The Chicken and the Egg: Part 1, What Comes First? Virtue or Practice?

In my trainings and consultations with churches I've come to describe what I call "the imperative to virtue gap." That description might be new, but the idea is old.

Specifically, we can't expect performance where we lack capacity. This is a point with a rich history in the spiritual formation literature. Spiritual formation concerns practices that form habits. These habits create virtue, holy capacities of thought, heart, and action.

Think about moral performance as akin to musical or athletic performance. We can't expect performance where there has been no practice. We can't tell a new pianist to play a Bach concerto. Or a new golfer to hit a driver straight and long. 

And yet, we regularly expect moral performance to emerge at the sharp end of a command. We traffic in imperatives, "Do this, do that." Yet we lack the capacities for the performance. We've never practiced. Spiritual formation has to bridge this imperative to virtue gap.

There is a related problem here, which this series is about. In my work with churches we regularly face what I call "the chicken and egg problem." The chicken and egg problem concerns how we often require a virtue in order to submit to or learn from a season of training and habit formation. Think about the virtue that athletic people call "coachability." Coachability refers to your willingness to accept feedback and criticism and to make adjustments accordingly. That is to say, practice is only effective for an athlete if they are coachable. There is a virtue necessary to make practice effective

So what happens if an athlete isn't coachable? Practice is much less effective. So we're in a chicken and egg problem. Virtues are acquired through practice, but you can also lack virtues that makes practice effective. Or lack virtues that allow you to submit to practice. Laziness and busyness, for example, interfere with practice. So what comes first? The virtue or the practice? What sort of practice cultivates the virtue of coachability when the people engaged in the practice are uncoachable?

Chicken, meet egg. Egg, meet chicken.

When you work with churches this chicken and egg problem shows up over and over again. In the posts to come I'll share some chicken and egg problems that churches regularly face.

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