Nearly 80 years ago, a young, German pastor-theologian, writing from prison, asked a question the Church has returned to ask time and time again. It was at its core, christologically anchored. Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked, who is Christ for us today?
“What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today,” Bonhoeffer said.
Some 80 years later, that question remains; but we also must ask a second deeply penetrating question—an important formational one—namely, what is the Church to be for Christ today?
Before the Church can properly engage the world in mission, there must be a clear and comprehensive exploration of formation. The great need and opportunity before us is to reimagine a paradigm of discipleship that truly shapes people into the image of Jesus for the sake of the world. In the words of the late Robert Mulholland, the call is to be “in God for the world” rather than “to be in the world for God.”
What is the Church to be for Christ today? Very simply, people formed into his image.
In nutshell, this is my working definition of spiritual formation:
Spiritual formation is the process of being formed into the image of Jesus
through Spirit-animated rhythms, practices, and relationships
for the glory of God, the blessing of others, and our own flourishing.
The Church fundamentally has one role in the world. That role is to be faithful to Jesus and to his Kingdom. The main ecclesiological challenge and opportunity before us pertains to discipleship. When talking about discipleship, we must hold in each hand matters of both content and container.
What is the content we are communicating and
what are the containers that are needed?
I want to spend my time talking about the content; the substance of what we proclaim. The containers and structures have changed and will continue to change, and they need to change. Historically, whether it’s been through Sunday school, small groups, missional communities, huddles, or classroom-style structures, the process of discipleship needs spaces for biblical and theological reflection, relationships that help us embody this truth, and a praxis that roots us in loving mission and service.
This is what I contend: If the containers and structures will need to change from time to time, so will the emphasis and contextualization of our content and the substance of our discipleship.
This leads me to ask foundational questions:
- What are the urgent matters before us as we think about being a Church for Jesus?
- What does this moment in history call the Church to focus on?
- What is the Holy Spirit beckoning us to?
I believe the Spirit is calling the Church into a robust formational framework that is:
- deeply contemplative
- profoundly integrative
- robustly historical
This is necessary because the formation that is often featured in our communities is superficial, compartmentalized, and without memory.
Let’s flesh out this framework:
Contemplation is not a way of life solely available to those who dwell in monasteries or ascend mountains. It’s a way of life offered to anyone who seeks to live in accordance with liberative wisdom of God found in prayer and self-examination. Being a contemplative is about a life given to loving attention of God. It’s a life rooted in stillness and silence, resisting a culture of reactivity and the “blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.”
Discipleship needs an emphasis on contemplation for the thoughtlessness that pervades our land, a commitment to humility that lowers our defenses, and a Spirit-generated ability to be a calm presence in an anxious world. As Ronald Rolheiser has stated, we find ourselves in a society marked by “pathological busyness, distraction, and restlessness.”
Discipleship needs an emphasis on contemplation for the thoughtlessness that pervades our land, a commitment to humility that lowers our defenses, and a Spirit-generated ability to be a calm presence in an anxious world. Click To Tweet
What is needed is a catechesis that trains people to have a firsthand spirituality, equipping women and men to fashion a desert in the midst of our cities, suburbs, and rural areas where prayer becomes paramount.
When Jesus called his first disciples, “he appointed twelve that they might be with him” (Mark 3:14). This was the first call of Christ-followers: to be with him. This is the language of loving union, communion, and presence.
It was soon after my conversion to Christ that I was introduced to the Desert Fathers. The Desert tradition—first prominent in North Africa—began to surge two centuries after the resurrection of Jesus. It arose from a countercultural monastic community in the deserts of Egypt that was marked by practices of silence, solitude, fasting, introspection, and meditation. The communities that formed longed to follow Jesus in a way that cost them something. They were not content mirroring the decadence of the collapsing empire around them. They wanted to live in God for the sake of healing the world. This is why they fled to the silence of the desert—not because they preferred introversion but because they knew something powerful was available only in the contemplation that could come as a result of spiritual solitude, silence, and stillness. The same is true today.
Studying the way of the Desert gave me permission to be still and know that God is God (see Psalm 46:10). I would find that the way of the Desert moved me from needing a word from God to experiencing union with the Word of God. As I worked to grow in my ability to contemplate—rather than merely request—in prayer, it became a sharing of hearts more than an offering of words. Certainly, words are an important part of prayer, but they began to flow from a different place, with the capacity to deeply change me, for the sake of love.
One doesn’t have to be decades into a relationship with God to enter this kind of prayer. It is not for spiritual “experts” (whatever that would be) or for those holier than most. I have led my two young children in this kind of prayer and have trained adults well into their seventies and eighties in new contemplative rhythms.
Contemplative prayer is not for the spiritually elite but for anyone hungry for God. And this is what is needed in our day: a way of life that deeply connects people to God. In the words of Karl Rahner, “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has ‘experienced’ something, or he will cease to be anything at all.”
Formational compartmentalization is one of the greatest challenges to a life rooted in the way of Jesus. Our discipleship is hindered due to our inability to hold various aspects of formation together. The compartments we create—or better yet, the fractures we perpetuate—stem from a number of splits in our theological imagination.
