Spiritual Formation and the Merchants of Cool

Rev. Mark Werner

A short time ago I was invited to join other pastors and ministry leaders at a local church addressing the concept of spiritual formation within the church.  A well known national speaker was brought in to share his understanding of spiritual formation and what he is observing around the country.  I listened and was deeply impressed as he described with great insight and critical understanding how the church in the United States has understood and taught spiritual formation over the last few generations.  There were numerous times when all of us in attendance nodded our heads in agreement of having a personal shared awareness of what he was describing.

The speaker was describing a sea change that is taking place in the church within our country that is deeply felt and identified by many. He described a growing awareness among both clergy and laity that there is a very real and uncomfortable gap between what we long for in the core of our being and what we oftentimes actually experience within the community of the church!  The place in which we recognize this gap is private and deeply personal and yet, if we are honest, we discover upon looking closely that there are others who share this awareness as well.

An Uncomfortable Admission
For many Christian pastors and leaders, there is a penetrating and uncomfortable realization that begins to settle upon our souls after years spent in ministry. It is the realization that many of the methods and approaches we have relied upon for our own growth and have taught with confidence, passion and conviction have now reached some sort of limit.  When this uncomfortable realizations dawns, we comfort ourselves with easy answers like, “that’s just the way things are on this side of heaven…continue on, stay the course and be faithful.” The problem comes when such platitudes no longer satisfy or pacify our discomfort as they once did.  In this fog of confusion and disorientation, it is so very hard for leaders to admit, “We just don’t know really how to get there! We do not know what it is that brings about real change and transformation in ourselves—let alone other people!”

This is a serious admission for shepherds and leaders of God’s people to make to themselves and to others. We wonder and ask concerning our own ministries: “How can a leader of God’s people not know the way to real lasting change and transformation?”  While some might believe that such an admission means it is time for their ministry to come to an end and that perhaps they should go on to do something else, I don’t agree. There is something very good about sharing this unsettling awareness honestly with one another as leaders.  As I sat with my colleagues in ministry during this speaker’s presentation I was grateful I was there. But then the morning took an odd turn and I began to feel other things as well.

An Alarm Went Off Within Me
As wonderful and insightful as the first presenter’s comments were, the next presenter shifted the focus of the presentation to promoting a new tool that was being offered to help with spiritual formation within the church.  It is an on-line tool for spiritual growth and transformation that took years to develop and is completely customized to your own personality and desires.  The tool seems to allow the user to select what they think they need (or want) and what they don’t need (or want) in order to grow spiritually.  The online tool, the presenter promised, would provide a complete and personalized road map for transformation.

As I sat quietly in my chair in the balcony of the auditorium, I began to feel a stronger response building within me.  I wanted to stand up and shout to everyone present “Stop, stop, don’t do it…don’t go there…please…our spiritual transformation and the transformation of the church is much too precious for that!”

A Caution from MTV
I knew the intensity of my response was due, in part, to a PBS special I had seen a few years ago.  PBS’s Frontline did a wonderful documentary called the “Merchants of Cool” which described how companies like MTV market a new product to their audience. Simply put, MTV takes what is most cutting edge or cool—but is still very much on the fringe of our culture–and grabs it, packages it and then presents and sells it back to its audience.  The most interesting and alarming thing the documentary pointed out was that “whatever MTV ends up grabbing, marketing and making cool—it eventually kills!  What it grabs packages and promotes, over time it will destroy!”

This destruction of what is “cool” happens when something that is powerfully experienced but not always fully understood is moved through a series of well organized steps to begin promoting and marketing it to a larger audience. This is both my caution and my fear for the Church relative to the growing awareness and discussion of spiritual formation.  I am concerned that the good, growing, rich and deep corrective movement being talked about in many different places and in a variety of ways around the country is being identified by our own “merchants of cool” as something to be grabbed, simplified (often without great experience or understanding) and then marketed for mass appeal.

A Question about Spiritual Transformation
We all like tools for ministry that promote and bring about the kind of change the Gospel promises. But what kinds of tools are appropriate for the mysterious activity of God that we identify as spiritual transformation?  Are there promotional tactics that are appropriate for certain kinds of tools but not others?

