Whereas we often see our faith being exhibited in action, there’s also a strong case to be made for suggesting it can flow in the other direction, too. That is, our actions can 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 norms, 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 a society helps people to think, feel, and act in determinantal 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, homeownership, professionalism, consumerism, and reproduction. Of course, not every American values these things or desires these practices. And plenty of those who do value these things don’t necessarily live them out perfectly. But they are expected societal practices that in turn shape core American values. In this sense habitus is created and reproduced unconsciously, without any deliberate pursuit of consistency.
Just as a society’s desirable habits shape that society’s values, so can an individual’s personal habits shape his or her values. In fact, I think this is a much-overlooked aspect of discipleship. We need to be fostering a set of habits among Christians that will in turn shape their values and beliefs. That’s what BELLS is; more on that to come.
There was once a time when evangelicals saw a daily “quiet time” as an essential habit for nurturing their faith. Today it seems to have gone by the wayside, but at its best it was a daily rhythm that fostered a love for the Bible and prayer. Now, try to imagine how the “quiet time” came to be so essential to our parents and grandparents. No doubt, Bible study and prayer have always been important values to Christians, but over time they took the shape of a daily routine that included the reading of short sections of Scripture and a brief reflection on its meaning, followed by prayers for needs and concerns. Soon, Christian agencies were producing booklets aimed at facilitating this endeavor. Eventually, church leaders didn’t so much need to promote Bible reading and prayer per se. Instead they promoted the importance of having a daily “quiet time,” and they distributed the booklets and tools to facilitate it. The habit had taken effect. And the habit deepened the value it was created to foster.
This leads me back to my earlier question about what might so surprise our friends that they would question our motivations and provide us opportunities to talk with them about Jesus. I think the answer has something to do with the kind of missional habits we adopt.
Sometimes called “missional rhythms” or “missional practices,” missional habits are those habits we foster in our lives that, in turn, shape our missional outlook. By missional, I mean all that we do and say that alerts others to the reign of God.
Michael Frost, Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2016).
I have just completed a series of lessons based on this book. They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year. Lessons correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines as well as the International Standard Series.