On a hike with my dad awhile back, he casually threw out an idea, “Next year is the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. I wonder if anyone will have any bold predictions for where we are headed as a church?”

Great question. I have no bold predictions. But maybe I could offer a timid one, actually, rather a hope. Consider a movement that is genuinely ecumenical in breadth and deeply formational in focus.

Imagine a gathered people, meeting all across the country with the primary purpose of cultivating disciples of Jesus with the resources and tools to genuinely take people deeper into life with God, where honest transformation into the image of Christ from the inside out is a living reality, all the while respecting and incorporating the historic richness of the ways God has interacted with his people throughout the ages. What would it look like for a local church fellowship, at its foundation, to embody the work of Renovaré, not in name, but in treasure.

To be sure, there are many wonderful churches doing many wonderful things these days. But I am constantly meeting people who really want to move deeper in the spiritual life only to find themselves orphaned, lonely, and isolated from any local Christian fellowship.

In this essay I’d like to briefly explore what an ecumenical and formational church movement might look like. I’ll start with looking at a holistic vision of Christian life and faith and six of the historic expressions of the Church. Much has been written on this subject, so I won’t go into a formal teaching. But I will offer some brief thoughts on the relevancy of these streams in this place in time and history, and I’ll work with what spiritual formation can look like fully embedded in the life of a local congregation.

First, a little history.

In 1998 my father, Richard Foster, published the book Streams of Living Water. In it he outlined six historical movements of the Christian Church. These six “streams” had been the impetus for founding Renovaré—the Contemplative, Holiness, Evangelical, Social Justice, Charismatic and Incarnational traditions. When this book was written, many Christians were “siloed” within various denominations, each holding different expressions and movements of God, and often unaware of the treasure the congregation across the street held. The book was intended to introduce the local church to the historic, holistic Church and the richness of ways Christians for two thousand years had been encountering God. As Chris Hall likes to say, “The Holy Spirit has a history.” (For more information see our page on The Six Streams.)

As Renovaré began, its core teaching was centered around the availability of God’s kingdom here and now, offering a practical strategy for spiritual growth (the spiritual disciplines), and a balanced vision of Christian life and faith (the streams).

The Contemplative Tradition
Prayer-Filled Life: Our Heart’s Steady Attention on God

Prayer is the primary practice of Christians and much good work is being done in this. What is practical and helpful in this tradition today is prayer as an interactive relationship with God that involves our listening as much as our talking. God, you see, speaks most clearly in silence.

There remains a desperate need and longing in humans simply to be still and know God. Our society is literally dying from the assaults of noise and distraction that are so characteristic of modern culture. And while this practice can be done alone, I’ve found there is something very powerful about a gathered people waiting on God in the quiet. A Sunday service is a perfect place to invite and teach people to be still before God. Spiritual maturity is nearly impossible without a regular practice of silence and solitude. These have significant long-term implications, not just for an individual’s formation into Christ-likeness, but, for society at large. People learning to live unhurried lives—living like Jesus, at ease with God, themselves and others could truly transform our world.

The Holiness Tradition
Virtuous Life: Responding with Integrity

Holiness is one of those words that is largely misunderstood and comes with incredible baggage for most people. To be blunt about it, legalism is not holiness. Social morality may be a byproduct of holiness, but it is hardly the point. Holiness is not about making sure our external life looks acceptable, like the Pharisees, rather it is an inward condition of the heart that overflows into our choices. Holiness is simply living a life that functions well.

We start by being open to the idea that Jesus is a realistic and practical teacher who really understands human beings and offers us a helpful way to live.

A congregational culture bathed in holiness offers the world a beautiful expression of people seeking to live lives before God and offering their choices as a voluntary sacrifice of love. In the contemplative tradition we learn to listen, and God is so good to impress upon us individually and corporately simple and small ways for us to begin practicing holiness. Things like choosing honesty, love of neighbor and integrity of speech. How about avoiding the latest gadgets and fashion to reduce impediments in our relationships with the poor and as a small way to address the oppression and slavery used in the production of these goods? We can learn to forsake the idols of impression-management and people-pleasing as an act of submission before God. We can gracefully help one another to rightly order our sexual lives, rejecting our culture’s dehumanization and objectification of the other. Or maybe for a group the task could be to collectively analyze our choices about food and alcohol consumption, freeing ourselves from its dangers and as an act of solidarity with the hundreds dying today from the grip of its excess.

