When I became a Christian in the early 1990s, there was a non-negotiable bit of the religious life that got a mention in almost every talk and conversation with my youth worker. More even than ensuring my language was under control, my parents' drinks cabinet was remaining untampered-with and that I was never touching what I hadn't got, there was one question which appeared metronomically on my leaders' lips: 'How are your quiet times?'
In 1993, every Christian did Quiet Times. Or at least, that was our intention. Half an hour (minimum – more if you had aspirations of being a junior leader) every day of sitting quietly, reading and contemplating God's word, and praying. A little bit of journalling and listening to a praise & worship cassette might also be permitted. It was a central part of the Christian 'walk', and even if we didn't manage to find the time every day, we all aspired to it – it was the way we knew we would grow in faith. In fact, if that sounds flippant, it shouldn't – I certainly wouldn't know my way around the Bible, or have developed and grown as a young Christian, without taking these times out with God, even if they didn't happen every single day.
Some 25 years on, I'd politely want to suggest that this practice is now much less familiar or central to the spiritual lives of 14, or indeed 40-year-olds. At some point we rightly challenged the religiosity of the Quiet Time, and along the way culture discovered a whole lot of new ways to distract and entertain us. Our attention spans are shorter, our addiction to social-media-inspired dopamine is new and epidemic, and at the same time we tend to reject anything that feels like legalistic Christianity. For all sorts of reasons then, we don't really talk about Quiet Times any more.
It would be easy, at the beginning of a New Year, to issue a rallying cry for a fresh start: for Christians everywhere to re-embrace the old formula of switching off, reading, meditating and praying. Indeed for some of us, that might be exactly the medicine we need to treat our ailing spiritual lives. At the same time however, I wonder if it's worth trying to reimagine the classic Quiet Time a bit for the very different culture in which we – and particularly our young people – find ourselves. Here are just a few ideas for what it might look like to practise a bit of daily time with God that would both genuinely develop faith AND make sense in the context of 2018.
Use a Bible reading app
It's hardly the most radical idea in the world, but millions of Christians have found that Bible reading apps have increased their amount of engagement with Scripture. A little bit of self-discipline is required, given that you're always just a finger-swipe away from a distraction, but as long as you possess that, mobile Bible reading makes God's word instantly and constantly accessible – and helpfully easy to navigate and study. In particular, apps which enable reading plans, such as Alpha's BIOY (Bible In One Year) can actually increase and incentivise disciplined daily Bible reading thanks to its user-friendly interface and accessible daily commentary.
Worship God through social media
Sometimes the battle during any time of quiet or reflection is to keep ourselves away from the constant distractions of social media. But what if you were to flip this on its head, and actually use your 'quiet time' as a moment to engage with those platforms differently. For example, you could deliberately spend time tweeting encouragements to other people, or asking them for their prayer requests (note: you then do actually have to pray for them). Or you could Instagram a favourite Bible verse to share with others, or write up a testimony of something that God has done in your life to share with others on Facebook.
Go for 'Streaks'
One of the big current phenomena in social media – and Snapchat in particular – is the addictive nature of keeping 'streaks' going in conversations. This is where two people have to message each other every day in order to amass a consecutive number of 'streak' days that they've communicated. Why not apply the same approach to devotional time, seeing how many consecutive days you can keep the conversation going with God for? This could also work with consecutive days of reading the Bible, or meeting with a friend to pray, or any other devotional activity you can think of. The inexpensive phone app Streaks is a great tool to help manage this.
Combine devotional time with exercise
It's much easier to escape the lure of distractions and a general loss of focus during times of physical exercise. The Bible actually affirms physical training (1 Timothy 4:8), and it's a great way to clear your head and keep everything else in balance. So why not make use of the spare brain-space afforded by exercise and use time out running, cycling or at the gym to pray, or listen to a Christian podcast, or a recording of the Bible?
Beat your silence record
Tony Campolo famously spends an hour in silence every single day, and claims his entire ministry is built on the foundation of that discipline. It might sound like an incredibly difficult practice, but by starting small – even with just a minute a day – and then slowly working your way up, you will quickly be surprised by how much silence you can endure, and then how much you enjoy and receive from it. This can work well turned into a challenge, where you compete each day against yourself, trying to beat the amount of time you spent in silence the previous day. Even increments of ten seconds a day will have you up in Campolo territory within a few months; in a culture with so much noise and distraction, this can be an incredibly important discipline which creates space for God to speak into our lives.
The reaction against religiously-observed Quiet Times had some worthy intentions, but as a result, there's a danger that we haven't replaced the helpful spiritually-developing role that every-day devotionals play in our lives. This isn't an exhaustive list, but I hope it'll inspire you to find your own ways of connecting with God daily, not just away from but in the midst of the busyness of modern life.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.