Just thought I’d share it here… Let me know what you think in the comments (there’s some pointers for future Seminary students in part 3!
As Christians grow in their 21st Century lives, through all the distractions they daily encounter, the need to focus on fellowship and witnessing is ever present in order to avoid the many pitfalls they face. A quick search on the internet will reveal much regarding Spiritual formation, from charts attempting to explain it like these, or long articles and even books…
During a course I’m taking while enrolled in seminary, many of my reading assignments are from a book titled “Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age” in which the authors, Stephen and Mary Lowe, provide numerous valuable insights on spiritual formation using some pretty powerful plant-based analogies.
This blog post will explore just two of the most impactful and potentially helpful ideas that, based on my own life’s experience I have personally benefited from, and believe they will continue to aid in my spiritual formation. Additionally, this blog post will include a plan of action for implementing these strategies in life and ministry. In the last part of this blog, I will also provide a final exhortation from Danny Zacharias and Ben Forrest’s handbook titled “Surviving and Thriving in Seminary.”
Spiritual Formation Concepts for the Digital Age
The first spiritual formation concept addressed in the book that I need to incorporate into my life and ministry is focusing on reciprocal interactions with my relationships, whether with God, family, or other Christians in my community as we do life together. Secondly, I was compelled and convicted by the concept of being more contagious, whether in pursuing holiness, sharing the Gospel, or the process of sanctification. Both of these concepts, while not entirely new to me, were framed in a way I couldn’t ever remember hearing. Also, since by nature I am quite the introvert, the idea of intentionally interacting with others does not come naturally, even though I’m quite savvy using the on-line technological tools available to us today which make those interactions more possible than ever!
With respect to reciprocal interactions, it was illuminating to read how many of those there are in nature and how beneficial they are. The Lowe’s write “The result of these various reciprocal exchanges and interactions between individual entities in an ecosystem is the general viability and sustained growth and development of both the entities and the ecosystem.” (Page 172 of “Ecologies of faith in a digital age: spiritual growth through online education“) In that book I read about how reciprocal interactions were included in the Old Testament covenants between God and the Israelites, then in the New Testament between Christ and the Church, and of course between humans and Christians, and it really got my wheels turning. I started thinking of the interactions I have had over the past year and a half specifically; and even more specifically, my online interactions with social media in particular. I can’t say they were always the mutually beneficial reciprocal interactions that the Lowe’s are trying to help their reader’s see, but sometimes you need to see the wrong way so that you appreciate the correct way that much more. One danger could be to expect something in return through your interactions, as a “give-to-get” sort of construct; but I think it’s also possible just to trying blessing others without that expectation of a pay-back, even while also being mindful of those who chose not to reciprocate. Those ideas don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and both could be helpful for spiritual growth. A few months ago the concept of categories of relationships dawned on me, and now that I’ve read about the reciprocal interactions in this construct of spiritual formation, they reinforce the idea I had. There were 3 categories I originally came up with, and in one category I place those who I learn from but who don’t learn from me (or cannot because they don’t know me); next were the relationships which were mutually beneficial because we learn from each other; and finally those in which I may not be learning from them, but some actually learn from me — perhaps that includes some of the readers of this blog post… Do me a favor and leave me a comment so you can move up into the second category, will you?
Next is the concept of contagious sanctification which just sounds good, doesn’t it? I am willing to bet many pastors wish the process of sanctification in their congregants was a bit more contagious. Unfortunately, it seems that most of the negative behaviors, gossip, greed, lust, or idolatry are more contagious than the transformation of sinners into saints and the renewal of their minds. (Romans 12:1-2) The Lowe’s give those pastors hope however when they write, “The cultivating work is the active ministry of the Spirit through the head who makes possible contagious connections between the members of the body, resulting in mutual growth. (Page 198 of “Ecologies of faith in a digital age”). They also say that Paul, in Romans 11:16 is describing a contagious and infectious quality of holiness. There is no doubt a contagious aspect of good, and yet we don’t see it as much, so it seems; therefore, I think by creating a framework for intentionally applying spiritual disciplines that keep this concept in mind would be transformative for me personally as well as the church and any other ministry in which I might be involved.
Plan of Action
Though it was originally Benjamin Franklin who said it, the Marine Corps has commandeered the saying, “IF you fail to plan you plan to fail.” With this in mind, I’d like to provide a framework for ensuring we have a plan so we do not fail in our spiritual formation. This plan will be fairly basic, but also comprehensive and can be applied not only to the two concepts of reciprocal interactions and contagious sanctification, but any other concept one might learn regarding spiritual formation.
