My con­cern in this let­ter is for us to think togeth­er about a mat­ter of gen­uine per­son­al and eccle­si­as­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance: how we might help to bring the mod­ern spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion move­ment into a grow­ing matu­ri­ty. Some of us have been at this spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion work for a while now, long enough to see quite a mix­ture of help­ful and decid­ed­ly unhelp­ful things set forth. It is time to assess where we have come and to think togeth­er about the way forward.

Matur­ing The Mod­ern Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion Movement

The task of matur­ing the mod­ern spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion move­ment is com­pli­cat­ed and will chal­lenge our finest think­ing and most cre­ative ener­gies. There are two rea­sons, at least, for the com­pli­ca­tion. To begin with, the con­tin­u­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion today has meant that all kinds of writ­ing and speak­ing has now gone forth on the sub­ject. Frankly — and I hate to say it in such a blunt mat­ter — much that has gone out under the name of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion has been done by peo­ple who sim­ply have not thought sub­stan­tive­ly on the sub­ject, and (dare I men­tion it) we have to won­der if they them­selves have been spir­i­tu­al­ly formed to any sub­stan­tial degree. Hence, a great deal of Holy Baloney” is out there now, and the aver­age per­son is quick­ly going to despair at attempt­ing to dis­tin­guish the good from the bad. 

Then, sec­ond­ly, peo­ple in gen­er­al and Amer­i­cans in par­tic­u­lar are a fick­le lot, and they tire quick­ly. Many, in fact, are already going on to the next fad. And let’s be hon­est: how many of us can tru­ly wrap our minds around the notion of a forty-year jour­ney into the sub­ter­ranean cham­bers of the soul? That was Moses’s expe­ri­ence of char­ac­ter for­ma­tion in the Egypt­ian desert, you recall. Forty years! Are we not tempt­ed to opt instead for a short-cut or two? Impa­tience is a pri­ma­ry spir­i­tu­al prob­lem in our day. 

These things need not dis­cour­age us, how­ev­er. The human need — and long­ing — for sub­stan­tive for­ma­tion of heart and soul and mind and body into Christ­like­ness is always before us. It is not going to go away. No doubt our work will now be more dif­fi­cult with those who feel they have tried spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, and it failed them, when all they real­ly tried was some lit­tle five steps to blessed­ness.” Remem­ber, we are not pre­sent­ing peo­ple with any pro­gram,” but with a life. We sim­ply and pow­er­ful­ly intro­duce them into an ongo­ing, inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship with Jesus, their ever-liv­ing Sav­ior, Teacher, Lord, and Friend. Appren­ticed to Jesus they will be able to go for­ward from faith to faith and from strength to strength. 

Here now are a few things to keep in mind as we con­tin­ue our efforts at matur­ing the mod­ern spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion movement. 

1. We take the long view … always. 

We think in terms of life­times and cen­turies. The soul lives for­ev­er. It is pre­cious beyond imag­in­ing. Invest­ing deeply in even a few folk will count for all eter­ni­ty. Sure, many in today’s reli­gious cli­mate will go on to oth­er more inter­est­ing” top­ics. We bless these folk and pray for their well-being and growth in grace. But, there are plen­ty (vast num­bers, in fact) who are com­mit­ted to the long haul. They real­ly want to be like Jesus with all their heart and soul and mind and strength. These are the ones we invest in. And, believe me, invest­ing in these pre­cious lives will take all the ener­gy and all the time and all the prayer and all the weep­ing and laugh­ing and singing and hop­ing we can pos­si­bly muster. 

2. We refuse to think of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion in terms of var­i­ous prac­tices … ever. 

In anoth­er era those prac­tices were things like a qui­et time” and Bible study of one sort or anoth­er. Today it is Lec­tio Div­ina and jour­nal­ing.” May I say as clear­ly as pos­si­ble: Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion has noth­ing essen­tial­ly to do with such prac­tices. Many prac­tices can be gen­uine­ly help­ful in their place, but they are not it.” What is it” is LIFE — life with Jesus, inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship with the great God of the uni­verse, inner trans­for­ma­tion into Christ­like­ness. Now, this real­i­ty can hap­pen with Lec­tio and with jour­nal­ing,” and it can hap­pen with­out them. It can, and it does! The ten­den­cy today, unfor­tu­nate­ly wide­spread, is to think of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion exclu­sive­ly in terms of prac­tices of one kind or anoth­er. Please, dear friend, do not fall into this trap. It will only pro­duce legal­ism and bondage, and it utter­ly defeats spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. Many of the famil­iar prac­tices are use­ful, to be sure, and some more than oth­ers. But none is essen­tial. We all are to walk with the liv­ing Christ and then in humil­i­ty regard oth­ers as bet­ter than your­selves” (Phil. 2:3).

