Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

Wandering in the Wilderness: The Impossibility of Theological Education

[This is a slightly altered version of a devotional I recently presented at a dean’s conference (yes, there are conferences for deans) on why the task of raising future leaders for the church is impossible.]

Course evaluations can be fun to read. You probably don’t believe me, but it’s true. Every now and then, you run across a student with something particularly insightful to say. For example, I recently saw one that read something like, “This professor is brilliant. I’m just not sure what he’s talking about.”

Oops. Obviously, there’s a disconnect here between the brilliant insights of the professor and the practical issue of making sure people can actually do something with them.

The same thing can happen with our “core values” and “mission statements.” They sound good, but what exactly do they mean? For example, one of the core values of Western Seminary is “truth.” (I’m pretty sure that was put in there to distinguish us from all those other seminaries who are committed to “deceit.”) That’s nice, but what do you do with it? How does that guide the everyday life and behavior of the institution beyond a minimal commitment not to lie to our students—unless we can present it creatively enough to call it “marketing”.

Sometimes we find ourselves flying at 30,000 feet when the people and issues we’re trying to address are down at sea level.

There are times when I feel like Paul could use some help landing the plane too.

2 TIMOTHY 2:2

I have always loved 1 Timothy 2:2. It’s a classic verse for Christian ministry and a great description of what we’re trying to do as theological educators.

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

What a fabulous verse with a clear principle for effective leadership development: pass along what you have received to others who will do the same. That’s great. But, how do you do this? How will you actualize this? What are your specific learning outcomes? Where’s your strategic plan?

If we continue for a bit in the passage, we’ll find that Paul really never answers these questions.

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. (vv. 3-6)

These are all terrific images for Christian ministry. I’ve used all of them in my teaching and preaching many times. But, when it comes to specifics, they’re still not very helpful. Doesn’t Paul have anything more to offer?

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (v. 7)

Gee, thanks. So now I’m either stupid because I haven’t bothered to think about what Paul was saying, or Jesus doesn’t like me and hasn’t given me understanding. Neither of these options is terribly encouraging.

Come on Paul. What’s the plan? Where’s the blueprint? How exactly do you do this thing we call “developing leaders”?

Instead of answering the question, we’re left with this grand vision of preparing the next generation for effectively leading God’s people with little in the way of specific guidance.

Thanks Paul.

OUR CHAOTIC CONTEXT

And, that becomes a real problem when you consider the chaotic context in which we find ourselves trying to carry out this tremendous responsibility.

Look at the challenges that seminaries face: limited finances, increased competition, contrary constituencies, nosy accreditation agencies, and governmental regulation, among other things. And, that’s not even counting issues that arise from our broader cultural context: new technologies, changing educational paradigms, increasingly diverse communities, decreasing biblical literacy for incoming students, and more.

It may just be me, but these all seem pretty daunting. Many times I feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness of theological education. Paul has shown us the promised land—just entrust this message to godly men and women who will take up the mantle of leadership for the next generation. See, the promised land is right there. But I don’t know how to get there. For all my planning, plotting, striving, and strategizing, I still find myself wandering in the chaos and confusion of the wilderness.

I feel like one of the ten spies who have gone into the land and have come back saying that it can’t be done. The obstacles are too great. Go home.

THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE

And then I pause and consider what it must have been like for those who have gone before.

Consider poor Timothy as he reads these words. He’s in a hostile cultural context with no books, no schools, very little money, few churches, and leaders who are still fairly young spiritually themselves. What is he supposed to do with this?

Consider the early church it expanded into new worlds: Greece, Rome, Africa, Gaul, Asia. Imagine how they must have wrestled with what it takes to raise godly leaders in these new contexts with all of their cultural diversity, religious plurality, and philosophical complexity. How hard must that have been?

Consider the church of the Constantinian era as it struggled with training the next generation from a posture of relative affluence and influence, along with growing nominalism and institutionalism. Now how do you raise godly leaders?

Consider the medieval church as they tried to develop new institutional educational structures called “universities” to accomplish this daunting task of training new leaders. Imagine the uncertainty. Will this work? Or, will it just turn pastors into professors, leaders into lecturers?

