Is the Lifelong Process
Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process.
Contrary to popular opinion, Christian spiritual formation is not solely for our kids who need to grow up in a “spiritual environment.” It’s not about making a salvation decision. It’s not something we quit doing when life gets tough. It’s not something we quit doing when we age. We choose to take our part in it day in and day out. It is a process in a similar sense that following a recipe to make a cake is a process. There are ingredients, there are steps, and there is an end goal.
Romans 5:1-5 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
N.T. Wright, in After You Believe, says, “Character is transformed by three things. First, you have to aim at the right goal. Second, you have to figure out the steps you need to take to get to that goal. Third, those steps have to become habitual, a matter of second nature” (p. 29). He points out that there are steps along the way that eventually become habitual. This all sounds like a self-help program, except the goal is God’s goal for us, and any step we take is, once again, enabled and empowered by God’s grace.
Understanding the “standard” ways God works in our lives during this lifelong process, understanding how he wants to build character in us, transforming us back into the image of His Son, becomes essential. We must learn how to cooperate with God.
Implications for the Church
1. Do we really believe there is a goal? Is there a telos? In Wesleyan terms, does God enable holiness in this life? Can we be men and women of Christian character? Have power over sin? Reflect God’s image back into the world? And not just in fleeting moments, but consistently.
2. A lifetime is a long time. In an age when people change jobs, homes, spouses, churches, vehicles, etc. all the time, the prospect of doing anything for a lifetime sounds at best countercultural and at worst boring. We want life change, but we want it now. Christian spiritual formation does not always offer the right-now results. How does the church not only celebrate mile markers in a person’s journey with Christ (beyond baptism), but also celebrate the day-to-day faithfulness?
3. If steps are to become habitual, how much time do we spend helping people take them? Don’t get me wrong, churches need special celebrations (see #2) and special events. They also need to recognize them for what they are. The greatest growth rarely comes at the special events; it comes in the week in, week out rhythms of life. How can a local church develop rhythms and help its people develop rhythms that are life-giving? How can it align its programming to balance both the special things and the rhythmic things?