A church culture that knows and practices holiness offers the world little glimpses into the abundant life Jesus invites us to experience. And dare I say, these simple practices of aligning our actions with our heart’s desire to be pleasing before God can actually be kind of fun.

The Evangelical Tradition
Word-Centered Life: Living the Life-Giving Message

“Evangelical” is another one of those tricky words. Linguistically it is often used to reference voting blocks more than anything else. So we have to work a little with what this tradition actually is about.

Think of the Word-Centered Life as three planks:

  • The Bible
  • Proclamation of the Word
  • The Living Word—God still speaking to His people

I’ll briefly address two:

The Bible

For the majority of Christian history, the only access people had to the Bible was from its being read in a Church service. It’s now estimated that the average American household has four Bibles. While this cultural exposure has had a tremendously positive impact, it has also created some genuine problems. While the Bible is well established in society as a potentially helpful tool for instruction and comfort, it is also known as a weapon of power, destructively used to incite arguments and oppression. In talking with people, both Christian and non-Christian, I’m increasingly surprised at the level of baggage many have with regard to the Bible. There’s this strange muddle of immobilizing guilt that the mere mention of the Bible brings. Of course for some it is a reminder of their bad choices, but for many it’s a nagging sense that the Jesus life is simply unattainable, or that they can’t make sense of it, while for others it’s that they don’t take enough time with it in the way they think they should. And so the mere mention of the Bible is like reminding someone of the cluttered closet they keep meaning to clean.

Of course the obsession with treating the Scriptures as purely an exercise of the mind and intellectualizing it as you would a textbook isn’t helping matters either.

So let me offer a few ideas that might be helpful for local congregations. We want to teach people to live into the words of Scripture; practices that encourage slow reading of the text, Lectio devina or memorization for the sake of living into it, rather than accomplishment.

As Eugene Peterson says, “Readers become what they read. If Holy Scripture is to be something other than mere gossip about God, it must be internalized.”

The Bible has the potential to be an incredible gift to the human race, not something we worship as a rigid answer to all of life’s ills - rather it can lead us to worship, inviting us to live into the divine mystery and to implicate ourselves into the story. We are invited to follow and obey – a great joy for the living of our days.

Proclamation of the Word

“Evangelism” is another word that comes with a lot of baggage. Essentially with this we are inviting and training others to live a deeper life with God. We live in a day and age where systems and formulas are met with suspicion, and honestly, they are not helpful. What is helpful are human relationships, not the bait and switch kind like a sort of salesman for God, rather, genuine care for one another. We want to absolutely reject the practice of dehumanizing one another in the name of God. Manipulating someone to agree with us so we can carry the trophy of a saved soul may be one of the most destructive forces that will keep others from following Jesus. Instead of following the corporate playbook for garnering new consumers, we live in relationship with others and share about our life with God as God leads.

The obsessive growth model with a blatant disregard for genuine life-long discipleship is a genuine problem today. Emphasis on conversion without offering others our commitment to follow though and the means that help guide people into a life of apprenticeship with Jesus potentially has a long lineage of leaving people confused and hurt. We simply share and teach what we know as authentically and honestly as we can. Love is the order of the eternal here and now Kingdom Jesus offers to all of humanity.

The Charismatic Tradition
Spirit-Empowered Life: Fueling our lives from the presence and power of God

For many, this tradition is primarily thought of in terms of worship style. Churches are often categorized as “charismatic” based solely on specific practices: praying for healing, speaking in tongues, dancing or raising hands during worship. This common categorization offers a severely limited view of the tradition.   

The truth is that all Christians are charismatic, as our very acceptance and growth in Christ is a work of the Spirit. By definition, being a Christian means interaction with the Spirit. It’s important not to narrowly define what the Charismatic tradition looks like. Living life in the presence and power of the Spirit has many different implications and expressions. The Spirit brings comfort, gentleness, power, signs and wonders. It is not for us to limit or judge; we simply receive.

God doesn’t seem to be in the habit of pushing himself upon people. The question is not what manifestation the Spirit will take, but rather what are you willing to let him do? Grace allows us to start where we are and works with us as we grow in our openness and awareness.

