Some­times I think my abil­i­ty to hope is dam­aged. I have a bro­ken hop­er.” It doesn’t take many years of liv­ing life, watch­ing the way things work out, the con­clu­sions, the trends, the frail­ness and predica­ments of the human expe­ri­ence, to become dis­cour­aged and give into cyn­i­cism. I want to be pos­i­tive. I want to hope, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to the Church. In this let­ter I would like to spend some time high­light­ing a promis­ing move­ment that con­tains char­ac­ter­is­tics that could be a real help for our local faith communities.

Some­thing quite spec­tac­u­lar has tran­spired in the last ten years. Lit­tle pock­ets of edu­ca­tion­al spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion com­mu­ni­ties have sprout­ed up around the coun­try — our own Ren­o­varé Insti­tute as well as uni­ver­si­ty mas­ters and doc­tor­al pro­grams. There are even a hand­ful of non-degreed pro­grams out there. While the var­i­ous pro­grams are vast­ly dif­fer­ent in struc­ture and con­tent, they hold many com­mon themes. Each fol­lows a sim­i­lar con­fig­u­ra­tion of a cohort-mod­el, meet­ing in a retreat for­mat for class­es, as well as some sort of on-going online con­nec­tion between meet­ings. I’ve been able to spend time with­in a num­ber of these dif­fer­ent pro­grams, and, with­out fail, I always hear three state­ments from the students. 

The pro­gram was life chang­ing in ways they hadn’t thought possible. 

While the teach­ing is won­der­ful, it’s the peo­ple and the rela­tion­ships built that have meant the most. 

There is a pro­found grief when the pro­gram ends. 

Although some will have inter­est in join­ing one of these pro­grams, many of us will not be able to do so. How­ev­er, I won­der if we might glean some of what has been so help­ful from these pro­grams and look to incor­po­rate those char­ac­ter­is­tics into our own lives and local church­es. I’d like to offer a tem­plate for some very prac­ti­cal ways we can embed our­selves in a Chris­t­ian for­ma­tion­al community. 

Teach­ings

In gen­er­al, for­ma­tion is not aca­d­e­m­ic in nature. It’s prac­ti­cal; it’s about a with-God life. This of course doesn’t mean there isn’t a des­per­ate need for good teach­ings and research. What has tran­spired in the last thir­ty years is the slow ris­ing of a mass of schol­ars inten­tion­al­ly look­ing at the great streams of Chris­tian­i­ty. There is a dra­mat­ic shift, both in acad­e­mia and main­stream Chris­t­ian cul­ture, to learn beyond our own denom­i­na­tion­al tra­di­tions. As a result, the teach­ing in these var­i­ous for­ma­tion pro­grams is rich and helpful. 

The Old Made New

I recent­ly heard some­one ask my dad why he favored old writ­ers. His response was that his fond­ness did not have to do with age, although old­er books do come with the cred­i­bil­i­ty and wit­ness of hav­ing been test­ed and help­ful through the gen­er­a­tions. My dad’s affin­i­ty for writ­ers of old is that they were peo­ple who were engag­ing in, as he put it, the great con­ver­sa­tion about the growth of the soul.” The old writ­ers were specif­i­cal­ly work­ing with trans­for­ma­tion of the human per­son­al­i­ty; and work­ing with this top­ic from a depth of life and character. 

Our Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion edu­ca­tion­al com­mu­ni­ties are intro­duc­ing peo­ple to books and writ­ings by authors of great sub­stance and grit that have been large­ly for­got­ten by the mod­ern Church. We live in a time and space where pub­lish­ing is depen­dent upon pump­ing out new mate­r­i­al, suc­cumb­ing to the needs of the mar­ket rather than the needs of the soul. Cer­tain­ly there are won­der­ful­ly thought­ful peo­ple in pub­lish­ing, work­ing their absolute best to be help­ful. But sad­ly, for many hous­es con­tent is a nice add-on to someone’s mar­ketabil­i­ty. And so it works that our old lit­er­a­ture, which is often in the pub­lic domain, thus free, will have no mar­ket­ing push, no profitability. 

A book like Thomas à Kem­p­is’ The Imi­ta­tion of Christ, which next to the Bible is his­tor­i­cal­ly the most wide­ly read devo­tion­al and the only book besides the Bible trans­lat­ed into as many lan­guages, is large­ly unknown to many Chris­tians today. 

