Darryl Dash is a Toronto-based church planter and author of How to Grow: Applying the Gospel to All of Your Life (Moody, 2018). He spoke to Faith Today about the habits that form us and the power of the ordinary.
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Faith Today: While writing this book what did you learn about forming habits that can help us in our spiritual growth?
Darryl Dash: The first thing I learned is the importance of habits. Other books have talked about this, but we live a good chunk of our lives by habits. If we’re going to grow spiritually, we need to figure out what habits help us with growth, and even what habits are going to get in the way. I really benefit from my wife being different from me. I learned there is no one way to develop habits. What works for me does not work for her. I’m a pastor and I have all these theories of habits that work for me, [and it was interesting] to discover they don’t work for everybody.
FT: When we talk about a habit on our path to spiritual growth, are we talking about things like reading the Bible every day at the same time?
DD: One of the things I try to hit in the book is that all of life is affected by the gospel. One of the things people say about pastors is that we are really good at helping people apply the Bible to their Sunday life, but not really to all of life, Monday to Sunday. We began to think, "How do we apply it physically, emotionally and relationally in every area of life? To all of life?" I do cover three habits that are probably more classic spiritual disciplines, but we also need to think about habits like are we getting enough rest, exercise, are we managing our emotions?
FT: What are those three core spiritual disciplines?
DD: What habits correlate with the outcomes that we want – what do Christians want? Spiritual maturity. Based on that I came up with three. The first one is reading or listening to the Bible. That is just crucial. We talk about it, but we don’t do it enough – sometimes even me, I have to admit. The second is prayer. The final is getting involved with the life of the Church. Not just attending, but getting involved and being honest with each other. One and three were found by research and number two I put in because I think it’s important biblically. Everyone I know who is growing spiritually is fairly regular in the Word of God, developed some sort of prayer life and is involved in the life of a Church. Those are the three core habits that I think apply in all of life.
FT: When we talk about spiritual maturity or spiritual growth, how do we know it’s happening? What do we mean by that?
DD: That’s a complicated question, much trickier than I thought. The one thing that I want to be clear with is that I make it sound a whole lot neater in the book than it actually is. Growth is messy. I’ve noticed a couple of things. No matter how much I seem to grow, I seem to struggle with the same things over and over again. One of my friends says it’s almost like you can become a more mature tree, but the same weeds keep growing all around us. It’s important to know what stage we’re at, but to realize it’s messy and sometimes we don’t feel we are making progress. Sometimes we are further along than we think. Some of the holiest people I know don’t think so much of themselves. The closer we get to God, the more we realize we have to grow. Ironically, some of the most spiritual people I know don’t feel they are making progress.
FT: If you are one of those people you describe, how would you know it was time to start leading other people, if you think you are such a mess?
DD: All you have to be is one step ahead. We think we have to be so advanced and mature to influence other people. In the end of the book I tell stories about people who were very ordinary – I’d say humble and flawed – and they had a huge influence on me and other people. Looking at others I’d say God uses ordinary people. We don’t need to be so spiritually mature. We just need to be available to God.
The other thing I’d say is God uses our weaknesses. I love the story of a couple trying to mentor another couple. They had this couple in their house and they began to fight as married couples do. The couple being mentored was looking at the door and figuring out a way to leave. And the guy said, "Sit down. You need to watch us have this fight so you can learn how [to have a] fight in a godly way." They got to the end and repented. I love that story because I think we need to invite people into our mess, to where we struggle. And even to see God use my weaknesses, and not just the varnished part of ourselves, but the real selves.
FT: You write in the book that "Spiritual maturity isn’t about white knuckling it to sainthood." Can you explain that?
DD: I think that what I try to get at in this book is growth is joyful. I grew up with the whole idea that I’d love to be spiritual, but it sounds so miserable. You have to give up all your fun if you’re going to grow. I’m trying to get at I think a very biblical doctrine that the holiest people are the happiest people. So rather than saying, "I just have to dig down, and try harder and become a miserable, serious person," God invites us into really a journey of becoming more alive and flourishing as human beings.
I want to get rid of the whole idea that we need to knuckle down and be serious. Actually, I think we need to recover some of the joy of growth and pursue God not just for the sake of being serious, but actually [because] He wants us to thrive and become who He created us to be in the first place.
FT: So is that the real goal of growth? To become who God intended us to be?
DD: If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, the thing that sticks out for me is Gollum, especially in the movies. He begins as this normal creature and through disordered desires becomes really a monster. I think this is a picture – it may be an extreme picture – of what sin does to us. Sin corrupts us and actually turns us from who God created us to be and turns us really into a caricature of ourselves.
