Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Vibrant Spiritual Formation

Hello All,
Here is a paper I wrote for a class in my doctorate of ministry through George Fox:

Statement of Theology of Spiritual Formation
One of the major trademarks of the human condition is to ask questions that force us to think beyond ourselves in order to extract meaning for our lives. Such questions as: “Why we are here,” “Who are we?” “Where did we come from?,” or “Where we are going?” cause us to explore every aspect of our being internally and externally. Theology is a way for us to ponder who made us and what purpose we have in light of a supreme being. Every culture in the world has a system of religious beliefs to explain how things were, how things are and how things will be in the future.
As our culture has become more individually focused and the continued expansion of the science we ask the same questions humanity has always asked, but now we have more information and fervor to prove our existence. The core of the questions we ask are rooted in who we think we are and our lives (often) become attempts to assert ourselves to others; however, more times than not we merely try to assert who we want to be to ourselves.
An individual person is spiritually formed with these questions. A group of individuals get together with like-minded and like-hearted questions to reach some conclusions in order to live in a system that makes sense. Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Universalist, Scientist, Physicist, Anthropologist, Communist, indigenous, or any other “ist”, “ism” or “ain” Every group seeks answers to the questions about the world and how we live in it. Spiritual formation is as significant for the Atheist as for the Christian (and the two groups can be as attitudinally rigid about their conclusions about the faults and failings about one another’s belief systems.
There is a song by the musical artist Ben Folds entitled “Bastard”, the chorus says, “Why you have to act like you know, when you don’t know? It’s okay, if you don’t know everything!” The song is meaningful in describing how our search to know everything lends itself to desperation to know everything. When we realize that we don’t know everything (and subsequently, can’t know everything) we begin to ask questions of significance. The most significant question, and the beginning of Christian Spiritual Formation, is asking the question, “Who and I?”
When we ask, “Who am I?” we find out the broader and more meaningful question is, “who’s am I? Or “to whom do I belong?” In our culture we tend to draw near to people that we share common interests, have concluded similar ways of thinking and people that share our same conclusions.
Spiritual formation can also be understood as a process of becoming, or better yet, a process of “be’ing.” We need our lives to have meaning, so we seek relationship with others to give us that meaning, eventually our meaning leads us to ask the question about who gives us meaning when we realize that we cannot derive meaning within ourselves.
Relationship is limited, because we are all selfish. Here's my brief take on the fall of humanity found in the second chapter of Genesis: God was in relationship with Adam and Eve. Adam was in relationship with God. Eve was in relationship with God. Adam was in relationship with Eve. Eve was in relationship with Adam. There was relationship and connection with the creation and the creator... (Note: was)
The relationships broke apart in a selfish act of possession by Adam and Eve. Human relationship is an act of possession rooted in the idea that I want you to make me happy (and if you don’t I will find someone who will, i.e. divorce).
The beauty of the story is that we still fall under the same temptation to define ourselves by relationships we possess.
For Adam and Eve the selflessness of relationship was trumped by the selfish act of possessing the forbidden fruit in order to have something other than relationship that would define them. In other words we reject relationship for object and then treat people, and God, as objects that we possess.
The basic value of our consumer culture is possession, including relationship.
Individual basic values as a culture resides in possession: I don't have what I want, therefore I don't know who I am, maybe if I had another 'possession' (object or relationship) I would know who I am?
Adam and Eve reached out to be identified by something other than relationship... the object became the focus, not the relationship (with one another or with God). We seek (and continue to seek) possessions in our culture to define us. The questions becomes, what possesses what? Or who possesses whom? Love is not possession...
I believe Jesus came to abolish our identity based on possession and re-established relationship (us with God and one another). Christian spiritual formation is the active, participatory response to the invitation of Jesus to become disciples; all other formation is rooted in possession.
You (nor I) will ever be defined by what we possess; including relationships or objects, ever. God's love for us is not possession; God’s love is freedom from possession.
People can believe as strongly about information, science and relationships as Christians do about their need for God, yet it is still possession focused. Even in the evangelical Christian context, our relationship with God is presented as something we possess, not an active experience of participation in becoming.
Spiritual Formation for the Christian begins with and awareness that we need a relationship with God. We need God to define us. Our relationship to God must be reestablished in order for us to understand that God’s love is (was) not possession, but freedom.