I think of this tradition as simply being open to the movements of the Spirit. It involves a posture of attentiveness, a listening and responding to the wind of God, ever active, ever involved, in the workings of his people. For me, this is often manifested in subtle promptings, not in the big, loud, or distracting. One of the great riches I’ve found in the Charismatic stream is that it pushes and stretches me into a sort of gentle boldness. I learn to ask if I can pray with someone, or to offer encouragement or a word I may be sensing. The movement of the Spirit can be powerful for sure, but it is also playful and, dare I say, fun.  

I recently heard about a group of charismatic nuns who went to pray for children at a Methodist church. With much patience and grace, they shared that they wanted to lay their hands on the children and ask for God to bring healing; with gentleness, they explained a little about what might happen. A friend who was there recounted that the room was so peaceful that anyone who walked by would surely have known that good things were happening and that God was present.

What is your worshiping community open to? In times both planned and spontaneous, do you intentionally create space and opportunity for the Spirit to be at work in your service and life together? Our desires for productivity, perfection, and control in a service can be the greatest hindrance to the workings of the Spirit. God often gives us freedom to forgo the wonders of the Spirit to pursue our own ends.

Let me offer a few words of caution. Listening and responding to the movements of the Spirit should never be used to assert power, control, and/or manipulation over others. While there are many similar ways in which the Spirit works with people, our experiences should never be used judgmentally to draw lines or demand that others have the same experiences as we have. We trust God with people. God is far too creative to be boxed up.  

Avoid the practice of chasing after experiences as if they were a consumer product. We’re learning to submit our lives to God’s rule. When the Spirit reveals wonders and powers of God’s kingdom on earth, it should always usher us into greater love of God and neighbor. The point is never to idolize the outward sign.

Our task is to create space for God to have his way in our services. When the Spirit of God shows up in quiet, gentle ways, we say “Thank you.” If God chooses to show up in powerful and wonderful ways, we say “Thank you.”  And, when we are open to God and our senses are not tickled and it feels dry and barren, we say “Thank you.”  

The Incarnational Tradition
Sacramental Life: Encountering the invisible God in the visible world

Nothing is outside the realm of God’s purview and loving care. God is with us—in everything. The incarnational tradition helps us rip through the divide of sacred and secular. God in work and play. God in the ordinary and mundane. God in our sacraments and songs. God in nature and suffering. God in our thoughts and interactions with others. This stream can have a profound effect on how we view and live our lives. Sometimes it is really just as simple as tuning our awareness to what God is already doing. There is so much to this tradition, but let me offer a few ways this might be helpful to our churches today.

Work Life

Our society has a bad habit of assigning value and worth to people based on their jobs; consequently, many are caught in a destructive cycle of chasing achievement in order to gain identity and esteem. Work is not only a means to an end, nor is it a place to gain identity. We are beloved children of God—that is who we are, that is our identity. Work is a holy endeavor, a co-laboring process with God. And so we learn to invite God to be with us in our work, allowing our daily labors to become a prayerful exchange. We work before, and for, an audience of one.

Sacraments and Liturgy 

For some churches, the entire Sunday gathering is centered on the sacraments. There are also churches that almost entirely avoid them. Again, we begin where we are.

Of course, the place to grow in these practices is in the heart, patiently and respectfully attending to God’s work in our physical world, avoiding rote traditions void of meaning and significance. Giving people continual explanation and guidance as to the reason and intention behind practices is often needed. For some people unfamiliar with these ancient practices of Christ-followers, sacraments and liturgy will lead to wonderfully meaningful discoveries.

Our culture, in general, is largely removed from ancient, ritualistic practices and many are rediscovering the silence and beauty of them. For me there’s a freedom I find in joining the historic chorus of faithful Jesus-followers throughout the ages. We don’t have to be tied to having to come up with something new, we can rest in trusted words and practices, collectively opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to God.

Nature 

Everyone, Christian or not, knows there is something very special about nature. The world is God’s playground, his creative art on display, the will of the Father in interactive form. In the created order, it is the incarnation that speaks so profoundly to our souls.

One thing very helpful for our spiritual growth is to simply validate and encourage prayerfully playing in God’s creation. For many people a good entry point into the spiritual disciplines is as simple as sitting next to a stream reading a book, taking a nap under a tree, or walking with a friend. Communities in the habit of spending time together outdoors create wonderful spaces to remind and teach each other about God’s glory on display. 

