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  • Writer's pictureBradley Bell

Why Spiritual Formation is CENTRAL in God's Mission

This article was originally delivered as part of pre-field training for missionary candidates. For this reason it is a longer read, so the emboldened parts are meant to help you scan (if needed).



What are things that if you don’t maintain them they fall apart?


Vehicles.

Lawn mowers.

Clothes.


The soul also requires maintenance. But we can easily neglect it. Why?


The soul is intangible. We are often unaware of it. A vibrant spiritual life has much to do with awareness—of God and self; attuned like a mother and child. This is reflected in Psalm 131:2. David sings,


“I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”


But American worldview and cultural formation tends to cultivate the opposite of this. So let’s be countercultural for a moment. 


Think of the soul like an artery. There are things that take up space. If they are not attended to, the artery will clog. How do you become aware of what’s in the soul?


Stillness. 


So be still for a moment. Consider what's taking up space in your soul. And then, if you like, keep reading.


What is Spiritual Formation?


Maintenance of the soul is a matter of spiritual formation. What is spiritual formation?


Dallas Willard, who was an American philosopher known for his writings on spiritual formation, defined it this way:


“Spiritual formation in the tradition of Jesus Christ is the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ.”


My preferred definition, however, comes from Portland Seminary:


"Christian spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ for the glory of God and for the sake of others.”


The biblical basis for this? Here are a few places that come to mind:


2 Corinthians 3:18: 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. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.


Romans 8:29: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.


Colossians 1:28: Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature [literally perfect] in Christ.


You might ask, isn’t spiritual formation just sanctification, this passive work that God is doing throughout my life to make me more holy? No, spiritual formation involves active participation.


Then you might ask, isn’t spiritual formation just spiritual disciplines—Bible study, prayer, fasting, etc.? No, spiritual disciplines might be some of the means by which spiritual formation happens, but they are not spiritual formation itself.


Here’s a good analogy for you: Katie and I have four daughters. Our oldest is about to turn 9, which means she is already halfway out of our household. Our youngest is the last baby we’ll have, so we are savoring every moment and often wanting to stop time. But we have to remind ourselves often: “Our goal is to raise godly women.” So everything we do to pour into them is captured by a prayer we often pray over them: “God, help this child to become all you created her to be.” This is like Jesus’ desire for us: he wants us to grow up into all he created us to be. Spiritual formation, then, is matching our desire with his. 


What Makes Spiritual Formation Central? 


That’s a bold statement. Central?! Not just part of God’s mission or important to God’s mission, but central?! How do I justify that?


Well, if we’re going to talk about being conformed to the image of God’s Son, then we need to begin with the fact that we are created in the image of God. You are an embodied soul. You’re not just a spirit that’s conforming to the Spirit of Christ; you are a whole person who is conforming to the whole Person of Christ—loving with his love, doing his deeds, eating and drinking to his glory, suffering his sufferings, one day dying like him, and one day rising like him. But we rarely think of the spiritual life this way. 


Consider yourself as an iceberg. In Western Christian culture, what we are paying attention to most is what’s on the surface of our lives. We see spiritual life as comprised of two things:


Cognition and volition.


In other words, believe the right things and do the right things (and the rest will take care of itself). However, as an embodied soul, you are profoundly more complex than just cognition and volition. You are also all the mass of the iceberg that is hidden underneath the surface. That means things like:


  • Your story (all your lived experience)

  • Your body (both with its abilities and limitations)

  • Your personality (how you perceive, process, and project yourself to the world)

  • Your family of origin (as Peter Scazzero says, “Jesus is in your heart, but grandpa is in your bones.”)

  • Your attachment patterns and learned level of intimacy developed from your primary caregivers (for better or worse)


Now we can choose to distill the Christian life down to only what’s on the surface, but not only will our growth be stunted, but we may find ourselves at odds with God. Why? Because Jesus didn’t just die to purchase what’s on the surface of your life—he died to purchase what’s under the surface too, and he aims to redeem all of it. In other words, he doesn’t just want to get something out of you—he wants you.


What I have found is, because we settle for this truncated definition of the Christian life, we also settle for a truncated definition of the Christian mission. We might say that:


God’s mission is what he wants to do through us to reach the nations with the gospel.


But that’s only the half of it! Instead we can say:


God's mission is what he wants to do through us AND what he wants to do in us.


It’s the nations’ obedience to Christ AND the church’s formation in Christ. One doesn’t happen without the other. They are, in fact, so continent upon one other that you can’t actually separate them. 


That’s why spiritual formation is central to God’s mission. 


What Happens When Spiritual Formation is Not Central?


When spiritual formation is not central what you end up with is a framework (or formula) that risks being at odds with God. In my own experience as a missionary, that formula looks something like this:


Maintain your spiritual life—so that—you can bear more fruit. 


Sounds good, right? But think with me for a moment, the spiritual life here is being subservient to something—what?


Fruit.


The spiritual life is simply a means to an end.


There is someone in Scripture who famously lived according to this formula to a fault. He brought an offering to the Lord—his spiritual duty—in order to get something from God. And when he didn’t get it, he despised the Lord and killed his brother. Who am I talking about?


Cain.


Friends, there are many Cains who have gone to the mission field, ending up angry at God for not getting the results they expected, and jealous of their coworkers who did see results. Beware.