I could go on. God’s people have always struggled with understanding precisely how to raise the next generation of leaders in the midst of many difficult and daunting circumstances.

And, none of them have gotten it “right.” Although every generation approached the task of leadership development differently, each produced more than its share of broken leaders who led broken churches in a broken world.

There’s a vision, but no blueprint. There’s a plan, but there are always problems.

Apparently the wilderness of theological education has been with us for a while now.

OUR IMPOSSIBLE TASK

So, my happy thought for today is:

1. We’ve been given a grand task with almost no instruction for how to carry it out.

2. Every prior generation found this task to be nearly impossible.

Thanks Paul. Don’t you have anything to offer that might be a little more helpful?

To be fair, I probably should have started in verse 1.

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

Ah, there it is. That’s what my reflection has been missing. Grace.

For this to work, we need to realize that this story is not about us. If it was, this story would have ended a long time ago. Every generation of Christian leaders laments the difficulties of raising godly leaders in their context. And every generation is right. We’ve been given a seemingly impossible task with no blueprint for success.

And that’s okay because it’s not about us anyway.

We will never build perfect seminaries that produce perfect leaders to lead perfect churches. If that’s your promised land, I hope you enjoy wilderness.

That’s not what we’ve been called to do. Perfection is not our goal, faithfulness is. We will always build broken schools that produce broken people to lead broken churches. But, we serve a glorious God who will always be gracious to his people and faithful to his plans.

Our task may be impossible, but that’s not a problem for God.

This isn’t a call to quietism. The fact that we can’t be perfect doesn’t mean that we stop striving to be as creatively faithful as possible. Maybe Paul didn’t give us a blueprint because there isn’t one. Maybe each generation has to be willing to put its models of leadership development on the table and ask afresh if this is the best way to be faithful to the task in this time, with this people, facing these challenges.

Will we fail? Yes. At least, we will fail at being flawless. But, we need not fail at being faithful – if we can rest in the grace and goodness of God and remember that this is his church, these are his people, this is his story, and he will ensure that our efforts are not in vain.

In the face of our impossible task, Paul invites us to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

And, to that we can only say a humble “amen.”

The Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism was written and approved by the Synod of Heidelberg on January 19, 1563.  The catalyst for the writing of this document was Frederick III, the sovereign of the Palatinate from 1559 to 1576.  He wanted to combine the best of Lutheran and Reformed teaching in a manner that would be easily accessible to the people of his territory.  He also wanted to counteract the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and so the Heidelberg Catechism based each of its statements on Scripture.  It consists of fifty-two sections (one section to be read on each Lord’s day) and has 129 questions and answers dealing with the fall of man, his redemption, and proper response to the Lord.  It became one of the most popular Reformed Catechism’s and was used extensively by Reformed churches in several different countries.  Its influence reached the Westminster Assembly who used it in the formation of the Shorter Catechism.

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Human ritual and spiritual formation: antithesis or synergy?

Yesterday Brian LePort commented on The Ecclesiology of Starbucks. He was specifically referring to Starbuck’s new ad campaign, “Take Comfort in Rituals.” Brian quickly noted the strong parallels between this add and the kind of language that we use to describe the church, a place where ritual (liturgical practices) are both comforting and formative. And, Brian noted that this way of thinking also had resonance with James K. A. Smith’s recent book, Desiring the Kingdom, which we discussed some time ago.

Brian’s post has sparked a lively discussion, particularly between Halden (who blogs at Inhabitatio Dei) and Smith, as they’ve traded jabs on the nature and purpose transformation, the role of ritual, and the nature of theological discourse in the blogosphere. Several others have contributed their thoughts as well, making this a fascinating discussion to check out.

So, if you have any interesting the the church, worship, ritual practices, and the nature of spiritual formation, you should definitely head over there and check out Brian’s post and the comments that follow.

Shouldn’t Christian spirituality have something to do with the Gospel?

In a post over at Patheos today, Bruce Epperly suggests that the movie Eat, Pray, Love should serve as an invitation for moderate and progressive Christians to take the spiritual journeys of people more serious. (By the way, is there a more obnoxious label for any group than “progressive”? Is everyone else “regressive”?)

