Mindfulness is a big deal in today’s culture. Businesses such as Apple, sports figures such as basketball player Kobe Bryant, and the popular press such as Time magazine have all given it their stamp of approval. Governments are spending hundreds of millions of dollars researching it, and it has become a billion-dollar-a-year business. In fact, Apple chose a mindfulness app as their app of the year for 2017.
But for a pastor and the person in the pew, what are the implications of mindfulness?
The practice is often seen through Scriptures that refer to meditation, being still before God, and contemplation. The application of these Scriptural truths grew out of the first and second centuries following Jesus’ resurrection when the Roman government severely persecuted the church. This prompted many believers to flee into the deserts around Palestine, Syria, and Egypt to seek God. We call these people the desert mothers and fathers, or desert monastics. When Constantine, emperor of Rome, claimed a conversion in AD 312, persecution ended. About seventy years later, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman world and churches rapidly grew.
Unfortunately, the standards of membership were relaxed and many professing Christians began to take on characteristics of the culture. Other believers felt that the cozy relationship between the church and the state resulted in a compromised, diluted, and mediocre faith. So many more left the church and joined the monastics in the desert so they could know God better and keep their faith pure. They organized themselves into communities, established monasteries, and lived ascetic lifestyles while plying their trades and growing their own food. They began to develop a lifestyle of mindfulness reflected in practices such as silence, solitude, and contemplation. By the end of the fourth century, more than thirty thousand monks and nuns lived in the deserts of Lower and Upper Egypt.
They viewed the desert as a place free of distractions and a laboratory to develop their faith, resist temptation, and love Jesus more purely. They learned many psychological insights about the mind, long before psychology existed. They modeling for us how pastors can practice it today as a counter to our distracted and busy world.
So how might these early practices benefit pastors?
First, I describe mindfulness with two words, holy noticing, and I define holy noticing in this way. It is being fully present and mindful in each moment God has given us—noticing, with a holy purpose, God and His handiwork, our relationships, and our inner world of thoughts and feelings. Not only does Scripture and church history affirm mindfulness, but neuroscientific research has uncovered many practical benefits, including benefits to our brains and bodies.
Practicing mindfulness helps the brain form new connections in response to the environment and affects something called epigenetics, the regulation of genes (turning on and off their expression) in response to the environment. As science continues to discover our brain’s malleability, holy noticing can literally “rewire” our brains for the good, to help transform our minds as Paul writes about in Romans 12.2.
Christian psychologists have also found that we can benefit from a mindful life in areas such as encouraging deeper connection to God’s heart of compassion, helping us turn toward things we avoid in ourselves and in the world around us, enhancing Bible reading, and growing our character and wisdom.
Ultimately, mindfulness, holy noticing, is a spiritual discipline that leads us right into the heart of Jesus’ teaching and example of how to live a spiritual life. It’s not a magical elixir for every emotional or mental distress. Yet, as you learn the art of holy noticing, you will spiritually flourish, notice things with a holy purpose, stay engaged in the present moment with greater joy, connect more deeply to Jesus and others, and lead more effectively as a pastor.
I’ve developed a model for practicing holy noticing that I call the B.R.E.A.T.H.e. model. Each letter in the acronym stands for one aspect of mindfulness and includes a simple skill and Scriptures for that particular practice. I explain that model in my new book Holy Noticing: The Bible, Your Brain, and the Mindful Space Between Moments.
DR. CHARLES STONE (M.Div., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, D.Min., Trinity Evangelical Divinity Seminary) has served for 37 years in ministry, 24 of those years as a senior pastor. He currently pastors West Park Church in London, Ontario, Canada, a multicultural congregation with over 1,000 attendees. He founded StoneWell Ministries to serve pastors and churches through coaching and consulting. Many of his articles have been featured in magazines such as Outreach, Leadership Journal, REV, New Man, and In Touch and his blog posts have appeared on sites such as Pastors.com, SermonCentral.com, ChurchCentral.com, and Churchleaders.com. Charles and his wife Sherryl have been married for 36 years and have three adult children.