17 April, 2024

Spiritual Formation 101: Three Guidelines for Meeting Our Moment

by | 1 July, 2023 | 1 comment

By Tyler McKenzie 

Spiritual formation has become a buzz phrase. It sounds sophisticated, all the influencers use it, and it’s a way to signal my friends that I am one of those neo-monastic types who reads poetry and welcomes strangers into my home. But what does it actually mean, and why does it matter? I believe this is an important discussion in our cultural environment. A spiritual formation mindset can help us reframe the discipleship conversations we are having in our churches to meet our moment. When I’m asked to talk about spiritual formation, I boil it down to three guiding principles. 

CHRISTIANS ARE NOT THE ONLY ONES IN THIS BUSINESS

Spiritual formation is happening to us every day, and most of it is not Christian. Understanding this is critical. I would like to offer two definitions here. One definition is for spiritual formation generally, and the other is for the unique approach to it Christians take. 

Spiritual formation (generally) is anything that shapes our hearts or habits. 

Many entities are trying to shape habits and hearts. TikTok, the GOP and DNC, and Netflix, among many others, are incredible at spiritual formation. Why? Because these entities are experts at influencing us. 

Christian spiritual formation is when we become more like Jesus.  

The formation we are after is when our hearts are shaped more like Jesus or our habits are shaped in ways that connect us more to Jesus! 

ATTENTION MULTIPLIES FORMATION 

Building on the above definitions, we need to teach our people how to give their attention to the voice of God and protect their attention from the voices of this world. The voices you listen to most often and most intently are the ones that will disciple you over time. From the people who raise you, to the friends with whom you surround yourself, to the places you live, to the apps you give your attention to, to the news outlets you prefer, to the shows or sports with which you entertain yourself, to the celebrities you admire, to the organizations that employ you, to the brands you patronize, to the art you consume, to the politicians you follow . . . these voices all speak into your life. Every voice seeks to define your moral universe, shape your cultural imagination, and distort your religious convictions.  

This is why it is vital to be wary of what we give our attention to. One of the most troubling examples of this is our addictions to screens and the media platforms that fill them. In 2017, Axios interviewed Sean Parker. He was the first president of Facebook, but he now calls himself a “conscientious objector” to social media. In the interview, he said,  

God only knows what [social media] is doing to our children’s brains. The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them . . . was all about: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you . . . more likes and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop . . . exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators—it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people—understood this consciously. And we did it anyway. 

When you use social media, you are the product, not the customer. They are monitoring you, learning you, discovering what captures you, and then selling your attention to big brands, businesses, influencers, and politicians. That’s the business model. Billions of dollars are invested and sophisticated algorithms are designed to distract you, addict you, and then manipulate your behavior. Why? Because the most powerful people on earth know that attention multiples formation. 

At the church where I minister, we ask our members to practice our corporate “Rule of Life.” A rule of life is a set of rhythms and restrictions that a follower of Jesus habituates to connect with God and resist popular culture. We ask our members (it’s literally in our membership covenant) to commit to one rhythm and one restriction, and we ask parents to build these into the lives of their kids:  

• Rhythm: Prayerfully reading God’s Word daily 

• Restriction: Regulating the quality and quantity of screen intake  

CULTURAL EXEGESIS MUST BE TAUGHT (ESPECIALLY TO KIDS)

One of the most helpful classes I took in seminary was on “cultural exegesis.” The goal was to teach pastors how to look at any cultural artifact—a TV commercial, movie plot, politician’s rhetoric, news commentary, new technology, architectural design, sports league, Fortune 500 mission statement, congressional legislation—anything!—and then evaluate it with the following questions: 

1. What is this trying to teach me? 

2. How is this going to form me (that is, how will this shape my habits and heart)? 

3. Does the teaching and formation from questions 1 and 2 align with Scripture? 

As we moved through the class material, I found myself thinking, I’m not sure why they wait until a master’s level seminary class to teach this to pastors! Basically, instead of allowing popular culture to impose its will, beliefs, and moral vision on us, we were taught to critically evaluate culture through Scripture. Church leaders are not the only ones who need such an important skill.  

We live in a time when adults are being socialized and kids are being initiated into life by competing false gospels through sophisticated technology almost every moment of the day. We must raise up cultural exegetes and start them young! We might call this discernment. We must learn how to identify and challenge the stories our popular culture is preaching. 

We need to ask such questions as these: 

• What does this say will make me happy? And will it really? And for how long?  

• What does this say is right or wrong? And does Scripture agree? 

• What does this teach my teen about identity, purpose, meaning, destiny, sexuality, money, etc.? 

• Who created this? What are they about? Why did they do it? Should they have this much influence over me? 

• How much of my time is this taking?  

• Who is this platforming as a role model or villain? 

• Is this perspective good for my neighbors? 

• Is this cultivating rage and hate toward others? 

• Is it focusing my attention on things largely out of my control? 

• Is it anxiety-inducing or fear-inducing?  

• What sort of emotional and relational toll will this have on my family? 

• Does this make me a better spouse, parent, friend, or classmate?  

• Does this make me more like Jesus? 

A warning: The goal is not to become judgmental critics or fearful isolationists. That isn’t Jesus-like; and besides, it will turn our kids off. I personally do not advocate severely sheltering yourself or your children. The aim here is to learn and teach sober, critical, biblical thought. As Christians and as parents we must not be afraid to point out the bad and the good, the sinful and the beautiful things we find in non-Christian mediums.  

Tyler McKenzie

Tyler McKenzie serves as lead pastor at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

1 Comment

  1. Amy Hunt

    The Bible speaks of our transformation into being like Christ who is holy – sanctification. Or making disciples/discipleship, which is a prevalent theme in the NT. If the Bible speaks of sanctification and discipleship, why not use those words? And if the Bible never mentions spiritual formation, why use that phrase to describe something for which the Bible already has a name? Isn’t that antithetical to the Christian Standard’s own standards for writing? This article references resisting popular culture. Yet the “rule of life” & spiritual formation trends are current “pop culture” in the church world. These ideas stem from people we would never ask to teach on doctrine or theology. Why introduce their ideas when God gave us his own words? If Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, & training in righteousness, why are we tapping into the minds of whom we would not call upon to teach at any of our schools or churches? This is trendy spirituality. Jesus never taught us to have a “rule of life”. That was Peter Scazzero. Spiritual formation was made popular by Richard Foster though pulled from Catholic traditions. Neither of these men are fit to lead our churches. And yet, we extend their thoughts into the flock of the unwitting and ever trusting sheep in each congregation. These concepts further complicate and confuse those who aren’t sophisticated in Bible knowledge. Jesus kept it simple for good reason.

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