The Mission of the Church: Thompson Returns Serve (Spiritual Formation)

Eucharist-Mission1Several years ago, “spiritual formation” was all the rage. The movement was built on —

(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:

Community Groups

 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.

Depth Classes

 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

Newcomers Ministry

 Continuing to develop the language, vision and structure for welcoming and integrating newcomers including Sundays, monthly newcomers’ meals

Ministry Connection

 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 —

  • Prayer.
  • Cruciformity, that is, becoming like Jesus.
  • Evangelism (of any kind)
  • Simplicity. Giving.
  • Suffering.
  • Missions.

Thompson teaches,

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.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Thompson Returns Serve (Spiritual Formation)

  1. Doesn’t it seem that a misreading of Matthew 6 has led us to shy away from corporate spiritual disciplines? We value praying in a closet over praying with other Christians. And don’t you dare mention fasting out loud!

    Always puzzled me how those that want a set group of worship acts based on what we see in the New Testament never seem to take Acts 13:2–3 as authoritative. How many churches regularly fast and pray together? When you mention it, they say, “Well, that’s an individual thing.”

    Thanks for the reminder. And thanks for turning me on to James’ book. I’ll have to get a copy.

  2. Dwight says:

    Ingio Montoya, “You keep saying that word. I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” Here is a case where we have restated what someone else has argued as fact to get to a point we want to make of corporal church.

    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.

    the “you” is “hymin” and means you as in a “collective you”, but not “between you or among you”.
    The fact that Paul is speaking to a collective is evident from ch.1 to ch.4, but we must also recognize he isn’t speaking to an assembled collective, but rather the town or saints in Galatia.
    This is why he says in ch.1:11 “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man.”
    Gal.3:1 “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?”
    This doesn’t argue that they were bewitched together as one unit or even converted as one unit.

    Taking this into account and the fact that he doesn’t mention them in assembly or as an assembled group, we must not force the concept of an assembled “congregation” into this text and understand that because this is directed to the people in town, it most likely applies that way.
    thus it is not “corporal” at all and Galatians never argues in that direction. In fact none of the letters do. Most likely the saints might have come together to hear the letters, but then dispersed back to their homes to worship and assemble in general. So their forming would have been done on that level.

    Paul calls them “little children” which sets the context and then states “until Christ is formed in you”, meaning that they are young in Christ and not complete in Christ in faith.
    This also is also echoed in Gal.4:20 “I would like to be present with you now and to change my tone; for I have doubts about you.”

    Now I agree the assembly or Christians in an area should be involved in “spiritual formation” they should be so as noted in assembly Heb.10:25 in “edifying each other till Christ comes” and “building the body”, which doesn’t have to be in assembly.

  3. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dwight wrote,

    Here is a case where we have restated what someone else has argued as fact to get to a point we want to make of corporal church.

    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.

    the “you” is “hymin” and means you as in a “collective you”, but not “between you or among you”.
    The fact that Paul is speaking to a collective is evident from ch.1 to ch.4, but we must also recognize he isn’t speaking to an assembled collective, but rather the town or saints in Galatia.

    I’m not nearly the Greek expert that James S. Thompson is – and he argues the case from far more than just the grammar of Gal 4:19. Let’s see what else he says on the subject.

    Thus Paul has redefined the people of God, describing Christ as the representative one whom believers “put on” in baptism (3: 27). While Paul assumes the presence of a diversity of people within the church, he does not envision a balkanized community of separate identities; he envisions one community where old identities are subordinated to the new identity among those who are in Christ. Paul summarizes the argument, proceeding from the negative “there is no longer” to the positive “you are one in Christ” (3: 28) and you “belong to Christ” (3: 29). The plural “you are” (este) includes all who have been baptized into Christ (3: 27)— both Jews and Greeks. To be “one in Christ” is to overcome the divisions mentioned in 3: 28. Just as there is one seed, the Christ (3: 16), there is only one new humanity in which ethnic, social, and gender identities are left behind. Paul does not address the numerous questions that emerge in the modern context, and he does not indicate how the reality of the new aeon is implemented in practice. His focus is on the overcoming of separation between groups that has taken place in Christ. Paul does not employ the Greek and modern category of equality but envisions a unity among those who are in Christ.

    Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 63). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    This is an ecclesiological argument, a redefinition of the people of God. Christ is the representative. The identity of Christ and believers is inseparable. Paul has moved from the instrumental use of en to the inclusive, locative meaning, defining the church as the people of God who are in Christ, the person who incorporates all who believe. Paul presupposes the concept of the inclusive person, according to which the descendants of the ancestor share the fate and identity of their progenitor. According to Romans 5: 12–21, Christ is the second Adam who reverses the effects of the sin of the first man. Just as the sin of one man determined the destiny of the many, the righteousness of one man made many righteous (cf. Rom. 5: 18– 21). As in Galatians, the new humanity shares the destiny of Christ (Rom. 6: 1–11). In 1 Corinthians 15: 20– 28, Paul contrasts those who are “in Adam” with those who are “in Christ,” concluding that the one determines the destiny of the many: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15: 22 RSV). Christ is thus the one founder of the new humanity that is “in him” (Gal. 3: 28), having clothed itself with him in baptism.

