WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH WHEN IT COMES TO SPIRITUAL FORMATION IN CHRIST?

Barton: The Church (capital C) is the body of Christ on earth now and it is the primary context in which we grow up in every way into him who is our head (Eph. 4:15). In Pauline writings, instructions about spiritual formation and transformation are never given to private individuals but are always addressed to individuals in communities of faith.  Romans 12:2, 1 Corinthians 12, and Galatians 4:19 are just a few examples of Paul’s teachings on formation and discipleship addressed to communities. My favorite illustration of the centrality of the church as it relates to Christian formation is Dwight L. Moody’s response to a man who tried to argue that it was possible for a person to be a Christian without participating in the life of the church.  As he made his argument, Moody leaned forward in his chair, picked up a poker, and pulled a burning coal from the fire that blazed near them. He placed it on the stone hearth and as the coal slowly dimmed and went out, the man said, “Mr. Moody, you have made your point!” As Robert Mulholland comments, “We can no more be conformed to the image of Christ outside of corporate spirituality than a coal can continue to burn bright outside of the fire.” 

Another biblical metaphor for the church is the family of God in which Christian persons grow to mature spiritual adulthood.  Just as a baby is born into a family and experiences safety and structure for growing from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood, so we as Christians grow towards adulthood in our spiritual family.  Certainly children sometimes survive outside of healthy families but human growth and development is usually stunted; it is the same with growth in Christian maturity.  Perhaps a Christian can survive without a spiritual family but certainly their spiritual growth and development will be stunted and they will not flourish. The role of the church in spiritual formation is to provide wise and loving safety and structure, teaching and guidance for Christians at all stages of their growth and development as children in God’s family.

TO WHAT DEGREE SHOULD THE LOCAL CHURCH BE FOCUSED ON THE SPIRITUAL FORMATION OF ITS MEMBERS AND WHY SHOULD IT BE SO FOCUSED?

Barton: Spiritual formation is the process of Christ being formed in us for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives, and for the sake of others.  The promise that we—sin-scarred human beings that we are—can actually become like Christ is central to the message of the Gospel and therefore, central to the mission of the church.  Indeed, spiritual transformation in the lives of redeemed people is a testimony to the power of the Gospel and results in an increasing capacity to discern and do God’s will in the world (Rom. 12:2).  Resisting the process of conformity to this world and allowing ourselves to be transformed into the image of Christ is an act of worship; it is one very concrete way in which the will of God is done in our lives as it is in heaven. 

It is no wonder Paul makes such a strong statement about his own ministry priorities as a leader in the church—“that we may present everyone mature in Christ…for this I toil and struggle with all the energy he so powerfully inspires within me.” (Col. 1:28, 29; NRSV) Taking our cues from the apostle Paul encourages leaders of the church in our day to make this kind of spiritual maturity our own priority as well.

WHAT IS YOUR SENSE OF HOW THE LOCAL CHURCH IS DOING WHEN IT COMES TO FACILITATING SPIRITUAL FORMATION?

Barton: There is as wide a difference in how local churches are doing at facilitating spiritual formation as there is in how individual families are doing at raising healthy children.  Some are doing better than others; all have their particular strengths and weaknesses.  That said, I do think churches in general are struggling for clarity about what spiritual transformation is and how it happens in the life of a person.  There is still a bias toward assuming that if one is attending church services regularly, participating in a small group, serving with one’s gifts, and tithing faithfully they are transforming. This is decidedly not the case.

Many churches are also struggling to know what it means to “bring” spiritual formation to the corporate (community) setting and have given little thought as to how to resource all stages of the faith journey.  Some are very good at evangelizing and resourcing those who are in the seeking phase of their faith journey while others are very good at resourcing and discipling young Christians who are new to the faith.  Some tend to be oriented towards providing solid teaching and other resources for those who are farther along on the journey; most do not know what to do with people who are experiencing the dark night of the soul and, in fact, it is at this stage of the spiritual journey that many faithful church-goers drop out. 