I believe the film and book upon which it is based present an invitation to moderate and progressive Christians to take the spiritual journeys of people more seriously in preaching, program, and outreach. We have not highlighted either our spirituality or theology in ways broadly accessible to the public.

Although I very much disagree that “the quest for self-awareness” depicted in this movie is the quest that “is at the heart of the human adventure,” I actually want to focus on the conclusions that he draws in the second half of the article. Contending that we need to make Christian spirituality more “broadly accessible,” he suggests that moderate and progressive Christians should do three things:

  1. Present a a vision of God that is more accessible. Apparently we’re only supposed to highlight the aspects of God’s character that people will like.
  2. Provide practices that that deepen people’s spirituality. And he leads off here with “easy-to-learn meditative techniques.” Really? Is what you want to highlight in fostering deeper Christian spirituality? No worship, sacraments, Word, Spirit, community, or any of the other things so important to Christian spirituality?
  3. Awaken persons to the connection between heart, hands, and mind. Apparently fluffy spirituality works as long as you help people at the same time.

Maybe I’m being a little too harsh. It was, after all, a very brief article. But I’m picky. If you’re going to talk about how to deepen the spiritual life of God’s people, how to communicate the wonderful “adventure” that is the Christian life, how to communicate to the world what Christian spirituality is all about, you must begin with the Gospel. Apart from the Gospel, spirituality becomes just another “technique” for achieving “self-discovery.” Fortunately, there’s much more to being a Christian than that.

I really like a lot of what’s going on over at Patheos. They’ve had some great discussions recently on a number of interesting issues. This one, unfortunately, was not one of the highlights.

Leaving the Church to start…………….a Church.

I recently read an article by Kevin DeYoung at Ligonier Ministries.  In it he addresses the need for “fewer revolutionaries and more plodding visionaries.”  There seems to be an alarming trend of my generation that desire Christian community, but want to find such community outside of the church.  This manifests itself in an attitude of antagonism towards almost anything associated with the institutional church.  People want to leave the Church to get together with other Christians who love Jesus, want to be taught the Bible, and reach others with the gospel of Christ, and they want to do it all at the newest and hippest location without the restraints of the Church.  In the end, all they really want to do is………start another church.  (I always find the irony in that humorous)  We’ve always just called them denominations, but we seem to have replaced that with new words like: Emergent, Emerging, Seeker Sensitive, (or as in Andy Stanley’s so telling new video) Contemporvant..  Simply said: Christians were never meant to live outside of the community of faith called the Church.  Inside of this community they find accountability, exhortation, a layer of protection against heresy, and hundreds of other benefits that God specifically wove into the fabric of Christian community.

DeYoung’s article points out the unbiblical and immature view of people who are bored with the church and spend more time picking the Bride of Christ apart than connecting in meaningful and “ordinary” relationships.  He says, “It’s possible that our boredom has less to do with the church, its doctrines, or its poor leadership and more to do with our unwillingness to tolerate imperfection in others and our own coldness to the same old message about Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s possible we talk a lot about authentic community but we aren’t willing to live in it.”  DeYoung also makes a great point that much of our lives are “ordinary.”  We are not all going to be Paul’s and we’re going to have to be all right with that.  We were never called to be the next Paul anyway.  We were called to be like Jesus and this means that faithfulness to the Glory of God is the real standard of maturity.  Criticism is easy for those who never try themselves or have not had the test of time applied to their own endeavors.  This includes faithfulness in what many times appears to be the mundane and ordinary, and in the midst of that knowing and trusting that God uses even this to make us like Jesus.

