Spiritual Formation Agenda
Our world today cries out for a theology of spiritual growth that has been proven to work in the midst of the harsh realities of daily life. Sadly, many have simply given up on the possibility of growth in character formation.
Vast numbers of well-intended folk have exhausted themselves in church work and discovered that this did not substantively change their lives. They found that they were just as impatient and egocentric and fearful as when they began lifting the heavy load of church work. Maybe more so.
Others have immersed themselves in multiple social-service projects. But while the glow of helping others lingered for a time, they soon realized that all their herculean efforts left little lasting imprint on the inner life. Indeed, it often made them much worse inwardly: frustrated and angry and bitter.
Still others have a practical theology that will not allow for spiritual growth. Indeed, they just might see it as a bad thing. Having been saved by grace, these people have become paralyzed by it. To attempt any progress in the spiritual life smacks of "works righteousness" to them. Their liturgies tell them they sin in word, thought, and deed daily, so they conclude that this is their fate until they die. Heaven is their only release from this world of sin and rebellion. Hence, these well-meaning folk will sit in their pews year after year without realizing any movement forward in their life with God.
Finally, a general cultural malaise touches us all to one extent or another. I am referring to how completely we have become accustomed to the normality of dysfunction. The constant media stream of scandals and broken lives and mayhem of every sort elicits from us hardly more than a yawn. We have come to expect little else, even from our religious leaders—perhaps especially from our religious leaders. This overall dysfunction is so pervasive in our culture that it is nearly impossible for us to have a clear vision of spiritual progress. Shining models of holiness are so rare today.
Yet echoing through the centuries is a great company of witnesses telling us of a life vastly richer and deeper and fuller. In all walks of life and in all human situations, they have found a life of "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17). They have discovered that real, solid, substantive transformation into the likeness of Christ is possible.
They witness to a character formation that is nigh unto amazing. They have seen their egocentric passions give way to such selflessness and humility of heart, it astonishes even them. Rage and hate and malice are replaced with love and compassion and universal goodwill.
There is a more than 2,000-year record of great ones in this life—Augustine and Francis and Teresa and à Kempis and many more—who, by following hard after Jesus in this way, became persons of absolute sterling character. The record is there for anyone who wants to see.
Thirty years ago, when Celebration of Discipline was first penned, we were faced with two huge tasks: First, we needed to revive the great conversation about the formation of the soul; and second, we needed to incarnate this reality into the daily experience of individual, congregational, and cultural life. Frankly, we have had much greater success with the first task. Christians of all sorts now know about the need for spiritual formation, and look to saints Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant for guidance.
It's the second task that needs to consume the bulk of our energies for the next 30 years. If we do not make real progress on these fronts, all our efforts will dry up and blow away.