In 1944, a young, German pastor writing from prison and nearing the end of his life asked a simple question that countless people have returned to time and time again. In his correspondence with his friends, he had been wrestling with many issues pertaining to the nature of religion, the rapidly changing world, and the witness of the church in a time when Hitler was destroying countless lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,
“What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today?”
Like Bonhoeffer, I am bothered by this question as well. This foundational question must be engaged in every generation, and as we hold onto it, we also must ask another penetrating question. We must also be incessantly bothered enough to ask:
Who are we, really, for Christ today?
Both of these questions call us to seriously consider our lives. And if we can be honest, the current state of things is not encouraging. We find ourselves in a world increasingly shaped by dangerous rhythms, racial injustice, emotional immaturity, flippant sexuality, political idolatry, and individualistic consumerism to name a few of the powers that are wreaking havoc in our lives and communities.
- How can it be that those who call themselves Christian live at such a violent pace that eliminates any semblance of being with Jesus in prayer?
- How can it be that those who identify as followers of Christ still hold deep racist beliefs about others?
- How can it be those who consider themselves disciples of Jesus live a life characterized by emotional dysfunction?
- How can it be that those who call themselves saved by Jesus live captive to political ideologies?
- How is it that those called out from the world often live in indistinguishable ways from the rest of the world?
These questions remind us that it is certainly possible to be deeply committed to being a Christian—but not be deeply formed by Christ.It is certainly possible to be deeply committed to being a Christian—but not be deeply formed by Christ. Click To Tweet
In light of this brief analysis, I believe there’s a clear invitation for pastors. Pastoral ministry in this moment is a disorienting enterprise. Pastors are trying to maintain meaningful connections with their communities in the midst of a pandemic while navigating racial distress, economic upheaval, and a political maelstrom for good measure.
How does one lead holistically, and from a deep center? How does one create a formational environment conducive for the Spirit to powerfully work in our midst?
In my new book The Deeply Formed Life, I’m offering an ambitious reframing of formation. This reframing is needed to move us toward a paradigm of discipleship that wrestles faithfully with the moment we are in. And let’s not forget: every moment calls for a new frame through which engage the world.
What is a deeply formed life? Simply stated, it’s a life shaped by and for Jesus; five particular values comprise this robust integrative paradigm. This is certainly not all there is to formation, but I believe these areas are some of the most urgent and important for our time.
The pastoral task before us, then, is about holding on to a robust framework, resisting the gravitational pull of formational compartmentalization.
Understanding Formational Compartmentalization
The pastor needs a deeply formed life to resist the ways of formational compartmentalization. By this I mean that our communities need concurrent discipling along different lines.
As a pastor who has experienced the impact of evangelical, Pentecostal, and progressive ways of formation, I’ve noticed how easy it is to compartmentalize our spirituality. For example:
In evangelical circles, the formational emphasis is around right thinking.
In Pentecostal cultures, it’s right experiences.
In progressive contexts, it’s right action.As a pastor who has experienced the impact of evangelical, Pentecostal, and progressive ways of formation, I’ve noticed how easy it is to compartmentalize our spirituality. Click To Tweet
Surely this is an oversimplification, but the point remains. We can find ourselves solidly fixed in a particular way and forego the call to greater intersection. To be deeply formed requires us to cross-train, working multiple points of formation, and seeing how one necessitates the other.
Over three decades at New Life Fellowship, we have sought to disciple our congregation through this framework. In the course of our life together as a church family, this framework gradually came into being. As cultural shifts arose, we saw fragmentation within our community and set out to provide a strategy of formation that correlated with the particular brokenness being expressed in our local body and beyond.
The Deeply Formed Life was birthed from a community, not detached theological inquiry. While we are a work in progress, we have seen countless people experience profound life change and mobilized into a different way of leadership. The formational framework I present is one that gives concurrent attention to contemplative rhythms, interior examination, racial justice, sexual wholeness, and missional presence.
Let’s face it, the vast majority of people in our churches struggle to pray and live at a pace that sustains attentiveness to God. Frankly, we pastors are in the same boat. Our engagement with the world is often from a place of reactivity and frenzy. We are captive to a pace of life that drowns out presence. As pastors, our first task is to be contemplatives; that is, people who behold God (Ps 27:4) and from that place behold the world in love.
I’m convinced that in order for the church to have meaningful engagement in the area of racial injustice and apathy, we must thoughtfully examine six layers. They are as follows:
In this book, I spend time on the formational layer, offering “racial habits” (a phrase I first heard from Princeton professor Eddie Glaude) to cultivate a spirituality that moves us toward racial justice and cruciformed love. What I’ve discovered is that the call to racial healing requires lives deep enough to confront ourselves and the systems that perpetuate injustice and hostility.The call to racial healing requires lives deep enough to confront ourselves and the systems that perpetuate injustice and hostility. Click To Tweet
We are often strangers to ourselves. The way of examination is elusive in a world marked by scapegoating and fault finding. As pastors, much of the pain we come across in our congregations occurs because our people have not been discipled towards interiority. Interior examination confronts us with our own brokenness, helping us to make sense of our own stories, which positions us to live with a greater capacity to address the wounded parts of our souls, enabling us to live—as Henri Nouwen said—as wounded healers.
The formational framework I present also includes the convergence of our spirituality and sexuality. The church has a history of repression when it comes to sexuality. The ancient teaching of Gnosticism continues to be a modern approach many adopt in this part of our lives. In this teaching, our bodies are seen as prisons that prohibit our spiritual life from flourishing. On the other hand, the world goes down the road of reduction, seeing the appetites of our bodies as the telos—the ultimate end—of human existence. Both sides miss the point. Our bodies are not prisons. Nor are they the locus of meaning and fulfillment, alone. Our sexuality and spirituality are to be held together in love for God, for our neighbor, and for ourselves.
Lastly, as pastors, we are called to lead those we serve into faithful mission. The mission I write about encompasses a commitment to justice, faith and work, and the practice of announcing the gospel. In this book, I’m envisioning mission to start from a place of being, which flows outward into our doing. In the words of the late Robert Mulholland, we are called to be in God for the world, not in the world for God.
The Future of Christian Formation
The values I cover are intrinsically connected in many ways. For example, I propose that to talk meaningfully about racism requires us to do the work of contemplation. To work for justice requires a commitment to interiority. To be at home with our bodies requires a commitment to wrestle with our past. To do the work of prayer is to galvanize us into the mission.
As I think about the future of Christianity in our world, I’m convinced that followers of Jesus have a great opportunity before us. The way of the world continues to swallow people in its pace, hostility, distractions, and shallowness.
Having the right answers to the questions of faith is helpful, but will not do much to form people in the way of Jesus. We need more than answers found in arguments. We need answers found in our very lives. When we take seriously the task to follow Jesus and reflect his transforming power in all aspects of life, we will be at a place where the claims of the gospel take root in deeper ways.
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