Desiring the Kingdom 5

As we discussed in the last post, Smith understands a “liturgy” as a particular kind of practice (ritual) that seeks to inculcate a certain vision of human flourishing that will trump competing visions. Unlike a worldview, these practices shape us in pre-cognitive, affective ways; they shape us into lovers before they form us into thinkers. So, he wants to explore the ways in which repeated actions (rituals) can fundamentally shape us when tied to a particular way of understanding what it means to be truly human. And, he doesn’t have in mind just the obviously formative rituals that we do on purpose for the sake of being formed in certain ways (e.g. spiritual disciplines). No, he thinks that many things that we do regularly without even thinking about them can be liturgies when linked to a certain vision of what it means to be human. Thus, “I’m suggesting that a lot can happen when one just goes through the motions. The routine begins to inscribe habits of the imagination within us….Through the repeated ritual, a daily microliturgy, our very loyalties are aimed and shaped.” (109) In chapter 3, Smith unpacks this understanding of “cultural liturgies” by applying it to three case studies.

In the first, Smith deals with the mall as a cultural liturgy. And, of the three, I found this to be the most interesting. By looking closely at how shopping at the mall shapes us, Smith concludes that shopping at the mall is not just something that we do to fill time. Here you have cultural liturgy that presents a model of human flourishing with the following aspects.

  1. It makes us into people who see themselves as broken (i.e. “I don’t look like that”).
  2. It fosters a kind of sociality/relationality, but one that is grounded in competition rather than community.
  3. It shapes us to be fundamentally “consumers” – we always need to purchase more solutions to our brokenness.
  4. It creates in us a need not to see the harmful consequences of our consumerism (individually and globally).

He then goes on to critique very briefly the inadequacies of the Christian response to this cultural liturgy. Basically, he thinks that we simply replace secular commodities with “Christian” commodities without realizing that we are actually perpetuating the “Gospel of consumerism” in the process. I think his critique of the Christian response could have been even sharper here by drawing on his critique of worldview-thinking. The primary Christian response to such consumerism is to teach a more authentic Christian worldview (e.g. selflessness, justice, moderation, etc.). But, as Smith points us, this kind of worldview response simply will not carry the day against the formative influence of such a prevalent cultural liturgy. That would be the equivalent of telling a rock not to be shaped by the river running constantly over it because God wants the rock to look different. I thought the Gospel of consumerism was the best example of a cultural liturgy that cannot be battled by ideas alone.

The second case study addresses the “military-entertainment complex.” In other word, the strong elements of nationalism and patriotism that pervade popular entertainment (think Armageddon or Independence Day). This liturgy presents a vision of human flourishing based on notions of materialism, ownership, competition, individualism, freedom, and even violence. And, it does so it a way that captures our imaginations before it captures our minds. That’s what makes the “worldview” approach to movies (i.e. “What message is this movie trying to convey?) so inadequate. It’s not so much a question of understanding the movie’s message is it is recognizing its formative power in its ability to shape our imagination and our vision of human flourishing.

Finally, he considers liturgies associated with the university. Probably the most interesting part of this section was his argument that what is most formative about attending a university is what happens outside the classroom. (I found this section to be the least engaging of the three, which is surprising given that he has more interesting discussions of this subject elsewhere in the book.)

Through all three of these, he presses us to consider the ways in which everyday rituals can be liturgies if they have a particular telos – a vision of human flourishing that seeks to trump competing visions. And, these liturgies cannot be counteracted merely by providing better teaching. A person can believe all the right things and still be shaped by a Gospel of consumerism into pursuing a vision of human flourishing that is antithetical to the Gospel.

Desiring the Kingdom 4

Continuing with our series on Desiring the Kingdom, Smith is now ready to move into the heart of his argument. So, he contends in the second chapter that contrary to our common conception of ourselves, the majority of our behavior is driven by our habits rather than our choices. Indeed, he cites research supporting the idea that only 5% of of human behavior flows from conscious choice. And, this means two things. (1) “Automatic” processes exercise tremendous influence in our lives. And, (2) we’re deceiving ourselves if we think these are limited to mundane or routine behaviors. So, we need to consider how these automatic processes are shaped and the impact that this has on us.

