The process of Spiritual Formation: How the church can aid the making of disciples

by Debby Bellingham ⓒ2022

The role of the Church

What does a church community do for the person who wants a transformed life? How does it help promote the process of being transformed into the image of Jesus?

To answer this question, we must first address some foundational issues: What the community looks like

  • Who comprises it.
  • What the leadership of this community looks like.
  • What the community life does in and for the process of transformation.

The community

It has within it a group of disciples on the narrow path, eager to learn to live and love as Jesus. With their best effort, they are committed to God and God’s kingdom and they cooperate with the daily grace the Spirit provides for this process of transformation. This group is the “yeast” of the community, small in number, yet influencing the whole. The sweet fragrance of their lives with Christ invites the rest of the community to walk the narrow path.

The leadership

The leadership of this community is made up of disciples who are personally submitted to this process of transformation; whose ministry is to invite all to join the journey on the narrow path; who prayerfully live in relationship with one another in a way that promotes the kingdom of God through their willingness to sacrifice, their disregard for who gets credit and their commitment to love and belong to one another.

The community life

Being with God together provides discipleship benefits that being with God alone, although necessary and good, does not. In the gathering of the saints, there are relationships that act as mirrors; we can see ourselves more clearly, both the areas of our life gifted by the Spirit for the building up of the body and the yet converted areas that need the transforming touch of the Holy Spirit. Relationships sharpen and purify. Also, being together informs and energizes life for the “non-gathered” days of the week. Strength and desire are gained to live a missional lifestyle.

Community-Aided Spiritual Formation

Having addressed these foundational issues, we can turn our attention to the process by which these gathered disciples and the gathering of disciples aid an individual in the process of spiritual formation.

As Dallas Willard said, “Discipleship is learning how to do what Jesus said (e.g. Sermon on the Mount), learning how to lead one’s whole life as Jesus would, and learning how to act in the power of God, the power of the Kingdom.” We must do explicit spiritual formation training in each of these things. We must develop a curriculum that allows disciples to grow in their ability to live and love like Jesus, to become like Christ in every way.

The church’s primary task

In order for a person to desire to live the life of an apprentice of Jesus, he/she will need to be able to envision a life that is attractive and doable. That is why one of the church’s primary works of spiritual formation is to correct a person’s identity. People suffer from a whole set of identities and we must not add another to their load. Instead, we must help them gain the identity of being God’s beloved child and then equip them to live the whole of their life from this singular identity. The possibility of knowing yourself as loved, accepted, and useful in the kingdom of God is a vision worth pursuing.

Stages in the life of a disciple
Three primary stages of faith in a disciple’s life have been identified at the risk of oversimplifying the process.

  •  Infancy
  • Youth
  • Maturity

Each of these stages has different developmental needs and, therefore, spiritual formation activities must provide opportunities that address the unique requirements of that stage of growth.

Also, these stages do not necessarily progress in an orderly fashion. In fact, movement is more cyclical than linear.

One can even be mature in one area of their discipleship, while still infant- like in another. Although the process of spiritual transformation takes place in a progressive and orderly fashion as the Spirit of God is heeded and employed, the terrain of the soul is not unlike the terrain of our earth – some areas are civilized and others are yet wilderness. It is God’s intention to claim all the territory of our lives for his Kingdom, one area at a time. God’s kingdom and rule progress in a person’s life as the Spirit is allowed access and as obedience follows.

Even though the content of the training in discipleship might vary from stage to stage, there are four elements that must consistently be present in each stage to foster spiritual transformation. With each season of growth, a person will need correct and biblical knowledge; they will need to develop practices that allow this knowledge to be lived out; they will need experience to test the new practices and; they will need relationships to support them as they grow.

Infancy

This term is used to describe someone new to the life of discipleship. Like a baby, they are hungry for spiritual nourishment. They are full of energy and eager to learn and grow; they provide joy and freshness to the community. They need information, education, training, and boundaries to thrive in this phase of their spiritual transformation.

