Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
I started leading small groups when I was 16. There I was, barely old enough to drive a car, and I was supposed to lead my group of thirteen-year-old boys on some kind of spiritual journey. Right. I felt good if we got through the meeting without someone making a fart joke.
Since that time, I’ve led small groups for people aged 10 to 40. (High school small groups are my favorite. It’s not even close.) Along the way, I’ve learned a few things. Not as many as I’d like. There’s still a lot about leading small groups well that remains a complete mystery to me. But I have learned. And, reflecting back across the years, here are some things that I really wish I had known when I first started.
1. Ground it in the gospel
For a long time, my small groups were like 12-step programs for believers. Want to grow mature Christians? It’s simple: meet regularly, read the Bible, pray, laugh, eat lots of food, and make sure that you hold each other “accountable” so that you all keep working at it. Do that long enough and something is bound to happen.
What I was missing was any meaningful understanding of how the gospel relates to discipleship. None of these are bad things in themselves. But, if they’re not grounded in grace and empowered by the spirit, then it isn’t discipleship. I’d love to go back and help my younger self catch a vision for a small group of Christians as God’s image bearers in the world, redeemed through Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, and commissioned as ambassadors of the Kingdom. I’d love to see me helping others understand God’s grace and the transforming power of the gospel. In short, I’d love to convince myself that a small group should be so much more than a support group.
[Jonathan Edwards birthday was last week (Oct 5), so today’s A Prayer for Sunday comes from him. But, instead of posting one of Edwards’ prayers. Here is an excerpt from his sermon “The Most High a Prayer Hearing God,” a reflection on Psalm 65:2.]
First, because he is a God of infinite grace and mercy. It is indeed a very wonderful thing, that so great a God should be so ready to hear our prayers, though we are so despicable and unworthy. That he should give free access at all times to everyone, should allow us to be importunate without esteeming it an indecent boldness, [and] should be so rich in mercy to them that call upon him: that worms of the dust should have such power with God by prayer, that he should do such great things in answer to their prayers, and should show himself, as it were, overcome by them. This is very wonderful, when we consider the distance between God and us, and how we have provoked him by our sins, and how unworthy we are of the least gracious notice. It cannot be from any need that God stands in of us, for our goodness extends not to him. Neither can it be from anything in us to incline the heart of God to us. It cannot be from any worthiness in our prayers, which are in themselves polluted things. But it is because God delights in mercy and condescension. He is herein infinitely distinguished from all other Gods. He is the great fountain of all good, from whom goodness flows as light from the sun.
Second, we have a glorious Mediator, who has prepared the way, that our prayers may he heard consistently with the honor of God’s justice and majesty. Not only has God in himself mercy sufficient for this, but the Mediator has provided that this mercy may be exercised consistently with the divine honor. Through him we may come to God for mercy. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No man can come to the Father but by him. This Mediator hath done three things to make way for the hearing of our prayers.
1. He hath by his blood made atonement for sin, so that our guilt need not stand in the way, as a separating wall between God and us, and that our sins might not be a cloud through which our prayers cannot pass….
2. Christ, by his obedience, has purchased this privilege, viz. that the prayers of those who believe in him should be heard. He has not only removed the obstacles to our prayers, but has merited a hearing of them….
3. Christ enforces the prayers of his people, by his intercession at the right hand of God in heaven. He hath entered for us into the holy of holies, with the incense which he hath provided, and there he makes continual intercession for all that come to God in his name, so that their prayers come to God the Father through his hands….
While reading Augustine’s work Of True Religion, I was reminded once again of how vain I can be at times and how my vanity dulls my vision of true beauty. “If you take away vain persons who pursue that which is last as if it were first, matter will not be vanity but will show its own beauty in its own way, a low type of beauty, of course, but not deceptive.”
So often I pursue that which is last as if it were first. How many times have I decided to go mountain biking or grab a coffee or watch a manly movie without first considering God and asking him what his will is? These things are so trivial, yet I pursue the like with such fervor. “It is very easy to execrate the flesh, but very difficult not to be carnally minded.” Or as St. Paul says, “I don’t do that which I want to do, but I do the very thing which I hate.” It is such a difficult thing living as a Christian in the world. There are so many temptations, Lord I pray that you delivery me from these and every other unseemly thing.