Which brings us to another problem with this framework: the way in which missions culture defines “fruit”. When we say fruit we are most often referring to results from evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. But that’s not how the Bible primarily describes fruit. What is “fruit” in the New Testament? 


  • The fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew)

  • The fruit of sanctification and eternal life (Romans)

  • The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians)

  • The fruit of light found in all that is good and right and true (Ephesians)

  • The fruit of righteousness (Philippians)

  • The fruit of good works (Colossians)

  • The fruit of lips that acknowledge his name (Hebrews)

  • The fruit of wisdom (James)


The fruit that flows from a vibrant spiritual life cannot be quantified by the number of shares, converts, groups, churches, or movements produced. Beware. 


Another problem with this framework—perhaps the most tragic—is that it reproduces itself. We see this in the apparent missionary zeal that was active first century Judaism. We read Jesus' words of woe in Matthew 23:15:


"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are."


These men are on a mission in the name of God but that is at odds with God. They have made the spiritual life subservient to their own ends and they are reaching people in order to get something out of them. The converts, in turn, do the same to others.


You see, when we go on mission in the name of God and the end game is man-focused results, it’s easy to make reaching people just about getting something out of them. They in turn get discipled with spiritual formation at the periphery, or perhaps even nonexistent. 


Now, these may seem like extreme or at least extremely negative assertions, but let me bring this down in the most practical and wide-spanning way I can think of.


Four years ago a global pandemic broke out. Thousands of missionaries either had to stop their work altogether, move to another country, or come back to their home culture indefinitely. That was a devastating experience. But what made it worse, and what it revealed for many, was that they had been living according to a broken framework. Without the ability to do their work, many felt that their lives had no value, that God had no use for them.


I experienced the same thing when I returned as a missionary and started working at a mall Chick-fil-a. If in my view God’s mission was only what he wanted to do through me, then indeed I was letting God down. And if in my view I had made my offering in order to get something from God and did not get it, then indeed God was letting me down. And honestly, at times I just wanted to die. 


This was once the case for another famous man in the Bible:


Elijah.


We read that “he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’”


Why was he functionally suicidal? Because God was not submitting to his framework. Because his expectations weren’t met. This is a picture of what happens when spiritual formation is not central. 


What Happens When Spiritual Formation is Central?


Here’s the resolution, right? Where I show you how spiritual formation is the solution to all your problems. Well, what if I said that making spiritual formation central will likely make things much harder for you?


Let me explain.


To make spiritual formation central is to make your obedience as a missionary subservient to your conformity to the image of Christ. In other words, you are effectively saying, “I am pressing into this because, Jesus, I want more than anything to know you and become like you.” This is basically what Paul is saying of himself in Philippians 3:


"Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain to the resurrection from the dead…I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way"


That is a beautiful desire aligned with God’s desire. Here’s the question though: what does God do with that desire? How does he bring about the fruit of spiritual formation?


I think one of the Bible’s clearest answers comes from John 15. As people pursuing deeper participation in God’s mission, what likely comes to mind from this passage is a couple specific verses:


(5) "I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."


(8) "By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples."


But these are not where I want to draw your attention. This abiding in Christ that bears much fruit, what is it characterized by?


A number of things we could discuss: prayer, love, obedience. But that doesn’t answer our question, what does God do with the desire for spiritual formation? The very first thing mentioned in the passage, which then goes on to characterize the entire chapter, is in verse 2:


"Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit."


Anyone know what it means to prune? I knew the general idea, but then my neighbor decided to grow his own grapevine. That meant multiple times per day he had to go out to the vine and find these little tendrils that would come out everywhere and wrap themselves around anything they could find. If he left those tendrils then they would strengthen their grip and eventually choke out the vine. So he would snip them off.


Everything unnecessary, cut away. 


That, my friends, is what God does with the desire for spiritual formation. He prunes you. If more of Jesus is to come alive in you, then more of you is going to have to what?


Die.


And even more as you deepen your commitment to his mission. Ever wondered why global missions—something so near to God’s heart—is so tremendously difficult? That it’s death by a thousand cuts—little tendrils snipped off every day? Wouldn’t it logically make sense that God would make the way so easy? But he doesn't. 


Why?


Because this is how you become all that God created you to be.

Because this is how God redeems the whole iceberg.

Because this fuels the inward and outward movements of God’s grace.

Because this is how you become secure in God’s love for you not your love for him.

Because this is what produces all the New Testament’s forms of fruit.

Because this is what he wants to reproduce in the disciples you make. 

Because you are being conformed to the image of he who for the joy set before him endured the cross


This is spiritual formation. It’s the confounding intersection of realizing, “I know that to know Jesus more intimately and to become more like him I will have to die a thousand deaths,” and saying yes—gladly. This is why Jesus in the middle of his script about pruning and suffering he says,


John 15:11: "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full."



Last Easter my wife and I took my girls to an Andrew Peterson concert called Resurrection Letters. That night both of us were praying in particular for our oldest daughter Elisabeth to encounter Jesus and sense his call to salvation. Andrew was working his way through all these songs about the sorrow and death of Jesus, but in the middle of one of the songs Elisabeth turned to my wife and said to her, “I feel like Jesus is calling me by name.” And my wife looked at her and just said,


“Well, say yes!”


Brothers and sisters, in view of the spiritual formation that is laid before you by way of God’s global mission, of all the applications I could make, I just want to encourage your hearts—


say yes.

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