Smith recognizes that we need to distinguish between “thin” cultural practices (mundane, everyday actions with less impact on identity) and “thick” cultural practices (habits that shape who we are). To that end, Smith offers the following definitions of certain key terms:

  • A “ritual” is any action performed routinely.
  • A “practice” is any action performed routinely that is directed toward a particular end.
  • A “liturgy” is a “ritual of ultimate concern” (p. 86)

These definitions are clearly sequential with the latter two embedded in the first. That is, something could be a ritual without being a practice, but all practices are necessarily rituals. What makes the difference is that all practices are intentionally directed toward some end. They are not mundane actions with little or no real significance (e.g. tying my shoes in a certain way), but they are actions that are specifically designed to form us in certain ways so that we will desire certain ends. Thus, there can be no neutral practices, they are all “meaning-laden, identity-forming practices that subtly shape us precisely they grab hold of our loves – they are automating our desire and action without our conscious recognition” (p. 83). Thus, my practice of kissing my wife every morning before I leave for work is a ritual that forms me to be a certain kind of person – i.e. one who desires his wife. And, much of this happens at a pre-conscious level. I’m not aware that my desires are being shaped and reinforced every time that I do this, but they are.

And, for Smith, liturgies go one step further. They are not simply rituals directed toward a particular end, but they are rituals directed toward an ultimate end. In other words, practices designed to form in us a desire for something that should be our ultimate concern. They are “rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations” (p. 86). So, a Christian worship service is a liturgy because it is designed to make us into beings who desire God above all else. And, we’ll discuss in the next post that going to the mall is also a liturgy in the way that it shapes our identities and ultimate concerns.

Desiring the Kingdom 3

We are continuing our review series on James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. In chapter one, Smith lays out his argument for the idea that humans are essentially “liturgical animals” – i.e. beings fundamentally determined by desires shaped by habit-forming practices.

He begins with a brief critique of anthropologies focused on the human mind. He briefly discusses the idea that we are “thinking animals” (Greek philosophers, Descartes) or “believing animals” (reformers, world view proponents), and argues that both are essentially rationalistic. Even though the latter critiques the former for an overemphasis on rationality, he thinks it makes precisely the same mistake – grounding human identity in an essentially intellectual activity.

Rejecting these intellectualist anthropology, he argues that we are lovers before we are thinkers:

The point is to emphasize that the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it….One might say that in our everyday, mundane being-in-the world, we don’t lead with our head, so to speak; we lead with our heart and hands. (p. 47)

He then unpacks the significance by arguing that love is “intentional” – i.e. it is always directed toward some object. The task of Christian formation, then, is to identify and explain loves proper object, God and his kingdom, while forming Christians into the kind of people whose desires are properly oriented toward this object.

Having established all of this, Smith is ready to deal with his primary concern. How do you shape/change a person’s desires? What makes it the case that a person’s love is directed toward one object rather than another? And, he argues that this is done through “habits” that can be formed through particular “practices.” Thus “habits are inscribed in our heart through bodily practices and rituals that train the heart, as it were, to desire certain ends” (p. 58). Unpacking and defending the idea of habit-forming practices will be the task of the next several chapters.

He concludes by arguing that  we tend to overemphasize worldviews today. Although he recognizes that worldviews are important, he thinks that we should be more concerned with “social imaginaries,” the ways that the practices in our society shape our pre-theoretical vision of the world, which he thinks are more influential in what we actually love than our worldviews. In other words, we can claim to have a Christian worldview, but if our habits are actually being shaped by cultural practices that are antithetical to that worldview, we will actually have loves and desires that are shaped by the cultural practices, not the worldview.

I suggest that instead of thinking about worlview as a distinctly Christian “knowledge,” we should talk about a Christian “social imaginary” that constitutes a distinctly Christian understanding of the world that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship. Disicipleship and formation are less about erecting an edifice of Christian knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively “understands” the world in the light of the fullness of the gospel. (p. 68)

His critique of worldview-thinking was probably the most interesting part of this chapter for me. Although I have long been attracted to a more Augustinian model of the human person, I had not considered the ways in which an emphasis on worldview might sit awkwardly within that model.

Desiring the Kingdom 1

I finally got James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009) off my “to read” shelf and actually read it. The book has a wealth of interesting ideas, so I’m going to spend a little while blogging my way through it.