    Paul moves easily between the claim that believers are in Christ and the affirmation that Christ is among believers. In Galatians he declares that believers are “one in Christ” (3: 28) because they have been baptized “into Christ” (3: 27). When he describes their relapse, he refers to them as “my little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (4: 19). Because English translations do not distinguish between the singular and plural of the second person, they obscure Paul’s statement. J. Louis Martyn has appropriately translated this “until Christ is formed among your congregations.” 45 The translation is not “in you” (singular) but “among you.” Paul envisions corporate formation, which becomes evident as members take on the qualities described in Galatians 5 and 6. The church is a unity only because it is in Christ (3: 29), and now the goal is that Christ be formed in the congregations. Indeed, Paul has already presented himself as a representative of Christian experience when he says, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (2: 20).

    As the argument of Galatians indicates, this ecclesiology is not an abstraction, for it manifests itself in the table fellowship between Jews and Greeks. Indeed, Greeks. Indeed, Paul’s vision of the church would become a challenge to the church in all ages, for it would extend to the separation between ethnic and socioeconomic groups that live in isolation from each other. While the immediate concern is the unity of Jews and gentiles in Christ, Paul points with the phrases “there is no longer slave or free” and “there is no longer male and female” (3: 28) to the greater significance of the new definition of the people of God. All are one because they are incorporated into the founder of the new humanity.

    Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 64-65). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    Commentaries agree that even if Paul is speaking of the collective “you” — formed in you (collective) — that this cannot happen without individual spiritual formation as well. It’s not either/or but both/and. The correction Thompson is arguing for is our Western assumption that it’s just you (singular) — and that what’s important to God is that we are individually spiritually formed to the near exclusion of corporate (church body) spiritual formation.

    I agree with Thompson. As Thompson points out, there is a theme throughout Galatians speaking of the church as as unity because they are all included in Christ. “Neither Jew nor Greek …” is not about equality so much as unity. The equality follows from unity. Christ unites; therefore, we are a single body and should act accordingly.

    (Gal. 3:25-4:1 ESV) 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring [seed (singular)], heirs according to promise.

    Now, spiritual formation at the corporate (body) level does not speak uniquely to the assembly. The church is a unity 24/7, not just during the assembly. We assemble because we’ve been united in Christ. It’s not: we assemble to be united in Christ. Of course, physical assembly helps make the unity in Christ more fully realized. But Jesus brings us together in him, and therefore we assemble. But therefore we do mission together. Therefore we eat together. Therefore we serve together. Therefore we don’t let worldly differences separate us. And doing things together brings us closer to each other. But it begins in unity in Christ, which happens when we’re saved. And our behavior should reflect what Jesus has already done for us.

    In short, when we insist on living our lives apart from each other, we are undoing the unity given us at baptism. When we allow the Spirit to form us into a united, mutually loving, affirming, edifying community, we are living the story into which we’ve been saved. We’re living out our salvation.

  4. Dwight says:

    I agree “Now, spiritual formation at the corporate (body) level does not speak uniquely to the assembly. The church is a unity 24/7, not just during the assembly. We assemble because we’ve been united in Christ. It’s not: we assemble to be united in Christ. Of course, physical assembly helps make the unity in Christ more fully realized. But Jesus brings us together in him, and therefore we assemble. But therefore we do mission together. Therefore we eat together. Therefore we serve together. Therefore we don’t let worldly differences separate us. And doing things together brings us closer to each other. But it begins in unity in Christ, which happens when we’re saved. And our behavior should reflect what Jesus has already done for us.”

    And I also agree with, “In short, when we insist on living our lives apart from each other, we are undoing the unity given us at baptism. When we allow the Spirit to form us into a united, mutually loving, affirming, edifying community, we are living the story into which we’ve been saved. We’re living out our salvation.”

    Unfortunately when we use terminology like “corporal” body or worship, most people think assembly and then we can’t edify each other unless we are assembled.
    I agree we should be together, but we shouldn’t be so constricting on what together means.
    It could be two or three and God will be there. It could be 20 or two hundred and God will be there.
    The more we come together as witnesses of God, the more God will be a witness of us.
    But we don’t come together to access God, we come together because we all share access to God.

    I do know of a few that believe that assembly isn’t just a great thing to do, but because it somehow changes our worship from personal worship to corporal worship as types. But there is only one thing that we can’t do alone, the Lord’s Supper, because within its purpose is unity in Christ.
    But we can worship, pray, etc.

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