Editor's note:

For years, Richard Fos­ter wrote reg­u­lar pas­toral let­ters to the Ren­o­varé com­mu­ni­ty called Heart to Heart. This is the May 2006 edition.

—Renovaré Team

Dear Friends,

In this pas­toral let­ter I want to think with you about what it might take to see the emer­gence of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion based con­gre­ga­tions. This is no small issue for the pit­falls and chal­lenges are many.

First, how­ev­er, it is essen­tial that we all have in mind the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion based con­gre­ga­tion, as best as we can ascer­tain. In these fellowships:

  • the process of Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion and life-long dis­ci­ple­ship is the foun­da­tion of indi­vid­ual and con­gre­ga­tion­al life;
  • every­one is encour­aged to be involved in an inten­tion­al process for for­ma­tion in Christlikeness;
  • the nat­ur­al out­come of events for indi­vid­ual par­tic­i­pa­tion in the fel­low­ship is ever-increas­ing for­ma­tion and trans­for­ma­tion into the ways and heart of Jesus;
  • spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion in Christ­like­ness is a process not a program;
  • pas­tors and lay lead­er­ship are ful­ly com­mit­ted to and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion process;
  • there is a great diver­si­ty of sources to draw from for Chris­t­ian faith and practice;
  • the clas­si­cal Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines-such as prayer, fast­ing, ser­vice, and guid­ance-are high­ly val­ued, taught on, and prac­ticed; and
  • all are encour­aged to explore the writ­ings of the great devo­tion­al authors of the Church, such as Saint Augus­tine, Julian of Nor­wich, and Dietrich

While cer­tain­ly not an all-inclu­sive list­ing of char­ac­ter­is­tics for a spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion based con­gre­ga­tion, church­es that shape their com­mon life in rela­tion with the above are well on their way.

Now, I want to work with you on sev­er­al key prin­ci­ples” for spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion based con­gre­ga­tions. Then let’s think togeth­er about plans” for mov­ing for­ward. Final­ly, let’s con­sid­er prac­tices” for this glo­ri­ous life in the king­dom of God. (Con­trary to my own fierce oppo­si­tion to acronyms and allit­er­a­tions I have actu­al­ly come up with three P’s: prin­ci­ples, plans, and practices!)

Sharp­en­ing the Principles

I have three things to say in the prin­ci­ples” cat­e­go­ry. The first thing you already know, but it bears reem­pha­siz­ing and repeat­ing and reit­er­at­ing over and over again. It is this: God alone is the One who cre­ates and grows spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion based con­gre­ga­tions. Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty of this nature is not a human attain­ment but a gift of God. We don’t cre­ate it nor make it hap­pen. In Life Togeth­er Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer wise­ly notes that Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty is not an ide­al which we must real­ize; it is rather a real­i­ty cre­at­ed by God in Christ in which we may participate.”

This means that all of our efforts toward spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion based com­mu­ni­ties must be sub­servient to a greater Real­i­ty. If our plans and schemes and pro­grams are not firm­ly root­ed in the great Real­i­ty-God and life in his king­dom-then they will blow away like dust. Even in our evan­ge­lis­tic efforts God is the great Ini­tia­tor and Cre­ator. Paul plant­ed, Apol­los watered, but God gave the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). The stress of Scrip­ture is always on God’s inscrutable sov­er­eign­ty in all things. 

Right here, though, we have some great, good news: God is deeply com­mit­ted to the for­ma­tion of Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty. The aim of God in his­to­ry,” we write in The Ren­o­vare Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion Bible, is the cre­ation of an all-inclu­sive com­mu­ni­ty of lov­ing per­sons with God him­self at the very cen­ter of this com­mu­ni­ty as its prime Sus­tain­er and most glo­ri­ous Inhab­i­tant.” Christ will grow his Church; we can be assured of that. And we are wel­comed to be his co-labor­ers in this process of the birth and growth of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion based congregations.

My sec­ond point is sim­ple enough to say though exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to prac­tice: Spir­i­tu­al prob­lems demand spir­i­tu­al answers. We sim­ply can nev­er solve a spir­i­tu­al prob­lem with a pro­gram­mat­ic answer. It is vital in any con­gre­ga­tion­al set­ting to be work­ing with God on the spir­i­tu­al nature of the com­mu­ni­ty. Is pride per­va­sive through­out? Then spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines of Ser­vice are called for. Is ner­vous, anx­ious over com­mit­ment evi­dent every­where? Then dis­ci­plines of Soli­tude and Silence can help. Is there a lack of trust in God? Then expe­ri­ences of Prayer and Fast­ing are need­ed. Are we tak­ing our­selves too seri­ous­ly? Then mul­ti­plied oppor­tu­ni­ties for Cel­e­bra­tion need to break forth!

