As the pastor of spiritual formation at Faith TriCities, I was tasked to develop a ministry strategy for a spiritual formation/discipleship process. This was not an easy thing! It forced me to look carefully at spiritual reality (not how we think it should be) and the context of church life. One thing I understood from the start was that our “strategy” could not be a program or tool for “harnessing” the spiritual life. It would not about methods of acquiring more and more information and achieving some kind of mental capability. The quality of our discipleship that makes it transformational is being with Jesus. As important as right belief is, Jesus did not come to give us a new belief system. He came to give us himself. Our “strategy” had to be more than mastering a technique but about knowing and encountering Christ himself. For sure, it could not just be words on a page or a program to be implemented but an experiential reality becoming part of the DNA and fabric of our church life.
Spiritual Formation at Faith:
Embracing Environments for Transformation
The call to follow Christ is also a call to be transformed into His image. Thus, when we accept Jesus’ invitation to a with-God life…our goal is to “keep company with him” in such a way that Christ’s life becomes visible in ours (Mark 3:14; 1:17; John 15; 17:3; Gal. 4:9; Col. 3:1-17) In other words, we become like Christ…by interaction with Christ himself. Taking on the character of Christ then, being spiritually formed, flows from an on-going interaction with Christ, through the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives, to receive from God the life we cannot birth in ourselves. It is an inner transformation of our hearts, not outward conformity to a perceived doctrine or code of behavior.
The fact is we can’t change our own hearts. We can’t create, control, or dictate spiritual reality in our lives….for the spiritual life is a derived life. The active agent in the transformation process is the Holy Spirit, who, in fact, initiates and sustains it. The work of the Spirit is active and creative regenerating, enlivening, correcting, and empowering us in our inner being by his indwelling presence conforming us into the likeness to Christ. On the other hand, it is unlikely that we will deepen our relationship with God in a random or unintentional way.
Although we cannot, by direct effort change our heart, we are invited to participate with God in our transformation. The spiritual life is not achieved by our own efforts of trying harder or being good enough. It is a gift to be received, having the life of Christ released in us as we stay in the place of abiding. How do we train our hearts to stay close to Jesus in such a distracted world? We do this by placing ourselves in environments where we create the conditions which allows us to be attentive, surrendered and responsive to the already, on-going, work of the Holy Spirit, who is shaping us to be like Jesus.
For example, if you were asked to list people, places or events that were instrumental in your spiritual development what are some of those things you would list? More than likely it look something like this: a friend who took you “under wing” as a spiritual mentor; a retreat place or summer camp; a book; a short-term missions trip; engagement with Scripture; an “altar” experience; cancer; fasting; a pastor; serving in a soup kitchen; etc. All of these “environments” provided the opportunity for you to open your heart to the transforming presence and work of the Holy Spirit in your life.
All of the people, places, and/or events you listed earlier can be “organized” into five “environments” that provide opportunities to encounter Jesus: Personal, Relational, Intellectual, Missional and Experiential.
The good news is there are already some natural “places” of transformation already embedded in our lives and our church that become opportunities to encounter Jesus’ transforming presence.
These five environments can be identified by the acrostic P.R.I.M.E.
Personal Environments: We are transformed by intentional spiritual practices. (1Timothy 4:7-8)
Spiritual practices such as scripture reading, prayer, solitude, or fasting do not transform us. They are not “spiritual principles” or “moral guidelines” we perform as a way to go about improving our condition. They are not a formula we follow so we can harness divine favor or look godly. It is not our disciplined religious lifestyle that transforms us spiritually. What Jesus invites us to do….is to radically reorder our busy, distracted lives in such a way that creates an on-going connectedness/abiding with God who forms our hearts and makes us fully alive. The spiritual disciplines create the space for this to happen, allowing the Holy Spirit to birth in us what we can’t do ourselves.