One cannot be defined outside relationship. Christian spiritual formation is the active, willing, intentional, act of participating in God’s transformative love that reconciles all relationship(s).
God’s love for us was a catalyst for Jesus to be born, live, teach, be present, perform miracles, be tried illegally, sentenced to death, murdered, abandoned, crucified, dead, put in a tomb, and then beyond anything we could make up or imagine, live again by the power of the resurrection, we are reconciled to God and to one another. Relationship to God is possible and we get to respond to the invitation of Jesus to be transformed from who we once were, into who we are in the eyes of the loving God. We belong to God, daughters and sons, adopted by God because of what Christ has done for us.
Spiritual formation is motivated by our need for relationship, affirmation of our identity and worldview. Christian Spiritual formation is focused on the transformative work of Jesus within us to be come disciples (not mere followers). The process of discipleship is rooted in relationship with God and with one another in a community of faith known as church.
Church is a group of God’s daughters and sons, not a building, address or location. Spiritual formation occurs within the context of church as well as in individual experiences. Spiritual formation assumes growth within individuals and also growth in the community. Our experiences help to shape one another as God transforms us.
The map for Christian spiritual formation is rooted in scripture and by the power of the Holy Spirit we are shaped into Christ-likeness. Discipleship is not only acceptance, reconciliation, and redemption for the individual respondent, it is also for the sake of other disciples.
Ministry Context
In the summer of 2004, Vibrant Covenant Church began in east-side urban Portland with the goal of being community to one another and Christ in our neighborhoods as described in Acts 2:42-47. We started with a young, mostly twenty-something group of nine transplants from First Covenant and Trinity Covenant (Salem) who were abundant in passion, vision, and energy, but short on financial resources.
The collective vision was to be a church that centered on small community groups (C-Groups) that would be the hub of caring for one another and the community at large. These groups started in August of 2004, and have currently grown to five groups of eight to ten people that meet weekly in homes and public places across urban Portland. C-groups not only focus attention on the Bible through questions from the previous week’s gathering, but also on praying for one another and serving with one another once a month in a ministry of compassion at food banks, shelters, and schools.
Our preview services started in September 2004 with 55 people (consisting mostly of supportive friends and family from other congregations) and concluded in November 2004 at Sunnyside Environmental School with 19 participants. During that three-month period, we engaged the community door-to-door and served the school through work projects to build momentum and raise awareness about our upcoming weekly gatherings. In December of 2004, we began meeting weekly at the Sunnyside location. Due to the expense of rent with the Portland School District and the immense workload on a small number of committed participants, we collectively made the decision to meet in First Covenant’s basement space during the spring of 2005 in order to grow our base and focus on becoming a sustainable ministry.
Initial attempts to raise awareness and publicity in the neighborhood were met with opposition in the form of “hate mail” and public efforts to engage the city to prohibit us from displaying directional signage to our gathering. However, we did experience slow growth via word of mouth and through an online presence, which has brought us 33 active members and 50-55 regular attendees. These attendees reflect our initial core- group of young, transitional and financially strapped individuals. Many in our congregation work in helping professions (medical, education, social services), have or are pursuing graduate degrees, and are actively involved in the outdoors and/or the arts.
In 2006 and 2007, many of our ministries were launched with lots of energy, but lacked the resources to fully live into the vision that we had for them. Our members became exceedingly weary and disheartened. In early 2008, we experienced additional hardship due to the surprising departure of our church chair and a part-time worship staff member. Our community felt their absence deeply and grieved family members who we believed to have shared our vision and values. Thanks to God’s grace, our community has healed over time. Recently, we have had two of our young families move out of state to complete medical fellowships and some of congregants have lost employment, further stressing our tight financial stability.
Despite these difficulties, we have sustained a number of solid ministries, including Children’s Ministry, JAC, Worship and C-groups. Vibrant continues to have a unique voice in Portland. We are devoted to Christ and care for one another, yet still desire to be active in Portland life. We are unusual in that we reach the population that is most unreached by the Church as a whole: twenty and thirty year olds, many unmarried and without kids. We differ from other young Portland churches in our commitment to endorsing women in all aspects of ministry, downplaying an entertaining gathering and physical structure, and our intentionality in doing life together. Our story began five years ago in the hearts of a few individuals.
