The Continual Process of Spiritual Formation

The goal of being like Christ will never be completed until we take our last breath. Until that time, we will struggle in our desire to be the person Jesus calls us to be. Despite our best intentions, and even with noticeable progress, we will still fail in acts of omission and commission with attitudes, thoughts, words, and deeds.

What is true for the individual believer is true for the community of faith. To move a congregation toward Christlikeness is a perpetual challenge that will never be mastered and tends to produce as many failures as successes. As our church wrestles with this, we are learning some things, and, even though we don’t yet have it figured out, here are some conclusions we’ve come to…

There is no formula. 

Early on in ministry, we were always on the lookout for the newest book, curriculum, or resource that was going to make discipleship easy and successful. Several years later, we have come to see that there are many excellent resources and programs, but none are ideal. And what may seem ideal for individual people or a segment of the church is not ideal for others. People are at various stages in their growth, and they have different needs. It’s been freeing to realize that there is no secret sauce or one-size-fits-all program for discipleship. Therefore, we keep our eyes open and try different things, but we’ve learned to do so with a realism that embraces the fact that every program has its limitations.

True spiritual formation is complex.

The process of spiritual growth is not easy or instantaneous, yet many individuals and churches reduce spiritual maturity to simplistic outcomes, such as how much information people learn, what kinds of experiences they are having with God, whether they are following the “rules” of piety and living a moral life, or if they are engaging in missional activity. All of these are good and biblically justified, but they are insufficient indications of spiritual maturity in and of themselves. Mature Christ-followers will be doing all of these things, and yet they will be careful to prioritize the areas that are often left out of most people’s understanding of spiritual formation—the importance of relationships and the internal renovation of the heart.

Sometimes we are tempted to narrow our definition of Christlikeness to something that comes naturally to us or something we feel we can achieve. As a church, we have come to see that we must give people a vision for what it means to be like Jesus, but that vision needs to be much larger and complex than what we can master. To be honest, we are still struggling with this. We have yet to find a definition for spiritual formation that is large enough to be worthy of Jesus, and yet not so overwhelming that people check out. Nonetheless, we do know that growing in Christ is complex, and when we try to simplify it, we are cheating people and God.

The deepest growth can’t be measured.

Part of the curse of our culture is that we feel the need to measure everything. This is not always bad because when we track things, we are able to have objective data that helps us honestly evaluate how we are doing. Yet when it comes to spiritual formation, we’ve learned that trying to run metrics can sometimes be impossible or even counterproductive. For example, how do you measure the comforting of a grieving widow? How do you evaluate the condition of a heart? When we overemphasize the measurement of spiritual growth, we end up monitoring things we have no business tracking, and we are tempted to devalue things that can’t be quantified. Jesus said that when we are truly serving Him, our left hand should not be aware of what our right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3), yet the tone of our modern world is to be hyper-aware of everything we’re doing. This feeds a performance-based spirituality that can lead to self-righteousness and a naïveté about the deeper workings of God’s Spirit. Therefore, we’ve come to understand that measuring too much can actually stunt spiritual growth rather than empower it.

Growth is circular not linear.

Most of us want to believe that spiritual growth is a sequential process, which is why we love to read books that talk about roadmaps, tracks, and steps. We think that if we take the right pathway, growth and maturity will be a natural outcome of following the process. We want spiritual growth to be straight, predictable, and controllable, yet true growth is more circular than linear. It occurs in cycles where we move forward then find ourselves moving backward. It’s the old “three steps forward, two steps back” mantra. Much like a baby who is learning to walk, we develop spiritually through a process of forward momentum, followed by failure, pain, and stumbling. If we stay with the process and don’t get discouraged, we will find that the backward loops often result in the greatest growth.

It can’t be done in a vacuum.

For us to truly become the people God desires, we must put ourselves in environments that are conducive to growth, and those environments must include relationships where we are receiving encouragement and being challenged. This means corporate worship, classes, groups, individual friendships, mentoring relationships, and more. The temptation to turn inward, believe we can do it ourselves, and keep our relationships safe by keeping people distant leads to arrested development.

Jesus says that branches cannot grow apart from the vine. He is the true Vine, and we are the branches (John 15:5). As branches, we are not only supposed to stay rooted in Him but also grow together as one plant. Paul says the church community is Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:12), and, like the branch apart from the Vine, the individual parts of the body cannot function or grow without the other parts. In order to grow spiritually, we must grow together.

Spiritual formation is a process of heart change that happens within individuals as they grow and struggle in relationship with God and others, slowly becoming more like Christ as they help others do the same. There is no formula. There is no easy path. There is no quick, quantitative way to measure progress. There is only a complex, awkward kind of failing forward in the beautiful but messy, circular process of living, learning, and loving together with each other and the Trinity.