Adult Spiritual Formation?

I’m not preaching this  Sunday morning. I had no committee meetings this week. No crises. Well, not major, time-consuming crises. And so, during this anomalous week of few pressing tasks, I had time to think. (Yes, Peace Mennonite folks should be getting worried right about now.)

I’ve primarily been thinking about (and googling) adult spiritual formation. Our congregation has few consistent opportunities for adult formation beyond weekly worship. Discussion groups and Bible studies pop up now and then. Just this year we had our first Lenten spiritual retreat. I lead new member classes and baptism preparation classes as the needs arise. It’s not that we do nothing. It’s just that what we do is pretty spotty and inconsistent.

We are not a program-sized church.  It’s understandable that we do not have a developed program of spiritual formation with organized small groups and multiple class offerings every week. But it seems to me that even a small church can—and should—have a coherent method of spiritual formation.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about. How can our small church best nurture adult faith? What core information do maturing Christians need to learn? What key spiritual experiences will most nurture growing faith?

In my idealistic bubble where the church has unlimited resources and the church people have nothing to do but church stuff, spiritual formation opportunities would consist of a solid small group ministry and a formation/education program roughly modelled on the Servant Leadership School in Washington, D.C.

Of course, in reality I live with you in the real world. I am a solo, part-time pastor. Most people who participate in the congregation I lead have jobs and family obligations. Plus they insist on sleeping and eating on a regular basis. So new questions arise: How much time can I realistically give to coordinating small groups and leading classes and retreats? Who else in the church is gifted to help with adult spiritual formation? What classes would people actually attend? When is the best time to offer them?

And here’s where I put on my Super Pastor cape and reveal to you the perfect model for spiritual formation in a small church . . .

Or not. I’m pretty sure all churches, especially small ones, have to figure this out on their own. I will continue to read and pray and discern the next steps for our congregation.

In the meantime, I found some unexpected encouragement from a blog post I stumbled across: “Can Creative Writing be Taught?”. I clicked on the article because I was a creative writing major in college and I taught English at the college level for a few years. It’s an intriguing question. The blogger, Gillian Holding, is a visual artist, and considers the parallels between writing and art. I was surprised to realize that there is a parallel with spirituality as well.

There are certain technical aspects of writing, drawing, design, the spiritual life, that can be taught. Grammar and perspective and prayer forms. Then there is the stuff that can’t be taught. The most technically skilled painter is not necessarily the best artist. For writers and visual artists, that stuff that can’t be taught might come from what we would call “inspiration” or “genius”–what Holding calls a “mindset.” In the Christian life, that stuff that can’t be taught comes from the Holy Spirit.

Holding, himself an art teacher, says that while we may not be able to fully teach art or creative writing, we can “provide an environment in which [the mindset that leads to great art] can be facilitated and encouraged and nurtured.”

This is good for me, as a pastor, to keep in mind. I cannot teach the spiritual life—no matter how many classes I offer or small groups I facilitate. I can help our congregation be a place where people’s spiritual life is “facilitated and encouraged and nurtured.” A place where the work that the Holy Spirit is already doing within us and among us is recognized and celebrated.

So my reading and googling and praying continues.  But I’m no longer looking for the perfect spiritual formation program. I’m more interested in forming a spiritually nurturing space.


[Potter image from Life in the Trinity Ministry.]

6 thoughts on “Adult Spiritual Formation?

  1. As a former part-time pastor in a two-point charge, I had the challenge of running a confirmation program for two youth, a brother and sister pair. Instead of running a separate program for the confirmands, I took twelve services before the actual confirmation, and ran the program as part of the church service in both points of the charge. To complicate things further, some of those were two separate worship services, some were joint, and some were joint with a third church with whom amalgamations discussions were in progress!

    I used several methods to present the topics, including sermons, power-point presentations, drama and small group work. Those being confirmed were required to attend at least ten of the twelve sessions.

    In the end, I not only confirmed the two youth, but another woman (aged 75!) who had not been confirmed as a youth because she was sick the year she “should” have taken classes! I also found a few others who needed to transfer their membership.

    And all of the members of both congregations developed a clearer understanding of the bible, the Christian faith, and of our denomination.

    In all churches, the primary source of spiritual formation is and should remain the worship service. If you do a series, you can have the freedom to deviate from the set worship format and folks will be understanding (at least for a few weeks…)

    Also check around for opportunities to co-operate with other churches, even those of different denominations, or even people of other faiths. The minister of the third church and I co-operated on a series of sessions on marriage which was well-attended not only by members of our three churches, but of other churches in the area.

    Hope this helps! And remember, by preaching week after week, and by living the faith, you are giving your congregation all of the leadership most of them need to develop their own spirituality. God bless.

    • Thanks, Ruth. I do value worship as a primary means of spiritual formation. It’s good to be reminded. And it’s a great suggestion to cooperate with other churches. We’re doing VBS with two other churches in town this year–I’m sure there are more opportunities out there.

  2. I came here via RevGals, and I am so grateful for your post. I really appreciate the connection between spiritual formation and teaching the creative arts. I share a passion for this part of church life, and did a lot of thinking and writing about it last fall. In your Googling, you might not find my little corner, but I would welcome your input and further conversation.

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