During this stage of the spiritual journey, the disciple would benefit from Christ-like curriculum that taught them the truth of the scripture, gave them the opportunity to study the life of Jesus, and taught them how to read and study the scriptures. Exposure to good and sound writings of the saints of old is helpful during this phase. They should be taught the whole gospel, what they are saved from (death) and what they are saved for (life). It is important that at this early phase of spiritual transformation they explore their identity, recognizing their “false” self and their “true” self. They should develop disciplines of the spiritual life that allow them to practice engaging God through prayer, worship, and study. The sacramental life should also be emphasized, beginning with the Eucharist and Baptism. During this stage of growth, they will need opportunity to practice what they are learning, service projects, both within their community of faith, and outreach to the larger community. Feedback is essential. They will need a group of like-minded people with whom it is safe to process their spiritual journey – its ups/downs, high/lows, successes/failings.

Of course, every church community will need to form means of such equipping as is unique to their style and expression. Below are examples of how some churches have addressed the needs of the spiritual infant among them:

  • Baptism preparation and rite
  • Bible Studies that allow the word to be opened and trusting relationships to be formed
  • Topic-driven classes (e.g. worship, community, prayer)
  • Classes taught on specific books of the Bible (e.g. “Sermon on the Mount”, gospels)
  • Classes taught on the disciplines of the spiritual life
  • Service and mission trips
  • Testimonies shared in a larger group
  • Fellowship retreats focusing on the building of relationships in Christ
  • Recommended booklists

Youth
As a disciple matures in their faith, they will move into a phase of spiritual disequilibrium. They may experience a disruption of their faith in a general way (doubts about God, their salvation, etc.) or in a very specific arena of their life (the Holy Spirit is claiming new ground). The spiritual “honeymoon” is over, and now the loved one is learning to walk by faith, not by sight. Often in this phase of spiritual transformation, the disciple is angry, either at him/ herself, at the church, or at God. The summation of this anger can be captured in the phrase, “You’re not enough.”

The disciple is seeing areas in their life where they are to “put on Christ”; they realize that the narrow way is not a magic carpet. Their trust in God for salvation does not instantly convert them to a perfect follower of Jesus. They have habits, thoughts, and reactions that are not transformed. Disappointedly, they think they are not good enough.

Another young disciple may recognize how much the world needs the good news. There is injustice and oppression in the world and the church is not doing much about righting these wrongs. They rally for a cause and charge God’s community with not caring for the things God cares about. Accusingly, they think the church is not doing enough.

Still, another may face their shadow-side, feel overwhelmed by its immensity and the thoroughness required of the Spirit of God on this narrow road, and blame God for not fixing them immediately. The road is too long, the burden too heavy and they think God is not powerful enough.

The youth brings energy and a prophetic voice to the community of God. They are not content with the status quo – they long for and expect the perfection God promises. Often, during this phase of spiritual development, passion and emotion are the fuel for action or even inaction. The maturing disciple needs this energy and desire to be harnessed for the good of the Kingdom. They need practice in submitting their whole person, minds, wills, and emotions to the Lordship of Jesus; practice in authentic relationships and competency; and always, they need reinforcement of their identity as Christ’s beloved.

It is at this phase of development, that a disciple needs a continued exposure to the patient and unconditional love of God, given in relationship with others on the journey. Opportunities for knowing themselves thoroughly in the context of God’s acceptance will allow the Spirit to bring the light of God’s mercy and justice to their awareness. They need to be useful for the Kingdom, putting their skills and gifts toward a ministry of God’s choosing. They need to discover how to balance their “doing” with “being” and to learn that without a connection to the vine, the branches produce nothing.
Again, each congregation will address these needs differently, according to the graces and temperament of the body, but below are ways some churches have addressed the particular needs of the spiritual youth.