Today, many in our congregation can’t imagine life apart from the Vibrant community.
The difference between Discipleship and Christian Education
Being a disciple is different than being a follower of Jesus. Disciples are willing to be confused, curious, and content in the mysteries of God. Followers on the other hand, often like short answers and easy, non-faith inducing challenges to feel good about their perceived “relationship to Jesus.” Jesus commanded the disciples to go and make disciples, not mere followers or converts. The difference between followers and disciples is most keenly stated in John 6.
Discipleship is the process of giving up your individual comfort values rooted in your identity (conclusions, expectations, and competencies) for the faith inducing (and often painful) experiences of being transformed into Christ-likeness. Discipleship is the transformation of identity. Values shift when we are willing to allow God to transform us, we must want to be like Jesus. God’s love for us will not let us stay the same, nor will God’s love for us tolerate the injustices in the world. We participate in the love, grace and hope of God in the world by being a part of the body of Christ.
We are not merely (just) the hands and feet of Jesus (according to I Corinthians 12:27 NLT), we are Christ’s body on earth, in essence we are Jesus in the world. Discipleship cannot happen outside the context of Christian community, otherwise known as church. Discipleship is individual growth in Christ in the context of church.
Although there is value and merit to Christian education, history, and theology, it is not the same as discipleship. Christian education often avoids the difficulty and faith inducing challenges of being in community. Christ came to reestablish our relationship to God and to one another. Spiritual formation must go beyond knowledge about Jesus to actually living as Christ. Spiritual formation and discipleship are always in the context of relationship, not solely based on education; therefore any program, strategy or proposal must be contextualized in relationship.
Specific Strategies, Proposals for Spiritual Formation/Discipleship in Vibrant
The Worship Gathering
The first strategy for Vibrant is to conclude that a worship gathering on Sunday mornings is for the purpose of celebration, communion, and introduction to the scripture that will be discussed and implemented in weekly C)ommunity groups. The spoken word is merely an introduction to the passage of scripture, not an easily consumed, convenient nugget of information for individuals to digest and implement during the week.
The goal of the speaker team (made up of the pastor and lay leaders) is to first (and foremost) read the passage of scripture in its entirety (usually an entire chapter of scripture so that it will be in context). The second goal is to tell a personal story of connection with the passage (this could be a memory, event, or a perspective derived from other passages found in scripture). The third (and final) goal for the speaker and the spoken word is to present the questions to be asked during C)ommunity groups. Relevance, applicability, and delivery are un-important in light of the scripture that is read out loud; therefore, if nothing else were to happen on Sunday morning other than the reading of the Bible (and communion) it would be worship.
Another component of the worship gathering that encourages individual growth are questions in the bulletin specifically designed so each person in the congregation ponders the passage of scripture in their daily life. These questions rely on individual pursuit of faith in Jesus. The hope is that a particular passage of scripture is read 3 times during a given week; therefore, there is room for transformation to happen simply through exposure to the Biblical narrative.
Communion is also a component of every worship gathering we celebrate. The book of Acts reveals the infant church celebrated the Lord’s Supper every time they got together. We celebrate communion every Sunday. Weekly Communion has been transformative for our community, because we are aware of our co-participation in God’s love and grace as a community of faith.
C)ommunity groups
The primary way of “being” church, in the Vibrant context is c-groups. Our community groups are the primary way for us to know others and to be known. Christ is made known through the scripture and our response in the world. Community groups are set up all over the city for people to participate in “being” church.
Spiritual formation happens weekly in the groups by sharing life, focusing on scripture and praying for one another.
A typical c-group is organized around a meal or snack, usually at someone’s home. C-group time consists of:

15 min Connecting time and catch-up/ introductions
25 min Life-Story/Scripture Questions
20 min Prayer Requests
10 min Praying

Parajorn (journeying together)
As people grow deeper in faith through c-groups it becomes necessary for us to implement a relationship called Parajorn. We encourage people who want to grow deeper in their faith to experience one to one relationships. Parajorn relationships are based on sharing life together, praying for one another, and affirming God’s presence in one another’s lives.