St. John of the Cross says that “of necessity all means must be appropriate to their ends.” In other words, what is chosen as a method or means to a desired end must look like or resemble that end all along the way.   There is something substantial to learn about transformation in St John’s comment.  Our understanding of spiritual transformation and how that is offered and made available, must image and reflect God as its end and therefore it must image God in its means.   Our method for reaching that end must image the community of persons within the Godhead and the call of the church to live and transform within that community.

It must also be consistent with the thing itself.  Spiritual transformation, by definition, is full of mystery in that it is a God-initiated, God-guided process which human beings cannot control or bring to fruition by our own wisdom or our own striving.  I’m not sure it can or should be reduced to self-stylized programs offered through mechanical means.

There are key elements of the transformation process—such as finding ways to open to the mystery of God’s Spirit working beyond our human knowing, human striving and human effort and doing so in community—that are often missing in self-directed tools for personal use, easily accessed and downloaded in the increasing isolation of the technological age.

The Reason Why I am Hopeful
In addition to the concern and even alarm I experienced on that day, I also felt hope. The reason for my hope is that within the Transforming Community® I have experienced something remarkably different than what I heard presented that day. Through the two-year Transforming Community I have experienced the work of God changing, leading and guiding me.  Over a period of time, I have experienced significant change and transformation because of a community of people gathered together for this purpose.  And it does take time—which sometimes passes slowly and oftentimes with great personal difficulty. But it is in the context of a community of transformation that we learn how to open to the mysterious work of God in trustworthy ways. And we learn how to listen and respond to God’s clear voice in and among us!

After being exposed to the new method of transformation being promoted that day, and now upon my own reflection, what I have found so reassuring about the Transforming Community process is that it is respectful of the means needed to move us toward a very good end…our communion with God and our transformation in his presence.  My choice to participate in the Transforming Community has not been about more exposure to good information and answers. I have had plenty of that through conferences and seminars! What I was longing for was an actual experience of the answers I had preached, taught and talked about for so long.

In the Transforming Community I have experienced the value of learning with and from others who are with me on the journey now and from those who have gone before.  These are the ones who remind me of God’s faithfulness in those unsettling times of real spiritual growth.  I have learned how valuable it is to have regular, substantive time and space set aside for God where I can both read and practice (and even fail!) at learning new disciplines. I have learned again how important it is to have a rhythm of connecting and then re-connecting with other leaders to discuss our journey into Christ-likeness that embraces the completeness of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I do not believe these realities can be, or should ever be, minimized, overly-simplified or computerized.

The Power of the Transforming Community
Spiritual transformation is a rich and deeply personal experience. It would be a sad thing to see it “killed”, made irrelevant or trivialized – not because it was identified as something valuable and important for everyone (which it is!), but because it is made too simple, too common and too easy by an audience of people who recognized its power, but did not fully understand what it takes to experience its true lasting power within their lives.

Spiritual transformation within the Church begins when we understand that our growth, and the growth of the Body of Christ is not primarily about getting more information faster, quicker and easier. It is not about having a greater variety of experiences that are tailor-made “just for my own spiritual development.”  Spiritual transformation begins with understanding that our transformation is God working in us and among us for his purposes and we must seek after it together. Approaches to formation that find us sitting in front of our computers selectively choosing the spiritual disciplines that seem to suit us will not take us there.

At times it may seem slow and inefficient to try to find ways to engage the process of spiritual transformation together. It may challenge and frustrate us to have to wait on God for the work that only he can do in us. But the change in us will be real and lasting when it reflects and images the mystery and the community of the Trinitarian God.   This makes me hopeful!  And it is this that I seek to bring to the community of faith in which I am privileged to be a shepherd.

© Mark Werner, 2010. This article is not to be reproduced without permission from the author or the Transforming Center.

Rev. Mark Werner is a member of the 2009 Transforming Community® which will be concluding in January.  He has twenty six years of ministry experience—eleven year with Campus Crusade and fifteen years in his current role as Associate Pastor of Adult Ministries and Spiritual Formation at Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, WI. He attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Editors Note: We are now accepting applications for our next Transforming Community® starting in July of 2011. Learn more about this two-year experience and prayefully consider submitting an application. Space is limited.

Download a PDF of “Spiritual Formation and the Merchants of Cool” by clicking here.

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