PreachingToday.com: How do you define spiritual formation?
Kent Carlson: The goal of Christian spiritual formation is to be intentionally transformed in such a way that my instinctive response is the same as Christ's would be if he were living my life.
When you think about the topic of spiritual formation and preaching, what comes to mind?
Kent: The primary goal when preaching about spiritual formation is to cast a vision of what life could be like if we were being formed into the image of Christ. The difficulty is that oftentimes the listeners don't come to church with the same agenda, so you have to learn to meet people where they are and steer them in the right direction.
What are some other challenges to preaching for spiritual formation?
Mike Lueken: Because of the way the Christian subculture has shaped the vast majority of people we preach to, we have a lot to overcome when we start talking about spiritual formation. When we talk about being formed into the person of Christ and describing what it requires to experience transformation in one's own life, we encounter massive barriers that have to be taken down. We've realized there are things people have ingrained in themways of thinking, understanding the Christian faith, or reading the Biblethat make preaching about spiritual formation a challenge before we even start.
Kent: There's also a tendency within the Christian world to think of preaching as entertainment, which means people expect to simply sit and have their attention kept by the skills of the speaker. The formational model, on the other hand, requires a great deal from the listeners. We place great emphasis on the listener's coming with some hunger. If people don't come hungrywith some desire for growththe speaking experience tends to do little for people.
It sounds as though you train your hearers how to engage in the spiritual discipline of hearing the Word taught.
Mike: We have been so persistent in emphasizing spiritual formation from the pulpit that people have come to realize this is who we are as a church. In that sense, I think we do have a large percentage of people who share the responsibility of formation with us.
Kent: We have taught specifically on the importance of listening a time or two. But for the most part, people naturally grasp what's required of them in order to pay attention to a message. A lot of people want to hear simple messages because they believe the Christian life is simple. But I haven't always found that to be true. Whenever I pay careful attention to my own life with Godmy own struggles with obediencethe details begin to get pretty complicated. After a while, people pick up on the fact that pursuing spiritual formation will require rigorous engagement with your mind. Transformation requires walking into messy details.
In our sermon preparation and preaching we attempt to expose whether someone really wants to be healed.
Mike: We regularly reinforce the importance of Jesus' phrase: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." That saying applies both in terms of how you receive what's being said, and also in terms of the skillful ways in which hearers filter what's being said.
How has your preaching changed as you've begun emphasizing spiritual formation in your church?
Mike: A couple of things have changed. First, we've stopped offering a handful of tips to improve certain areas in a person's life. For example, we found ourselves almost instinctively drifting away from preaching topics like "four ways to make your marriage better," or "five suggestions for improving your parenting." We discovered that addressing who you are and who you are becomingin other words, your spiritual formationis crucial regardless of the topic you pick related to husbands, wives, parents, children, or friends.
Once we started to drift away from giving tips and started to place more emphasis on becoming certain kinds of people, our preaching got messier. We got into the gory details of what actually goes on in a person's heart and mind.
Kent: For example, when it comes to marriage relationships, what I see taught most often is some variation of "find out what your needs are as a married person and try to teach yourselves how to meet each other's needs." You take some sort of test and discover you have a core need of attention. It's hard for me to imagine Jesus teaching like that. Obviously it's always good for one spouse to give the other attention, but the crucial question from a spiritual formation standpoint is, What do I do when I want attention and don't get it? In other words, maybe what I need most in my life are not skillful methods of communicating my needs to my spouse, but rather to learn how to think about myself less often. In the end, what is crucial for a good marriage is for the husband and wife to both become more rigorous followers of Christ.
Mike: That's a great example of the change in our preaching. You can imagine Mary and Tom sitting in a church service while Kent's preaching about marriage. Mary's there hoping Tom's listening, and Tom's there hoping Mary's listening, because they want the other one to change. Then they get hit with the message that it's not about the other person changing. Instead, the issue is you need to learn to surrender to God and love and accept your spouse as he or she is. At that point, the dreams people have for their spouse vanishe before their eyes, and they have to answer the question, Do I want this?
When you have multiple churches to choose from, many people will answer that question with their feet by going somewhere else. That's why we should be highly suspicious of the standard indicators of church success. More often than not, churches uncritically embrace numerical growth as a sign of God's blessing. The influence of American culture on the church leads us to believe that faithfulness will always result in more people. Sadly, the concept of faithfulness that results in trouble, struggle, and loss is almost unknown in American churches. Everybody understands that seasons of suffering are prime spiritual formation times for an individual; but that raises the question, Why aren't seasons of suffering in the life of a church seen in the same light?
Some people will object: "Look at the Acts church. Look at how it exploded with growth." We're not saying that growth is bad or wrong, or that attracting more people is inherently evil. But when spiritual formation becomes a central emphasis in your preaching so that everything else flows from itevangelism, caring for the poor and disenfranchised, and so ongrowth has to be rethought. When you get into the details of what it takes from a human perspective to cooperate with the Spirit of God, the question that has to be raised is, How many professing Christians actually want to experience transformation rather than simply attending a nice church that sings the songs they like and has a pastor that is fun to listen to?
This is part one in a two-part series. In part two, Kent and Mike tell us what kind of preaching leads most effectively to spiritual formation.
Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken are senior pastors of Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California.