The restoration process is God undoing that. God removing the damage that sin has done to us and returning us to who we were really meant to be. We don’t get there by pursuing self-actualization. We get there by pursuing God. And as we do so, God makes us more like ourselves. As we’re conformed to the image of Christ, it’s like we become who Christ would be if he were Karen Stiller or Darryl Dash.
FT: There are a lot of people who have stopped attending churches. They are Christians and something happens. How can we encourage people to come back?
DD: I have a lot of sympathy for people who are there. We know how tough it is. As somebody said, in church like marriage you experience both the highest highs and some of the deepest disappointments. So I think church is hard. Living within a community is hard. I have a lot of sympathy for people who have given up.
What I would say is it is really worth it. It’s costly, it’s inconvenient, it’s annoying. And yet I think on the other side there is something really beautiful. I’m a church planter. We started a new church. What I love to tell people is if you came, we are thoroughly unimpressive. There is nothing at all impressive about us. There are better preachers, there’s better music, there’s better everything. The one thing we have going for us is that God has been really good to us in giving us honest people who are real about their struggles.
I think there is something compelling about that. We get together and it’s almost like it’s inconvenient and we annoy each other, but in the middle of that it’s really cool to have people say, "Look, this is what I’m struggling with," and somebody else to say, "Me too." And then to pray for each other and support each other and encourage each other.
I’ve been in unhealthy churches. It’s really cool to be in a fairly small church with not a lot of glitz, but real people. And it’s worth it. Look for a church that is like that. Maybe there’s not a lot glitzy about it, but people are real and genuine community is developing. It’s costly but, man, is it ever worth it.
FT: So often at church we are trying to be glitzy, to attract people, but you are saying we need to be our true messy selves. Obviously you try to do things well, but you don’t have to put on a Vegas show, right?
DD: I forget the book I read it in, but someone finally got fed up with pretending at church and stood up one day and said, "Look, I am so tired of pretending. Here’s what I’m really going through," and began to list all their struggles, and almost too much information. Somebody stood up at the end, there was that awkward silence, and he just expected everyone was going to hate him now. And [then the other person said], "Is that all you’ve got?" and they began to share. "This is my story."
I know we can overshare and I’m not advocating we just let it all out there. I think there’s a sense in which if we develop genuine community, it’s about opening up our lives and saying, "We are not all together, and it’s okay. None of us are all together."
One of the things I love about historic Christian practices is the confession. Which I think is one way, as often as you do it – we try to do it weekly – is saying, "We are not okay." We just need to be honest. "This week we failed. There is not one of us here who has it all together." I think there is something really healthy about admitting that every week.
I’ve been encouraged to see other churches recover that. I think it’s just great historic liturgy practice. James K. Smith makes a compelling case that if your church worship doesn’t include some elements of (and I know liturgy can be a bit of a scary word, but) things like the public reading of Scripture, confession, maybe even reciting a creed or something, he makes the case that you are missing out. He’s convinced me. I think he’s dead on.
FT: And this really brings us back to the message that we are in it together. We are a community.
DD: Absolutely. One of the things I think pastors can do is just cultivate that, and again I’m not advocating, as someone has [called it], "naked preaching" where pastors get up and just let it all hang out. But I think there is a really healthy sense in which if a pastor tells a [personal] story, don’t make yourself the hero. [Pastors should] share your struggles in an appropriate way and just create an atmosphere where "I’m a fellow struggler pursuing God along with you, but we are all in this together."
FT: You encourage people to just lead an ordinary Christian life. Can you explain what you mean by that?
DD: I think part of the temptation – maybe it’s always been around, but especially right now – is there are so many extraordinary events. I live in Toronto and tonight I could go out and there are probably about a dozen things I could do that would be mind blowing. We become enamoured with What can we do that is bigger than life?
God actually works, usually not through these extraordinary things, but just by doing ordinary things over and over and over again. Getting together with other believers, sitting under the Word of God, encouraging each other, showing honour to each other, all these things are very ordinary.
They don’t seem like a lot, but they really do shape us in extraordinary ways. Again, every week, this is kind of unusual for an evangelical church – we’re Baptists, so very unusual for us – we have communion together. And it’s sort of I think God uses ordinary things much more than we realize to shape our souls, rather than the big, glitzy events and extraordinary things."tiring. Some weeks I get there and I think, "Didn’t we just do this last week?" Then I have to remind myself, "I am so hungry."
There is something about breaking that bread, and drinking that cup, and confessing our sins that is so ordinary, and yet at the same time it shapes me. I think God uses ordinary things much more than we realize to shape our souls, rather than the big, glitzy events and extraordinary things.
FT: Thank you, Darryl.