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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Wednesday Festival: Adult Spiritual Formation

At Spacious Faith, Joanna is thinking about spiritual formation.

I’m not preaching this Sunday morning. I had no committee meetings this week. No crises. Well, not major, time-consuming crises. And so, during this anomalous week of few pressing tasks, I had time to think. (Yes, Peace Mennonite folks should be getting worried right about now.)

I’ve primarily been thinking about (and googling) adult spiritual formation. Our congregation has few consistent opportunities for adult formation beyond weekly worship. Discussion groups and Bible studies pop up now and then. Just this year we had our first Lenten spiritual retreat. I lead new member classes and baptism preparation classes as the needs arise. It’s not that we do nothing. It’s just that what we do is pretty spotty and inconsistent.

We are not a program-sized church. It’s understandable that we do not have a developed program of spiritual formation with organized small groups and multiple class offerings every week. But it seems to me that even a small church can—and should—have a coherent method of spiritual formation.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about. How can our small church best nurture adult faith? What core information do maturing Christians need to learn? What key spiritual experiences will most nurture growing faith?

In my idealistic bubble where the church has unlimited resources and the church people have nothing to do but church stuff, spiritual formation opportunities would consist of a solid small group ministry and a formation/education program roughly modelled on the Servant Leadership School in Washington, D.C.

Of course, in reality I live with you in the real world. I am a solo, part-time pastor. Most people who participate in the congregation I lead have jobs and family obligations. Plus they insist on sleeping and eating on a regular basis. So new questions arise: How much time can I realistically give to coordinating small groups and leading classes and retreats? Who else in the church is gifted to help with adult spiritual formation? What classes would people actually attend? When is the best time to offer them?

And here’s where I put on my Super Pastor cape and reveal to you the perfect model for spiritual formation in a small church . . .

Or not. I’m pretty sure all churches, especially small ones, have to figure this out on their own. I will continue to read and pray and discern the next steps for our congregation.

In the meantime, I found some unexpected encouragement from a blog post I stumbled across: “Can Creative Writing be Taught?” I clicked on the article because I was a creative writing major in college and I taught English at the college level for a few years. It’s an intriguing question. The blogger, Gillian Holding, is a visual artist, and considers the parallels between writing and art. I was surprised to realize that there is a parallel with spirituality as well.

There are certain technical aspects of writing, drawing, design, the spiritual life, that can be taught. Grammar and perspective and prayer forms. Then there is the stuff that can’t be taught. The most technically skilled painter is not necessarily the best artist. For writers and visual artists, that stuff that can’t be taught might come from what we would call “inspiration” or “genius”–what Holding calls a “mindset.” In the Christian life, that stuff that can’t be taught comes from the Holy Spirit.

Holding, himself an art teacher, says that while we may not be able to fully teach art or creative writing, we can “provide an environment in which [the mindset that leads to great art] can be facilitated and encouraged and nurtured.”

This is good for me, as a pastor, to keep in mind. I cannot teach the spiritual life—no matter how many classes I offer or small groups I facilitate. I can help our congregation be a place where people’s spiritual life is “facilitated and encouraged and nurtured.” A place where the work that the Holy Spirit is already doing within us and among us is recognized and celebrated.

So my reading and googling and praying continues. But I’m no longer looking for the perfect spiritual formation program. I’m more interested in forming a spiritually nurturing space.

[Potter image from Life in the Trinity Ministry.]

What do you think? Please share in the comments. If you'd like, give us a link using the following formulation: <a href="the url of your blog post goes here">what you want the link to say goes here</a> For a complete how-to click here.


  1. I think that one thing that helps is to begin to articulate and question, as a congregation, what spiritual formation means. Several years ago in my home church we changed the name of our Eduction Ministry to Ministry of Education and Spiritual Formation as a way of making the point that adult formation is not the same as adult education, and that we were going to start addressing both more multi-dimensionally.

  2. I'm also part of a church that is too small for much formal programming. Additionally we all hold regular secular jobs (clergy included) so time is also quite precious. This post got me thinking about how we do adult spiritual formation and I posted some thoughts here: Adult spiritual formation through osmosis


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