Don’t get me wrong. Most church vision and mission statements sound great. They usually include clear biblical values and been crafted to be interesting and memorable. But what difference do they actually make to the lifestyles of those who adopt them?
In recent years, there has been quite a bit of research done into the relationship between our values and our actions. The writers of vision statements are banking on the fact that, once adopted, those values will shape the actions of their congregation. But there is plenty of evidence that it can work the other way. Our actions can shape our values.
The New Testament advocates a powerful integration of faith and action. In fact, to separate the person from their actions can be very dangerous. The Apostle James says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (Jas. 2:18)
You see, our faith can be exhibited in action, but our actions can also shape our faith.
As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Transfer that idea to faith. Faith, then, is not an act, a single choice, or even just a belief system; it is a habit.
French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu referred to this as habitus. In his view, society at large develops a complex series of socialized norms or tendencies that guide the behavior and thinking of its members. In other words, the practices and actions that a society endorses, in turn, shape the way members of that society think. Habitus is the way society helps people to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them.
For example, the majority of Americans would have the view that getting married, building a career, buying a house, and raising a family are important and desirable milestones. These are examples of an American habitus. They are desirable practices (or habits, if you will), which in turn reinforce a belief system that values monogamy, home-ownership, professionalism, consumerism, and reproduction. Of course, not every American necessarily lives them out perfectly, but they are expected societal practices that in turn shape core American values.
Likewise, an individual’s personal habits shape their values. In fact, I think this is a much-overlooked aspect of discipleship. Have we been focusing too much on transferring values to the exclusion of passing on a desired set of practices or habits?
I think our churches need to consider what kind of missional habits we foster within our churches. Missional habits are those rhythms we nurture in our lives that in turn shape our missional outlook. The trick is to develop habits that unite us together as believers, while also propelling us into the lives of others. We also need habitual practices that don’t just deplete our energy and burn us out, but which reenergize us, replenishing our reserves and connecting us more deeply to Jesus.
My church developed the BELLS habits for this purpose. In short, they go like this:
B – we will bless three people each week;
E – we will eat with three people each week;
L – we will spend at least one significant time each week listening to the Holy Spirit;
L – we will spend at least one significant time each week learning Jesus;
S – we will journal the ways we were sent to mirror the work of God in our world.
In this approach pastors rarely need to preach on the church’s values, because they are unleashed by the habits. For example, if you are required to bless three people every week, you’re going to become a very generous person. If you eat with others, you’ll develop a greater capacity for hospitality. If you foster the habit of listening to the Holy Spirit, you’ll become an increasingly Spirit-led person. If you’re learning Christ, it’s fair to assume you’ll become more and more Christlike. And if you’re journaling the myriad ways you’ve been sent into your world, you’ll increasingly see yourself as a sent one, or a missionary in your own neighborhood.
My point is this: if you want a church full of generous, hospitable, Spirit-led, Christlike missionaries, don’t just teach those values, foster these habits!
Michael Frost’s new book Surprise the World: the 5 Habits of Highly Missional People is out now through NavPress.