Space to Work

Future gen­er­a­tions will be a bet­ter judge, but there is every indi­ca­tion that we have entered into a new dawn in human exis­tence. The pace and full­ness of our lives in Amer­i­ca and much of the devel­oped world has exchanged pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, con­ve­niences, and tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments for a life that func­tions at a speed and full­ness that humans prob­a­bly were not designed to han­dle with any degree of health. There is a cer­tain psy­chot­ic nature to the way we live our lives. It prob­a­bly stems from our greed to have and do more, maybe a sense of enti­tle­ment to expe­ri­ence and achieve all we desire, or sim­ply a lack of wis­dom and abil­i­ty to say no” when no needs to be said. The irony is many of us find we are actu­al­ly doing less and less of what we would deem as hav­ing sig­nif­i­cance. Inter­est­ing­ly, we find state­ments warn­ing against such a fran­tic pace writ­ten hun­dreds of years ago, yet some­thing seems very dif­fer­ent about our age. 

Few peo­ple are able to, or choose to, carve out time to seri­ous­ly attend to the growth of their souls. Maybe this more than any­thing is the gift of edu­ca­tion­al for­ma­tion­al com­mu­ni­ties; they bring an encour­age­ment and rela­tion­al account­abil­i­ty to inten­tion­al­ly carve out space for God, and in so doing these blessed indi­vid­u­als are learn­ing a new way to live. They are learn­ing and grow­ing. They are being spir­i­tu­al­ly formed. 

Retreat Set­tings

Most of the gath­er­ings meet for a week or more dur­ing the year at a retreat cen­ter for study along with a sig­nif­i­cant peri­od for silence and reflec­tion. We can’t under­es­ti­mate the pow­er of being in an envi­ron­ment void of our nor­mal respon­si­bil­i­ties and dis­trac­tions. We quick­ly learn how used to the noise and clut­ter of life we have become. In sim­ple and qui­et envi­ron­ments, we learn to be a lit­tle more human, and ulti­mate­ly open to God. 

Prac­tice

I some­times won­der what por­tion of our time is spent read­ing, lis­ten­ing, and talk­ing about the spir­i­tu­al life in rela­tion to the time we spend in actu­al prac­tice. Cer­tain­ly there is some­thing impor­tant and help­ful about these pas­sive dis­ci­plines, but they can’t replace tak­ing the time to actu­al­ly prac­tice. Edu­ca­tion­al for­ma­tion pro­grams always have a com­po­nent of appli­ca­tion. Assign­ments are often direct­ly linked to facil­i­tate both col­lec­tive­ly and indi­vid­u­al­ly a time to work with the dis­ci­plines that are being stud­ied. The com­bi­na­tion of an inten­tion­al pro­gram and cohort account­abil­i­ty eas­i­ly lends to per­son­al and col­lec­tive transformation. 

Com­mu­ni­ty

By far the most talked about thing I hear is about the rela­tion­ships built among those who com­mit to a mul­ti­ple-year pro­gram. The con­nec­tion that can occur in these pro­grams has much to teach us in a rela­tion­al­ly-chal­lenged cul­ture where so many feel lone­ly and dis­con­nect­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly once they earnest­ly seek spir­i­tu­al growth. These groups, at least for those who choose to engage earnest­ly, are often marked by avail­abil­i­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Some­thing rela­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful hap­pens when a group of peo­ple comes togeth­er chal­leng­ing each oth­er to grow over a pro­longed peri­od of time. The results are stun­ning. Quite sim­ply, peo­ple feel known. 

A crit­i­cal com­po­nent of these groups is lim­it­ed size, usu­al­ly no more than fifty peo­ple. Often small­er groups work togeth­er with­in the larg­er group. 

Chal­lenges

Of course these pro­grams are not with­out their lim­i­ta­tions and chal­lenges. In out­lin­ing a few of the chal­lenges, we can uncov­er some poten­tial pit­falls for our own local com­mu­ni­ties as well. 

For­ma­tion is About Life

Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is about enter­ing into a life with God. It’s about the real and present avail­abil­i­ty of God’s king­dom here and now. It’s about becom­ing peo­ple able to respond to life as Jesus would if he were to live our lives. This is a prac­ti­cal pur­suit and large­ly not aca­d­e­m­ic. We are so accus­tomed in the West­ern world to cham­pi­oning for­mal edu­ca­tion far above oth­er forms of learn­ing, all while ignor­ing, and maybe not even expect­ing, the fact that our every­day life is a school that has great bear­ings upon our for­ma­tion. We want to keep in mind the prac­ti­cal­i­ty of for­ma­tion. The temp­ta­tion is to fail to involve our­selves in the sto­ry, to keep the writ­ing and work safe, like we so often do with the­ol­o­gy: ivory tow­er ideas, fun and nov­el, yet large­ly imprac­ti­cal or help­ful to our neighbor. 

