A New (Old) Vision for Spiritual Formation


March 22, 2014 by cbbeard

So what now?  What do you do when you realize that the road you are on doesn’t lead to your destination?  What if efforts that you are competent in and comfortable with become increasingly ineffective?

This is the position I found myself in as a part of the leadership team in the church I serve.  We were at a fork in the road…do we continue down the same path we have traveled and try to “ramp up” existing efforts as a church, or do we start down a different path?

VisionWe had already determined that we needed a focus on discipleship, and that if we were to fulfill our God-intended mission we needed to be making more and better disciples.  More disciples meant taking our “sent” nature as a church seriously, better disciples meant spiritual formation efforts that resulted in people who live, love, and make disciples like Jesus did.  When it was all said and done, however, God used a simple exercise (that you can read about HERE) to show us that it was time for a new (old) vision.

It is a new vision because it is a significant paradigm shift for our congregation; yet it is an old vision because the core is found in the teachings and example of Jesus.  Simply put, we want to make the kind of disciples Jesus made in the way Jesus made them.  So we began to compare our ways with the ways of Jesus, and we found that there were three principles about Jesus’ disciple-making that were lacking in our own efforts…

Discipleship is about Identity

I doubt anyone would take issue with the proposal of this principle.  We read verses like 2 Corinthians 5:17 (in Christ we are a “new creation”) and Philippians 1:21 (for to me, to live is Christ) and we nod in agreement.  Unfortunately, our agreement this principle has not actually transformed our identity.

While we might agree that discipleship is about identity, the very core of who we are, in practicality the church has made discipleship about association.  We’ve identified a disciple of Jesus by the association…

  • of what we’ve done (who has prayed a prayer or has been baptized)
  • of what we do (pray, read the Bible, go to church) or don’t do (steal, lie, cuss, drink, dance, play cards, whatever)
  • of what we know or are learning (the more of the Bible you know, the better disciple you are!)

Therefore, the church has identified a disciple as someone…

  • Who has been baptized or made a faith decision.
  • Who is a good person that avoids sin.
  • Who is involved in spiritual activities like prayer, church events and programs.
  • Who matures in knowledge of the Bible.

Now, in my many years of ministry experience, the churches I’ve served in would have LOVED to have a growing group of people who fit that description!  Here’s the problem…when discipleship is about associations rather than about the core of who we are, it becomes a checklist, and instead of us being able to proclaim “to live is Christ” our lives scream “to live is Pharisee.”(1)

Instead of simply changing the nature of our associations with Jesus, we need to be transformed to be like Jesus.  When Jesus made disciples, he cultivated and challenged three crucial aspects of identity within his followers(2):

Missional – At the core of who we are in Christ, we are missionaries.  We are to partner with God in his mission of redemption and restoration.

Relational – At the core of who we are in Christ, we are a part of a family designed to grow.  We were meant to exist in communion with God and one another.

Rational – At the core of who we are in Christ, we are both learners and teachers. We were meant to grow in knowledge and understanding of God and his Kingdom, as well as teach others.

Therefore, spiritual formation efforts in the church must focus on cultivating these three aspects of a disciple’s identity.  We must be intentionally create a culture where people are expected to partner with God and other believers in mission, and equip people to do so.  We must facilitate community that goes beyond the shallow tendencies caused by our individualism and isolationism and create true koinonia amongst our people.  We must move beyond our outdated concepts of teaching and learning and challenge one another to always be learning and teaching, no matter what that may look like.

If we embrace that spiritual formation/discipleship is about identity, we can become a people who can more accurately proclaim “for to me, to live is Christ.”  But it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen all at once, because…

Discipleship is a Process

Again, this is one of those nod-in-agreement principles.  Paul wrote that we should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) and most of us would agree that spiritual formation is a journey, a marathon instead of a sprint, and something that is ongoing.

This is reflected in Jesus’ disciple-making.  A quick survey of the Gospels reveals Jesus spending time with his followers, leading them, guiding them, challenging them, and teaching them as he did life with them.  Our churches, however, have relegated spiritual formation to certain times and places.  To align our efforts more with the example of Jesus, we must keep these procedural characteristics in mind:

It is a process that takes place pre- and post-conversion. – We’ve introduced a dangerous dichotomy in the church that has separated “evangelism” from “discipleship.”  Evangelism is the effort that goes into bringing people to Jesus, and discipling is what happens after that.  It sounds logical, but it’s not biblical.  Jesus was making disciples and introducing them to Kingdom living even before they had made a “faith decision.”  Our job is to start making disciples of Jesus before they claim him as Lord and Savior, and when God does his thing and that faith decision is made, the process continues seamlessly.

It is a process that is ongoing. – Discipleship is ongoing because we are never “there” until Jesus’ return.  As long as we have breath on this earth, we will need continued transformation.  But it is also ongoing because the process never stops.  Spiritual formation is not limited to an hour of weekly Bible Study or two hours of worship assembly on a Sunday morning, nor is it limited to a particular space…say a church building.  In fact…

It is a process that is non-linear. – I’ve been at churches where we offer sort of a “101, 201, 301” type of progression of Bible studies that is intended to make better disciples.  The unspoken precept of those classes is that much like a staircase, you start at the bottom and work your way up, and once you get through the last class…BOOM, you are a mature disciple!  While there is value to study and to the development of the rational aspect of our identity, real discipleship just doesn’t work that way.  The majority of our spiritual growth doesn’t take place in a classroom or sanctuary, but in the fertile ground of our everyday lives.  God uses the “kairos moments” (3) to challenge us, shape us, and transform us.