“Life which delights in material joys and neglects God tends to nothingness…” Do I really believe this? Of course I do! The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed system order always leads to disorder unless energy is added. When I pursue material joys I am not allowing the energy of the Spirit to enter my life, and when no energy is added, I tend toward disorder and ultimately nothingness. (Yes, I just used physics to defend a theological position…I am a geek.)
Back to the original quote, Augustine was also hinting at something else: beauty. He was saying that created matter is beautiful. He is continually urging us to understand that creation is not evil in and of itself. By our idolatry we create a dualistic belief. We call matter evil, even if not blatantly. We say don’t eat this, don’t drink that, don’t have sex, et al. These things are not bad or evil, if we pursue them as though they are first it has disrupted the beauty and goodness but only because of our vanity. Why do we chase after the wind? We have promoted an idea that the material world is evil and this has caused us to not recognize the beautiful. The beautiful is all around us and all beauty points towards the ultimate beauty, the One Beauty, the 3 in One – glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Now comes the question of True Religion: how do we recognize and enjoy the beauty yet not chase after the wind in vain?
There’s almost no way for me to write this post without sounding like I’m just defending my profession. But, of course, that’s because I am. Our seminaries are far from perfect. We probably spend too much time on some things, too little on others, and almost certainly do not run as efficiently as we could. But, seminaries are not the root of all our ecclesiological problems.
I began reflecting on this a few weeks ago when I met with a group of Portland-area pastors to discuss how we can do a better job as a seminary of training pastors. And, they came up with some great ideas. Very helpful stuff. Toward the end of the lunch, though, one of them stopped the conversation to point out something he thought had been lacking in the conversation to that point: the role of the church in training its own pastors. He wanted to make it clear that the responsibility for pastoral formation lies primarily in the hands of the church. He quickly emphasized that he thinks the seminary has an important role to play in the process. But it can’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. If it tries, it will necessarily fail in its mission. Effective ministry training requires churches and seminaries to work together, both doing what they do best.
This conversation came to mind recently as I read yet another post castigating seminaries for failing the church and causing its imminent demise. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad. But it was close.) In this case, the problem was that seminaries are not turning out truly spiritual leaders. We major in things like theology, Bible, languages, history, and other esoterica, but we fail to develop the spirituality of our students. So, pastors enter the pulpit ready to preach, but unable to pray.
I have at least three problems with that argument.
1. I’m not convinced that it’s true. I haven’t taught at other schools, so I can’t speak for them, but the students I’ve met at Western Seminary are almost all deeply committed to their own spiritual development. Of course, that comes with its peaks and valleys, and the rigors and challenges of seminary can lead to a valley for some. But for most seminary is a deeply formative experience.
2. The problem isn’t necessarily with the seminary. What if pastors are leaving seminary spiritually ill-equipped for ministry? Does the problem lie entirely, or even mostly, with the seminary? Of course not. Keep in mind that most seminary students have been Christians for at least a few years, and they spent that time in some church somewhere. And, they’ll also be a part of a church during their seminary years. So, why assume that a failure in spiritual development lies with the seminary, which, even after several years, will still comprise a relatively small portion of a student’s Christian experience? Shouldn’t we be looking instead at our churches and wondering why they are producing spiritually ill-equipped leaders. Why focus on the seminaries?
3. The whole argument reflects an unhealthy tendency to separate the seminary from the church. Most importantly, this way of thinking necessarily implies a separation between the church and the “academy” that is unhealthy and has itself contributed to many of our problems. The “seminary” hasn’t caused a problem that the “church” has to fix, as though the seminary were not a part of the church and created to serve the church. We’ve made this mistake before, separating the academic from the ministerial, the tower from the table, and it never goes anywhere worth visiting.
Seminaries aren’t perfect, but they’re not the sole problem either. We do need to improve ministerial training. But, simplistically blaming all our problems on one institution won’t get us anywhere. As always, we need to look deeper.
