The previous postings describe spiritual formation “in-the-small”: intrapersonal dynamics and some issues relevant to spiritual formation ministry conducted one-on-one or with a small group. But how does spiritual formation scale up? Planting and nurturing systems of spiritual formation at the congregational and denominational levels calls for more than simply doing a great deal of this one-on-one and small group work. This spiritual formation “in-the-large” also demands an additional level of thinking, planning and activity – endeavours distinct from and yet congruent with the dynamics and issues of spiritual formation in-the-small.
There is a small, but growing body of knowledge regarding these meta-formational concerns. Sadly, but perhaps not unexpectedly, much of this knowledge takes the form of what not to do – hard-won lessons from a battlefield littered with the bones of pastors whose genuine enthusiasm for spiritual formation exceeded their ability to wisely bring it to their flocks. However, some positive models are emerging, so spiritual formation practitioners are not simply left with instructions of what to avoid. This final post will outline four of these best practices: work from the centre outwards; go slow; draw, don’t drive; and be holistic.
Work from the Centre Outwards
The most common mistake cited in discussions of introducing spiritual formation to a congregation or other large group is to impose it from the top down. A spiritual formation strategy, complete with glossy pie charts, graphs and implementation plan has a certain appeal. However, such approaches leave people feeling cold, adopting a skeptical attitude as they wait for this latest fad to fade out, or – perhaps worst of all – disillusioned with spiritual formation when they jump on the bandwagon only for it to run out of fuel and collapse under its own weight. Carlson and Lueken courageously admit this as their greatest mistake when they tried to transform their seeker church into a spiritual formation church (2011, 162-171).
The better way to introduce spiritual formation in a body is from the center outward. This primarily means starting with the leadership. Sadly, pastoral staff and elder committees can often be enthusiastic for a spiritual formation emphasis in the church, but sometimes balk when they realize that this doesn’t apply just to the people in the pews, but to themselves – and themselves first! However, just as water does not rise above its source, so the spiritual vitality of a community is strongly influenced by the spiritual maturity of those in positions of leadership. This is why Marshall and Payne place “reforming your personal culture” before the evaluation, innovation and implementation phases of their Vine Project model (2016). You’ve got to have something before you can give it away.
Once spiritual formation has taken root in the leadership, the next step is to work with a small number of people in the community. Beginning from the leadership centre, one moves out in concentric circles – circles defined not by influence but rather by intention. That is, your leadership core invests their spiritual formation efforts in proportion to people’s willingness to work at it. While this strikes a discordant note in our egalitarian Western culture, this is a common pattern in scaling spiritual formation. Billy Graham himself, when asked what he would do if he were the pastor of a local church, replied that he would:
get a small group of eight or ten or twelve people around me that would meet a few hours a week and pay the price! It would cost them something in time and effort. I would share with them everything I have, over a period of years. Then I would actually have twelve ministers among the laypeople who in turn could take eight or ten or twelve more and teach them. (Coleman 1993, 116)
Working in this way, spiritual formation works its way throughout the congregation like yeast working through dough (Matthew 13:33).
Just because this is not a top-down program, however, doesn’t mean it is not carefully thought out. A strategic document could exist for its implementation, keeping the vision firmly before the eyes of the leadership, and working its narrative and language at every point in community life. However, this strategy is a subtle and subversive thing; something that is caught rather than merely taught. It is not launched with fanfare and marketing material; it is a deep current under the surface, slowly moving the ship of the community out to new vistas.
In order to be truly effective, the implementation of this center-out strategy must be slow. An aphorism from the world of business that illustrates this dynamic of scaling spiritual formation is that we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a year, but underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years. Accordingly, the common temptation when bringing spiritual formation to a community is to rush it: launching an broad initiative that pushes hard for every member to enroll in formation activities now:
The temptation with training is always to start a new program—to run a multitude of training courses, and whack as many members of the congregation through them as possible… But you can’t really train people this way any more than you can parent this way. Training is personal and relational, and it takes time. (Marshall and Payne 2009, Kindle Location 1986)
To quote another saying, the medium is the message in spiritual formation: a frenetic pace is a sign that you are doing it wrong.