The basic premise of the book is that modern Christian educational practices are overly rationalistic and intellectual. This in itself is such a common claim these days as to be almost boring. But, the particular way that Smith develops his argument is worth following.

Smith’s argument really rests on two basic propositions: (1) human persons are basically affective beings—that is, we are shaped more by our loves/desires than by our beliefs/ideas; and (2) our loves/desires are in turn shaped more by habit-forming practices than by beliefs/ideas. I don’t think Smith wants to denigrate the importance of beliefs/ideas in any of this, but he does want to argue that they are less central than we like to think. Instead, our lives are driven primarily by our affections, which are in turn shaped primarily by our regular practices. Thus, the book comprises a basically Augustinian approach to educational formation today. But, although the book’s articulated goal is to deepen on our understanding of education, its arguments have broader significance for spiritual formation in general.

He establishes his first point by appealing to the Augustinian notion that our lives are driven primarily by our loves. We all have some vision of the “good” that we love and orient our lives toward. Although this vision has cognitive content, it is the affective power of the vision that causes us to orient our lives around it. So, Smith contends that real Christian formation needs to be more focused on forming people who love the right things than on making people who believe the right things. He does not deny the important connection between loving and believing, but he thinks that modern education has not only gotten them backward but that it often neglects the former entirely.

Smith devotes the majority of the book to establishing and explaining his second point—i.e. that our desires “are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate” (p. 25). To do this, he develops the idea of “cultural liturgies,” or practices that fundamentally shape who we are as people. These practices are liturgical in that they are fundamentally religious (i.e. oriented toward some concept of the good) and pedagogical (i.e. they shape us into the kinds of people who will be oriented toward that good). And, he argues that virtually anything you do on a regular basis can be a “liturgy” in this sense. Consequently, we need to pay much more attention to the formative dimension of such practices.

So, he summarizes his core claim in this way: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies…shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (p. 25). And, it’s a claim that he thinks should challenge and reshape our modernistic approach to spiritual formation in general and Christian education in particular.

What is interesting about the book is the way in which Smith applies this core claim to several “cultural liturgies” (e.g. shopping at the mall) and how this reveals the power of “ritual” in shaping personal and corporate identity. How he does this should become clearer in subsequent posts.

Desiring the Kingdom 1

I finally got James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009) off my “to read” shelf and actually read it. The book has a wealth of interesting ideas, so I’m going to spend a little while blogging my way through it. Link to other blogs on this book.

The basic premise of the book is that modern Christian educational practices are overly rationalistic and intellectual. This in itself is such a common claim these days as to be almost boring. But, the particular way that Smith develops his argument is worth following.

Smith’s argument really rests on two basic propositions: (1) human persons are basically affective beings—that is, we are shaped more by our loves/desires than by our beliefs/ideas; and (2) our loves/desires are in turn shaped more by habit-forming practices than by beliefs/ideas. I don’t think Smith wants to denigrate the importance of beliefs/ideas in any of this, but he does want to argue that they are less central than we like to think. Instead, our lives are driven primarily by our affections, which are in turn shaped primarily by our regular practices. Thus, the book comprises a basically Augustinian approach to educational formation today. But, although the book’s articulated goal is to deepen on our understanding of education, its arguments have broader significance for spiritual formation in general.

He establishes his first point by appealing to the Augustinian notion that our lives are driven primarily by our loves. We all have some vision of the “good” that we love and orient our lives toward. Although this vision has cognitive content, it is the affective power of the vision that causes us to orient our lives around it. So, Smith contends that real Christian formation needs to be more focused on forming people who love the right things than on making people who believe the right things. He does not deny the important connection between loving and believing, but he thinks that modern education has not only gotten them backward but that it often neglects the former entirely.

Smith devotes the majority of the book to establishing and explaining his second point—i.e. that our desires “are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate” (p. 25). To do this, he develops the idea of “cultural liturgies,” or practices that fundamentally shape who we are as people. These practices are liturgical in that they are fundamentally religious (i.e. oriented toward some concept of the good) and pedagogical (i.e. they shape us into the kinds of people who will be oriented toward that good). And, he argues that virtually anything you do on a regular basis can be a “liturgy” in this sense. Consequently, we need to pay much more attention to the formative dimension of such practices.

