By Justin Rossow
Following Jesus can seem like an overwhelming challenge. Of all the things I could do, what should I do? Of all the steps I might take, which steps are actually going to help me move toward Jesus? Those questions don’t have easy answers, or even necessarily a single right answer. Discovering the clear next step the Spirit is shaping in you involves a process covered in Scripture and prayer, and best done with a fellow traveler on your rope.
But once you have an idea of a next step Jesus is inviting you to take (getting to that point is a story for another blog), you can get better support from others and engage more fully yourself if you express your next step in terms of a SMART goal.
Maybe you’ve run into SMART goals before; my dad was teaching about them back in the 1980’s. The acronym S.M.A.R.T. can stand for different things depending on the context or the training. I have modified the concept to fit a less corporate and more discipleship setting, but the fundamental ideas remain the same. Taking a SMART next step will help you see more clearly what the Spirit is shaping in your life.
SMART next steps are specific. Whether the Spirit is shaping an active response or an experience of ongoing passive reception, the more concrete you can make your next step, the better. Your own unique faith journey will put a unique twist on even the most common discipleship experiences.
A general, “I’m going to pray for my daughter more often,” is fine, but as a next step it’s vague enough that you may or may not get around to it (and you may or may not even notice if you do or don’t). “I’m going to pray for my daughter three times this week,” is better; it anchors your activity in the realities of your ordinary life.
“I’m going to pray for my Kate next Monday, Thursday, and Friday at 8:30 am” is even more specific, and therefore more likely to happen. The goal is not to put a straight-jacket on your next step; rather, these concrete and specific details provide a kind of skeleton which enables movement. An amorphous blob can’t take a next step (because it doesn’t have feet). Structure enables movement.
As you look for the response the Spirit is shaping in you, ask if your next step is specific; concrete as well as unique.
SMART next steps are measurable. You will be able to tell a week from now whether you have taken this next step, or not (yet).
Don’t get the wrong idea: you’re not trying to quantify your faith or turn spiritual formation into an algebraic equation; rather, you want to articulate a next step that can either succeed or fail. Failure is its own kind of learning, but taking an indistinct whack at a murky next step will provide little input or feedback.
Next steps can be measurable, even if they are focused on attitudes or reception. Say the Spirit is inviting you to lean into gratitude. If your next step is, “be more thankful this week,” that’s fine, but how will you know if you were or not? Will you be able to tell when you were most likely to respond in gratitude and when thankfulness was a struggle for you? What will you learn if you succeed or fail at being a bit more thankful this week in a general sort of way?
“I’m going to write down three things I am thankful for each day before bed and say a prayer of thanks” is more concrete and specific, and therefore more measurable. At the end of the week you will have a list of 21 reminders of your gratitude experiment. Or maybe you only actually write something down twice; then you will have some more information on the weekly rhythms of your routine that seem to regularly get in the way of thankfulness or prayer.
Gathering information like, “I find it easier to pray in the morning than at night” could be the basis for a next next step. “I can be vaguely thankful if I try,” doesn’t give you much to go on.
Make your next step an experiment in following Jesus. Experiments need measurable data to produce insight. So ask, “Is it easy to tell whether or not I take this next step?” If not, make your next step more measurable.
SMART next steps are achievable; not on your own, not by your own power, not without help from other people and most especially, God–yet realistic in an appropriately aspirational way.
Remember, this is supposed to be a small next step. If you wanted to train for a marathon, the first thing you would do is probably not to run a marathon. Going from zero to reading the whole Bible by Tuesday might strain a discipleship muscle or two.
Sometimes a small next step is also a big next step–like getting married or changing careers or buying a house. But those next steps will have hundreds of small steps before and after them, so they become one in a long process of following Jesus.
How do you know if the next step you aspire to is overkill? Try asking Jesus. I mean, maybe Jesus does want you to read the whole Bible by next Tuesday. But look at your work schedule and the hours you have to devote to Bible reading, and wonder if there is a smaller next step you can try.
Then again, don’t let fear of failure get in your way. So what if you fail miserably at reading the whole Bible by Tuesday? Jesus is still faithful. What did you learn in the first three chapters of Genesis you actually did manage to read? What did this experiment teach you about where you are in the spiritual discipline of Scripture reading? What’s the next next step the Spirit is shaping in you?