These procedural characteristics must influence the form and function of the church. We must see discipleship not as something we can control and make happen at a scheduled time and place, but rather as something we facilitate.  The church must help people create the space in their lives for God to move and work.  Therefore, our church must create a culture in which we develop a second-nature response of seeing Kingdom purposes in our relationships.  For people who do not yet know Jesus, we must discern how best (in partnership with the Holy Spirit) to introduce them to the Kingdom of God.  For people who are already disciples, we consider how we can spur them on to love and good deeds, as well as how they can sharpen us as well.

Additionally, the church must be in a constant mode of “equip and release.”  If spiritual formation is not bound by time, space, or our scheduling, then we must equip our people to make disciples everywhere they go, as well as train them to grow together in Christ outside the walls of the church.  Only when we equip and release will we be able to “be the church” as God intended, as well as embracing the sent and incarnational nature of our ministry that Jesus implied when he said “as the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

Finally, the nature of our efforts must change, because…

Discipleship requires experience.

If you look at how Jesus taught his disciples, we see three primary methods of training (4):

The sharing of information. – Jesus taught his followers information about himself, the Father, and living in the Kingdom of God.  This teaching took place in a “classroom” setting of the Sermon on the Mount, but also along the road, in people’s homes, on boats, and all kinds of other places.  It took place in a one-on-one setting, to thousands at a time, and everywhere in between.

Learning by apprenticeship.  – Jesus’ followers watched Jesus minister, Jesus gave them instructions, sent them out to minister themselves, and then debriefed about their experience. (See Luke 9-10).  Jesus used apprenticeship because he knew it was vital that his followers experience mission in action.

Learning by immersion. – Jesus disciples were always with him.  They saw him in a variety of circumstances that taught them how to live like Jesus in everyday, ordinary life.

Wouldn’t you know…the way Jesus taught his followers is the way we learn today!  When these three methods are combined, we learn in a way that is absolutely transformative.

Here’s the problem though…our churches have only focused on one-third of this effective training method, which makes it much less effective.  Spiritual formation in the church in America has focused on information download, and as Reggie McNeal pointed out, “The result of the modern church’s form of spirituality is a North American church that is largely on a head trip” (5).

Therefore, if we are to become the disciples and the church God intended, we have to get out of our heads and into the real world.  We must inject experience into our churches, especially in two vital areas:

Experience in Community – We must repent from the sins of individualism and isolationism.  God intended for community and relationships to be the “proving ground” of our transformation.  How are we to practice the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5) by ourselves?  Additionally, our community needs to be inclusive of people who do not yet know Jesus.  Jesus said that the world would know that we are his disciples if we love one another, but how are they to see our love if we are not doing life together? (Hint, they won’t see it on a Sunday morning!)

Experience in Mission – The church has missed out on the transforming power of experience because we have neglected the role of every Christian as a missionary.  Leaving mission up to the “professionals” has robbed people of experiencing God’s power, love, grace, and mercy in action, and it has allowed biblical truth to remain in the ether of the abstract rather than become concretized in our lives.

Therefore, experience must be a priority in our spiritual formation efforts.  We must create a culture of apprenticeship in which one of the primary activities in the church is people leading other people by experience.  Additionally we need to create a culture that is so involved in making disciples that one only needs to be a part of our community to be immersed in Kingdom living.  And finally, we must be a congregation that is a true community that does life together, building one another up and partnering with God and one another in his mission of redemption and reconciliation.

The problem is, the church in North America is not reaching her God-infused potential and if we are to fulfill our God-intended mission then we must come to grips with the fact that changes must be made.  We need a new (old) vision of spiritual formation in which we move beyond the learning of knowledge to the transformation of every aspect of our lives.  We need a new (old) vision based on the teaching and example of Christ to inform the way we make more and better disciples.  We need a new (old) vision to wake the church up from her slumber and help her claim her rightful role as God’s masterpiece, his “Plan A” for his redemptive mission for the world.

What do you think?  How will these truths change how we “do” church?  What will be the hardest part of living out this new (old) vision in our lives and churches? 



(1) Check out https://cbbeard.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/our-pharisee-problem/ for a discussion of our pharisaical tendencies.
(2) These three aspects of a disciple’s identity are found in: Dodson, J. K. (2012). Gospel-Centered Discipleship. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
(3) For a great discussion of “kairos” moments and how God uses them to transform us, see: Breen, M., & Cockram, S. (2011). Building a discipling culture (2nd ed.). [Kindle Edition].
(4) Breen, M., & Cockram, S. (2011). Building a discipling culture (2nd ed.). [Kindle Edition].
(5) McNeal, R. (2003). The present future: Six tough questions for the church. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Page 55

3 thoughts on “A New (Old) Vision for Spiritual Formation

  1. […] Please check out the next step…a summary of “A New (Old) Vision” in regards to our spiritual formation efforts as a church… […]

  2. Wow! You are truly modeling what churches can do when they know they’re stuck. Thanks for sharing your journey and discoveries — both are well articulated and motivating!

    • cbbeard says:

      Thanks Tim!

      It’s an ongoing journey with continuous twists and turns and a constant element of challenge and learning. I pray our journey will lead us to align better with God’s intentions as well as serve others in similar situations.


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