Parajorn participants decide how often they would like to meet (from weekly to monthly). After the first few meeting times of sharing life stories the Parajorn-ers, ask one another, “How goes it in your walk with Christ?” After both have shared each asks the other, “How can I be praying for you?” This relationship is simple and transformative by the work of God’s love in our lives.
Warmth of Friends
A few years ago I heard a story about an artist who wanted to see what a collaborative, communal, relational art experience would be like if he asked a friend to stand outside in the snow in front of a empty 50 gallon steel drum all night. His friend agreed, and the artist asked for 5 email addresses in his personal contact list. The artist sent an email to the 5 friends and simply stated, “your friend is standing outside in the snow all night, would you bring him warmth?” The artist observed what happened 10 stories above the courtyard as people began arriving with wood, drinks, coats, and tents. Of the 35 people that showed up to bring the friend ‘warmth’ 20 stayed with the man all night to share in what became a “party.”
Vibrant has had seasons of warmth of friends, usually in the winter. The idea is simple, invite groups of people over to be together. Our warmth of friends isn’t nearly as dramatic as the story above, but it has had a tremendous impact on the ongoing narrative of our community. We are spiritually formed in the discipline of being together, we are all to often too busy to be present with one another to enjoy community. Warmth of friends is a way for us to enjoy the discipline of saying yes to Jesus.
Roots and Growth: Christian Education
There have been times for Christian Education in the life of Vibrant. We have had periods of desiring to grow deeper in our knowledge of Godly things. Early in the life of our congregation we were challenged by our expectation to have some sort of “Sunday School” experience. A small group of like-minded, intelligent people got together to vision what Christian Education would look like in our context. We came up with the idea to name the basic, foundational theological concepts “Roots” and the deeper issues of culture “Growth.”
“Roots” is more traditional teaching, similar to a Sunday school, education model. The subjects have ranged from reading Dietrich Bonheoffer’s Life Together to in depth study of doctrine. One of the most interesting discussions was on the freedom of humanity.
“Growth” is focused on current issues, events and practical application of faith to the perceived needs around us. Issues around human sexuality, race, and gender have all been approached. “Growth” also looks at the needs in the world, and the present needs in Portland.
We have struggled with the sustainability of “roots and growth” because of lack of commitment, leadership and interest. “Roots and Growth” was birthed out of a group of leaders that wanted something to happen in the area of Christian Education, but didn’t have the ability to sustain it’s leadership. Expectations and replicating experiences we had in the past were primary motivators for the reasoning behind “Roots and Growth.” There are significant outcomes when ministries of replication are designed that usually end with a feeling of disappointment and not measuring up to past experiences. “Roots and Growth” is a primary example of the feeling of disappointment within the leaders of Vibrant.
Vibrant has been, and continues to be, an experiment of faith inducing proportions. We began as a congregation with little experience, a tremendous amount of commitment issues, and lots of expectations: however we have vision and determination to be formed in the likeness of Christ Jesus.
Strategic Spiritual Formation begins with the worship gathering as our primary source for introduction to the scripture, a place for visitors to connect, celebration of all that God has done for us and to empower C)ommunity groups “be” church.
C)ommunity groups are crucial for knowing and being known. We live our faith together, focusing on scripture. We allow God to form us into Christ-likeness through our time together, in the word of God and praying for one another.
Spiritual Formation also occurs through Parajorn relationships by allowing co-journey-ers to share in life together. Parajorn relationships reveal the ways that God is leading and provides ways for us to lean into the life of abundance Jesus has promised to us. Our need for spiritual friends is crucial for us in life, Parajorn is an avenue for us to explore faith in a new way.
Warmth of friends is a wonderful way of sharing in the discipline of community. We are warmed by the love of God when we participate in community. Warmth of friends seems like a party because it is. We can faithfully celebrate the love of God by merely showing up, or inviting people over to simply “be.”
“Roots and Growth” is a work in progress, and for the time being Christian Education is unnecessary in the life of Vibrant. We celebrate when we have the energy and resources to provide information, history, theology and education in the future.
Spiritual formation and discipleship has nothing whatsoever to do with knowledge, education, programs, or information: however, Spiritual Formation and Discipleship does have everything to do with willingness, participation, and commitment to “be” church. Amen.