For the next year, Redemption Scottsdale will be focused on Spiritual Formation. This post is meant to cast vision for why we’ve chose this focus, what we’re really talking about, and how we intend to pursue it. Consider this your invitation to join us.
The Why (A Personal Account)
As a pastor, I have made it a point to be candid and transparent with the church about the work God is doing in me. I’ve said many times that there is no point in any of us pretending to have it all together, that our growth will come precisely through recognizing our weakness and need for Christ.
A few Sunday ago I shared (once again) about the refining crucible God has had me in for some time – a season where certain impurities are revealed in order to be removed. God, in his grace, brought me to a place where avoidance of my lack of health (my pride, idols, avoidance, etc.) was no longer an option. You can count me among the stubborn masses that God has had to bring low in order to shake us free of our delusions of self-sufficiency. And while I am still very much in the process, I can see now that God has been near in my hardships, using them for my good.
As difficult as it has been at time, the season has been powerful in opening me to a deeper understanding of the gospel. I had to learn at a deeper level what it means that the old self has to be put to death in order for me to be made new. I had to learn at a deeper level what it means that you find your life by losing it, that following Jesus means picking up your cross and following him to death, trusting that he will resurrect you again. I had to learn at a deeper level that the way up is down.
Psalm 90:12 repeatedly came to mind for me, “teach us to number our days.” I kept thinking (rather morbidly), “I have maybe 35 Christmases left, if the Lord wills … a handful with my kids in the house.” Which is simply to say, I realized the urgency of getting healthy and the ridiculousness of letting pride or apathy cause me to experience the fullness of life in Christ and with others.
And as I turned a corner in pursuit of health, I began to see that I was not alone in my revelations. I read four books in a row on the subject of Spiritual Formation where the authors wrote about being successful in ministry (by worldly measures) only to find themselves in a dark place where they crashed and were forced to acknowledge that something was wrong or missing. I heard my fellow pastors open up about how unhealthy they were, while we watched others being removed from their positions for lack of health. I processed out loud with friends as they nodded knowingly like they could relate to my struggles, sometimes asking for counselor recommendations for themselves at the end of our time together.
I started to hear people in the church express that they felt exhausted, like they were treading water, or like they’d hit the proverbial wall. I began to sense an underlying question among churchgoers: Is this all there is? People were busy with church activities, they knew their Bibles and all the songs, but they knew there were still significant parts of their lives untouched by the Gospel. They were doing all the stuff, but still angry or fearful or trapped in certain sin. I found people wondering if the abundant life (John 10:10) and the peace that surpasses understanding (Phil 4:7) were really available, or just oversold like so many consumer goods.
A great deal hinges on where we go from that point.
Do we just say “it’s fine” and keep doing what we’ve been doing, ignoring the issues we now see? Do we get discouraged to the point of giving up altogether, losing faith that anything can be different or better than it is? Or do we press in even more? Do we put all our chips in on the pursuit of communion with Christ, believing there is real, genuine, deeper, lasting peace and life to be found in him?
Well, I’m not giving up, and I have no desire to re-up another round of just going through the same motions. That’s because we believe the newness of life that comes through union with Christ (Rom 6:4) begins NOW (when we confess Jesus as Savior and Lord). Those who are in Christ are liberated from sin NOW (1 Peter 1:18) and are being conformed into his image NOW through the work of the Spirit. Of course we won’t fully experience the fullness of our renewal until Christ returns; but like Paul we strive for that fullness anyway, we “press on” (Phil 3). And the ongoing process of renewal in our lives (our sanctification) will lead to a deeper communion with our God, which is where life and peace is found. And that deepening life and peace in us (collectively) serves as a witness of the hope found in Jesus.
We want to go further up and further in. We want to experience the newness of life. We want to find the peace Jesus offers. We want to love our neighbors and our families better. We want to deal with the things we’ve been afraid to or never knew how to.
The common response I’ve been getting after sharing this vision is, “That sounds awesome … and terrifying. I’m excited. I need this. But I’m a little afraid at what I might find.” And when I hear that I can’t help but think, “Now we’re getting somewhere!”