3. We engage in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion for the sake of the Church uni­ver­sal … always. 

Sec­tar­i­an reform move­ments that cement an eter­nal split only become ends in them­selves. We work instead for the trans­for­ma­tion of the whole Church. We love the Church, the peo­ple of God, in all her mul­ti-faceted expres­sions. Tra­di­tion­al. Con­tem­po­rary. Litur­gi­cal. Charis­mat­ic. Emer­gent. Catholic and Ortho­dox and Protes­tant. Big church and lit­tle church, house church and crys­tal cathe­dral. We attempt no end run around the Church. God is with his peo­ple in all their way­ward­ness and silli­ness, and so are we. 

4. We do not cen­ter on cur­ricu­lum based solu­tions … ever. 

Cur­ric­u­la of all sorts are impor­tant but they come way down the line in for­ma­tion work. Cur­ricu­lum must always be sub­servient to ideas and ideas must always be sub­servient to rela­tion­ship. In The Divine Con­spir­a­cy Dal­las Willard (right­ly in my esti­ma­tion) has a chap­ter enti­tled, A Cur­ricu­lum for Christ­like­ness.” How­ev­er, this is chap­ter nine and comes only after both a care­ful delin­eation of the unique qual­i­ties of the inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship between Jesus and his appren­tices and a care­ful expli­ca­tion of the cen­tral ideas relat­ed to this life in the king­dom of God. Far too many peo­ple rush to the cur­ricu­lum pro­gram of chap­ter nine with­out estab­lish­ing into their lives the foun­da­tions set forth so care­ful­ly in all that comes before. We must not leave out the cur­ricu­lum work, but it nev­er comes first and it must nev­er be cen­tral. Nor can it ever be a cook­ie-cut­ter” cur­ricu­lum. Unique, indi­vid­u­al­ized peo­ple require unique, indi­vid­u­al­ized cur­ric­u­la. Frankly, cook­ie-cut­ter” cur­ric­u­la are very much like cook­ies — all sweet­ness with pre­cious lit­tle nutrition. 

5. We draw wis­dom and insight from the ancient sources … always. 

We reject the heresy of the con­tem­po­rary. The peo­ple of God through­out his­to­ry instruct us in the way eter­nal. Bible sources and post-Bible sources. We learn from Moses. We learn from Luther. We learn from Joseph of Ari­math­ea. We learn from Cather­ine of Genoa. These are our teach­ers, our mod­els, our inspiration. 

6. We do not aim at out­ward action … ever. 

It is the ren­o­va­tion of the heart we are after. This inward work is much hard­er than mere out­ward con­for­mi­ty … and eas­i­er. Hard­er because we can­not see it, test it, con­trol it. We can­not pro­gram the heart of anoth­er human being. We can­not pro­gram our own heart. But this is what makes it eas­i­er. God is the One who sees the heart. God is the One who ten­der­ly pro­grams the heart … always allow­ing time and space for our will to turn and respond to divine Love. We are work­ing in con­junc­tion with a greater Plan, a greater Plan­ner. We are part of God’s great Ren­o­va­tion project for human beings. And so we can work rest­ing. We can labor under God’s abid­ing grace. 

7. We are keen­ly aware that true inward trans­for­ma­tion will incline our hearts toward suf­fer­ing human­i­ty … always. 

Deep suf­fer­ing is found every­where; among the down and out and the up and in. As our hearts are increas­ing­ly ren­o­vat­ed, they will become increas­ing­ly ten­der toward the bruised and the bro­ken, the help­less and the hope­less. We then will find ways to move out­side our insu­lat­ed bub­bles of secu­ri­ty. Trevor Hud­son, a South African pas­tor and writer, dur­ing the dark­est peri­od in his country’s his­to­ry of apartheid devel­oped an eight-day expe­ri­en­tial pro­gram designed to help young South Africans reflect upon the mean­ing of their faith and dis­ci­ple­ship with­in the harsh and oppres­sive sociopo­lit­i­cal real­i­ties of their nation. Trevor calls this expe­ri­ence The Pil­grim­age of Pain and Hope.” Oh, may we find ways to come along­side suf­fer­ing human beings and togeth­er walk the pil­grim­age of pain and hope! 

Friends, right now spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is pop­u­lar and much sought after. This time will pass, and when it does we will con­tin­ue on. Frankly, whether we are in the lime­light or in obscu­ri­ty is of no con­se­quence what­ev­er. Such mat­ters are wood, hay, and stub­ble. We seek ever­last­ing results: gold, sil­ver, and pre­cious stones (1 Cor. 3:12). So, dear friends, live faith­ful­ly to the end. Be con­stant in sea­son and out. Pro­claim the good news of the king­dom. Walk cheer­ful­ly over the earth. 

Pho­to by Zach Rein­er

Originally published August 2010

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