The first step in setting up a solid plan for spiritual formation is to get help from another person; not a book, not a video, and not a podcast; a person. Though this person can be reachable electronically, it would be best if you can meet face to face at least a few times a year. The plan I would recommend for spiritual formation would include just a few basic essentials in order to keep it from being overwhelming, but it would still require another individual to hold you accountable. Though I believe accountability is so essential I could frame one full aspect of the action plan for it, I will include it in one parts of the plan The basic essentials are three-fold for single individuals and four-fold for those who are married and/or have children. The separate parts of the plan would be tied to relationships because God created us from the overflowing relationship He has with Himself in perfect unity as Triune God existing in Spirit, therefore if we are to be spiritually formed, it is all about relationships. For the married person the relationships would be first between him/her and God, second with their spouse and children, third with a mentor or leader who is discipling them, and fourth within their community of believers. For the single Christian the second would simply wait for later leaving them with three primary relationships on which to focus.
Once the relationships are established, I can write down examples of reciprocity to seek out and those to avoid. For example, with God, I might write: “Spend time in devotions honors God, and He reciprocates by revealing more of Himself to me.” Likewise with my list of ways to reciprocate blessings in the home could include any of the 5 love languages and whatever makes “deposits” into my wife’s or children’s love banks; I could even list those things that cause “withdrawals” and a record of times when the “love bank” had insufficient funds! After laying this information out to make it clear, I could engage those relationships, even God through prayer, to add or adjust as necessary and then set up a kind of battle rhythm (what we call it in the military) for daily, weekly, or monthly review while journaling the growth in the relationships as a result of focusing on these reciprocal interactions. In order to complete this action plan I would conduct a similar exercise with the ways in which my sanctification could be contagious to those around me. I mentioned accountability earlier, and I think starting to hold others accountable, with their permission of course, would be an excellent way to help me grow in sanctification while helping others as well. A simple question to someone at church like, what have you been reading lately, or how has the Lord been speaking to you could prompt a conversation in one of those relationships with positive results. Adding these two concepts to the daily, weekly or monthly planners I already maintain will be an excellent way to keep me on task and on target as I execute this action plan and ensure success!
Advice to a new or prospective Seminary Student:
As mentioned in the introductory paragraphs, I want to close this blog with just one main take-away/piece of advice (although there were several) from the book “Surviving and Thriving in Seminary,” This will be for any reader who is currently enrolled in seminary courses or planing to do so at some point in the future. As mentioned, there were several powerful points made in the book, and one quote that really jumped out at me was about how a person with a family can progress through seminary: 1 way successfully and 2 ways not so much! In the screenshot to the right you can see how I shared this in a group of Marines, and I received a response from someone who thought the last two seemed the same; included below is my response.
I also was hit pretty hard by the subtitle “This is your job” on page 67 because I currently have about 3 other things in my life that feel like full time jobs.
But with respect to that which will help you continue to grow in the faith while enrolled in seminary, I think the most impactful idea that will help a new student, or even someone who is about half way done as I am, is to maintain the spiritual discipline of a daily devotional life.
I really think people struggle with this not just with seminary but also with many other things in life which demand time and attention, whether it is a job, hobby or different kind of study or entertainment. Not the graphic to the right and you will see the difficulty balancing family life just from the number of people who get divorced after pledging to each other before God, family and friends that they won’t part until death. Clearly, the need to stick to the promises we make is ever present, and with that is a need for strategy in order to be successful. First and foremost is the need for personal quiet time and devotions with God. I was taught early last year that the devotional life is like a 3-legged stool in which the three “legs”: Bible reading/study, prayer/journaling, and worship must be equal in strength and length.
Danny Zacharias and Ben Forrest describe how seminary students face the temptation to consider their daily devotions to include the 9-27 hours they spend each week (whether taking a 3 or 9 credit hours course load).
The authors’ admonition (as indicated by the quote from their book to the left) was to avoid doing this and to insist and persist in allocating a separate time block in which to spend meditating on the Word, praying to God and worshiping Him. I have personally faced and given into this temptation, and I didn’t really realize just how dangerous it was to do this even though I send a daily accountability text check-in with my “Band of Brothers” in which I state whether I’ve had my daily devotions, among other things, and I have many times counted my seminary studies as “checking that box.” Going forward, even if I spend several hours completing assignments, like I am today, I will ensure I am not “good on devo’s” unless I actually spent 15-30 minutes with God apart from my reading or writing assignments for seminary.
While I would encourage you to read Danny and Ben’s handbook for yourself and take notes, if there is one single take-away I believe would benefit you the most it would be that: do not forsake your daily devotions or try to replace them with academic requirements. Just as Jesus taught us, gaining the whole world and losing our soul does not profit (Matthew 16:26 & Mark 8:36), and so if you get all A’s but your life falls apart due to being disconnected from God, you would be failing in your relationships which are much more important and long lasting than a letter grade for a class. Keep me updated on your journey when you have time, I’d love to be reminded to pray for you!