For­mal edu­ca­tion is about acknowl­edg­ment by a rep­utable orga­ni­za­tion for hav­ing achieved a cer­tain lev­el of pro­fi­cien­cy in a par­tic­u­lar sub­ject. Grad­ing has the poten­tial to rein­force that which we are des­per­ate­ly try­ing to avoid. For­ma­tion is not a mer­it sys­tem; we are not earn­ing any­thing. We must nev­er think of lay­ing our lives before God as a sys­tem to earn God’s bless­ing, as if I pull the right spir­i­tu­al levers then God will like me and give me what I want. Not only is this way of think­ing imma­ture and self­ish, it reduces the rav­en­ous love of God and great mys­tery of the incar­na­tion into fix­ing a reli­gious lot­tery. And, we cer­tain­ly aren’t in the busi­ness of cre­at­ing some sort of spir­i­tu­al laun­dry list for us to check things off and move on to some­thing new. How do we mas­ter some­thing in which the very point is to be mas­tered? Quite sim­ply, we don’t.

Few things are more destruc­tive to the spir­i­tu­al life than a destruc­tive obses­sion with per­for­mance, com­par­ing our­selves to oth­ers, and an arro­gance that can come with hav­ing achieved something. 

Speed Read­ing

It’s help­ful to be aware that speed-read­ing is a mod­ern inven­tion. It appears that before the late 1950’s peo­ple, at least for­mal­ly, were not inter­est­ed in read­ing some­thing quick­ly. Cer­tain­ly many writ­ten words don’t deserve more than a quick read. Much of what we find online is actu­al­ly quite accom­mo­dat­ing to this. Notice how arti­cles are almost always struc­tured in a ten things about this/​five tips for that for­mat with big head­lines so the read­er may scan to some­thing that catch­es their atten­tion. I fear this has become the new norm for read­ing. Writ­ing with thought­ful­ness and depth requires time to understand. 

It is almost expect­ed in high­er edu­ca­tion, but par­tic­u­lar­ly in grad­u­ate school, that the stu­dent will be mov­ing rather quick­ly though many of the books assigned. I some­times won­der if we would do bet­ter to read, lis­ten to, inter­act with, and take our time with one book rather than skim five. In the for­ma­tion class­es I teach, I have adapt­ed hour mark­ers of read­ing rather than a total num­ber of book require­ments. I want peo­ple to rest, quit try­ing to plow through some­thing and con­quer it, but rather live into it. 

In devo­tion­al writ­ings many books should be read with a spe­cial lev­el of care, deserv­ing much more than a quick glance. Some­times the right sen­tence begs for a month’s worth of reflec­tion, and by so doing we learn to live into books and pay them the prop­er lev­el of respect their depth war­rants. If some­thing is worth read­ing then it’s worth read­ing slow­ly. This is espe­cial­ly true with the Bible. Look at the words of Jesus. Insights sim­ply can­not be under­stood with­out space to reflect and inter­act with, weav­ing con­text and application. 

Dis­con­nec­tion for our Res­i­den­tial Communities

In Amer­i­can church­es, par­tic­u­lar­ly in evan­ge­lism, our empha­sis on bring­ing peo­ple into the faith has had the unin­tend­ed con­se­quence of not being spaces where the work of dis­ci­ple­ship is being done. Many church­es are just not equipped to be help­ful to peo­ple who seri­ous­ly long to learn to live as Jesus lived in the midst of their par­tic­u­lar lives. 

The lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion that many earnest fol­low­ers of Christ expe­ri­ence is pro­found. And while these edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams can pro­vide a won­der­ful com­mu­ni­ty, they leave some con­vinced they can­not have sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences local­ly. This is huge­ly prob­lem­at­ic. The local Church is impor­tant, exceed­ing­ly impor­tant. And, jump­ing head­long into ser­vice and lead­er­ship is not the answer. What’s des­per­ate­ly need­ed is for us to inten­tion­al­ly and cre­ative­ly look for ways to carve out envi­ron­ments that help fos­ter a deep com­mit­ment to Jesus Christ, places where we can pro­voke one anoth­er to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

Same Trea­sure, Dif­fer­ent Vessels

We humans seem to have a nat­ur­al ten­den­cy to favor what is new or help­ful to us. God uses a vari­ety of meth­ods, expe­ri­ences, and teach­ings to con­nect with his peo­ple. The par­tic­u­lar method or ves­sel that the Spir­it comes in is not the point (2 Corinthi­ans 4:7). In the Chris­t­ian life we are invit­ed into a rela­tion­ship with God; we are invit­ed into expe­ri­enc­ing a life with God. In our zeal for the ways and meth­ods God has used to speak to us, we can some­times slip into a rigid­i­ty that our way is the only way God can work and thus demean or belit­tle all the var­i­ous ves­sels that God uses to make him­self known. It’s the idea that the litur­gy or music at my church is so much more pleas­ing and empow­er­ing of the Spir­it than yours. At its worst, ves­sel wor­ship can slip into a sort of spir­i­tu­al elit­ism or snob­bery and sub­se­quent judg­ment of oth­ers. The point we are after is dying to our­selves, not find­ing the secret mech­a­nisms to make God show up. Joy and love are always the end result. 

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Originally published May 2015