Spiritual Formation Movement: A Challenge

The spiritual formation movement, at times (not always), seems to suggest if you practice the disciplines you will be spiritually formed. That tendency has then been picked up by churches to create “programs” for each discipline with the hope that by providing the program the church will foster spiritual formation. And sometimes this happens.

But Andy Stanley challenges this approach. Part 3 of his book Deep & Wide examines this topic and he calls it “Rethinking Spiritual Formation.” If Andy is right — and I think he is — we may need to reconfigure how we think about spiritual formation. “We don’t believe classes create mature believers. Classes create smart believers” (101). Andy is not against theology, but he knows theology isn’t enough.

In 1995 some leaders at North Point discussed forming a church around spiritual formation. They are not alone in that one. But what they did was discuss and discover five catalysts for spiritual formation, and these five catalysts shape ministry at North Point. As I read these three chapters, I said to myself time and time Yes, this is how it happens.

The question: What were the decisive catalysts in your own spiritual formation?

Here is what Andy and the leaders at North Point think are the top five, and these are their conclusions on the basis of the stories of countless Christians:

1. Practical Teaching: his focus here is on teaching with a view toward formation and change and praxis and not just toward information and theology. And he speaks of how so many witness to the importance of the Bible coming alive at some point. One of their mottos: “People are far more interested in what works than what’s true” (114). Agree? People are on happiness quests not truth quests. This is why they don’t so much teach through books in the Bible as teach themes derived from books.

2. Private Disciplines: Here is the spiritual disciplines classic emphasis, and many speak to the influence of the disciplines in their growth. They focus on Bible study and reading and prayer; they often provide cards of Bible references or prayers for the week. And on giving: priority, percentage, progressive. (Make giving a priority, determine your percentage, work on improving that percentage.)

3. Personal Ministry: “Few things will stretch and thus grow our faith [well, many today are using “grow” as a transitive verb] like stepping into a ministry environment for which we feel unprepared” (124). So they are big on getting people into ministries: “We are committed to involving as many people as possible, as young as possible, as soon as possible” (127). Unchurched and unbelievers are given responsibility according to their faith. But ministry transforms the minister.

4. Providential Relationships: most people speak of people who influenced their formation. They often see these as “providential” because they experienced the relationship as something from God. North Point tries to create environments conducive to the development of relationships, so they don’t change sunday school teachers ever year … they have small groups that can last from a child’s first grade into middle school years; small groups is the name of the game at North Point. Andy once told me they were a small groups that meet together on Sundays.

5. Pivotal Circumstances: nearly everyone has been influenced by “pivotal” moments in life, some of them tragic and others splendid. The issue here is how to interpret those moments. They discovered that what matters is two things: one’s worldview and those who are around the person when the pivotal circumstance occurs. Again, small groups is their central conduit in forming worldview and friendships.

What happens in your church and life if these five catalysts are given full weight?

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  • Andy Cornett

    I’ve been influenced by the small group leadership training that has come out of NP and then Rethink/Orange for youth and family ministry – and we hit these five catalysts all the time. Working with leaders of middle and high school groups, we can see how each of these can rise to the top at different seasons in the life of a small group (or an individual). I think it is an excellent summary that exhibits what it teaches: practical, disciplined, relational, and focused on moving into ministry.

    They also underscore that spiritual formation is a communal effort. That is a note we can’t hit often enough.

  • Jeff Y

    “‘People are far more interested in what works than what’s true’ (114). Agree? People are on happiness quests not truth quests. This is why they don’t so much teach through books in the Bible as teach themes derived from books.”

    I think this is true of people (interested in what works; on happiness quests) but I don’t think it’s healthy, ultimately, to play to this. This is the kind of thing, it seems to me, that leads to flawed spiritual formation. That it connects one with a moral system but not necessarily God. It reminds me of doing “life of Christ” studies (to get the “themes” derived from the gospels) and ignoring each particular gospel narrative. It seems this is more giving people fish rather than teaching them to fish. I am not here discounting the importance of practicality. That is vital. But, I think this approach may lead to developing a person like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 – he was clearly formed spiritually (he worshiped God; he had private disciplines – including prayer; he was giving; he was moral; etc.); but he did not have God.

    This is not to discount the import of practical issues. What must happen is, it seems to me, to let people learn truth while simultaneously connecting it to practical living. This requires, first, reading Scripture as God gave it; not highlighting themes – which subjugates Scripture to our own human constructs – we will do this inevitably to some degree, of course, but we can avoid a good bit of it by studying through books. Second, within the framework of that we may find that there will be some painstaking process of truth understanding – yet it must progress to practicality and challenge us directly.

  • Rick

    Jeff Y #2-

    Not having read the book, but knowing Andy’s ministry for decades, I think he does not discount the importance of truth. Rather, he sees “what works” as what gets people interested, then engaged, and then truth is introduced.

    Now, does that really work? That is another question.

  • RJS

    The section on providential relationships is dead on. I have no desire to ever attend a mega church and certainly not one the size of Andy’s. But – in that context the idea of continuity for the kids is critical.

    The strength of the church to which we belong is that it has provided that for 20+ years (we’ve been here for 20 years). My kids were raised in a cohort that moved along, with adults who were involved with them over the years – who knew them as they grew. And I know and was involved with the kids as well for many years. The interlocking circles of connectedness are the real strength of the medium sized church (say 200 to 1000 without meaning those numbers to be absolutes). Relational, relational, relational …

    Relational is not a code word for “social club” ( a reference I have heard many church leaders make disparagingly). It is the core of what we are as a people of God. It is the way the church began and it is the only way the church will really thrive in our post-christendom culture.