What exactly do we mean exactly by Spiritual Formation? In a broad sense, we are talking about drawing closer to Christ, to become more like him, so that we can experience the newness of life that he gives. It is the taking off of the old self and putting on of the new self that scripture speaks of (Eph 4:22-24). To do that we will be cultivating some particular knowledge and practices that are meant to help us in the process (more on that below).
Though this is a “spiritual” pursuit, it is not a compartmentalized part of our lives. Our transformation is holistic as we re-orient all of life to God and his purposes. Thus, our Spiritual Formation also transforms our relationships, our finances, our physical health, etc. Author Kyle David Bennet puts it this way.
Sometimes we talk about a different aspect of our lives that we call our “spiritual life.” But when we look to Jesus and really think about it, there is no distinct portion of our lives that we can call “spiritual” apart from everything else: the only choice is life in the Spirit or life in the flesh … God meant for every part of our life to be lived in tune with him who is Spirit (John 4:24). As his disciples, we learn from Jesus how to be creatures, human beings, who live by the power and guidance of the Spirit. We learn how to live wisely, obediently, and responsibly, as God intended. We learn how to do everyday, human activities in the way that we were created to do them.
So “spiritual formation” is not just one component of our lives. It’s not even one aspect of our lives. And it absolutely isn’t one field of Christian study, separable from theology, ethics, psychology, or economics. By the Holy Spirit, spiritual formation wholly forms all aspects of our lives into the image of Christ, who lived in, with, and through the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18). It’s about bringing all things human— our thoughts, attitudes, habits, practices, behavior, and lifestyle— under the power and sway of God, just as Jesus did. It’s about living in, and with, and for God, just as Jesus did. It’s about doing and being all things human in ways that witness to God’s kingdom and his purposes for all of life, just as Jesus did.
Let me first say, we do not have all the answers, nor a single magical solution. We are not genius innovators. We are simply responding to some of gaps in our practices that we’ve observed. And at the end of this year, we will not be finished products. We will not be fixed. Rather, the hope is to open a whole new part of our faith, and establish some new practices, that will allow us to pursue deeper communion with Jesus the rest of our lives. That said…
We are going to focus on two elements that we’ve found to be ignored or underdeveloped in many Evangelical’s church experience. In the Fall, we will be focused on knowledge of self. In the Spring, we will be focused on spiritual disciplines.
About knowledge of self. John Calvin once said, “Our wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” Augustine wrote, “How can you draw close to God if you are far from your own self?” One of the reasons so many of us feel stunted in our spiritual formation is that we’ve never learned to be attentive to our inner lives. We never learned to understand our emotions (in fact we’ve often been told to ignore them). We’ve never spent time really learning how God has wired us (beyond gifts tests). We’ve never come to terms with our own stories and how they’ve impacted us. And so on and so on. As a result, these integral parts of our humanity go unaddressed and unformed. So we want to cultivate knowledge and tools to understand ourselves better for the purpose of seeing every part of ourselves renewed in Christ.
About spiritual disciplines. In her book on disciplines, author Adele Ahlberg Calhoun wrote that the purpose of applying the practices is “to live a sane and holy rhythm that reflects a deep love for God and respect for how he has made me.” We think that’s a worthwhile pursuit. So having gained a deeper knowledge of ourselves, we want to turn to the real world practices that make up our lives, re-prioritizing and re-orienting them to find communion with God.
As we pursue all of this together, we have invited you to prioritize three activities. (Note: in our study of disciplines we’ll talk a lot about finding margin and rest. We have no desire to give you more busy stuff to do. But we think these fit nicely into a “sane and holy rhythm.)
First, join us each Sunday morning as we remember who we are in Jesus and re-center ourselves on the good news through the practices of singing, praying, learning, communion, etc.
Second, join us on Wednesday nights for classes meant to give you the knowledge and tools specific to the two areas of focus (knowledge of self and spiritual disciplines).
Third, join a Redemption Community (small group) where you can put the knowledge and practices to use alongside others who are also learning and growing.