Spiritual Formation In A Secular World

I recently read some comments from Tim Keller on modern secularism, and how it is now seeking to evangelize Christians. Keller points out that children need to be inoculated against secular thinking, because we’re now surrounded by this evangelizing force in our daily lives:

“We don’t have as much control over what our kids hear now. … So basically, they are getting catechized. So if you just take them to church and to Sunday school or youth group, that’s nothing compared to what they’re getting”

While Keller’s focus is on children in this context, it applies to older generations as well. It’s not just kids who are being formed by the secular world – adults are, too. Both young and old generations need to be inoculated against secular thinking. The question is: how do we do this?

Keller goes on to talk about the need for spiritual formation, and this, I believe, is the key moving forward. If we want to help protect people from secular evangelism, we need to focus on spiritual formation.

Spiritual formation is a deeply Biblical concept. Paul says in Romans, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). What are Christians to be transformed into? “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Paul also tells us that God has called us to be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). In other words, we should be transformed into the image of Jesus. Christians are supposed to look like Christ. Just as we will one day look like him bodily in the resurrection, we are supposed to spiritually reflect him in our lives right now. That is what spiritual formation is all about.

The church has spent a lot of time focused on information and not enough on transformation. We’ve told people a lot about Jesus, but we haven’t been helping them actually look like Jesus. And the fruit is what we’re seeing today: many young people walking away from the faith, and many older people formed more deeply by politics than by Christ.

If we’re going to form people spiritually, we’re going to have to change the way we think about our church life and spiritual life generally. It’s not enough to preach at people and tell them to read their Bibles, pray, and show up for services. If we want to inoculate both young and old against a secular worldview, we’ve got to move from information to transformation. We need to create a different kind of environment in our churches. If we want to flourish, we’ll have to step outside of our comfort zone. We can start by focusing on four core concerns.

Reorienting our worship services. For some, worship is basically a motivational concert. The goal is to make you walk away feeling good or “recharged.” For others, worship is purely about law-keeping. The goal is to make sure everything is done “decently and in order,” with all five acts checked off properly. What if, instead, we saw worship as an opportunity to encounter the glory of God? What if our sermons and singing and the Lord’s Supper became an opportunity to glorify Jesus among our people? The transformation of 2 Cor. 3:18 is prefaced with beholding the glory of the Lord. What are people currently beholding during worship? Are they beholding themselves? Are they beholding the rightness of our practices? Or, are they beholding the glory of the Lord? If we want people to be transformed into the image of Christ, our worship needs to actively elevate the glory of Christ in their eyes.

Shifting out of intellectual neutral. The phrase “intellectual neutral” comes from a talk by William Lane Craig. In it, he points out that many congregations don’t want to get into difficult subjects. In some cases, that’s because there’s pressure to entertain and intellectual subjects are deemed too boring. In other cases, this tendency arises from a fear of going beyond what’s easy to comprehend. Sometimes it arises from simple laziness. Whatever the cause, we need to be willing to engage difficult material. This isn’t just about changing the information we discuss, however. It’s about training people to think in mature ways. If we only ever cover simplistic material in simplistic ways, we can’t expect our members to fruitfully engage the world around them; in fact, we should expect secular evangelists to be increasingly successful.

Developing a deep sense of Christian community. A vibrant Christian community cannot exist if it is confined to the walls of a church building. Many have said that we don’t go to church, but that we are the church. That’s true, but it’s easy to say and much harder to live out. The early church gathered together in homes, reflecting on the apostles’ teaching, praying together, and sharing meals (Acts 2:42ff). In fact, they were doing this daily. How often do we gather for these things outside of Sunday worship? When was the last time someone came over to your house simply to pray or meditate on scripture together? When was the last time you shared a sin with a brother or sister? These kinds of activities take the doctrines of the church and bring them into our daily lives, but they require changes which will prove uncomfortable and inconvenient for some. If these things aren’t happening naturally, leadership must finds ways to shepherd the flock so that they do.

Remembering our mission. The mission of the church is ultimately about discipleship. We are to be disciples and to make disciples. This is the heart of the Great Commission. Unfortunately, many Christians have settled for being believers in Jesus instead of disciples of Jesus. Jesus says in Matt. 16:24, “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” I can be a believer in Jesus and live basically like the world. That’s not possible if I’m going to be his disciple. A discipleship mentality impacts evangelism, as well. Sharing a set of beliefs without any context is awkward at best. Inviting people into my own experience of gospel transformation is more natural. This mentality further impacts how we raise our children. There’s a world of difference between informing my children about Jesus and discipling my children to follow Jesus. Remembering our mission can help us better navigate the world around us.

There are a number of different ways to think about these issues. My friend Scott has some great thoughts to consider on this point (read his article here). This much is clear – if we want to see our congregations flourishing, we can’t keep the status quo. What worked 50 or 100 years ago isn’t going to work today, at least not in the same way. The Bible doesn’t change. Jesus doesn’t change. But our times and our cultures do. I pray we will learn and adapt so we can be better transformed into the image of Christ, and less transformed by the secular world around us.

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