The Social Justice Tradition
Compassionate Life: Extending compassion in every sphere of life

Many denominations have a beautiful and rich history of putting this tradition into practice. Behind nearly every great movement for social change in this country there have been people of faith, in the forefront and in the back, oftentimes for many years, working and advocating for the cause of the oppressed and disenfranchised.

Much good is currently being done. In virtually all towns and cities across this country you will find various help efforts of the Church: homeless shelters, food pantries, addiction treatment centers, children’s services, refugee and trafficking services to name a few. These are often fully integrated into society and respected as change agents for the good of humanity. Internationally, we find Christians all around bringing aid to myriad pressing issues: starvation, human trafficking, access to clean water, HIV care, empowering small businesses, education, and women’s rights. Good work is being done, but great need remains.

At least from an informational perspective, people in our society are more cued into the injustice and suffering of the world than ever before. By and large, at least at some level, people want to be involved. Probably in no other age has the Church had more resources and access to carry out the mandates of Jesus to care for the poor and oppressed.

While the streams blend and flow one into the other, we should make a distinction between making converts and feeding, clothing, serving, and advocating for those on the margins. People are rightly wary of “bait and switch” methods, and while being of help to the world and one’s neighbor can provide a natural way to invite people into the Jesus life, we should be clear as to what we are about. Engaging in service work under the guise of compassion, while hiding our primary agenda to make people Christians, is not only potentially manipulative and dishonest, it diminishes our service. When practicing the social justice tradition, we learn once more to trust God with people, and that sometimes service alone is enough.

Let me offer a few suggestions for groups who want to grow in the work of compassion. 

Humility

Being in need and allowing others to help is extremely vulnerable. If you are seeking to practice the social justice tradition, but would never ask for or receive help from someone else, this might be a good place for you to start. Letting others help you will birth empathy and also bring awareness of some of the dangerous power equations that can form. If what we offer to the “least of these” is truly an act of service to Jesus, it is holy ground and we should tread lightly. When people allow us into their lives, they are extending one of the greatest honors a person can give another, and we should treat it as such. True service isn’t about relieving our guilt or gaining status or worth as a helper; it is about walking the path of Jesus—with Jesus.

Listening

You would be surprised how often service work is done without taking the time to ask and listen to what people actually want or need. History is full of examples of people trying to help others and ending up doing more harm than good because they simply failed to ask what was actually needed. In times of crisis, delivering life-saving goods is typically the first priority. But, in America, often the greatest need of the poor and disenfranchised is to be heard and treated with respect and dignity. One simple way to care for people is just by learning the stories they hold. In doing so we humanize the other, breaking down walls. So when you go to the shelter to serve meals, maybe the most significant thing you do won’t be giving food, but rather taking time to share a meal with others and listen.

For some, listening to others begins to grow a deep awareness of the positions of privilege we may hold, revealing the opportunities our society affords to some and deprives to others. Service forms us, growing a life of compassion for God’s children. If we’re brave enough, we will become attuned to the way God’s heart aches over the injustice and brokenness of the world.

Empowering

Another way in which our efforts to help can actually hurt is when we inadvertently create and reinforce “us and them” power structures, diminishing the strengths and treasures of a local community and creating a dynamic of learned helplessness.

Seek to empower people. Don’t disparage small or hidden service. Everyone has something to give. And, don’t underestimate the role of prayer. For some groups, devoting the next six months to gather each week to pray for an issue or people group would be a wonderful way to start.

It is of great value for a congregation to take time to prayerfully discern the work God would have for you as a people. Who is on the margins in your own communities? Who is suffering, shut-in, ignored, and forgotten? Who is not safe? If you really want to dig deep, ask who is not welcomed to join you in worship on a Sunday morning.

A Formational Church

The streams give us a glimpse into the many ways God has been at work among his people. They entice us to explore the Christian faith beyond our cultural and denominational lines. They lay fertile ground for the transformation of our lives into the image of Jesus. They give shape to the various disciplines we’re invited to practice.

How do we help foster an environment where worshiping communities practically and intentionally engage each other in becoming followers and apprentices of Jesus, co-laboring with God in genuine transformation: a gathered people for whom silence and prayer, holiness and compassion, are natural responses to life; a people filled with the Spirit, woven in the Word, proclaiming the goodness of God with our very lives; a people aware and living out incarnational lives?  From these training grounds, these gymnasiums for the spiritual life, how might we become known the world over for our love?

Photo by Luke Vodell on Unsplash

Originally published May 2016.