I’m two months into a new position at a new church. That position is Minister of Spiritual Formation. Apparently, the title isn’t self-explanatory, because upon introducing myself to church members, I am often asked to explain what exactly I do at the church.
Now, the puffed-up, self-centered part of me wants to balk at such questions, and the cynic in me wants to scoff and say, “What do you mean? Do you ask the music minister or the youth minister to explain what it is they do?” But, at the same time, the realist in me just gets anxious.
Here’s why. Several years ago, I remember sitting in an interview with a church’s search team and being asked essentially the same question. The woman who asked it had done her homework on me; from where I sat across the conference table, I could see her detailed notes written into the margins of my resume, a legal pad replete with questions she considered asking me, and underneath that a black, three-ring binder containing photocopies of several posts from my blog. Perusing these for a few seconds, she looked back up at me and said, “You write a lot in your blog about ‘spiritual formation.’ It seems like that term comes up a lot. I was just wondering, what is spiritual formation?”
I remember feeling simultaneously excited and apprehensive by her question.
Excited, because this was one of the first interview questions that had to do with my personal convictions and interests in ministry (as opposed to programs I had started and events I had planned), and it would be refreshing to speak to a deeper level of what it means to be a minister.
Apprehensive, because I was hardly prepared to give a succinct and comprehensive answer to her question.
You see, at the time “spiritual formation” was still somewhat of a nebulous concept to me, despite however many times the term found its way onto my blog or into my lessons. It was something I was profoundly interested in, of course, but also something that intimidated me as much as it inspired me. I was convinced I wanted to focus on it in my ministry, both in philosophy and practical direction, but despite collecting several books on the subject, I was still unsure how to work with, in, and toward spiritual formation.
Still, it is not like me to forego offering my opinion on anything. So when this woman asked her question, I let very little silence fall before I opened my mouth to speak. However, another person on the search committee beat me to answering. He said quickly and dismissively, “It’s just another word for ‘discipleship.'”
His answer threw me off, and I slowly closed my mouth. It’s tricky enough to respond to the open-ended question, “What is spiritual formation?” Explaining the error in confusing it with discipleship, especially in the context of a job interview, is a whole other level of difficulty.
The Hunt for a Good Definition
I learned two things in that interview. The first was that it is not uncommon to encounter long-time, active church members who have little idea what spiritual formation is. The second was that I was one of them.
Defining spiritual formation is not necessarily a hard thing to do. People have been offering their elucidations on the term for quite some time. (Jim Smith just wrote a great series of posts covering it from every angle.) However, because every person whom the Spirit forms is a unique individual woven together by an elaborate and distinctive collection of characteristics, attributes and idiosyncrasies, sometimes the only definition that seems to truly fit is the one you craft yourself.
After the interview, I at least knew where not to start. I knew spiritual formation was not simply another term for discipleship. The two are intimately related, for sure, but even my limited understanding cried out against belittling either term by calling it a mere synonym of the other.
I decided to start with defining discipleship, something that did not intimidate me as much. Oddly enough, it was this endeavor that led me to an answer for the other.
Defining discipleship seemed easy enough; I just looked more closely at its root word: disciple. Once I cleared away the cobwebs of antiquated Christianese words that were part of my small town Baptist church upbringing – words like “discipleship training” and “church discipline” and “Disciple Now Weekend” – I was able to return to the original meaning of the word. From the Greek mathetes, meaning learner, pupil or apprentice, it was often used to describe the students of a rabbi, and in the case of the Gospels, this means Jesus. Rabbinic disciples were meant to learn from their teacher, to emulate them in every way possible, and, eventually, to carry on that rabbi’s teachings – also known as their rabbi’s “yoke” – as a formative part of their own.
If this is not the very example provided us by the likes of Peter, James and John, I don’t know what is.
So, if discipleship is the commitment to being a disciple, and being a disciple means emulating one’s teacher, then Christian discipleship simply means, as one of his disciples wrote, “walking as Jesus did,” and another added, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is both the example and the focal point for our thoughts, words and actions.
And wouldn’t you know it, this was all right there in the word itself. It wasn’t complicated.
The Title Is Self-Explanatory
Naturally, this led me to reconsider the term “spiritual formation,” taking again the root word – or, in this case, the root words. “Spirit” and “forms.” I was struck by the fact that these two words alone was almost a workable sentence in itself. Spirit forms. What is more, it sounded as much like a declaration as it did a reminder. In John 16, Jesus declares that it is the Spirit who leads us into all truth. And every time I try to arrange and organize and methodize my life so that I might feel like a more effective person, my inevitable shortcomings bring God’s reminder: “No, Bo. The Spirit forms. Not you.”
This, then, must be the first step toward any measure of spiritual formation. There must be the element of surrender. I’ve heard some people describe the concept as a “pursuit of God,” but spiritual formation is not about us chasing after God. Rather, we are the ones who lay down our arms – the dependencies and life structures that rival his promised provision – and wave the white flag. It is not us creeping closer to God’s territory, but rather God invading our once guarded spaces. If it is a pursuit, it is a pursuit of man by the Holy Spirit.
This is similar to discipleship. Jesus said that if anyone wanted to be his disciple, that person had to deny himself. This doesn’t mean that discipleship and spiritual formation are the same, but it doesn’t reveal that an essential element of the Christian life is the relinquishing of control over our abilities and circumstances.
The difference between the two is that discipleship is the commitment we make to follow Jesus according to his call. Spiritual formation is what takes place once that following begins, when the Spirit begins its transformative work in our hearts and minds.
So, what exactly does a Minister of Spiritual Formation do?
If I’m shepherding a person effectively, then I am helping him understand the principle common to both experiences – that it isn’t all about him. A minister attends to the needs of others, so I’m reminding him that he doesn’t need the worship service to conform to his preferences. That his Bible study doesn’t need to utilize his favorite curriculum. That fellow church members don’t need to think and act the way he feels they should.
I tell him that what is truly needed is something only God can give. And, if I do this well, he learns to accept that the community of God is something larger and grander than his own imagination’s limits. He comes to see it is infused by a very big and very beautiful God who has a purpose and an agenda so much greater than any one mind can grasp.
A Minister of Spiritual Formation provides opportunities upon opportunities that challenge people to experience the grandeur of God. I’m pointing them to ministries and programs and events and studies not simply because that’s what going to church is all about, but because these things hold the potential to reveal how, as Hopkins wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
It’s not always the easiest thing to explain, but not everything has to be easy to explain. When people hear my job title and ask me what I do, I’ve stopped sweating the question. Instead, I smile and tell them, “I make sure people aren’t so focused on their own lives that they forget they’re a part of something much, much greater.”
It may not be the answer they are expecting, or the one that clarifies things the way they were hoping when they asked the question. I’ve only been here two months, so I’ve still got a lot of work to do when it comes to helping people live into their own definitions.
But when it comes to explaining spiritual formation to someone, I’ve decided that is as much the Spirit’s job as it is mine.