You are a New Creation: In Search of a Stronger Theology of Spiritual Formation (Part 1)

More than half of my life has been spent in some form of ministry. I have served a number of churches and have been responsible for a variety of ministry areas. For eight of those years I served as a youth pastor. I will not get into the pros and cons of youth ministry as a whole–that would take far too long. I would like to take a few moments and explore some of the lessons I learned during my time as a pastor to those who were still trying to discover what they believed. I can say without hesitation that my time in youth ministry greatly affected the way that I understand spiritual formation.

One of the concerns that has grown over the last few years is this: The church must develop and defend a stronger theology of spiritual formation. What I mean is that the church, as a collective body, must understand that making people feel welcomed does not make them integral pieces to the whole. In my time as a youth pastor I discovered that, many times, the youth I was working with had a working knowledge of the language of the church, but they had no idea what that language pointed to. To say it another way, they were wearing tuxes to play football and gym clothes to attend formal parties. The content of the Gospel was not being connected to the context of their lives. In short, compartmentalization was not just the norm, but the way to live life. Faith, as a way of life, was a foreign idea and almost entirely detached from any other area of life. I have opinions about why and how this has happened in the church, but I am more interested in find a way out of this pattern.

I will not be trying to present an exhaustive theology here. I will, however, attempt to highlight and tease out some ideas relating to how we think about spiritual formation within the context of the church. In my mind, the problem is not that the church isn’t trying to foster spiritual formation among followers of Jesus. The problem may be that we are not doing it according to Jesus’ pattern, having substituted the “best practices” of the world for the divine example of Jesus himself.

There are four principles that I would like to discuss regarding spiritual formation. These four took shape during my youth ministry days, but have taken firmer hold over the last few years as I continue to think about spiritual formation. As I envision what I am going to share here, I do not see spiritual formation as a graduated process. What I mean is that these are not steps that we have to follow in a sequential order. Rather, these for principles must be present at all times. The reason for this is that as a person grows and develops spiritually, each of these areas must be maturing with an intentional synchronicity. So, let’s take a look at the four principles.

A Holistic View of Spiritual Formation

The first principle, the one that serves as the glue that holds all of them together, is that spiritual formation needs to be seen as a holistic reality. I would imagine that many reading that last statement would say this is a given. That it is even redundant and obvious. This assumption would be our first mistake. The truth of the matter is that many approaches to spiritual formation are not holistic. They do not take the entire person and the whole of the human experience into account.

Let me provide an example here to help. The typical Sunday School program provided by most churches, in practice, does little more than share information to be learned. This in itself is not bad. Where we can run into trouble is when this information is divorced of any context or any meaningful application, these “faith facts” serve no purpose in the life of the believer because they don’t know what to do with them.

The world in the West can be defined by an intellectual approach to everything. This is a generalization, however, in the west we value and prize intellectual pursuits as a measure of success and achievement. As a fundamental and cultural norm, the mind is the means and mechanism for appropriating the human experience. Just consider how were are presented with information in the media, or even how children are educated in the school system. The approach is to pack the mind with information and hope that the quantity of information leads to transformation. In the end this does not produce either a stronger mind or a stronger person.

The opposite approach has been taken by the Eastern approach that, in general terms, is more mystical and spiritual. I don’t use these words in any religious sense. These eastern ideas point to a non-rational, non-physical mode of experiencing and interacting with the realities of life. As the West become disenchanted with the rigidity of rationality it began looking for itself in the experiential approaches to life found in the East. This explains to some degree why there is such an interest in the esoteric religions and religious experiences of near and far east.

In the end, both of these approaches are deficient in their approach to the human experience. The human experience is not all physical (as the Western mind would argue) nor is it all spiritual (as the Eastern mind would have us believe).

The Christian mind, distinct from both of these others, is holistic precisely because it derives its understanding of the human experience from Jesus. In the person of Jesus the physical and the meta-physical are seamlessly and indivisibly united. The incarnation–a doctrine particular to the Christian religion–posits a unique perspective of the human experience. In Jesus, the world sees what a fully integrated person looks like. A person who lives in the present,dealing with realities that are both physical and spiritual and given equal weight.

When we, as the church, fail to take Jesus’ example as the starting point of our spiritual formation efforts we set ourselves up for failure. The implications and ramifications of our spiritual formation programs and processes should remain front and center. If we are going to make disciples as Jesus commands, and if those disciples are going to be equipped to continue the mission, then we must evaluate the results that we are now getting, but we must also evaluate the methods we are implementing that me hindering rather than helping our goals.

Next Time

In the Part 2 we will look at the three remaining principles of that I believe we must practice more consistently in our spiritual formation process.

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