When I was a youth pastor, I had what many would call a demanding and teaching-based ministry, so all this talk of spiritual formation reminds me of similar discussions I used to have with parents. They wanted the youth group to be less like school. Now, as the leader of a school, the parents want the school to be more like youth group. This leads me to think that “spiritual formation” is not
a concern specific to Christian schools, but a trend within American Christianity.
While a youth pastor, I found myself dreaming of a time when I would not have to defend demanding discipleship or serious training of the mind, so when I took the opportunity to lead a classical Christian high school, I thought the time had arrived. Surely, I thought, these will be people who “get it.” As we all know, however, this is not necessarily the case. It seems that many of our parents still traffic in a form of latent Gnosticism: there is “real” life and there is “spiritual” life, and education is not a part of the latter.
So I find myself having to dust off the arguments and advice I used with parents in the church when they had concerns that their students weren’t “growing spiritually.”
1.It seems the city of Corinth had plenty of “spiritual” people in the church, but Paul thought it necessary to educate them: “Now concerning spiritual things, brothers, I don’t want you to be ignorant.” (1 Cor. 12:1) Paul even had to “make known”to them that saying “Jesus is accursed” wasn’t a Spirit-led endeavor. It seems that spiritual formation in the New Testament involved a great deal of instruction.
2. If instruction is spiritual formation, then some might counter that it only concerns “church” stuff and thus, the instruction that is happening in most classes at school isn’t really helping spiritual formation. I counter that Jesus claims to be “the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6) If this is indeed so, that Jesus is the truth, then what we do with the truth, we do with Jesus. Learning to recognize truth, to admire truth, to defend truth, and to follow truth thus seems a highly spiritual endeavor.
3. Many might concede these two, but when all is done, the retort may follow, “Yes, but I don’t see that it’s real to the students.” By “it” they mean Christianity and by “real” they mean…well, what do they mean? Whatever it is they mean, there is a dominant view out there that seems to argue that “making it real” happens through spiritual formation.
Which brings us back to where we started. When it comes right down to it, perhaps we should admit that Jesus never talked about spiritual formation. He did, however, talk much about obedience. In fact, he said that the measure of how real this stuff is to a person is his or her obedience: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) It seems obedience trumps spirituality, or, perhaps, obedience is spirituality. If that is true, here’s the rub: obedience is an act of the will and cannot be conjured or cajoled, whether in school or a youth group. We cannot “spiritually form” students because we cannot force obedience. What we can do, however, is to educate properly so students are better equipped to obey. Knowing the world accurately conceivably helps them to act obediently and correctly within it. And maybe then we can break down the American Christian Gnosticism that motivates the concern in the first place.
There is no “spiritual” life alongside “real” life. Spiritual life is real life lived in obedience to Jesus Christ.