Holy Habits

January 7, 2012

Have you made any New Year’s resolutions?  How are they working for you so far?  New Year’s resolutions are nothing more than promises to ourselves to develop new habits. The most popular New Year’s resolutions in the United States remain remarkably consistent year after year: lose weight, exercise, eat healthy food, drink less alcohol, work less, spend more time with family, manage debt, get more education, get a better job, quit smoking, get organized, volunteer more, and recycle more.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and the majority of our resolutions quickly fall by the wayside because we fail to develop new habits to replace them.  In his recent book, The Power of Habit; Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg defines habits as “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.”

It’s estimated that 40% of our daily decisions are habits.  19th century philosopher and psychologist William James once wrote, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

Good habits make us more efficient because they evoke automatic responses that free us from the energy and time involved in making conscious decisions about our everyday life.  Our brain has a way of storing patterns of behavior by “chunking,” which converts behavior into unthinking routines that become repeated actions.

At the same time bad habits can be destructive to our body, mind, spirit, and relationships.  Hence the need for New Year’s resolutions.  Try as I might, I have great difficulty changing my bad habits.

  • I love chocolate but am very sensitive to caffeine, so I usually only eat chocolate before noon.  Unfortunately, I have a habit of mindlessly nibbling on chocolate almost every morning when I sit down at my computer even if I am not hungry.
  • My iPhone is set up to beep when I receive an email, so whenever I hear the sound I habitually check my email, even when it is not appropriate to do so.
  • I am a faithful recycler at home and have five mesh bags in my car for grocery shopping, but I am not yet in the habit of remembering to grab the bags when I go into the store.
  • More than once I’ve headed to the church where I serve ¾ time when I really need to go to the church where I serve ¼ time.  I am habituated to traveling in the other direction.

Each habit, whether good or bad, has a cue, a routine, and a reward.  The cue for my morning chocolate routine is sitting down at the computer, which triggers a craving and offers the reward of comfort.  The key to changing a bad habit is recognizing the cue and substituting another routine to satisfy the craving and achieve the same reward, such as having a cup of tea instead of chocolate.

All twelve-step programs are based on habit replacement; that is, inserting new routines as responses to cues that formerly triggered addictive behaviors.  Alcoholics Anonymous has also discovered the secret of what has been called the Keystone Habit.  Keystone habits are those central practices that, when followed completely, cause a ripple effect that transforms the entire organization.  For AA the keystone habit is the higher power.  We cannot change habits ourselves.  Rather, when we believe in a higher power (God), we learn to believe in ourselves and others and claim the will to change.

Habits play an important role in our individual and collective spiritual lives as well.  A community is an amazing collection of habits, and when churches get their habits right, Holy Spirit routines take off and wholistic growth abounds.  In order for healthy and holy habits to form in churches, conscious decisions have to be made.  What are our core values?  What is our mission, vision, and strategy for ministry?

Hebrews 10:25 says, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  John Wesley was surely familiar with Hebrews as he developed two keystone habits in the Methodist movement: works of piety and works of mercy.  Both works of piety and works of mercy were considered essential means of grace, ways in which God’s love is experienced as well as shared.

Wesley’s habits of piety included prayer, searching the scriptures, holy communion, fasting, Christian community, and holy living.  Habits of mercy were summarized by Wesley’s quote, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”  While works of piety emphasize personal and corporate spirituality, works of mercy move congregations outside their building to engage in evangelism, mission, and outreach in the community and world.

Healthy churches make deliberate decisions about their unique keystone habits based on works of piety and works of mercy.  When a new church start is launched we refer to their keystone habits as their DNA.  Those ingrained habits, which might include small groups, outreach, tithing, and spiritual growth, define the mission and ministry of the congregation from the very beginning.  By contrast, existing churches often have more difficulty changing keystone habits because of long-standing practices that may be preventing the church from growing and thriving.

How do we form new habits in churches?  By teaching church members to become spiritually mature self-feeders.  When church leaders cultivate spiritual disciplines in the lives of congregation members through works of piety and mercy, every person becomes a minister.  Furthermore, holy habits such as prayer, tithing, witness, discernment of spiritual gifts, and outreach not only become routine but are routinely transmitted to others.  Manifold blessings flow from healthy spiritual disciplines.

Why do some churches:

  • Have a high percentage of members attending worship?
  • Have a large number of families tithing?
  • Experience transformative worship week after week?
  • Follow a well-defined strategic plan for wholistic growth?
  • Make consistently wise and critical decisions in healthy ways?
  • Continually encourage new and innovative ministries to serve their community and the world?
  • Have a large cadre of spiritually mature leaders?

The reason is simple.  These congregations have developed such good habits and spiritual disciplines that their DNA is second-nature and is naturally transmitted to any guest who walks in the door or is served outside the door.

What habits can you identify in your church, good and bad?  What are your keystone habits?  Would congregation members be able to name them?  What conscious decisions does your church need to make so that congregation members become self-feeders and holy habits become automatic, thus saving time and energy for mission and ministry?

Do you believe that you can choose your personal habits?  Do you believe that every church can form its own unique keystone habits?  Do you believe that it’s possible to create new routines to replace ingrained and unhealthy responses to cues and cravings?  Do you believe that God gives you the power to develop habits of faith that convert mere followers to spiritual leaders?

I am working on my bad habits, but’s it’s slow.  I’m asking myself every morning, “Do you really want chocolate, or is it just a habit?”  I’m thinking about changing the settings on my iPhone so I won’t hear the beep.  I’m putting the grocery bags in the front seat instead of the back seat so I can see them.  I’m toying with placing a sign on the steering wheel, “Before you back out of the driveway, remember where you’re going.”  And I’ve memorized this quote from Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence is not an act… it’s a habit.

May all of your New Year’s resolutions become holy habits!