  • Nathan

    Immersion in the narrative of Christian faith is immensely practical. It’s only there that people are given a coherent picture of Christian identity and purpose because the narrative is centered on Christ and the baseline of genuine Christian identity as “a people”. This strikes me as very much about a “me” and not the “we” that is The Church.

    It may “work” but…

  • “People are far more interested in what works than what’s true”

    I agree – The question is “what works”?

    Having served at a church down the road from Northpoint I love Andy and his church. I still believe he’s one of the most effective communicators in the country. God has and will continue to use the church.

    However, it seems from time to time an emphasis on practical application has caused big room teaching to neglect the transformational power of the gospel. Sure, go in through the door of the felt need. Understand that people are hungry for what works. Give them great practical ideas to live out the truth of scripture.

    But what really works? At the end of the day if people aren’t pointed towards transformational solution aren’t we just handing them band aids to heal stage 4 cancer? Shouldn’t gospel dependance (and all that means) always be included for consideration?

  • Diane S.

    In determining whether or not something “works”, one has to first define what the desired end result is. Honestly, one can jump through all those listed hoops, but still not be Christ-like…these can often become merely items one crosses off their “good Christian” to-do list rather than adopting an entire lifestyle of apprenticeship to Christ. Such programs can be helpful for those who are new in the faith, but at some point people need to yank the baby bottles out of their mouths, step up to the plate and take responsibility for their own growth rather than relying on church programs to do it all for them.

  • To put it bluntly, I happen to think the catalyst for spiritual formation is grace. I share that simply as an observation (rather than a debate proposition).

    The question to my mind, then, is how are we training, encouraging, wooing, and imploring people to interact with grace. And, from my Anglican perspective, what “sure and certain means of grace” are we receiving and practicing?

    I’d be interested to read Stanley’s book. It would be worth comparing with “Move: What 1000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth” by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson. I just read that and went to a conference in Dallas last week led by the authors. It looks like North Point and Willow Creek are working on related projects.

    My observation is that these churches are working out ascetical theologies suitable to their contexts. I find this very encouraging and pray for the prosperity of their work.

    Thinking from my framework about theirs (i.e. “people are far more interested in what works than what’s true”), I’d say there is no dichotomy. Ascetical theology is the “what works.” Dogmatic theology is the “what is true.” In practicing the Christian religion, what’s true and what works go together. And Jesus, who is truth, practiced and gave us certain practices to know him, “when you pray . . . when you fast . . . when you give . . . do this in remembrance of me.” So practice and truth go together, but for what purpose? If people are interest in “what works” what does it work for? It must work for the purpose of an increase of faith, hope, and charity (i.e. moral theology or sancitifcation or spiritual transformation into Christlikeness).

    I share this, because what I find lacking in “Move” (don’t know if it’s lacking in “Deep & Wide”) is clarity about moral theology. It’s assumed, but not made clear, or at least as clear as Martin Thornton makes in the opening of “Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation.”

    Thornton writes, “Suffice it to say that the only valid yardstick by which spiritual progress may be measured is moral theology; to divorce ascetic [practical theology] from dogmatic [theology] and then to measure progress in terms of devotional fervor or quasi-mystical feeling is to embark on an intricate voyage with an inaccurate compass and the wrong map. . . . Ascetical theology, with moral theology as its correlate, is the true core of pastoral practice. . . .”

  • Kel

    “People are far more interested in what works than what’s true” (114). Agree? People are on happiness quests not truth quests. This is why they don’t so much teach through books in the Bible as teach themes derived from books.”

    I agree that that is true of people, but people are also in the midst of transformation and the flesh still fights to get its say. Seems to me that Paul and the other letter writers aimed highly theologically and out of that wrote things like, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” That emerges out of the complex theological argument made by Paul in Romans 1-11. We do our congregations an injustice if we try to provide practical help without a firm theological underpinning. Might as well read self-help books.

  • Kel

    Scot, it could be argued that the soterian gospel “works” for people, and has worked for people because they can pray a prayer, have their sins forgiven and move on, whereas the King Jesus gospel involves one’s whole life and ongoing transformation. Would you give up the flow and unity of the Bible that provides the foundation for the King Jesus gospel for “what works”? I ask the question because you intimated that you agreed with Stanley on most of his points. If we are inviting people to discipleship, following Jesus, we can’t let the tail wag the dog and starting with what works for people seems to me to be just that.

  • Andy Cornett

    I’ll go out on a limb here (though I’ve not read the book) and comment on the “what works” angle. I’d be shocked if they just teach “what works” as if that is somehow divorced from the truth. What I’ve see NP do again and again is teach the truth and go on to demonstrate that this truth … actually works! It makes sense, it fits reality as we know it. And that is what appeals to people. Are we all on happiness quests to discover what works best? More or less. What NP seems to do with its aim at “practical teaching” is teach life-changing truth – THE truth, but in way that demonstrates its truth in the practical out-working of your life. It’s not truth separated from practices or workable practices cut off from truth: I daresay that shoot for truth working itself out in love.

    grace and peace – Andy

  • Scot, just catching up with this post on your blog. I like what Andy Stanley and team have done with these five catalysts. While the classic spiritual disciplines have been helpful to many, this particular model alone is insufficient as a template for a congregations’s spiritual formation. The remaining four in this list are very important in the formation of a believer.

  • Pastor Grant

    I am so tired of the phrase spiritual disciplines. Can we not use more biblical terms like the way, being a well-fed sheep, godliness and the like? The term spiritual disciplines comes across as Pharisaic, legalistic and man-made rather than biblical. Perhaps then we can more easily differentiate between those practices which truly are biblical and those which are just the wacky latest fad.

  • blueskunk12

    The Biblical Jews were very disciplined, but Jesus told them they were hypocrites, snakes, blind guides.

    Teach about the love of God and people will respond. Keep hammering on the topic of obedience and people will continue to run.