Tulsa Lectures: First and Third Class, Toward a Spiritual Formation Ministry

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?

I like Harold Hazelip’s definition of “spiritual formation”

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.

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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7 Responses to Tulsa Lectures: First and Third Class, Toward a Spiritual Formation Ministry

  1. Alan says:

    Gal 4:19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,
    Gal 4:20 how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

    Some people who talk a lot about “spiritual formation” act like it is something distinct from everything else we do in the church. Why have a minister for spiritual formation and another minister for “regular” ministry? Paul was laboring for the spiritual formation of his dear children in Christ. How did he do it?

    Act 20:18 When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia.
    Act 20:19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews.
    Act 20:20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.
    Act 20:21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.


    Act 20:26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men.
    Act 20:27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.


    Act 20:31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

    etc. When not present, he wrote them letters admonishing them toward righteousness and away from sin. Whether present or absent, he urged them to live holy lives. And he prayed for them.
    I think that’s how we should do it too.

  2. Jerry says:

    Great post! and great comment from Alan too.

    Jay wrote: “Create a new self-identity within the membership. Encourage them to think of themselves as on the path toward becoming like Jesus. ”

    One of my favorite verses, which I look at as a perfect description of the church, is:

    They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way…. (Mark 9:32a, NIV)

    Think “new Jerusalem” and you have the picture of why the church in the book of Acts is often called “the Way.” There was mission and they were following Jesus as He led the way.

  3. Price says:

    Seems it would have difficult for Abraham or David or Paul to have developed spiritually without hearing from God. Perhaps becoming spiritual is first learning how to hear the Spirit.

  4. Charles McLean says:

    Does the congregation as an organization model these principles of selfless service? Do its leaders? If so, it will make it easier for individuals to get the vision. For example:

    Congregation gives significant amounts of cash to community services where they are not the decision-makers. Habitat for Humanity, child welfare board, Meals on Wheels, Gideons, adult literacy, hunger programs, ad infinitum…

    Congregation gives significant amounts of cash to mission needs which arise in OTHER local congregations, even those of another denomination.

    When those mission or service needs are local, leaders both volunteer and recruit volunteers at church.

    Elders DO NOT recreate existing local service programs so that they can have one under their own banner.

    IMPORTANT: When I say “congregation gives”, I do NOT mean it “takes up a special offering”, but I mean the elders take a sizable chunk out of general operating funds, as though the expenditure was at least as important as paying the light bill. They choose to publicly make such giving a priority. By “sizeable”, I mean big enough that it will probably squeeze out of the budget something else we would like to spend money on. This is crucial to making this a group vision. When I read in the reports of CoC charities how this or that congregation gave $50, I want to ask why they bothered. That donation didn’t do a lot, and it showed where their hearts were NOT. It’s a clank in the offering plate from people who clearly have no significant level of commitment. A sizeable expenditure does not clank.

    Here’s an idea: Elders find a worthwhile avenue to provide with such support, and instead of asking for special offerings, they first make a public commitment to $X for that work. (That $X is a number big enough to make an actual difference.) Only then do the elders ask people for offerings. That changes the tone from “Somebody ought to do something. Anybody interested?” to “This is where God is leading us. If you hear the same call, we’d appreciate more help.”

    Take money out of your “building fund” and fix widows’ houses with it, instead of making your own building more comfortable.

    Fund things which you publicly say are important to God. It is hypocritical to say that God wants you to put on a mission trip to Honduras and then make a godly teen raise his own airfare by selling fundraiser candy door to door in order to participate.

    Don’t leave the country to serve if you are not already doing at least SOME similar things in your neighborhood. That is not mission, but simple Christian tourism, and serves the airlines more than anyone else.

    I hear leaders now, saying, “We can’t afford to do all that!” To which I reply, “It’s all about choices. You pay first for what is most important to you. If holding services is your main priority, your budget will show it.” All I would ask of group leaders who make such decisions is that they show their members a simple pie chart every year which shows the percentage of dollars received which went to people and places where the congregation expects and gets nothing in return.

    As parents, we know how worthless it is to tell our children, “Do as I say, not as I do!” Congregations should remember that lesson. If you eat most of your annual crop and sow little, do not expect your members to outgrow your own spiritual formation.

  5. Jerry says:

    Charles hit one of my hot buttons with this:

    Don’t leave the country to serve if you are not already doing at least SOME similar things in your neighborhood. That is not mission, but simple Christian tourism, and serves the airlines more than anyone else.

    I say this even though my 15 year-old granddaughter is getting ready for a mission trip to an orphanage in Mexico. I hope this means more than tourism for her, and I believe it will. She personally raised $1,000 by selling paintings (her own) and gave it as a part of her youth group’s commitment to a $50,000 commitment from the church. There in Mexico, she will teach painting to the orphans – and make a painting for the arts & crafts area her donation went to help construct.

    Yet, many times I see people going somewhere far off to do things they would consider beneath them if they were at home. Like a youth group that went to Central America to build a house. Can you imagine American teen-aged girls (or boys) with no experience or training building a house??? I’m sure they worked hard, but at what cost?

    As I said, Charles, you hit one of my hot buttons.

  6. Charles McLean says:

    Jerry, I am also a little of two minds on this. My kids also have been on numerous mission trips–Honduras, Uganda, Mozambique– and as you say, their intention was not as tourists, but as servants, and they worked hard and faithfully. My challenge is not to those kids, but to the thinking of those who arrange such “trips”. Two of their trips were to urban areas in the US. It’s two hours to south Dallas and three hours to the barrios in San Antonio or the tough neighborhoods of Houston– so their church organized trips to Chicago and San Diego. And they don’t set foot across the river in East Waco, five miles away.

    Lots of hard work going on, but not really useful or effective work. Months of selling stuff and washing cars and begging relatives, thousands of dollars in air fare, all to build two cottages at an orphanage– a job which would have cost the price of one plane ticket had we given the job to a local carpenter trying to feed his family.

    We have decided to serve in ordinary ways in places that are different and exotic, types of service in which we have no interest when needed around here. It is the plan that is wasteful tourism, not the execution. We could have sent that Honduran orphanage a fraction of the airfare we bought and left them with four times the housing. And that orphanage could have blessed workers in their own village. It is NOT the serving that is out of whack, but the wasteful tickling of the soulish imagination that we tack onto it. More serving, less pictures, please.

    All that said, I am a BIG fan of sending our kids to the Third World. In fact, I have always advised parents that six months in the Third World is the best graduation present any believing teen could get. But six months… not six days. Long enough to learn how to live with people who are very different. Long enough to find out that Facebook is NOT actually necessary to life. Long enough to begin to KNOW others after the Spirit. Long enough to begin to see enough of the world outside their bubble to question some of the assumptions of their elders. Long enough to affect their world view. That, IMO, is worth the investment.

    Fair warning, however. Send your kids off like this and they will very likely come back as those change agents we have all been warned about.

  7. Wendy says:

    Charles, your comment deserves to be framed. Amen!

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