Faith that Flows

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian-American psychologist famous for his research about "Flow" (here's how to pronounce his name).

Flow is the mental state that athletes call "being in the zone." It's what happens when you're so focused you forget about everything else. This is when students get most of their work done. You can enter a state of Flow in physical activity, reading/writing, or social interactions when the rest of the world seems to melt away. Flow is what happens when our whole conscious attention is brought to the present challenge. Flow is what happens when time passes quickly and we "lose ourselves" in something.

In Flow, one's full attention is focused on the task at hand so that there is no room to be aware of anything else. I think about how quickly hours go by while I'm riding snowmobiles. I know if I think about anything else, I might not see a telephone pole—I don't think about anything but driving.

Finding Flow

In his book, Finding Flow, Csikszentmihalyi thinks of the human experience as three interwoven strands:

  • Emotions: what you're feeling right now (sad, happy, excited, bored).
  • Will (think intrinsic motivation): what you want to do.
  • Thoughts: your calculated, logical constructions.

Most of the time, these three strands are working against each other:

We don't want to be reviewing the budget, but we have to—so our thoughts are limping along. Time flows like molasses. You feel like my two-year-old on a card ride, "Are we there yet?!"

As you make dinner for your family, emotions intrude as you accidentally remember events from throughout the day. Your attention is fragmented between the soup simmering, the kid's shenanigans, and your own annoyance at your spouse who is late to be home again.

Dinner out with your friends is nice. But all of you are intermittently distracted by social media updates. You never quite fall into a conversational rhythm.

The Benefit of Flow

When we are "in Flow," all of these strands of human experience—emotions, will, thoughts—are directed at the same goal. None of them are working against the others. Emotions are not interrupting our thinking, and we are intrinsically motivated to accomplish the task before us. Flow is one of my favorite feelings.

Not every activity is conducive to Flow. However, the activities that 1) have clear goals that require concrete responses, 2) provide immediate feedback are much more likely to bring us to Flow. Think about losing yourself in a video game or learning to play a new song on the piano. You have a clear goal and it's obvious how to reach it and you know every second along the way if you are doing that thing or not.

It strikes me when I'm satisfied with my times in prayer or Bible reading or worship services, it's because I've spent a considerable time in Flow focused on the Word or wondering at God's character.

I don't want to import too much psychologically into my Christian experience. However, it's not a new observation that when we engage our whole selves—mind, will, and emotions—we are happier and more productive. This isn't new thinking, it's just a new label. Humanity has long known that the deepest parts of our psyche are not immediately accessible to us. We aren't like computer processors that can devote our whole selves to something on command. We're more complicated.

Surely God deserves our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength as we worship, pray, and read his Word. We want to lose ourselves in the sermon, and forget about ourselves as we sing, and lose track of time as we pray. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call that a Flow experience. I want to learn how he can help me toward a deeper faith.

How to Worship in Flow

There are at least three implications for personal worship and corporate worship if we believe that worshiping in Flow is better.

It takes a little while to get into Flow

In my experience, it takes 20-30 minutes of concentrated, undistracted effort before I settle in.

Personal Devotions: 15 minutes isn't long enough to fall into Flow. Do what you can to schedule an undistracted and hour and pray expectantly for God to bless your time as your whole self comes before him. Maybe your devotional should start with a prayer walk or by memorizing a small piece of scripture. Anything gives you time to settle into the task at hand.

Corporate Worship: Design the first half-hour of your service as an "on-ramp." Don't dive right into the meat of your message. Don't sing your most potent song. Pray together. Read together. Sing together. It takes time to bring our whole selves before God and focus our emotions, desires, and thoughts on Him.

Set clear goals and obvious responses

Activities like waiting in line don't bring us to Flow, they bring us to bored. Why? It's not clear what we should be doing. Flow doesn't come when we don't know how to actively engage or what we're trying to accomplish.

Personal Devotions: Set goals for your time in the Word and Prayer that create concrete artifacts of your effort. Always remember accomplishing these goals isn't the point of your time in the Word. Knowing God is the point. You're using concrete goals to help bring your whole self to your time with God.

Corporate Worship: If worship services are mostly passive, participants will have a hard time focusing. The goal of the service must be clear (glorify God by enjoying him) and members' response in your service's sections must be obvious. Here are some ideas:

  • Congregational singing when members can hear one another sing (it doesn't get much more obvious than a slide with words to sing).
  • Sermon handouts with "fill in the blank."
  • Taking a moment during the message to discuss a specific question.
  • Explaining what is happening in the service and how others participate.

Ruthlessly root out distractions

This includes distractions that cut into our focus (like the ding! of a text message) and the distraction of shifting your attention to something else. If you're in Flow doing one thing, starting a new thing will break Flow just as much as a phone call.

Personal Devotions: While you pray and study, keep other folks and phones far away.

Corporate Worship: Work hard to design your service to start on a theme or topic and continue in it seamlessly all the way through to the end. Make it easy to lose yourself in the experience of the service. If members feel distinct shifts from one thing to the next, you'll pull them out of the Flow you've created. Coach readers, and pray-ers, and musicians to hide the transitions.

A concluding thought:

Flow is fickle. Don't judge your devotional or worship service based on Flow. You're pursuing God, not a mental state. However, you experience God in your mind—so make as much room in yourself as you can so you can be blown away by divine beauty.

Nathan Colestock

Nathan Colestock is an alumnus of Emmaus Bible College and a current MDIV student at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He also enjoys serving on staff at Meadow Creek Church in Andover, MN pastoring youth and families. He is the lucky husband of Maddie and a father to his two adorable daughters.
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