Nurturing Communal Spiritual Practices Online
By Lynne M. Baab
Published in Building Church Leaders, a Christianity Today Publication, winter 2010
A church in Colombia in South America has a weekly fast day. Everyone is encouraged to fast in whatever way works for them. Some church members fast from all food and consume only water. People with heavy physical jobs eat lighter foods. Children are encouraged to give up television for the fast day. Each week during Sunday worship a set of prayer requests is announced for the fast day.
In addition to the weekly fast day, the congregation fasts for a whole week every year at the beginning of January. The purpose of this longer fast is to pray for the congregation’s ministries for the coming year.
Fasting plays a significant role in congregational life in many parts of Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. As Christians in North America, Europe and other Western countries are discovering fasting and other corporate spiritual disciplines, we can learn from Christians in other parts of the world. We can also take advantage of the new forms of communication now available to provide information, encouragement and opportunities for connection.
A congregation in Kenya uses its weekly printed bulletin to list prayer requests for its monthly fast day. Specific prayer requests help people focus their prayers during a fast. Those prayer requests could easily be listed on a congregation’s website or Facebook page. A reminder of the date of the fast could be posted on Twitter with a link to the prayer requests on the website.
Fasting is new and baffling to many people in Western countries. A congregation in Wisconsin that engages in a month-long fast every year prints and circulates a booklet about fasting. The information in that booklet could be posted on the congregation’s website or on Facebook. Links to the information about fasting could be posted on the homepage of the website, on the congregation’s Facebook page, and on Twitter. An email with a link to the fasting information could be sent out using traditional email as well as Facebook’s email feature.
What information needs to be included in order to give enough background about fasting? A story or two about how fasting has benefitted someone by helping them pray more intentionally. An overview of fasting in the Bible, perhaps including two or three of the roughly two dozen stories about fasting in the Bible. A summary of the biblical passages—such as Isaiah 58, Joel 2:12-13, Matthew 6:16-18, Mark 2:18-20—that provide teaching about fasting. A description of opportunities for fasting communally: in families, home groups, groups that do ministry together, groups that share specific concerns, and the whole congregation.
Options for different kinds of fasting need to be included in the information provided. In Western countries, where eating disorders are common, options for fasting that do not involve food must be presented and validated. A person who has had an eating disorder at any time in their life must not be encouraged to fast from food in any form. Fasting from media, music, shopping, cell phones or any common activity can create space for prayer in much the same way that fasting from food does.
Congregational leaders can consider which options for fasting from food they want to encourage people to experiment with. Abstaining from all food, and drinking only water or juice, is a time-tested form of fasting for people without medical issues. Throughout Christian history, many other forms of fasting have been used, including abstaining from meat and sweets. In Africa, a Daniel fast is common, which involves eating only fruit and vegetables. Eastern Orthodox Christians fast often and in community. They refrain from consuming meat, fish, eggs, dairy, oil and alcohol.
Eastern Orthodox Christians often break their fasts communally, celebrating together as they share food they haven’t been eating. A communal end to a fast could be publicized on the congregation’s website, on Facebook and Twitter and by email. A youth group leader who has participated in many 30-hour famines (the World Vision-sponsored fast that helps participants engage with and pray for the hungry in the world) has learned the hard way not to overeat at the end of 30 hours without food. How to re-engage with normal life after a fast is another topic that could be included in the information on the website.
After the fast is completed, a few testimonies about the impact of the fast could be posted on the congregation’s website, again using email, Facebook, and Twitter to provide links to the stories.
This same pattern could be adopted for any communal spiritual discipline that a congregation wants to encourage, such as different forms of prayer or service. Members of the congregation need to hear stories that illustrate the benefits of that particular spiritual discipline. They need a biblical foundation. They need specific information. In the case of service opportunities, they need to understand the time commitment, who to contact to get involved.
Websites work well for posting this material, and email, Facebook and Twitter are effective ways to post links that encourage people to access it. It may be necessary to print the information in a booklet or flyer as well, for those who don’t spent a lot of time online. As congregations discover the benefits of engaging in spiritual disciplines communally, the internet will increasingly prove to be a strategic place to provide information, encouragement and stories.
Resources on spiritual practices:
My book on communal spiritual practices, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation
Seven-day experiment with wholeness
Seven days toward simplicity
Character and practices that nurture creation care
Small habits, big benefits
Learning not to walk
I’m excited about spiritual disciplines
Spiritual disciplines for people in ministry
Unusual sabbaticals: reflection, relationships and listening to God