(Gal. 4:18-19 ESV) 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!
“Spiritual formation” means having Jesus formed in you, that is, becoming like Jesus. And this is very sound teaching. I’m totally sold on this, but —
The phrase “until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4: 19) is more accurately rendered “until Christ is formed among you” … .
Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 121). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Spiritual formations is, by definition, a congregational activity. Individual practices matter, of course, but the goal is for the church to become like Jesus — not just a few dedicated members.
And we botched it.
We hired ministers of spiritual formation, and we put them in charge of adult Bible classes and small groups, but we didn’t change these classes and groups to be spiritually forming. In fact, we rarely paused to ask what “spiritual formation” really means. We just kept doing what we’ve always done with a more fashionable label.
Here’s a fairly typical job description for a minister of spiritual formation:
The Pastor of Spiritual Formation duties shall include:
Continuing to develop the language, vision, theology and structure for Community Groups at Quest Church. There are currently about 25 C-Groups.
Empower, mentor, train and equip facilitators and hosts.
Organize summer C-Play. During the summer, most C-GROUPS hibernate and give way to two months of
‘community play’ – opportunities for recreation and fellowship. There are approximately 6-8 groups.
Continuing to develop the language, vision, theology and structure for ongoing Depth Classes.
Empower and equip leaders and teachers for Depth Classes.
Help plan depth classes and ongoing spiritual formation experiences.
Provide Leadership for Major Community Formation Events
Organize annual Quest Conference
Annual Faith & Race Classes in conjunction with F&R Core leaders
Annual Summer Churchwide Retreat
Continuing to develop the language, vision and structure for welcoming and integrating newcomers including Sundays, monthly newcomers’ meals
Continuing to develop the language, vision, theology and structure for connecting people into service and ministry
– both within the church, the neighborhood and the larger city.
Umm … looks a lot like the director of adult education, small groups, Christian sports league, newcomers’ meals, and volunteer recruitment — that is, what nearly all large churches do and did before we ever heard the term “spiritual formation.” The rubber has not hit the road.
There’s nothing wrong with the list. But it’s hard to see how it’s going to turn the world upside down.
What’s missing? At least —
- Cruciformity, that is, becoming like Jesus.
- Evangelism (of any kind)
- Simplicity. Giving.
In contrast to the popular understanding, Paul does not envision spiritual formation as a private matter. When he declares his pastoral ambition, he does not describe a ministry of saving individuals but speaks of communities that he will present to Christ (2 Cor. 11: 2; cf. Rom. 15: 16). He describes his “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11: 28) and the pain of childbirth (Gal. 4: 19) associated with the outcome of his work among the churches. Thus he speaks of the corporate narrative of a community that has a shared beginning (cf. 1 Cor. 1: 18– 2: 5; 2 Cor. 3: 1– 6; Gal. 3: 1– 6; Phil. 1: 6; 1 Thess. 1: 6– 10) and a common hope.
Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 104). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Spiritual formation is something the entire church should be involved in together. It’s not optional. Not just a cool idea. In a very real sense, it’s God’s goal for each us. And so Paul measures his work more by how well the churches he plants conform to the image of Christ — versus numbers and contributions — or even baptisms.
(Jer. 31:31-34 ESV) 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
(Ezek. 36:26-27 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Notice that in Eze 36:27, each “you” is plural while “heart” and “spirit” are singular. Ezekiel is addressing the entire nation, as though they share a single heart and single spirit.
This may be the passage that Paul had in mind when he said (twice) that the congregation is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit dwells among us, in the midst of us, giving us a single heart.
I’m not a big fan of individual spiritual disciplines because they almost always ignore community disciplines. They define being spiritually formed in terms of our vertical relationship with God — even though the Sermon on the Mount and other passages that focus on Christian living are very heavily horizontal. Even Ezekiel thinks corporately. It’s our radical Western individualism — personal autonomy — that makes us blind to these things.
As Michael Gorman has said, “Paul’s experience and vision of the Church are grounded in this eschatological or apocalyptic reality: the future is present; everything must be viewed in that perspective.” The church is a counterculture that rejects the values of the old world and embodies an alternative existence.
Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 109). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Or in less technical terms, we — as a church — are to live as though Jesus has already returned. It’s not about being good so that we get good grades and make it into heaven. It’s about being a friend of God so that the Kingdom in its final fullness breaks into the world through our congregation. I mean, these are the people we’re going to live with forever. We should behave accordingly.
The ultimate goal, therefore, is a community transformed into the image of Christ.
Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 111). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Personal transformation is, of course, an important step in this direction, but that doesn’t mean that personal transformation comes first. Rather, in my experience, community formation often shapes individual formation. We become like the culture and worldview of our congregations. And congregations that have been transformed into the image of Jesus find their members being transformed by not only the Spirit, but the example of others. It’s in the air. They breathe spiritual formation because they are surrounded by cross-shaped people.
And it’s not as much what you do as why you do it. If we pray because we’re afraid God will damn us if we don’t – -prayer being one of the Five Acts of Worship — that prayer life will not make people less selfish. It’ll just teach them to act out of self-preservation — which is the opposite of cruciformity.
Paul gives instructions in [Rom] 12: 3– 15: 13 that describe the specific practices involved in the transformed existence. While he does not give an exhaustive description of the countercultural existence in 12: 3– 15: 13, he depicts the basic characteristics of this life. Whereas the old humanity was characterized by antisocial vices (1: 28– 32), the transformed existence involves life in the community that is composed of “all who believe” (cf. 4:11). Transformation is not an individual endeavor but a life in the body of those who share in the destiny of Christ (cf. 6: 1– 11).
Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 120). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In missional terms, corporate spiritual formation is at the core of the mission. The ethics of the church define us as distinct from the rest of the world in a unique way.
The Interlocutors blog summarizes Stanley Hauerwas on this very point:
For Hauerwas, the primary task of the church is to “be the church.” By being the church, Hauerwas does not simply mean that Christians should go to church on Sundays and eat potluck. Hauerwas thinks being the church is the difficult task of becoming a servant community that lives out the kingdom principles of Jesus in the world. “As such,” Hauerwas claims, “the church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic.” …
For Hauerwas, the church’s first task cannot be to make the world a better place, because the church has fundamentally different ethical standards from the secular order. Therefore, unless the world is ready to see the world the way the church sees it, there would be little overlap between the politics of the church and the politics of the world. For him “it is from the church that Christian ethics draws its substance and it is to the church that Christian ethical reflection is first addressed. Christian ethics is not written for everyone, but for those who have been formed by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.”
I’m closer to Wright than Hauerwas on one point: I believe the church really can make the world a better place — and bring glory to Jesus in so doing — but only only in those areas where Christian ethics conform to secular ethics. That is, we can build clinics and hospitals, provide relief in times of natural disaster, feed the hungry, and do all sorts of good things that will draw the damned to Jesus — if we do those things in Jesus’ name and if, when the world pays us a visit, we act like Jesus.