Jonathan Edwards’ Charity and its Fruits is a collection of manuscript adapted for publication by Edwards on the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Jonathan Edwards first delivered these lectures as a series of sermons to his church in Northhampton in 1738, and were first published in 1852. Shortly, after it was published, The New Englander, a journal founded at Yale College, described Edwards’ work as a volume that reflected “the childlike simplicity of his tastes, his strength of intellect, his acute and searching discrimination, and the warmth and earnestness of his piety.”1 Charity takes a simple tone and clear logic that reflects the nature of a work design to be delivered to those in his flock in Northhampton. Each lecture functions as its own independent unit, and therefore lacks a structured progression, even though Edwards works through each verse in succession. I would group each lecture under several headings.
The first heading could be titled, the primacy & nature of love. The title of this volume uses the term, charity. Even though, Edwards uses charity throughout this work, it is somewhat misleading. At first glance, any modern reader would assume that when Edward uses the word “charity”, he means to discuss the voluntary giving of help, usually expressed in the giving of money. However, Edward simply adopts this word due to its use in his translation of the Bible. He points out that in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, the word “which is here translated ‘charity,’ might better have been rendered ‘love’.” Edwards defines love as “that disposition or affection whereby one is dear to another;” and is expressed as it is “exercised towards God or our fellow-creatures.” Despite the object of its expression, Edwards argues that Christian love is always the same because it comes from God by God motivated by God’s loving nature. When Christian love is active in an individual, we find that we possess the greatest ingredient of the Christian faith. For Christian love reflects “the sum of all the virtue and duty that God requires of us, and therefore must undoubtedly be the most essential thing.” And without it, there can be no real exercise of true religion. Edwards also argues that Christian love is to be prized above all virtues, as well as all supernatural gifts of the Spirit. In Edwards estimation, supernatural gifts of the Spirit are granted temporarily by God for a purpose, however love is inherent in a Christian’s nature & continues through to eternity. Edward describes those extraordinary gifts as “a beautiful garment, which does not alter the nature of the man that wears it.” However, love is that “fruit of the Spirit that never fails or ceases in the church of Christ.”
The second heading could be titled, the visible effects of love. Edwards argues, “All true grace in the heart tends to holy practice in the life.” Therefore, it must be visible and there must be fruit. If we desire to know that Christian love is real, it is most clearly evidenced in a individuals seeking and doing it—“for whatever we truly desire, we do thus seek.” This is most clearly seen in our redemption. “He has reconciled them to God by his death, to save them from wicked works, that they might be holy and unblamable in their lives.” Edwards continues by showing the effects, or fruits, of love. This is reflected in a Christian’s ability to endure all sufferings of all degrees. Edwards argues that Christian love enables Christians to willingly undergo “the fiercest and most cruel sufferings in degree, they are willing to undergo for Christ”; for they “are like pure gold, that will bear the trial of the hottest furnace.” Christian love is also visible in Christian humility. Edwards argues that if we have God’s condescending love, and we understand & love God who is infinitely greater than we are, and we love our humble Lord who was crucified for our sake; then the fruits of love will be a humble spirit.
The final heading I would use to organize Edwards thoughts in this volume is the opposing spirits of love. Edwards first address the spirit of envy, which is opposed to Christian love. He states, “The nature of charity or Christian love to men is directly contrary to envy; for love does not grudge, but rejoices at the good of those who are loved.” Edwards also points out that selfishness is at opposite of Christian love for “those that are possessed of the spirit of Christian charity are of a more enlarged spirit still; for they are concerned not only for the thrift of the community, but for the welfare of the Church of God.” Finally, Edwards argues that the spirits of anger and censoriousness are at complete odds with love.
Charity and its Fruits possess tremendous strengths, which should be noted. Compared to many of the writings of Jonathan Edwards, the language is extremely clear and easy to read. His arguments have a powerful straightforwardness about them that is well supported by Biblical evidence. This volume is possesses a practicality unlike any of his other works. Most lectures in this volume end with valuable considerations of the application of arguments made by Edwards. My biggest concerns in this work were largely peripheral concerns. With this volume, they begin with the lack of exposition, due to my fondness of preaching, and end on Edwards’ heavy emphasis on personal examination. Though Edwards does recognize that when discussing love and “a life of Christian practice…the meaning is not, that the life is a perfect and sinless life.” There is significant emphasis on demands of love and our failings to meet them. This would not be as problematic had there been countered with significant devotion to the Gospel, and Christ’s perfect and sinless life. In the end, Edwards’ exploration into the nature and fruits of love helps uncover true Christian love, how it is identified, and practiced.