So, he summarizes his core claim in this way: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies…shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (p. 25). And, it’s a claim that he thinks should challenge and reshape our modernistic approach to spiritual formation in general and Christian education in particular.

Why we need “thick” Gospel narratives

I’m going to be honest here. If I hear one more person talk about the ABCs of the Gospel, the Four Points of the Gospel, the One Minute Gospel, or the Twitter Gospel, I think I’ll have to go home and vent my frustration on one of the two cats who seem to think they live at my house. (Unfortunately, my wife and daughters agree with them.) And, why do I find this so frustrating? Because there is simply too much in the Gospel to unpack in such short Gospel summaries.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with summarizing the Gospel, the NT authors do it all the time (of course, they assume we know the story they’re summarizing). And, a good summary of the Gospel can be very helpful at times. The problem comes when that’s all we do.

This is where I find the idea of “thick” vs. “thin” narratives helpful. (Does anyone know who first developed this language? I know Brueggemann used it quite a bit, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the first.) Our typical Gospel presentations are thin narratives. Such thin narratives provide just enough detail to make it a coherent story, but they leave out most of the detail that makes it a really compelling story. That would be somewhat akin to summarizing Les Miserables as a story about a guy who fell, experienced grace, and sought personal redemption through serving others. That’s technically correct, but you’ve lost all the power that’s in the story. A “thick” narrative, on the other hand, tries to unpack the story in all its rich detail. That way, when you get to the climax of the story, you really know what’s going on. Why it’s good news.

We need to spend much more time telling “thick” Gospel narratives. I don’t know about your church, but we hear about the Gospel quite often in mine. Unfortunately, it’s usually summarized in 5-10 minutes. Occasionally we’ll get a whole sermon on it (especially on Easter). But, I don’t think anyone at my church has ever tried to present a truly “thick” Gospel narrative that helps people understand how it all fits together.

I’ve been doing this recently with the high school group at my church. I’m working through the story of the Gospel in eight weeks. By the time we’re done, I’ll have spent around five hours telling them the story of the Gospel. And, we really don’t have anywhere near enough time to get it all in. But, when we’re done, they’ll have a much thicker narrative for the Gospel. They certainly won’t have the whole story. So, I hope they’re coming to appreciate that they could spend a lifetime filling in more details. But, they’ll have more of the narrative than they did before.

In case your curious, I’m presenting it around the standard Creation/Fall/Redemption narrative (after, that is how the Bible tells the story). But, I think we need to be careful here as well. A Creation/Fall/Redemption approach could easily be a “thin” narrative as well. It’s easy to assume people understand all three parts of this story and how they fit together. I actually find that that is generally not the case. Many Christians know the creation story, but don’t really know what it has to do with the Gospel. And, the same is true with other parts of the story (especially the history of Israel).  So, I’m trying to provide a thicker narrative all the way through. (You’re probably getting a sense now for why 5 hours is not enough time.)

Here’s the outline:

  • Week 1: Introduction and explanation of why everyone (non-Christians, new Christians, and old Christians) need to understand the Gospel more than they do.
  • Week 2: Genesis 1:1-25 and God’s plan to manifest his glory throughout creation as an expression of grace.
  • Week 3: Genesis 1:26-2:25 and God’s plan to create human persons through whom in particular he would manifest his glorious presence in creation.
  • Week 4: Genesis 3 and the fall of Adam and Eve as well as the horrible consequences that resulted for all of creation.
  • Week 5: The rest of the Old Testament (seriously, I only have eight weeks) and God’s faithfulness to his people, plans, and promises in the Garden and throughout the history of Israel.
  • Week 6: The Messiah as the fulfillment of God’s plans and promises for his people and for all of creation.
  • Week 7: How we should respond as individuals and as the people of God.
  • Week 8: How this Gospel transforms the way that we see everything.

So, that’s what I’m doing to try and give the students a thicker narrative for the Gospel. What are you seeing in your churches and ministries? Has your church/ministry done a better job providing thick narratives for the Gospel? If so, what have you been doing?