  • Training for leadership
  • · Small group leadership
  • · Compassionate ministry opportunities
  • · Service projects
  • · Small prayer/accountability groups
  • · One/one mentorship
  • · Extended and intensive opportunities to practice the disciplines
  • · Deeper exploration of the kingdom of God (putting into practice the “Sermon on the
  • Mount”)
  • · Spiritual Formation retreats on topics such as anger, worry, lust, etc.
  • · Topical classes (e.g. spiritual warfare, lifestyle evangelism, work as a ministry)
  • · Practice in “putting off the old and putting on the new”

Maturity
A mature disciple is one who is willing and able to live and love like Jesus. This follower has learned to submit to the will and love of God, trusting their whole life to the care of God. They act in response to the nudges of the Holy Spirit and have increasing evidence of the Spirit’s fruit being born in their lives. They live for the glory of God, not their own, willingly admitting their shortfalls because they know they are accepted in God’s love. Their minds have been made new by the scripture, their hearts have been softened by the love of God, their souls display the effect of obedience to God and their bodies are vessels of God’s active love toward the world.

At this stage of spiritual transformation, the disciple needs two primary things: opportunities to give away what has been given to them, reproduction; and retirement. Retirement does not mean a stop of activity, it means a rest from activity, enjoying the fruit of one’s labor, spending time reflecting on the goodness and love of God, to have occasion to further explore the interior landscape of their soul.

These needs can be met by providing them with occasions to share what they have learned of the spiritual life, either through personal relationships or a more formal setting. They need affirmation that they have gifts to offer the community of Christ. They will continue to grow as they give away what God has so generously given them. They would benefit from further exposure to the more ancient disciplines of the Spirit and then be given settings where they can practice these habits of heart – environments where they can become more like Mary and less like Martha; choosing the better lot, to sit at the feet of Jesus and soak up the love.

Ways some churches have of meeting these needs are listed below.

  • Teaching opportunities
  • Leading ministry projects
  • Silent retreats
  • Spiritual direction
  • Mentoring younger disciples
  • Writing about what they know
  • Prayer groups (Lectio Divina, centering prayer)

Conclusion

Abbott Moses taught, “Go, sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The Spirit of God is able to teach and form a disciple in isolation, apart from a community of believers. Yet, we as the church are invited to aid the Spirit in the teaching of a disciple by creating an environment that fosters spiritual growth and then supplying structures to allow that disciple to progress in the work of learning to live and love like Jesus.

Age is not necessarily a factor in spiritual maturity, although there are life lessons we gain as we advance in years and responsibilities that are useful in the process of spiritual transformation. One can be young in years and wise in the Lord. Or one can be an adult chronologically, yet a baby when it comes to controlling impulses.

The process of spiritual transformation cannot be a program, planned and implemented by a good-intentioned church. It is as unique and as varied as the individual. And this must be recognized by any congregation that desires to be a community dedicated to the spiritual formation of followers of Jesus. It would be much easier to administer a cookie-cutter type program, one size fits all – “follow these steps and arrive at the destination of a mature disciple.” But that is not the nature of discipleship, nor is it even possible. True, there are particular developmental milestones that are universal in the maturation of a person’s discipleship, but these milestones are not predictable in a person’s life, nor are they linear.

One will most likely, need to learn and then relearn these spiritual lessons as they encounter new situations in their life, gain new insight about their souls, or are shown another face of God. As was mentioned earlier, this process is more cyclical than linear.

Because of the unique nature of the individual and the varied speed of progression in the spiritual life, it would be helpful if a community, committed to helping disciples mature in their faith, had a means by which the disciple could “self-identify” their levels of spiritual maturity, indicating areas they feel are the growing edges of their life in Christ. This information, unique to their experience, could then be shared with a pastor or church leader, who could prayerfully, steer them toward the appropriate spiritually-forming events.

This would require much more of a pastoral presence in the life of the disciple; it would be much more effort than just giving them a predetermined course of study. It would mean listening to them, not fixing them; being with them, not speaking at them; holding them; longsuffering with them; knowing them; loving them. It would require of church leadership to live their own lives and love the flock as Jesus did.

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