There are at least two to highlight:
Secular / Sacred Split
This age-old split has formed people in a way of life that emphasizes the immaterial and the age to come at the expense of the embodied and the instruction of Jesus to pray God’s Kingdom come. The formation required for a life of faithful witness is one marked by embodied sacramentality—a conviction that all of what we see is holy and a place to meet God. To take this seriously has many implications in the way we follow Jesus in the ordinary of life.
On a regular basis, I play hide and seek with my young son, Nathan. Nathan counts to ten and begins to search. The goal of the game is for me to be found, so I make sure that my foot is visible from the closet I’m in. Or my arm is visible from under the bed. I hide well enough so he has to search for me. But I reveal myself enough so he can find me.
This is a good analogy for our relationship with God. God is hidden in the world. And yet, God wants to be found by us. When God hides, he hides so that we may search for him. But he reveals enough that we may find him. Why? Because God wants to be found by us.
The apostle Paul gets at this in Acts 17. Paul is in Athens having a conversation about religion with people and he says these important words:
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)
Hear those words: God is not far from us. To live sacramentally is to be open to God’s presence in all things. I think of words from the famous poet William Blake:
To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour
– William Blake
Where can God be found? This is one of the most important questions we will ever ask. God is found in bread, wine, water, and oil. God’s presence is to be discovered in nature and in our neighbor. In the park, and in the poor. The formation that’s needed is one that takes seriously the intimate hiddenness of God.
Individual / Interpersonal / Institutional Split
Many Christians who have not made the connection between these three categories have failed to see how the Kingdom of God speaks to our individual and interpersonal realities and to the larger systemic, institutional realities. This is partly because they have understood Christianity as having to do primarily with the soul and very little to do with the systems and structures of our society.
An integrative formation, however, refuses to respond to the weightier matters of human existence without this three-layered reality. How the Church holds this together will determine the quality of our witness in the world.
This is to lead to a reimagining of mission itself—a reimagining that holds evangelism and ecology together—one that sees salvation as more than a private religious transaction and more of a sweeping wave of healing for our malformed lives and societal sickness. The holding together of these three layers will result in a perpetual unease about the status quo. It will lead to a reassessment of success. Why? Because it will remind us that God equally cares about the condition of our souls, the quality of our relationships, and the creation of just institutions.
A reimagining of mission sees salvation as more than a private religious transaction and reminds us that God equally cares about the condition of our souls, the quality of our relationships, and the creation of just institutions. Click To Tweet
The Church has a memory problem. Our formational approaches tend to exacerbate this reality. Remember our initial question: Who and what is the Church to be for Jesus? She must be the whole Church, across time and space. The urgent need is to have a deep appreciation and imitation of the historic and global Church, for there are treasures of formation and lessons of failure to be learned. We must learn to remember.
The Church of today often seems to misuse the exhortation of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 that we need each other. It’s common for the Church of the twenty-first century to say to the Church of the fourth century, “I don’t need you.” It’s common to see our tradition as the fullness of Christian truth.
In a world that has become smaller and more connected by virtue of technology, the Church must also become more connected in our history and ecclesiology. Philip Jenkins has predicted that by 2025 two-thirds of Christians will live in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
A Pew Forum study finds more than 1.3 billion Christians live in the Global South (61 percent of all Christians live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America), compared with about 860 million in the Global North (39 percent).
In an interconnected world, the US Christian must recognize that we are not the center of the world and that we need the gifts of the global Church—not just across space, but across time.
In an interconnected world, the US Christian must recognize that we are not the center of the world and that we need the gifts of the global Church—not just across space, but across time. Click To Tweet
The urgent need for the Church is to return in our study, in our prayer, and in our life together to those who have gone before us—and not only those before us but also giving our attention to those who are “around us” globally.
Our liturgies must ground us in the Spirit-breathed legacies and confessions of our brothers and sisters who have gone before us.
Our theologies must reach widely, across various streams and traditions, to help us thoughtfully navigate the challenges before us.
This requires fundamentally, a humble and teachable spirit. A spirit that is willing to plumb the treasures of reflection and praxis from sisters and brothers who are faithfully following Jesus in other contexts.
Spiritual formation is the process of being formed into the image of Jesus through Spirit-animated rhythms, practices, and relationships, for the glory of God, the blessing of others, and our own flourishing. Click To Tweet
As we journey together, our ecclesiology must bear the marks of people who deeply know Christ, who widely engage the issues of our day, and who curiously look beyond the tribes and traditions that have exclusively shaped our identity up to this point.
This is a good place to start the work of formation for a newly disrupted generation.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), p. 279.
 M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), pp. 47–48.
 Hilary of Tours, quoted by Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989) p. 17.
 Ron Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, New York: Crown Publishing, 2014) p. 22.
 Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” Theological Investigations VII, trans. David Bourke (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), p. 15.
 Philip Jenkins, New Faces of Christianity: Believe the Bible in the Global South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 9.