A reader recently saw an opinion piece I'd written about yoga, then sent me this question via email:
"My church is developing a ministry that will help our members grow in their relationships with Jesus Christ via prayer. One of the objections I have heard to this ministry is that it is New Age. I abhor New Age practices and want to steer clear of its influence. At the same time, I do not believe it is right or fair to categorize every prayer practice that is unfamiliar to us--such as a prayer of examen--as New Age or related in any way. Would you have any insight, as a result of your experience, on what practices should definitely be avoided?"
Here's my reply to the reader:
I agree with you 100 percent that we as a church have this problem of prejudging unfamiliar practices without even examining them. About a year ago, the worship leader at my church encouraged me to read Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. At first, I couldn't bring myself to read the chapter on meditation. As a former New Ager, the entire practice of meditation seemed too closely tied to the New Age--even though I knew meditation was practiced by many of God's worshippers in the Bible. I enjoyed Foster's book so much that I just kept praying about it, that God would give me enough wisdom and discernment to read that chapter without either prejudging it or accepting it wholeheartedly.
When I actually read the chapter, I was amazed to discover I was already doing some of the things Foster discussed, such as slowly reading a Scripture verse and deeply meditating on its words, and looking at nature and meditating on the greatness of God. Before I read Foster's book, I never would have called my practices meditation. They were just actions that came naturally to me as I worshipped God. I came to realize that meditation itself wasn't a bad or evil practice--rather it was the goal of the practice that mattered.
To illustrate, yoga is basically stretching that's been spiritualized by being infused with Hindu worship. Many of the stretches in yoga are very basic ways anyone would stretch. I see young kids doing such stretches naturally without having ever been instructed on how to stretch. The Christian's problem with yoga itself is that stretching--something that's natural and good for us--is given the Hindu goal of becoming one with the universal mind through postures that exalt other gods. But to say that doing yoga is the only way we can stretch is like saying astral projection is the only way we can meditate. I think Christians who throw out stretching (and meditation) are, pardon the cliche, throwing out the baby with the bath water. We should stretch. But we don't have to do yoga in order to stretch.
The same can be said of prayer (and I notice you're considering one of Foster's methods for prayer). If our prayer is focused on God and our relationship with him, who is to criticize the form of that prayer? I once heard someone question whether a certain posture was appropriate for prayer because it looked "like how the Muslims pray." I believe we are made uniquely by God, and it's pretty apparent Christians worship him in different ways. Some are deeply moved to worship through upbeat music and dancing, others by quiet prayer and reflection. It would be quite silly (and unbiblical) for someone to say, "Christians can only worship God quietly, and anyone who thinks otherwise isn't a good Christian." Unfortunately, we often judge other Christians' relationships with God based on our personal experiences.
With that said, I can offer a few ways I proceed with caution when I'm considering a new idea or practice. First, I ask, "Does this focus on God and/or my relationship with him?" and also, "Is there anything in this that I recognize as being unbiblical (or that is supported by the Bible)?" Second, I ask God to give me discernment. Third, I go to a trusted source, ChristianityToday.com, to see if they've written something about it. I've also had conversations with the pastors and staff at my church, as well as other mature Christians, to get their thoughts. And lastly, I pray about it again.
There is at least one practice I wouldn't do myself, but I wouldn't tell other people not to do it, either. (And I know other people do this thing and are greatly blessed by it.) God has let me know that because of my New Age past, this particular practice is something that would be counterproductive to my spiritual growth right now. Maybe at some point, it will become a practice that God would have me do to worship him.
I'm sure God is leading you to bring these prayer practices to your church for a reason. Don't be discouraged if people aren't immediately on board--it can be difficult to get people to try anything new, from a new food to a new clothing style, and especially a new style of worship! My worship pastor did a special service on Lectio Divina, got a seemingly ho-hum reaction, and later told me, "We'll probably never do that again." I had to immediately tell him how meaningful it was to me, and how I'd incorporated parts of the practice into my devotional time. While some people might have thought it was boring to deeply think and reflect on the meaning of a small passage of Scripture, it meant everything to me as a writer and words person. I was so thankful he'd taken a chance so I could learn about it.
I have a lot of conversations on my blog that have added to my thoughts and even changed my thinking, so I'm hoping to get some more feedback for you by posting your question.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are there worship practices that should be avoided? How do we determine what's good or bad? What tools has God given us to protect us from false teaching? Please post your thoughts on the above question--or thoughts about my response, or other thoughts--here on the blog.