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Grand Rapids, MI

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Spiritual Formation


As a Pastor of Spiritual Formation, I've been giving a lot of thought into the development of people into disciples of Christ.  I'm continuing to work on a process at my own church that will hopefully begin to launch in the fall that takes people from the starting point of faith, and gives them some next steps until the point when they're multiplying other disciples.  Sounds very modern and linear of me, doesn't it!  It is and it isn't.  More on that later. But, given that, I ran across an article by Gordon MacDonald from the Leadership Insight called "So Many Christian Inants."  I definitely resonate with the sentiments in this article.    Here is a poignant moment in the article:

I have concluded that our branch of the Christian movement (sometimes called Evangelical) is pretty good at wooing people across the line into faith in Jesus. And we're also not bad at helping new-believers become acquainted with the rudiments of a life of faith: devotional exercise, church involvement, and basic Bible information—something you could call Christian infancy.  But what our tradition lacks of late—my opinion anyway—is knowing how to prod and poke people past the "infancy" and into Christian maturity.

So true.  Remember that famous quote (who said it... people disagree... Packer, Colsen, Chesterton... I think Chesterton first?) "American Christianity is thousands of miles wide, but only an inch deep."  Evangelicalism has so focused on conversionism (see The Future of Evangelicalism 4, The Future of Evangelicalism 5) and the atonement that we've forgotten some of the important depth that the whole sciptures teach, and our part in multiplying disciples.  Multiplying converts is of course of first importance, but that's only the beginning stage.  Lately, I've been thinking of conversion more as "changing allegiance" from one kingdom to another, and that once you enter the kingdom, then everything begins.

MacDonald also hits on something I've been talking a lot about lately.  Here's how he says it:

The marks of maturity? Self-sustaining in spiritual devotions. Wise in human relationships. Humble and serving. Comfortable and functional in the everyday world where people of faith can be in short supply. Substantial in conversation; prudent in acquisition; respectful in conflict; faithful in commitments. Take a few minutes and ask how many people you know who would fit such a description.

In fact, I just gave a friend MacDonald's book The Resilient Life because it talks about just that - how to live a life in which you become more and more Christlike as you approach death.  In some classes I've been teaching, I ask the following question to start to get at a definition and a starting point for growth, "If having Jesus formed in us is the goal (remember, Paul was in the pains of childbirth so that Christ would be formed in his followers - Galatians 4:19), then what would it look like if Jesus were living your life?  How would he look in your shoes, during your day, with your gifts, and your opportunities?  Now, where are you in comparison to that? (That's not a question to elicit guilt, as you might imagine since I'm reformed)  Now, what is the next thing you can do to move towards having Christ formed in you?  What areas need the most work?  If you focused on one area, which one would bear the most fruit of transformation?"  Then, we can begin to develop a plan to develop spiritually. 

Our traditional answer to that question is to develop programs.  Again, MacDonald:

You need programs to make large churches go: kind of like the automakers need an assembly line that stamps out fenders as fast as possible... But mature Christians do not grow through programs or through the mesmerizing delivery of a talented speaker (woe is me) or worship band. Would-be saints are mentored: one-on-one or, better yet, one-on-small group (three to twelve was Jesus' best guess). The mentoring takes place in the streets and living-places of life, not church classrooms or food courts. And it's not necessarily done in Bible studies or the like. Mature Christians are made one by one through the influence of other Christians already mature.

So there's the catch, and I couldn't agree more.  I've been harping on this in my own church and trying to - not eliminate programs (they can serve a very important role) - but to lower their value and raise the value of the person-to-person interacdtion.  We were wired for relationships, and we don't grow as well on our own.  And that's what MacDonald is questioning:  how many of us are willing to really commit to discipling others?  How many of us are being discipled?  We tend to lament the epidemic of Christian infancy, biblical illiteracy, and lack of leadership, and yet our focus seems so often to be placed in the wrong area.  This is a question of mine as of late:  "How do we move away from a programmatic potluck approach to Christian Education and towards a relational people process of spiritual formation and discipleship?"

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