They are, in fact, indispensable to a life of faith but only to the degree that they allow us to “keep company” or connect with God. We are not seeking to be faithful to some system of practices, but to a personal, interactive, conversational relationship with Jesus. In this way, the spiritual disciplines are not a means of growth…but a means of grace. Transformation is entirely by grace (the work of the Spirit), but it requires our active, intentional participation through regular spiritual practices.
To read more about Personal Environments, click here.
Relational Environments: We are transformed in relationship with one another. (John 17:20-21)
We were created for relationship. Jesus’ transformative presence is rooted in our relationship one another. Therefore, being formed in Christlikeness for Kingdom purposes is always lived out and made complete in community. Communities of grace define who we are and how we shall live in trust, love, grace, humility, dignity, and justice. Biblical truths and message are hammered out on the anvil of faithful community living…in an environment of ongoing nurture through relationships of trust, vulnerability, modeling, and accountability.
We cannot grow fully into Christ’s image apart from regular, sometimes difficult and messy, engagement with other Christ followers in which our jealousies, irritations and resentments are confronted and the virtues of patience, love and forgiveness are given regular opportunities to be practiced.
To read more about Relational Environments, click here.
Intellectual Environments: We are transformed as we apply Biblical truth to our mind and heart. (2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Col. 3:16)
Our interaction with the Word of God must go beyond human intellectualism. Scripture has the capacity to become for us a holy ground on which we actually meet with God. The teaching and preaching of sound doctrine, adhering to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, is absolutely essential. Yet, believing that the head and heart are to be integrated and not divorced, the goal is never about just obtaining more information. Transformation of mind and heart comes to us through wisdom and revelation. What we discover is that we need both.
The point is…to respond appropriately to God’s Word, we must study it but we also have to engage our hearts. We must strike a delicate balance between historical-critical engagement with scripture and opening oneself to the Word’s life-transforming potential. There should always be room for serious study that does not bypass critical scholarship, yet the goal of scripture reading is to internalize and personalize the Scripture so that its truth can affect how we think, our attitudes, and how we live, our actions. When we approach scripture as the living word of God it invites us to pay attention to how God may be speaking to us in a fresh way and it becomes a place of encounter with Jesus.
To read more about Intellectual Environments, click here.
Missional Environments: We are transformed when we give ourselves away for the sake of others. (Colossians 3:17; Eph. 4:11-16)
Many think spiritual formation is about feeding our souls for the sake of our well-being. On the contrary, it is intensely practical. The fuller life in Christ comes not only as we give attention to our own growth but largely as we give ourselves away. As align ourselves with the person and work of Christ…in becoming his disciples…our actions naturally flow out of heart like his in demonstration of the love that has shaped us. In fact, Christ is not fully formed in us until it finds its greatest expression in love and sacrificial service for others. Compassionate acts come out of hearts of compassion. Acts of compassion cannot just be programs that come and go…they must become the stuff of our everyday lives as God’s people on mission.
Our faith must become an embodied faith, where our witness to the world is based more on the weight of our actions than the strength of our arguments. We are not elected for privilege but for service; to live not as exclusive beneficiaries of God’s saving work, but as bearers of this grace to the rest of the world.
To read more about Missional Environments, click here.
Experiential Environments: We are transformed through encounters with Jesus that mark us forever. (Col. 1:27)
While the process of spiritual formation is life long, there are moments and places of encounter with Jesus that transform us. Whether it is in corporate worship or on a mountain top, a majestic cathedral, an on-going personal trial, or unexplained suffering, there are moments of encounter with the divine that defy explanation and yet mark us…and we are never the same again.
To read more about Experiential Environments, click here.
It is our desire, hope and prayer that, whether you are seasoned traveler and the one who has yet to take a first step, you will experience the daily miracle of a transformed life within and among those who want to follow Jesus into his likeness.
For more information about the entire process and pathways of formation, a sermon series, the four stages of spiritual growth assessment at Faith known as The Intentional Journey, click here.
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