Jonathan Morrow in Foundations of Spiritual Formationsaid, “Spiritual formation is divinely enabled by God through three essential resources: God’s Word, God’s Spirit, and God’s people (the church).” Of these 3 essential resources, which do you think is the most neglected resource, and why is it the most neglected?
I would argue that the church is, perhaps, the most neglected spiritual formation tool. This is based on both the positive emphasis the Bible puts on the need for fellowship in community, and the negative impact we see on those who isolate themselves.
When the Bible says in 1 Timothy 3:15 that, “the church is the pillar and ground of truth,”1it is referencing the idea that believers who make up the church are to uphold and protect the truth of the Gospel. Such an endeavor is of the kind that an individual alone cannot and should not do by himself.
The word of God and the work of the Spirit is necessary and foundational in the life of a Christian; but without a body of believers to hold you accountable, nourish, edify and encourage you, you will run the risk of interpreting the Bible in whatever manner seems best to you, and lose the Gospel community reality of Christian living. All roads to spiritual formation, I believe, must lead back to the value of community in Christ. We are not designed to be alone or navigate life alone.
A common thread throughout Scripture is community and relationship. God himself reveals the community He experiences in the Trinity (John 17). We see that God often brought along others to support and encourage those who were following Him (Moses, David, Elijah, and Daniel to name a few). We also see in Proverbs the need for counselors and iron-sharpening friends (Proverbs 27:17, 11:14). These all indicate importance of community. But, perhaps, the most poignant example, specific to the church, is the word picture that Paul uses to specifically reference the church in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 5. Paul uses a body (unity and care amongst many), and the marriage relationship (the betterment of two found only in unity). Both of which indicate that plurality is necessary to succeed in its purpose.2
My personal experience in ministry is that so often when a Christian is about to derail their life, it begins with a heightened sense of spirituality mixed with isolation. Too many times, I have sat across the table from men who have justified why it is ok to leave their wife and kids. They often have “prayed” about their decision to leave their family and feel it is God’s will.
Sadly, I often have seen that the people who make life choices based on the alleged “will of God,” claim that they have been praying and reading the Bible to seek for direction, and thus they “feel” the Holy Spirit is directing that action. However, a mature spiritual church member could be there to give a different and healthy perspective and help avoid heartache and damaging consequences. The community of believers who are praying for and caring most for this individual are generally the ones who have been ignored or patronized most significantly.
The people of God, I believe, help us to be challenged, encouraged, and sharpened by the truth of God’s word. They also can confirm the working of the Holy Spirit. It is necessary for sustained and truth-directed growth. The urges of Scripture to have counsel, authority, shepherds, and unity, are reminders of this fact. All can be found in the local church.
I don’t deny all three “options” for spiritual formation are lacking today. Many, perhaps all, miss the transforming power of the Word of God. People go day to day without listening to the Holy Spirit that guides into all truth and thereby avoid pitfalls (John 16:13). I simply believe that of these three, the acceleration of growth/dependency on the Word of God and the Spirit of God begins with being around people who are living that way. After all, isn’t that discipleship?
1Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the King James Version.
2Paul Pettit, Foundations of Spiritual Formation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 38, ebook