In addition, some churches minister more effectively to one generation or another, freely acknowledging that this is their calling and passion.  Others just keep doing what they have always done without giving any attention at all to generational differences and how those differences might affect the ways in which they encourage and foster spiritual formation in that generation. Obviously, for a church to effectively facilitate spiritual formation, it needs to be a place where all God’s children—no matter what stage they are in—can find nurture and sustenance.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BEST PRACTICES WHEN IT COMES TO IMPLEMENTING SPIRITUAL FORMATION IN THE LOCAL CHURCH?

Barton: The best practice I am encouraging these days is that church leaders ask and answer the question: “Is spiritual formation an elective or is it central to the mission of our church?”  The way this question gets answered will affect every decision leaders make and it will determine how spiritual formation is viewed by the congregation. For instance, if spiritual formation is positioned as a set of elective retreats and experiences, it will eventually be seen as something that “those spiritual formation types do” rather than something that is essential to the Christian life. It might also (heaven forbid!) get reduced to being about a certain personality type—contemplative, introverted, mystical—rather than being seen as what the whole Christian life is about for all of us.  How spiritual formation gets positioned (as a central focus or an elective) will also affect whether it gets resourced financially and with the appropriate leadership, etc.

Once this question gets answered, I am encouraging the pastors we work with to think in terms of:

  • vision for what is possible in the spiritual life and who casts the vision (hopefully the senior pastor)
  • teaching about spiritual transformation that establishes a baseline of shared understanding and shared language regarding formation throughout the community
  • guided experiences in the practices, relationships, and experiences that fosters spiritual transformation resulting in a rule of life
  • an intentional approach to seeking alignment and consistency throughout the ministries of the church 
  • modeling at all levels of leadership so that formation is being taught and lived from the center out

IF A LEADER COULD DO ONLY ONE THING IN THEIR LOCAL CHURCH COMMUNITY, WHAT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?

Barton: Help people get in touch with their spiritual desire and then guide them in crafting a rule of life or “sacred rhythms” that correspond with their hearts’ deepest desire.

If we believe that there are certain practices that open us to the transforming work of God (and we do!), then the one thing we need to do is teach and offer experiences with key spiritual disciplines so people can begin putting the practices together in their lives in a way that glorifies God, brings abundance to their lives, and compels them to discern God’s will for engaging the world that God loves. We need to enter into this process together, utilizing every avenue we have—preaching services, Christian education settings, small groups, etc. Do not make it an elective but rather say, “This is what we’re all doing together. We hope you will take the journey with us.”

Offer this vision and guidance for a rule of life/sacred rhythms in a way that fits naturally into the congregation’s life and perhaps even corresponds to a desire they have been expressing corporately.   Many churches have participated in surveys that give some indication of what people are longing for; if leaders can connect what you are doing in formation with longings that have been expressed by the congregation, people will enter in more readily.  For instance, if people have expressed desire for more intimacy with God, initiate a sermon series on key spiritual disciplines that foster intimacy with God but do not just preach it.  Experience it together.  So teach or preach on solitude and silence but then introduce three to five minutes of guided silence into every service.  Provide additional, longer guided experiences during the week. Teach or preach on encountering God in Scripture and then have someone lead a lectio divina experience.  Teach or preach on experiencing intimacy with God through prayer and then have a respected “practitioner” lead in a fresh prayer practice—or two or three!  Teach or preach about the role of community in the spiritual life and then invite people to consider joining a small group for the express purpose of attending to their spiritual lives.  Do not let this be a one-time inspiration but rather, structure small groups that allow people to share their sacred rhythms together and stay on the spiritual journey together over time. 

Above all, help people stay connected with their desires and invite them to participate based on those desires. In this way, we can avoid one more version of religiosity and instead enter into that which is life indeed—together!


You can purchase a physical copy of the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care (Volume 7 Issue 2, Fall 2014) or download the full article with answers from other thought leaders including Diane J. Chandler, Siang-Yang Tan, Judith Ten Elshof and Dr. James C. Wilhoit by visiting the Biola University website.

How has your church enabled or hindered spiritual formation?

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