I get asked often what I want to do with my life (read: what kind of work I want to do), particularly once people know I went to seminary. I also get frequent questions about Spiritual Formation, this thing I spent three years of my life studying. So, I thought I’d take a moment to answer these questions.
Last May, I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with a Master’s in Spiritual Formation. Because of the broad application of spiritual formation, at least as encapsulated by this particular program, graduates go on to a variety of things. I know one fellow student who is a full time counselor and another who works full time with a college ministry. Others receive training to become spiritual directors. Spiritual formation can be applied to a wide variety of ministries, including worship, educational ministries, counseling, discipleship, and others.
Simply put, spiritual formation considers how we are spiritually formed as Christians. It considers how our spirits (and lives) are shaped by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ. It asks how we can encourage this sort of development in the lives of believers. In my opinion, this is at the heart of what the church should be about—creating a space for people to come into contact with the living God and have their lives transformed as a result.
Some people like to try to distinguish between spiritual formation and discipleship or any other number of similar enterprises, but I find it most helpful to see it as a unified whole. Call it what you will.
There is a “passive”, receptive aspect of this—in which we acknowledge that we cannot work our way to holiness but rather need God to work. So, we find ways to position ourselves to pay attention and receive from Him as He moves. There is also an active aspect of this—in which there are clear practices and steps of obedience we can take to aid in this process. John Ortberg compares this passive-active tension to sailing. We position the sails (active, working), but we need the wind to move us (passive, receiving). Holding the two together—a dependence on the Lord to work and transform our hearts and a sense of responsibility to actively engage the way he’s laid out for us in Scripture—creates the most balanced approach, in my opinion.
What is my interest in all of this?
I care deeply about the need for discipleship in the local church setting. Based on my own experience and that of every person I’ve talked to about this, there is a deep need. I hope this is not the case everywhere or for every person, but based on these conversations, here is the reality… If discipleship is occurring at all, it is typically focused on teaching the basic tenets of the faith and does not have a particular expectation of discipling so that an individual can go disciple others. Discipleship beyond this basic doctrine primer is typically accidental and not intentional. If someone desires discipleship, they must find it outside of the context of their local church.
If we aren’t focused on cultivating mature disciple-making disciples in our churches, what are we doing? Making spectators? Crafting a social club or political force? Hoping they’ll figure it out on their own?
When someone enters the Christian life, it is only a beginning, not the end. They enter into Jesus’ abundant-life Kingdom, which gives us citizenship in heaven and also a mission in this world. Jesus’ come-follow-Me life is all-encompassing. Come follow Me in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health. Come follow Me into your churches and your work place. Come follow Me as a college student, as a young mom, as a blue-collar worker, and as a retiree. We need a vision for what it looks like to follow him as a faithful disciple in each place and season of life.
What if every person in our churches who wanted to be discipled knew exactly how to seek it out? What if every person in our churches knew they were an integral part of the mission of God in the world? What if they were encouraged and equipped to live out that mission where He has them? These are the questions and cries of my heart, what drove me to seminary, and my sense of calling.
I’d love to hear about your experience. Were you discipled in the church? How?