Our Spiritual Mainsail

Sailing ships and sailboats are powered by many different types of sails. Some, called mainsails, are essential. Others, such as jibs, topsails, and spinnakers, are added to complement the mainsails. Effective sailing requires knowing how to use each of these sails.

As we follow Jesus, certain spiritual disciplines act as mainsails, while others are good complements. Rigging the mainsails is critical to capturing the wind of the Spirit. But which of the disciplines is most important to spiritual growth and vitality?

The leaders of Willow Creek Church in Chicago asked that question a few years ago. The church’s mission is to produce fully devoted followers of Christ. The leaders were courageous enough to ask, “Are we really doing that?” They paid an outside consultant to design a survey that would help them find out.

The result was an extensive questionnaire—today known as REVEAL and available for any church to take—that assessed where people were along a continuum of closeness to Christ, with the goal being mature, fully devoted followers of Christ. They were looking for what activities and spiritual disciplines contributed to personal spiritual growth. The church’s assumption and strategy had been to emphasize three major activities—worship, small groups, and serving—as the mainsails on their ship.

What they discovered was shocking. While their survey found that these disciplines were helpful in general, they did not predict spiritual maturity. In other words, people could do those things and remain immature in their spiritual lives. But they also found that there were certain spiritual practices that were consistently related to life transformation and closeness to Christ. Historic Christianity affirms their findings.

The spiritual disciplines that contribute most to personal transformation do not require large structures or budgets. They are the classic inner disciplines of the heart, learned and practiced by individual disciples. They are the habits that permeated the life of Christ and saints down through history.

Navigators have historically promoted six spiritual disciplines that develop a balanced Christian life. They are illustrated by a wheel with a hub, rim, and four spokes, which you can see here.

The REVEAL survey surfaced one discipline that was critical to all levels of maturity. They called it “reflecting on Scripture.” Distinct from reading or studying the Bible, this discipline is the private practice of daily meeting with God in the Scriptures. Some have called it a quiet time or a devotional life, but it is a combination of solitude, silence, meditation, and prayer, enhanced by journaling. How do we teach people this crucial spiritual discipline?

Several years ago I led a team of three Navigator staff who had a combined 160 years of disciplemaking experience. Our mission was to design a discipling resource that would be gender specific, user friendly, and reproducible. The result was the discipling series called HighQuestWe concluded that the mainsail discipline we had personally experienced and seen effective over the years was meeting daily with God.

The HighQuest series builds the practice of spending 15 to 20 minutes a day in solitude with Christ, feeding personally on His Word by reading, reflecting, and journaling. This is complemented by a weekly time to share lessons learned with a small group of other apprentices who are practicing the same spiritual disciplines.

A common testimony from those who have used the HighQuest series is that the discipline of a daily meeting with God began as a duty but with practice became a desire and eventually a delight. This should not be a surprise since it has been the mainsail for power for a long time! “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jeremiah 15:16, emphasis added).

God has given us a variety of spiritual disciplines to help us on our spiritual journey. But may we always be sure we’re employing the “mainsail,” and teach those following in our wake to hoist theirs as well.

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