Imagine that you’ve been hired as minister of spiritual formation. Or that you’re the deacon charged with spiritual formation. Or that you’re an elder or minister who believes spiritual formation is an essential element of the Christian life.
How do you go about working with God’s Holy Spirit so that Christ is formed within the members of your congregation?
The “saying” of Jesus that is repeated most often in the Gospels (although in slightly different wordings) is, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Losing our lives for him does not always involve physical martyrdom. Rather, we are called from lives of selfishness to lives of service in his name. We follow Jesus.
How do we call our members away from selfishness to lives of service in his name? I think that’s a very helpful way of stating the challenge, because the goal is stated in terms of service for others, rather than learned propositions or disciplines practiced. How do we live?
Let me suggest a few thoughts, but I’m certainly open to suggestions —
* I’m not keen on the individual spiritual disciplines as being the key to spiritual formation. After all, such concepts as service, submission, sacrifice, and even suffering are all about life in community. I don’t submit to myself. I can submit to God, but only if I submit to other humans as well. I can sacrifice for God, but only if I sacrifice for other humans as well.
We aren’t Gnostics, suffering for the sake of suffering. Rather, we suffer because we act in ways that challenge the world’s powers. We offer the world a different way of thinking and being and living that challenges the authority of the authorities. And so we suffer — but only because we’ve taken action in and as community.
* Rather, I think the spiritual discipline that most assuredly leads to spiritual formation is service for others. Go on a mission trip. Adopt an orphan. Teach a literacy class. And do all this in the name of Jesus, as a Christian, for the sake of the cross.
Don’t go on a mission trip to care for your own teenage daughter. Go for the sake of the Hondurans or Ethiopians. Sell out to the mission, so much so that you’d go even if no one else in your family or congregation were to go. (You likely won’t feel this way until the second or third trip to the same place.)
* Obviously, service can be local. Hosting a wedding shower is service, but it’s only Christ-like service if there’s nothing in it for you other than the joy of service. Host a shower for a new member at church who has no friends there — yet. Host a shower for a member’s unwed daughter who has no church home. Let hospitality become service for the sake of Jesus.
* Indeed, this is one of the dangers of how we normally do church. We ask for volunteers for the sake of what they get out of it: If you want a great children’s program for your own children, then teach in the children’s program. The motivation is selfish. Even the pagans love their own children.
Teach VBS for strangers at a local housing project, though, and then you’ll be standing in the sandals of Jesus — because you do it for others. It’s sacrifice.
Teach the three-year olds at your church when your own children have grown up, and that puts you in Jesus’ sandals, too. Even if you love teaching three-year olds. You see, God can give you joy in service. He often does. That doesn’t make it any less Christ-like. It just means that God blesses Christ-like service.
* Therefore, we need to fine tune volunteerism at church. It’s often so hard to get volunteers, that we market the jobs any way we can — even appealing to our members’ most selfish desires.
Far better is to attack the problem from the other end, by helping our members better understand the nature of Christianity. We are not a social club with free child care! We are an organization of people being transformed into the image of Jesus.
* Create a new self-identity within the membership. Encourage them to think of themselves as on the path toward becoming like Jesus. Set Christ-like-ness as a congregational goal.
* Since we’re speaking of a congregational effort, it has to be supported from the pulpit — week after week. Becoming like Jesus has be a centerpiece of the preaching — not just a series, but for always.
The idea is so central to Christianity and God’s purposes in this world that we should weave teaching living like Jesus into lessons on marriage, parenting, personal finances, the role of women — just all sorts of things. Paul did.
* When we study Abraham or David in our Bible classes, we should view them through the lens of Jesus. For example, what is it about these men that God found so attractive? What is it about David that was after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22)?
The theme of these true stories thus is that Abraham submitted to God, by leaving Ur and traveling to Palestine, by believing God’s promises, by offering even to sacrifice Isaac — and his submission and sacrifice — he gave up family and likely inheritance — makes him like God, that is, like Jesus.
Just so, David’s willingness to suffer in the wilderness as Saul sought to kill him, waiting on God’s time, shows a submission and sacrifice that is like God’s own heart, which is like the heart of Jesus.
Thus, we can read the accounts of Abraham and David — deeply flawed men — as examples of how to live like Jesus. And God’s grace shows us how the scriptures can honestly report the sins and failings of these men, leaving us astonished at God’s forgiveness — all because these men are types of Jesus.
I don’t think that’s how we normally teach these materials. And there are, of course, countless other examples that could be given.
* The congregation should celebrate Christ-like service by its members. Mission trips, adoptions, acting as foster parents, teaching literacy — all the wonderful things our members do in the name of Jesus — should be announced, praised, and celebrated. And no one is allowed to be jealous. Rejoice with those who rejoice.
* We should train our small groups to be both inreach and outreach oriented — reaching in within the congregation to the shy and friendless and new, reaching out outside the congregation to friends and neighbors.
* As I’ve said before, the leadership should never, ever reinforce selfish, entitled demands or behavior by giving in to it. In fact, it should be taught from the pulpit that this church is all about the mission, which brings us to —
* Mission. None of this works very well unless the church missionally minded. “Missional” refers to the church thinking of itself as an evangelistic outpost in a pagan world, and therefore thinking like missionaries. Not just the leaders, but every member.
Thus, personal evangelism should be honored and encouraged, as well as less direct means of showing Jesus to the world. But personal evangelism can’t be about earning points to heaven. The members have to understand that the church is on a rescue mission, and they are the rescuers.
We help people overcome poverty and illiteracy and such like, but we all believe that the greatest poverty is the absence of Jesus. We believe that offering Jesus to the lost is the greatest imaginable gift, because we’ve learned from experience that living like Jesus is the greatest joy that can be experienced.
Thus, we need to preach Jesus as joy and opportunity, not as burden and guilt. Living like Jesus is very counter-intuitive. It’s not how Americans think. Submission is unthinkable to most of us, even church leaders. Suffering and sacrifice? Hardly what you’d put on your church’s billboard. And yet God promises us the abundant life if we’ll just give his way — Jesus’ way — a try.
* Finally, I think we need to become more aware of the suffering that our brothers and sisters in Christ endure in other countries. More people died for being Christians in the last century than the previous centuries put together.
We suffer, even when we don’t personally suffer, because we feel the pain of those who are on mission with us throughout the world.
It’s only by opening ourselves up to their pain that we can suffer with them — but in so doing, we’ll be transformed to become more like Jesus. We’ll voluntarily take on the pain of knowing and therefore the burden of praying for them. And we’ll be transformed by their example.
Our teen and campus ministries, as well as adult ministries, should be keenly aware that persecution is going on today. It’ll change how our children view the world, and help them to see what it really means to live like Jesus.
And it will shame us when we find teaching a Bible class for someone else’s children to be too great a sacrifice to make for Jesus. It’ll help us get our priorities in order.
I’m not a fan of lectio divina or prayer mazes or solitude for the sake of Jesus. I agree with Scot McKnight that we’ve misunderstood fasting. It’s not taught in the Bible as a discipline for personal spiritual growth.
Indeed, I think the disciplines that teach the most are the really hard ones — dealing with each other, being patient and kind to our brothers and sisters, being present for them in times of distress, serving those who need serving, sacrificing for others, submitting to the leadership and to each other, and even suffering. Those are truly transformative disciplines because they get much closer to the heart of Jesus as revealed on the cross.