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.

Renovaré Book Club: Next Book Begins Soon

The next book in the Renovaré Book Club, Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, runs February 3-March 21. Join others online or in-person, or take a guided journey through the book on your own.

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