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The Present Future: Return to Spiritual Formation

I’ve been slowly but surely working through Reggie McNeal’s The Present Future. In it McNeal discusses six new realities that the church is facing in the twenty-first-century, and what the church must do to survive. Today I’ll work though the fourth new reality: the return to spiritual formation.

Spiritual formation, as defined by Scot McKnight, is helping people love God and love others. This, afterall, is the essence of Christianity according to Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40. One of the problems of the modern church is that it considers spiritual formation merely an intellectual enterprise. As McNeal observes, “we have turned our churches into groups of people who are studying God as though they were taking a course at school or attending a business seminar. We aim at the head. We don’t deal in relationship. And we wonder why there is no passion for Jesus and his mission” (p. 70-71).

Therefore, the wrong question that churches ask in light of this new reality is “how do we develop good church members?” In other words, most churches emphasize spiritual formation in terms of helping people become good church members. McNeal illustrates this in the all-to-common approach to church membership (notice how it resembles a country-club!):

“Consider what most churches hand people when they join a church: a new-member packet. What’s inside? Offering envelopes (the clear message: club dues are payable immediately and regularly), a church directory (sometimes with pictures of fellow club members), a church calendar (a list of club activities), a church officer and committee list (these are the important club members), and s constitution and by-laws (club rules). Also included in many packets are “opportunities for service” – usually a listing of church jobs that need doing” (p. 71)

McNeal is not exaggerating. The default position of many (most?) churches is that a spiritually formed person will be very involved in the institution of the church (and not the other church across town, but our church!): attend the building. Give money to the building. Serve in the building. Invite people to the building. Do everything for the building. As McNeal summarizes, “we have made following Jesus all about being a good church member.” But is this what it means to follow Christ?

McNeal responds with what he believes is the tough question that must be asked in light of this new reality: “how do we develop followers of Jesus?” In other words, rather than directing Christians to the institution of the church (the country club) we should direct Christians to the Kingdom of God (the redemptive rule of God in the world). To say it more specifically, Jesus wants his followers to love God and love others in every sphere of life, not just in the country club. In fact, Jesus spent most of his time outside of the country club so that he could reach the people whom no one else loved. Therefore, spiritual formation needs to move beyond “how to become a good church member” to “how to become a good citizen of the kingdom of God.”

So how do we form good citizens of the kingdom of God? McNeal observes that “we have assumed that if people come to church often enough they will grow.” This was the assumption of Willow Creek Community Church, one of the largest and most innovative churches in the country. However, a recent internal study revealed that this is not the case. Participation in church activities does not produce mature followers of Jesus Christ (see my discussion of Willow Creek’s Reveal here and here). McNeal proposes a new agenda for spiritual formation. Here it is in brief:

  1. Worship. We “need to understand the contagious nature of worship and the critical role it plays in missional renewal of the church.” McNeal doesn’t express this, but this reveals that spiritual formation remains a communal activity at its core!
  2. Apply Biblical truth to life and relationships. In other words, move beyond focusing on doctrinal statements and apply the Word of God to daily life.
  3. Minister to others in Jesus’ name. People are spiritually formed through serving.
  4. Share the faith with pre-Christians.
  5. Cooperate and partner with other Christians in the mission of God. In other words, partner with other local expressions of the body of Christ and grow together. This is true Christian community.

This agenda is helpful, but frankly, it does not appear too different from what many churches are doing today (except for #5). However, the key difference in my understanding is how each of these points is directed. Too often today they are directed internally. For example, consider #3. Most “service opportunities” in the church today are opportunities to serve in the church building. It is teaching, ushering, cleaning, working in the nursery, etc. These are all excellent and noble things. However, the problem comes in when we limit Christian service to the church building. But to become missional and impact our world, we need to expand each of these points to include both internal and external components. Therefore, churches need more opportunities for service that impact the community. Churches need to share their faith with people in the workplace, neighborhood, and other third-places. Churches need to partner with other churches and get out into the community.

Let’s not swing the pendulum and forget to care for Christians. This is an aspect of the mission of God. However, we do need to swing the pendulum enough to recover a balance: loving God and loving others takes place both inside and outside of the church building.

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