The first reason it is important to go slow is that not everyone in the community is ready to embark on an intentional journey of being transformed into the image of God. Carlson and Lueken learned that
by definition, the church is a community of people scattered across the spectrum of commitment. A few are hungry for transformation. Some are content to dabble. Most are in the middle. But the whole community makes up what we call “the church.” (2011, 106)
This observation is part of what led them to the conviction that a subversive, gradual approach was more appropriate to the process of transforming a seeker-sensitive church into a community centered around spiritual formation. They confess to rushing programmatic changes that left people behind, making an already-challenging transition harder than it had to be (43).
Another reason to go slow is that it takes time to identify, nurture and release that cadre that will multiply the community’s spiritual formation capacity. The inhabitants of the aforementioned centre themselves need time to mature and season or else they will be harmed by being pressed into service prematurely, like a colt being saddled too young. This is not a new temptation; the 12th Century abbot and reformer Bernard of Clairvaux insisted
If then you are wise, you will show yourself rather as a reservoir than as a canal. For a canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, but a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus communicates, without loss to itself, its superabundant water. In the Church at the present day, we have many canals, few reservoirs. (Foster 1992, 168)
Once the centre has been “rooted and established in love” (Ephesians 3:17), they can begin to work outwards – leading others into gradual formation, who will in turn lead others. This slow approach appears inauspicious, but the long-term impact is not only exponentially larger, but also far more vibrant and sustainable along the way.
While launching into a community-wide program too soon is contraindicated, there is something to be said for starting today. Start small, yes; grow slowly from that tiny mustard seed, absolutely. But start today – and begin the journey of a thousand miles with that first step.
Draw, Don’t Drive
A third complimentary principle of scaling spiritual formation is to draw the members of the community into it, rather than driving them. Once you succumb to the temptation to rush the implementation of spiritual formation in a community, the associated temptation of compelling participation in spiritual formation activities arises. Since dynamics of compulsion are inherently those of violence, one cannot drive people into spiritual formation – in the same way that spiritual formation cannot be done at a frenetic pace. Spiritual formation programs characterized by compulsion and busyness are like a treatment plant that delivers its purified water to homes through a network of pipes contaminated with lead: an exercise in futility.
The alternative is to entice people to enter into the formational journey. This calls for an approach like the “fishing” style of evangelism, where one drops a piece of conversational “bait” and then sits back and waits to see whose attention is drawn by it (Siemens 2018). In the same way, Carlson and Lueken recommend “recruiting” for spiritual formation activities by simply calling those who God is already working in to go further: “Our job was to invite people to new life in Jesus, but the Spirit of God had to make it happen. We couldn’t turn anybody into anything” (2011, 101). This was a deliberate attempt on their part to implement the technique that their mentor, Dallas Willard, called the VIM model: first, cast a vision of a life apprenticed to Jesus (or a negative vision of the autonomous life); then, foster the intention to expend effort to pursue that vision; finally, promote achievable, practical and proven means to move towards that vision (2002, 85).
Just because we are drawing people rather than driving them, doesn’t mean there is no place for rigour. In fact, the rigour can be the very thing that draws the person who is longing for something more in their spiritual life. The REVEAL study – a spiritual maturity survey of over a quarter-million church-goers in over a thousand churches – discovered that the most spiritually healthy churches set the bar high for membership. They all had some form “jumpstart” program for newcomers that focused on spiritual vitality rather than ministry engagement, and this program was clear and non-negotiable (Hawkins and Parkinson 2011, 213). The study has simply rediscovered the importance of rigour to spiritual vitality that earlier believers learned the hard way. The early church insisted that a life palpably transformed by Jesus was a prerequisite for attending Sunday services, not to mention the ensuing multi-year catechetical process necessary for baptism (Kreider 2016, 143). All three of the great founders of monasticism – Pacomius in Egypt, Basil in Turkey, and Benedict in Italy – each saw their first attempt at community fail due to lack of rigour. The Moravians called for a church within the church, based on the Pietist model (Spener 1964, 89-80), and Wesley followed their example with his concentric circle of meetings, each more intimate and rigorous than the one before (Henderson 1997, 83-126). Shortly after the Second World War, Trueblood promoted revival by inviting believers to join a “Fellowship of the Concerned” who take their church membership “seriously”, but without an elitist ejection of nominal church-goers (1948, 59). These examples and countless others from the span of Church history point to the truth that winsome invitation and rigourous expectations are not mutually exclusive.
