I am frequently asked by youth and parents, "what's a good devotional?" They are eager to engage in some sort of sacred rhythm of prayer, meditation, and readings of Scripture and so consult the person whose paid to collect and occasionally write resources for discipleship. What they don't often realize, or maybe they do, is that asking this question will often lead to an invitation to check out my personal library. I love to have these conversations and provide guides for personal formation and contemplation.
Imago Dei Youth Ministry annually gifts to confirmation youth and graduating seniors some sort of resource to aid them in their spiritual formation and pilgrimage of faith. I am pretty picky and border-line snooty about the resources I hand out. There are a lot of really bad devotionals out there.
There are also a lot of really good ones.
Here are a few things I consider before giving or personally using a "devotional" or some sort of daily guide for spiritual formation. There are also links to several of my favorites that I regularly consult or have recommended to youth and adults alike.
What Makes a Good Devotional?
1. Inward-Outward Journey: The trend in pop-Christianity is to look for a devotional that is all about "Jesus and me" or personal life application. While it is pivotal to have the personal relationship with Christ and to grow as an individual disciple, a good devotional propels the individual to engage the communal. We are formed inwardly to love outwardly, embodying in the real world the ethos of the particular prayer, scripture, meditation, etc. A great devotional speaks into our lives so that our lives speak into the world.
2. Move Beyond the Intellect: Often devotionals become brief studies of passages, words, theological concepts, or historical contexts. While there may be a place for this in a devotional, it's place is rather small. Personal devotion is not for the purpose of intellectual ascent. Instead, we engage in the daily ritual of devotion to rest in the presence of God, contemplate the person and work of Jesus, listen for the whisper of the Spirit, and allow Scripture to read us as we are then sent from the text read or prayer prayed. In fact, the best devotionals frequently have no commentary whatsoever.
3. Consider Ancient Disciplines: We are a people used to independence and self-direction. Yet, the practices of early and ancient Christians, especially those who lived/live in monastic communities, can be significant spiritual directors in personal formation. They are tools for ordinary saints interested in being set free of distraction and centered on the divine presence and call. Centering Prayer. Lectio Divina. Examine. Imaginative Prayer. These are just a few that I use in my personal formation and youth ministry retreats.
4. Freedom and Flexibility: Personal devotion should not leave you feeling guilty or behind if you miss a day or two...or seven. While it is important to maintain a daily rhythm, spiritual formation should lead neither to a guilt complex or make-up work. If you neglect the day's discipline, you should feel free to simply pick up fresh the next time you do engage the particular resource or practice. Anything else can lead to burdensome idolatry. Remember, Jesus said, "my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
5. Can Be Used Privately and Corporately: Recently one of our pastors gave the staff a daily devotional that many of us have been using quite regularly. What has been beautiful is you will occasionally hear colleagues pass each other in the hall and chat about what they prayed for that day in light of morning mediation. "Did you pray for Antarctica?" "I didn't like that Psalm." "That Scripture sentence really spoke to me this morning." It's also great when a particular devotional can be engaged at the same time and in the same place, moving through the contemplative disciplines together.
I have found that there is not one single devotional that works for everyone. It's also true that devotionals have lifespans; they tend to be seasonal. I often use one for a while, tire of it, then try something new, only to possibly return to an old favorite down the road. Nonetheless, I am quite convinced that some sort of resource is helpful.
Otherwise, you probably never will practice the presence, only get lost in your own thoughts.
And for me, that's an all too frequent practice.
Suggested Resources (send other favorites my way)
Seeking God's Face: Praying with the Bible through the Year (my personal favorite; gave out this year)
The Life with God Bible by Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Walter Brueggemann, and Eugene Peterson
Devotional Classics by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith
Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
Christians at the Cross by N.T. Wright (for Lent)
Eighth Day of Creation by Elizabeth O'Connor
Enjoy the Silence by Maggie and Duffy Robins
The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle
Call on Me: A Prayer Book for Young People by Jenifer Gamber and Sharon Ely Pearson