illustrate with some (not all) of the things I observe that the church I pastor values: a casual atmosphere, a somewhat unstructured worship service, relationships in the church, a come-as-you-are welcome, caring for one another’s physical needs, biblical preaching that teaches, and a racially diverse attendance/membership. In time I would like for generosity toward the community to increase in value, along with other things I believe are important.

What does your church value? Maybe your church’s values include concern for the poor, a fun environment, missions, engaging corporate worship, of social justice issues. No single church can value every good thing. Sit down and make a list of several items. Recruit your leadership to do the same. Compare your lists and talk about the items. Try to build a fairly comprehensive list of your church’s values. There will likely be a fair amount of overlap between some of the items. You can use the larger list to try to synthesize a shorter list of a few things that you value most highly as a church. If you don’t know what is important to your congregation, it will be difficult to move them forward on mission.

2) Mission: This is your biblical mission accomplished through the lens of your values. There are certain things every church ought o be about doing. The Great Commission is the responsibility of every church. But does every church go about accomplishing it in the same way? Of course not!

Some churches are more creative and use music, art, and drama to introduce people to Jesus and lead them toward discipleship. Some are more academically oriented. Still others are very relational by nature. Some churches are highly formal and speak more easily to those who place a high value on tradition. Others are more informal and often appeal to those from a low-income or unchurched background. Neither is more important. Both can be Great Commission churches. A biblical church will accomplish their mission through the things they value. As you discern your values, you will figure out your mission.

3) Vision: By this, I am referring to a specific vision for the future of your church. What good is a sense of mission if it doesn’t translate into action? Vision is where the action is at!

Vision could be defined as goals or a plan. Many churches consider their vision to be the same as their mission, but the mission is a little vague by its very nature. Your church’s vision must be fairly specific. In order to be effective, it must be measurable and definable. It might take the form of a 1-year vision, a 5-year vision, or even a 10-year vision. The vision is where your mission takes on feet.

So you have spent time and energy working through your values, mission, and vision. You are hard at work in your church for the kingdom. You are in a small church, so small changes in your attendance lead to significant changes in your church. What happens if over time your values as a church begin to change? The answer is pretty easy. So does your mission and vision. All three of these need to be reviewed and reassessed on a regular basis. Your church is a living body; just like any living body, it will change over time.

[1] Mike McKinley, Church Planting is for Wimps (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2010) 60.

[2] Jim Powell, Dirt Matters (Bloomington, Ind.: Westbow Press) Chapter 2: “Misplaced Priorities” does an excellent job of defining and describing what is meant and not meant by “Values”.

Thinking Like a Great Small Church (Seminar) – Part 3

Small Church PastorThis is the third installment in the “Thinking Like a Great Small Church (Seminar)” series. (Click for Part 1 and Part 2.) This is the content of a seminar I was privileged to lead a few weeks ago at the National Association of Free Will Baptists annual convention. This seminar was part of a seminar series produced by the Engage Leadership Network at Randall House Publications. As before, any footnotes were from the original paper. any links were addied for this blog post. As you read the following section, do you find it rings true in your experience? Are these three realities discouraging to you? Are they encouraging? Do you disagree with my conclusions? Please comment below. I am still studying issues related to small church leadership; more voices can make for a more full learning experience. We can learn from one another.


Three Undeniable Realities of Pastoral Ministry

Based on the statistics we have seen, there are some realities or truths about pastoral ministry that are undeniable. I am sure there are others we could mention and spend time on, but I will focus on these three:[1]

  1. The vast majority of pastors will never pastor a church larger than 200 people. If the average size church in North America has an attendance of 75, the majority of churches have an attendance less than 100, and Free Will Baptist churches have an average membership of 76, the reality is that most of us will never pastor a mid-size or large church. Most of us will always pastor small churches.
  1. Virtually every pastor will pastor a small church for at least some time in his ministry. I am not referring here to associate, youth, worship, and other pastoral roles, but rather to senior or lead pastor. The various types of associate pastors are more likely to serve in larger churches because those are the churches that most need and are most able to afford the additional staff. For the rest of us, virtually all of us will pastor a small church for at least some time in our ministry. The exception to this might be the large church pastor who is able to transition the ministry to his son or some other leader groomed for that position. Clearly, this is the exception rather than the rule. We all have small church experience.
  1. You can pastor a small church well without settling for less. I will be the first to admit that for most of us, this concept causes a struggle within us. I was sharing my passion for small churches with a friend who replied, “I don’t believe there are any small churches.” What he meant was he didn’t believe there are any insignificant churches. Here’s the rub: Small and insignificant are not the same thing! Your church can be small and significant. Your church can be small and healthy. You can pastor your small church well and it doesn’t mean you are settling for less. None of us wants to settle for less. You would not have made the effort to be here this morning if you wanted to settle for less. You would not have taken the time out of your day if you were willing to settle for less. The good news is you don’t have to. You can pastor your small church well without settling for less.


[1] This section adapted, with permission, from “Thinking Like a great small Church” by Karl Vaters. Accessed July 25, 2014.


Do you agree that these are undeniable realities of pastoral ministry? What are some others you would include? Do you agree with the third point or do you believe small equals less? There’s no judgement here! Please comment below.