Spiritual Disciplines and the Family

Published in Connections Magazine (September/October 2013)

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faith and family

Spiritual Disciplines and Family

by Marcus J. Carlson

The focus of this issue is the spiritual disciplines. It’s a topic I am passionate about, both as a spiritual director and as it relates to my own faith journey. As I reflect on the nature of the spiritual disciplines, I am reminded that the disciplines are expressed and experienced in three ways: personally (personal devotion), communally (the church, etc.), and societally (caring for the poor, etc.). Christendom as we know it in North America tends to focus on one over the other two, with the more conservative end of the spectrum focused on personal devotion and piety and the more liberal end of the spectrum most focused on the societal aspect, namely social justice.

In our highly individualistic society, we have all neglected the communal aspect of our faith and the spiritual disciplines, even in the midst of our deeper need of and craving for community. To assume that one is more important than the other or that one is less valuable would be a mistake. It is also not about balance, as balance is not a principle that we find Jesus promoting. Rather, it is recognizing that each aspect matters and should be experienced as a part of our spiritual life.

Another challenge we face as it relates to the spiritual disciplines, particularly as Lutherans, is an incomplete theological perspective on the disciplines. Many in Lutheran circles see the spiritual disciplines as “works” that are not necessary for that faith. They dismiss the disciplines as a works theology that does not honor our best understanding of grace. This thinking, although understandable, fails in my opinion. Jesus was constantly pointing and calling people to the Father, and being present both with Him and the Father. Jesus Himself practiced the disciplines: praying, fasting, studying the Scripture and going to the temple. Martin Luther, with whom we identify as the source of our tradition, practiced the disciplines rigidly throughout his life, even after his powerful experience that transformed his understanding of grace.

The spiritual disciplines are a means of grace. They help us to form habits that enhance our relationship with God and cause us to engage God more fully in every moment. As we practice the disciplines, we become more conscious of God— and that leads to transformation. The nature of discipleship is to listen, learn and grow. The spiritual disciplines are one of the ways that we can express and experience discipleship. I know there are many habits in my life that can easily take my focus off of God. As I increase those habits that cause me to focus on God, those that do not are crowded out by the healthier, Christ-focused habits.

I suggest that everyone practice the spiritual disciplines on a regular basis. For those new to the disciplines, I suggest reading material by Richard Foster or Dallas Willard on this topic to gain a basic, but deep and healthy understanding of the disciplines. There are many spiritual disciplines that we can engage with and practice, and there is much wonderful material available that explains each of these disciplines. As I have read material on this subject, I have found that some books consider far too few things in their list of spiritual disciplines, while others consider far too many practices to be spiritual disciplines.

As with many issues related to our life and faith, we should look to the Scripture as a guide. The best basic list of the disciplines can be found in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. There he lists the following 12 disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance and celebration.

As we each seek to practice the spiritual disciplines individually, communally and societally, I also suggest that the spiritual disciplines be encouraged and practiced as a family—regardless of what your family makeup might look like in this season of your life. Encouraging the individual practice of the disciplines, while also engaging in the communal and societal practice of the disciplines together, will be very life-giving to every member of your family and to your family as a whole. Being present together as a family is a gift; adding the disciplines to your time together is an even greater gift. I know this has been our experience, even though it has been difficult to form these habits and to be consistent in our practice of the disciplines as a family.

Below are some suggestions for any family (again of any makeup, in any season of life) to aid in the practice of the spiritual disciplines.


Hold each other accountable to daily prayer and reading of the Scripture.

Ask your children to read the Bible and/or devotional each day. We make it part of our own childrenʼs after- school homework time.

Ask each other where you have seen or experienced God on a regular basis.

Set aside time for daily practice of the disciplines as a model for others in your family.

Pray together regularly (at meals, morning, evening, when you hear emergency sirens, in the car, etc.).

Read the Scriptures together (at meals or a set time).

Talk about God together each day (again, in the car, at meals, etc.)

Regularly attend worship together, as well as other small group/discipleship groups/Bible studies.

Serve together, both through opportunities at and with your local church as well as other organizations.

Make service part of your family vacations.

Seek to love, serve and care for people in every setting in which you find yourself as a family: at the store, out to dinner, etc.

• Do something kind for someone in need in your school or neighborhood.

• Invite others to join in your family meals, holidays and celebrations.

My relationship with God has been transformed by the practice of the spiritual disciplines. As we have started practicing the disciplines as a family with greater consistency and passion, our family has experienced transformation as well.

The spiritual disciplines are a gift—they help us to focus on God and to create an even deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit desires to speak to each of our hearts, minds and lives, each and every moment. The more we practice the disciplines, the more that listening to the Holy Spirit will become a habit. God is always speaking, and the disciplines can help us to listen better.

Marcus J. Carlson

is an ordained pastor (LCMC & NALC), currently serving at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Auburn, IN. He is a spiritual director, professor, speaker, writer and consultant, with 15+ years experience in youth and family ministry. He and his wife, Jessica, have two children.

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