Here are a couple of good videos from an interview that John Ortberg did with Dallas Willard, in which he discusses the Gospel, grace, and spiritual formation (HT Out of Ur). Give them a listen. Willard is always worth a few minutes.
Because when things get too deep, people drown.
HT Ed Stetzer
Approximately 120,000 books are published in America every year. Sadly, few of us ever read them. At least, that’s what some recent stats suggest.
- 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
- 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
- 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year
- 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
- 57 percent of new books are not read to completion.
As a self-confessed bibliophile, that’s just depressing. I’m not sure which is worse, that even college graduates have such terrible reading habits, or that so many families didn’t even bother to buy a single book last year. (I have to confess that I rarely buy books from concrete-and-mortar bookstores either, though I still go on occasion to enjoy the ambiance. Yes, I’m a hypocrite that way.)
But, more importantly, I worry about this lack of attention to the written word for the church today. Granted, the church has often demonstrated the ability to flourish in non-literate cultures. So, reading itself isn’t the only medium of formation. But, in all the examples that come to mind, those cultures retained a strong emphasis on oral education. And,we’re not doing that. At the same time that we are neglecting the written word, we’re also at the tail-end of a decades long shift toward shorter sermons and fewer weekly services dedicated to serious lay development. Put those two together, and you have a recipe for spiritual anemia.
The perennial question of the Baptist parent: when is my child ready to get baptized?
And, once you’ve asked that question, you begin to wonder, what does it even mean to be “ready” for baptism? Was I “ready” when I got baptized? Then, if your brain isn’t fried yet and you haven’t decided just to ignore the question and go watch a movie, you might even ask, What is “baptism” anyway and how does it relate to things like “faith,” “repentance,” and “salvation”? If you’re not careful, you might accidentally end up doing theology.
I can almost hear the TV calling.
Whether we should baptize small children (not infants) is the question that John Starke addressed recently. Specifically, he’s responding to Trevin Wax’s post arguing that there are good reasons for delaying the baptism of small children until they’re ready. Starke understands the concerns, but he thinks they’re misguided and offers 4 reasons for baptizing young children without delay:
- The regular pattern in Scripture doesn’t give any indication of a probationary period.
- A probationary period seems to imply that there is something more than faith we need to do in order to be a Christian.
- Affirming belief in the gospel is never false assurance.
- The New Testament pattern is reactive rather than proactive concerning conversion.
You’ll have to read the post to get his full thinking on the subject, but I think he makes some good points. I’m particularly concerned about the second point and the suggestion that we need to wait until a child “owns” her faith or has a sufficiently “mature” faith before getting baptized. The first concern seems to rise directly from our rampant individualism and the idea that if the community (or family) serves as a shaping force in a person’s faith development, their faith no longer belongs to them in some way. And the second implies that you’re not really converted until your faith reaches a certain level of maturity, as though my salvation depended ultimately on the quality of my faith.
One of these days I’ll finally get around to writing my own post (it will probably take more than one) explaining how I view baptism and how my wife and I are approaching it with our daughters. But for now, just read Starke’s post and see what he has to say.
Update: Nathan Finn also addressed the issue this morning, with an interesting reflection on how his views on the subject have changed slightly over time.
Could apostasy actually be a sign of a healthy church?
Lauren Winner of Duke Divinity School recently considered the situation of writer/director Paul Haggis’ defection from his faith. Haggis bitterly – and publicly – left the Church of Scientology because of his disagreement with them over gay marriage (turns out Scientology is not a fan). Haggis now counts as an “apostate” from Scientology because he has renounced them and their teachings. So why does Winner care at all about any of this? Because it helps her think about her own church (Episcopalian) and the rigor (or lack, thereof) it takes to be a part of it. She writes,
So while I appreciate that my church makes room for patchwork, for doubt, for moving in and out, some days I think: Would that America’s Protestant mainline could produce an apostate. For one might say that a group that lacks the necessary preconditions for making apostates can’t make disciples either.
Now this is a fascinating angle to get at thinking about discipleship – a group isn’t really much good, or good for you spiritually unless it is demanding enough of you that you might leave (or even be pushed out). So…is she on to something? Or is she really romanticizing a certain “rugged” view of Christian community that in fact is coercive and harmful? What do you think?