You might quote the Philippians 4:13 verse, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” But Paul is talking about being content in all circumstances (see Philippians 4:11-12), not being granted supernatural reading ability to cover all 66 books of the Bible in the next 72 hours. Understanding that you don’t want to put limits on God, you can still ask if you have what you need to take this next step. Is it doable in the time you have available? Is it realistic, with a little stretch? Or is it way out there and will take 50 smaller next steps to accomplish?
Don’t get hung up on trying to get it “just right.” But do consider whether this next step is reasonably achievable right now.
SMART next steps are resonant; that is, they make your heart, mind, imagination, and will all hum the same tune.
Resonance is a physics term that describes what happens when one vibrating object (like a tuning fork) causes another object to vibrate at the same frequency (like a wine glass). Not every pitch will make every wine glass sing, but the right frequency will cause a reverberating response.
You’re looking for a next step that feels like that. If you are living with a discipleship theme for a season (like Generosity, or Adventure, or Scripture, or Prayer), look for a small next step that resonates with that theme. If your next step feels like a burden that drags you down, keep looking. Your next step should give you a jolt of energy and excitement.
Of course, there’s a lot of room for personal preference and individual interests. Keep experimenting with next steps and you’ll find resonance comes more naturally with practice, and makes a next step seem more doable and more fun.
Maybe the Spirit is shaping a deeper experience of prayer in your life. That could feel like a chore. Who are you going to pray for and how and for how long? That helps your next step be more specific and measurable. “I’m going to pray for my wife three times before Saturday noon this week.” Good work.
Now, does that next step get you energized and engaged? If not, wonder with Jesus how you can add resonance. “I’m going to write my wife a love note three times this week before Saturday noon and use those notes as a chance to pray.” That sounds a little more interesting, intriguing, resonant.
If you are in a Season of Generosity, maybe you would buy your wife flowers this week and pray with each bouquet. If you are in a Season of Scripture, maybe you would write out a Bible verse for your wife and pray that Scripture for her. If you are in a Season of Curiosity, ask her three unique questions and use the answers as a basis of prayer.
Whatever your next step is, frame it in terms that capture your heart and imagination.
SMART next steps are time-bound. In some ways, setting a time parameter on your next step is just another way of making it concrete, specific, and measurable. Time, however, deserves its own consideration. (Besides, who wants to take a SMAR next step?)
Remember, you are trying to take a small next step. And then another. And then another. You will see change and development over time, and sometimes not the way you expected, so making your next step time-bound helps keep you flexible.
If your next step is too big or too comprehensive and will take months or years to fulfill, you end up losing the benefit of a feedback loop. Next steps sometimes go sideways; that’s OK. You can learn a lot about dependence and grace and needing Jesus when you completely fail at your next step.
In fact, an attitude of curiosity and adventure means the learning is way more important than the success of any given small next step. If your goal is to read the whole Bible in a year, it will take a whole year to see if you reached that goal or not. Break that year-long goal into smaller, more specific, more resonant next steps that help you engage the process more intentionally. Even failure brings learning, so fail faster and learn more.
Don’t set the bar at taking your neighbors baked goods once a month for the rest of your life. Set a day in the next few weeks where you can make that happen, then talk to Jesus about how it went and what you learned. Maybe the Spirit will shape another baked goods day in your near future. Or maybe not.
If the shelf-life of your next step is vague or longer than a month, you’ll lack motivation to get it done and lose the benefit of a feedback loop. Don’t try to do six new things this week for Jesus; and don’t only do things that take six months to plan. Get some forward momentum by putting a reasonable and specific time stamp on your next step.
Trying to take a SMART next step is not about being a better Christians or a super-disciple. In fact, if the concepts related to a SMART next step end up making this adventure of discovery a burden to carry or a list of rules to follow, then stop it. Go take another hundred small next steps and then come back to see if SMART next steps actually help. The real goal is to take small next steps more and more intentionally, and more and more often.
You see, the more we are aware of the Spirit’s shaping activity in our lives, the more we consciously depend on Jesus in the course of our daily routine, the more promises from the Father connect to the thing in front of me right now, the more we will see what a gracious and loving and delightful God we serve.
SMART next steps are designed to help you be more intentional in your faith walk. It’s OK to try and fail and get back up and try again. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and tell Jesus about it. This adventure of following happens one small (and SMART) step at a time.