A final common implementation mistake is to make spiritual formation a department within in the church’s table of organization. Often arising from or included under the Christian education, small group or discipleship ministry portfolio, spiritual formation becomes one silo alongside others, like worship, missions, facilities and finance or human resources. The most obvious symptom of this approach is the creation of the position of “Pastor of Spiritual Formation” on the church staffs. But a department of spiritual formation, even as the preeminent department in the organization, is too narrow of view of spiritual formation. Instead, spiritual formation should be matrixed across all the functions and programs of the church. To be sure, some elements are more explicitly formational than others, but all should have the goal of assisting their stakeholders – participants and organizers – to be transformed to the image of Christ. After all, if a pastor (of any portfolio) is not a pastor of spiritual formation, then what are they? The primary role of all Christian leaders is “to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…and become mature” (Ephesians 4:12-13). However, when pastors, elders or volunteer lay leaders do the work of ministry for God’s people (or do it to them), they are no longer operating as true Christian leaders.
A matrixed approach to spiritual formation means that how things are done is as important as what is done. It requires going about each of the activities of the church as though their outcome is less important than who the stakeholders were becoming as they did them. Even (or especially) functions such as committee meetings and hiring or firing staff can and must be done in a formational mode. Graham Standish (2016) and Ruth Haley Barton (2012) both provide practical and proven models for conducting meetings in this mode, and Barton’s own Transforming Center ministry team have authored an HR policy manual that is highly formational. Similarly, Eugene Peterson promotes a form of spiritual direction that “takes place spontaneously and informally in unplanned but ‘just right’ moments” (1987, Kindle Location 1535). Once more in spiritual formation we find that how we do things speaks louder than what we do – again, the medium is the message.
Therefore, the implementation of spiritual formation in a community is less about establishing formation programs than it is about nurturing a formational culture. Evan Howard notes:
when we think of the spiritual formation of congregations, we must think beyond adult education classes and worship structures. We must focus attention and intention on facilitating Christlike maturity in the very character of our relationships with one another. Our work is not to develop creative programs; it is to create a culture (2018, 162)
Galindo notes that cultural formation relies on such elements as shared values, heroes, rituals, ceremonies, stories and network of relationships (2004, 34-6 and 189). This list bears a striking resemblance to the factors that Kreider observed in the formation of the early church’s culture: instruction, practices, Christian community, the master narrative, memorization of Scripture, and imitating role models (2016, 133-184).
While culture matters more than programs, programs have their proper – if subordinate – place in establishing, maintaining and expressing that culture. Although Marshall and Payne lament the state of affairs when “trellis work” dominates the time and energy of a church, they insist it is vital:
All Christian churches, fellowships or ministries have some kind of trellis that gives shape and support to the work. As the ministry grows, the trellis also needs attention. Management, finances, infrastructure, organization, governance—these all become more important and more complex as the vine grows. In this sense, good trellis workers are invaluable, and all growing ministries need them. (2009, Kindle Locations 62-65)
When Carlson and Lueken asked Willard what their church would look like after their transition from an attractional to a formational model, he responded that it “would look much the same but would be completely different” (2011, 111). Elsewhere Willard wrote, “Outwardly, in fact, our operation may not look much different than it does now. But its content, its goal and its outcome will most assuredly bring the people involved into a path of contemporary holiness” (11). Programs are vital: they are the skeleton on which communal spiritual life hangs; but which programs are adopted are unimportant. The key is to stay close to God and experiment, resting assured that “all manner of thing will be well” (Julian of Norwich 2011, Kindle Location 979).