Times come in the life of any con­gre­ga­tion that in order for us to be atten­tive to God we have to become firm­ly anti-pro­gram­mat­ic; that is, we learn to stop doing things. At such times we are to dis­cov­er ways, as a peo­ple togeth­er, to fol­low the coun­sel of François Fénelon, Be silent, and lis­ten to God. Let your heart be in such a state of prepa­ra­tion that his Spir­it may impress upon you such virtues as will please him. Let all with­in you lis­ten to him. This silence of all out­ward and earth­ly affec­tion and of human thoughts with­in us is essen­tial if we are to hear his voice.”

My third prin­ci­ple is real­ly a warn­ing: We must nev­er use spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion efforts to shore up a dying insti­tu­tion­al struc­ture. This prob­lem can be quick­ly iden­ti­fied when­ev­er the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines are being used to increase atten­dance at wor­ship ser­vices or to enhance the offer­ings or to get peo­ple to serve on com­mit­tees or to boost evan­ge­lis­tic efforts. Christo­pher Daw­son has writ­ten, The spir­it of the Gospel .… is essen­tial­ly hos­tile to the spir­it of cal­cu­la­tion, the spir­it of world­ly pru­dence and above all to the spir­it of reli­gious self-seek­ing and self-satisfaction.”

Our focus can nev­er be insti­tu­tion­al sur­vival. Rather, it is pre­cious peo­ple. Some struc­tures help us in this focus upon peo­ple and when this is the case, we can thank God for the struc­ture. Oth­er struc­tures hin­der, and when this is the case, too bad for the struc­ture. Frankly, friends, struc­tures come and go. The great glo­ry of human beings is that they are cre­at­ed in the image of God and are unceas­ing beings with an eter­nal des­tiny in God’s great uni­verse. Hence, they are the heart and cen­ter of our spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion efforts. Always.

Con­sid­er­ing the Plans

It is time for us to con­sid­er the plans nec­es­sary for the emerg­ing of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion based con­gre­ga­tions. While it may be true that we can devise plans with­out God, it is most cer­tain­ly true that if we do not make plans it will be with­out God. Plan­ning is a vital part of our God-giv­en task in co-oper­at­ing with God in this work. As with the prin­ci­ples so with the plans I have three things I want to say.

First: All one-size-fits-all plans are doomed to fail­ure. Just as every per­son is unique so every con­gre­ga­tion has its own DNA, if you will. A con­gre­ga­tion needs deep reflec­tion and hands-on train­ing and expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing that is unigue to her alone. Think­ing through what this should look like has his­tor­i­cal­ly been the role of the pas­tor in the cure of souls. This involves inti­mate knowl­edge of a con­gre­ga­tion; her his­to­ry and social dynam­ics and fam­i­ly life and spir­i­tu­al her­itage and so much more. Know­ing the peo­ple of a con­gre­ga­tion by name and by fears and by hopes and by dreams and by fail­ures and by suc­cess­es is cen­tral to the work of spir­i­tu­al direc­tion. This is the shep­herd role of the pastor.

This is why Ren­o­varé has been ret­i­cent over the years to devel­op cur­ricu­lum ad nau­se­um. Such things real­ly should­n’t be devel­oped in a vac­u­um. No, if con­gre­ga­tions are seek­ing renew­al they are best encour­aged to enter an inten­tion­al process of self-under­stand­ing and self-assess­ment and Spir­it-led plan­ning to dis­cern its own unique char­ac­ter and needs.

Sec­ond: We help best by pro­vid­ing a large menu of resources that are able to cast a vision for Life in the king­dom of God. And so we teach and illus­trate and live out this won­der­ful zoë Life that flows through near­ly every page of our Bibles. We con­nect con­gre­ga­tions with the great march of the peo­ple of God through­out his­to­ry. We allow the ancients to tell their sto­ry in their his­to­ry and con­text, and then we do what we can to pro­vide a bridge from then to now for con­tem­po­rary congregations.

Third: Under God we work out the plans that speak to the con­di­tion of our peo­ple, of our con­gre­ga­tion. One pas­tor wrote (no doubt frus­trat­ed with the many one-size-fits-all” plans out there for spir­i­tu­al renew­al) say­ing, I am won­der­ing if the time has come to design my own pro­gram for my own local church.” Yes. Exact­ly. This is pre­cise­ly what we all need to do. This is an essen­tial part of the work of the cure of souls. There sim­ply is no oth­er way.

