Two Premises of Spiritual Formation

Premise One

The first premise is that spiritual formation in biblical terms is more about shaping a people than shaping individuals. This is extremely difficult to grasp for those formed and shapedby a highly individualistic North American Church culture. There must be a transition from an individual mindset to a communal understanding of both the Church and Scripture. “The community-forming activity of the Holy Spirit challenges us to move beyond the contemporary assumption that the Spirit’s actions center exclusively, or even primarily, on the individual soul.”[1] This is not to suggest that God is not interested in individuals or is in the practice of sidestepping or traversing around them, but His primary focus is the spiritual formation of Christ communities. In responding to Christ’s invitation to follow him, a believer shifts paradigms. In the previous paradigm before Christ, life was all about the individual. In the new paradigm after Christ, life becomes all about others. God himself is our example: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son.”[2] For many believers, this kingdom reality is verbalized but often lacking in practice.

Premise Two

The Spirit’s formation of God’s people nearly always occurs in the context of the relational community, or church. The Spirit’s forming and shaping of the individual is nearly always with the larger community in mind.[3] In the contemporary North American Church, individualism rules, causing a spiritual disability that impedes our willingness to embrace the benefits of community. Americans are born not into a culture of community but one of individualism. Because of this, there is difficulty conceptualizing an alternative society—one based on community. “Contemporary categories, presuppositions, and experiences have largely blinded us to the radical nature of the biblical sense of community that the Spirit brings.”[4]

In Paul, the Spirit and the People of God, Gordon Fee provides a scenario illustrating the individualism that pervades church culture:

A single person is sitting at home in front of the TV watching a Christian broadcast as a sermon is preached and an invitation extended. The person responds by “accepting Christ.” But the only “church” this person attends is via the TV, without connection to a local body of believers.[5]

Fee asks the question: “Is this person saved?” And his answer is: “Only God knows; but such salvation lies totally outside the New Testament frame of reference.”[6] In a footnote, he goes on to explain that he receives considerable opposition for this view, especially from some who quote Romans 10:9, “that if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This text, however, presupposes a Christian community in place where such confession occurs, or at the very least upon baptism. “The earliest Christians would not have understood a believer whose salvation had not been completed by baptism, which includes identification with both Christ and his people.”7]

The Early Church understood that a response to the call to come and follow Jesus also included a decision to make their Christ community the center of their lives, even to the abandonment of other social structures. Yale University professor Wayne Meeks makes this point, based on his careful study of the Early Church: “To be ‘baptized into Jesus Christ’ signaled for Pauline converts an extraordinary thoroughgoing resocialization, in which the sect was intended to become virtually the primary group for its members, supplanting all other loyalties.”[8] The experience of authentic community is found in a distinct and peculiar culture nurturing social relationships that embody the reconciling and healing purposes of God to be fulfilled by the Church.

In understanding the Spirit’s work, the emphasis must be placed on the community in contrast to the individual. Therefore, God’s Spirit is about shaping cultures—people groups and communities—yet that may require one person at a time. The organic nature of the Body of Christ does not make provision for an individual to experience the Spirit’s shaping ministry without impacting the entire community to the same degree.[9] This is crucial in understanding the Spirit’s role of formation. As Stanley Grenz notes, “The church is a special people, a people whom the Spirit is forming together into a community.[10] Without these premises in place, the communal nature of the Spirit’s work is stunted, crippling one’s biblical understanding of the Spirit and the essence of the Godhead.

[1] Darrell L. Guder, Editor, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 142-14

[2] John 3:16

[3] Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:7: 14-26; Ephesians 2:21; 4:16.

[4] Guder, 145.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God. 72.

[8] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 78.

[9] Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 2:14-15.

[10] Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Livng (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 207.

[11] The Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the original community modeling perfect community for humanity. See Gilbert Bilezikean, Community 101: Reclaiming The Local Church as a Community of Oneness (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 16-19


2 Responses

  1. Great thoughts, Rob!

    Personally, I didn’t make a breakthrough in understanding this area until I began to really comprehend the centrality of covenant and covenant-keeping over the past 15 years. The West has lost too much of the concept of belonging to a tribe or clan to get it readily, more’s the pity, eh? And so we see so much hunger for belonging in a significant way in those who are spiritual seekers but have been “inoculated” against seeing the Body of Christ as the ultimate Tribe of God–Kingdom Clan, as it were.

    The move away from faith as individualism and into authentic adaptive challenge inspired communitas is challenging at best and daunting at worst. It is good to see so many signs of it cropping up all around the globe…and in our corner of the Kingdom.


  2. Make peace, not war!

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