Learning the Practice of Walking with Christ
"Spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others," we are told by M. Robert Mulholland in his very illuminating book, Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation (1993 Intervarsity Press; page 12). He goes on to say that "once we understand spiritual formation as a process, all of life becomes spiritual formation," and it is not optional (p. 16). We can't decide to take it or leave it. "Everyone," he cautions, "is in the process of spiritual formation!… We are being shaped into either the wholeness of the image of Christ or a horribly destructive caricature of that image … We become either agents of God's healing and liberating grace or carriers of the sickness of the world. The direction of our spiritual growth infuses all we do with intimations of either Life or Death" (p. 23).
The words are a potent wake-up call to our complacent thinking that if we participate in the right disciplines at least semi-regularly, then we will have developed an appropriate relationship with God. Indeed, Mulholland reminds us that God is the agent in this process, not us, and "the doing is an outflow, the result, of a being that exists in relationship with Jesus as Lord" (p. 32). While being in the relationship with Christ is paramount, Mulholland so poignantly states, "Without the performance of the disciplines, God is, for all practical purposes, left without any means of grace through which to effect transformation in our lives" (p. 136).
Stories of Formational Ministry
What do we do in our congregations to help teach disciplines and practices that shape us as faithful Christians?
Cheryl Walker, Director of African American Ministries at Discipleship Ministries, tells us about a wonderful role model. "Annie Laura Stephens is a member of Ben Hill UMC in Atlanta, Georgia, and she attends the Couples In Christ Sunday school class each Sunday at 9:30 a.m. The class is known throughout the church as a class of care and concern for its members and the members of the congregation. Annie Laura prepares meals for families who experience sickness or death, sits with members during times of hospitalization when there are no other family members around, sends cards, and above all, is a prayer warrior for the Lord. There is no one at Ben Hill UMC who doesn't know Annie Laura and the gifts she shares on a daily basis." Prayer, study of the Scriptures, and service are all means of grace that are practiced and modeled by a well-known member and leader of the congregation.
Edwin Santos, former staff member at the Discipleship Ministries, shares this story about a conference-level plan derived from the resources of the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry. Using the method of "See, Judge, Act," clergy and lay leaders receive training each year in the area of education, thus empowering teachers to model a formational Bible study practice. One sees the reality of an actual situation, judges or assesses that reality in light of Scriptural teaching, and then determines to what action that judgment calls. This encouragement to put faith to work is emphasized in the majority of churches and classes, which results in a significant contribution of students' energies into community-helping agencies as well as creative Bible schools.
The Rev. Marcos Torres of Davis Memorial United Methodist Church, a Brazilian congregation in Harrison, NJ, reports on intentional, biweekly training opportunities in worship and evangelism as well as weekly Bible study and training after worship for new members to deepen their faith journeys. Not only are members experiencing and practicing the means of grace through study, worship, and witnessing, but also the leadership is ensuring that they nurture new leaders to deepen their discipleship.
Kay Hwang of the Korean UMC in Greater Washington asks: "How can we teach our children to pray beyond meal times or bed times? In order for children to adopt a more committed, disciplined, and daily prayer life, teaching them through sermons or Bible studies on Sundays is not enough. More intensive discipleship programs are needed. One of the intensive discipleship trainings we provide is called 'Timothy Discipleship Class' (only for 4th — 6th graders). Children learn the basics of prayer life, including intercessory prayer and daily devotion using the Scripture as their main source. The best way to learn to pray is just to pray. Developing the habit of prayer is very important. Therefore, as a class, we share our devotional journals and talk about the hindrances and difficulties we face as we try to set aside time for prayer. With fun activities and illustrations added into the program, discipleship classes can be fun and exciting!"
Generalizing about cultural characteristics must be done with great care; however, in broad terms, we can observe practices within some cultures that are particular blessings in their own Christian formation process. These means of grace are not unique to the culture, but they are noted here as gifts to others who may not practice those means regularly.
Prayer is a spiritual practice universal in its scope. The practice of simultaneous prayer in the Korean community may be new to some. Rather than praying silently or one at a time, the entire class or congregation prays aloud together, creating a kind of Pentecost atmosphere. This swell of prayer, which God understands all at once, creates a thrilling, even mysterious, sense of unity in the wholeness of God's community.
Singing is also a universal practice. The spontaneity of music and singing in African American congregations and classes creates an atmosphere of unity as well. The lyrics often become a potent vehicle for witness, affirmation, praise, confession, and faith sharing. Of the seven learning styles, music is the first to form and connect us in a mystical way to God.
Hospitality with justice is a foundational means of grace within the Hispanic/Latino community. The "See, Judge, Act" form of study and action emerged from the base community theology in Brazil as a means of empowering lay people for leadership in Bible study and reflection initially within the Catholic Church, which was pushing back against the repressive actions of the state. "See Judge, Act" has at its heart the creation of hospitable, just, and safe havens for worship, fellowship, and nurture.