So I encour­age you, dear pas­tor or leader. This is the work that you have been giv­en. This is what it means to shep­herd the peo­ple of God. Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion always has a local address. God is ask­ing you to dis­cern the expe­ri­ences nec­es­sary for your con­gre­ga­tion’s one-of-a-kind social envi­ron­ment. There is no pro­gram out there that will bring to pass the kind of renew­al that Jesus has in mind for your peo­ple. Per­haps groups like Ren­o­varé can pro­vide cer­tain resources for your efforts, but, by their very nature, they are only rough sketch­es and illus­tra­tions. The plans are yours to make. 

Enter­ing Var­i­ous Practices

As for prac­tices, even though rough sketch­es and illus­tra­tions are the best we can do, these can some­times be enor­mous­ly help­ful. So I here share with you a cou­ple sto­ries that just may spark ideas in your own heart and mind.

The first sto­ry is of a con­gre­ga­tion healthy in many ways and with innu­mer­able strengths. One glar­ing need, how­ev­er, was our grow­ing inabil­i­ty to see God active and work­ing in our midst. We had grown cold and per­func­to­ry, and we need­ed the active life of God, real and imme­di­ate among us. In speak­ing to this need we arranged for some spe­cial meet­ings led by a pas­tor with a spe­cial gift­ing in heal­ing prayer. This pas­tor was from a rel­a­tive­ly high litur­gi­cal back­ground and we felt that teach­ing on heal­ing prayer from this direc­tion could be bet­ter received by our Quak­er con­gre­ga­tion than from, say, a pen­te­costal direction.

In prepa­ra­tion for this expe­ri­ence we decid­ed to use the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline of fast­ing, and to use it in three ways. First, we had a one day con­gre­ga­tion-wide fast. We gath­ered the next Sun­day night to share what we had learned. As far as I could dis­cern this expe­ri­ence was an over­whelm­ing fail­ure. The most fre­quent com­ment had to do with the headaches brought on by caf­feine withdrawal!

Sec­ond, I invit­ed our Elders to join me for an expe­ri­ence of fast­ing each Mon­day for six weeks. We then gath­ered at the Sanc­tu­ary altar Mon­day evening to share our expe­ri­ences. This was more sat­is­fy­ing as dif­fer­ent ones shared sig­nif­i­cant growth and insight. We then would close the evening with extend­ed prayer for our peo­ple and their heart growth in grace.

The third expe­ri­ence was a sev­en day fast I under­took myself in prepa­ra­tion for these meet­ings. A good friend, a bus dri­ver, joined me in the expe­ri­ence. On the last day of the fast I walked around our church prop­er­ty sev­en times. No, I did­n’t blow any trum­pets, but as I walked I did expe­ri­ence a great release of prayer for our peo­ple, feel­ing like I had been enabled just a lit­tle to enter into the spir­it of the peo­ple, to use the lan­guage of John Wool­man. That evening I met with my bus dri­ver friend to break our lit­tle fast. He had main­tained a detailed jour­nal record of the sev­en days and we were both moved great­ly by the insights con­tained in those notations.

Can I say to you that those meet­ings were a dra­mat­ic turn­ing point for many of us, and for us as a con­gre­ga­tion. Those days were sur­round­ed by the depths of ten­der love. I know I shall nev­er be the same.

Briefly, a sec­ond sto­ry. This con­cerns a young con­gre­ga­tion, small but vibrant. Our prob­lem, how­ev­er, involved numer­ous young Chris­tians from seri­ous­ly dys­func­tion­al back­grounds and des­per­ate­ly need­ing a moral anchor in their lives. Again, a spir­i­tu­al prob­lem demands a spir­i­tu­al answer. We respond­ed to this need by pro­vid­ing exten­sive teach­ing on many eth­i­cal pas­sages in the Bible, most inten­sive­ly from the Ser­mon on the Mount. Our friend Dal­las Willard was with us in that small con­gre­ga­tion. I can­celed all adult class­es so that we could all attend to Dal­las’s teach­ing on the Ser­mon on the Mount. He taught for weeks on end-much of that teach­ing is now in The Divine Con­spir­a­cy. Many in that small fel­low­ship stud­ied for ten, some­times fif­teen hours just to pre­pare for the next teach­ing session.

It is not too much to say that those teach­ings formed us in ways that still impact us to this day, some thir­ty years later.

You get the idea I am sure. Informed by the prin­ci­ples we begin to think through the plans that are unique to our set­ting and then enter into the prac­tices that will form us and our peo­ple into the like­ness of Christ.

Peace and joy,

Richard J. Foster

From the Ren­o­varé May 2006 Heart to Heart newsletter.

Originally published May 2006

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