Faith in Community

Faith in Community

Introduction

Several years ago, there was a show on the TLC channel that followed the life of, what on the surface, seemed to be two ordinary parents. If you met them for the first time you would see a couple in their forties who had a toddler for a child. Nothing looked out of place. However, upon closer inspection what was seen was two very frustrated parents who have been parents of a toddler for eighteen years. Their daughter had a very rare condition where her physical development simply stopped at eighteen months old. Even though she was eighteen, she looked like, acted like, and thought like a child of one-year and six months old. There was no hope that their daughter would ever grow up.

There are many churches who have people that look perfectly normal. However, upon closer inspection it can be seen that despite being a believer in Jesus for many years, even decades, these people have never grown spiritually. It’s as if their spiritual growth became stunted shortly after coming to faith in Christ. Thankfully, unlike the eighteen-year old toddler, such people have the hope of growing to maturity in Christ. However, the reality that there are people who believe in Christ and love God, but who have not experienced significant spiritual growth, leads one who ask the question, “How does spiritual growth take place in the life of a believer?” It is the goal of his paper to answer this question.

Conforming to Christ

As we look for answers it is necessary that we define our terms. Throughout this paper the terms spiritual growth, spiritual formation, sanctification, and transformation will be used interchangeably. Pettit comments that the idea of spiritual formation encompasses, “the dynamic, holistic, maturing relationship between the individual believer and God, and between the individual believer and others.”[1] According to Averbeck, the idea of spiritual growth is best understood from passages of the Bible that “refer to the Holy Spirit in the context of forming, transforming, or conforming a person’s life toward Christlikeness (“until Christ is formed in you,” (Gal. 4:19b).”[2] Spiritual growth takes place when a person becomes more like Christ, as his/her character, faith, and righteousness is formed within them. Specifically, spiritual growth takes place in the context of everyday life, where a person begins to show both the character and righteousness of Christ as they seek to walk with God.[3] Spiritual growth, then, is the process of transformation where a person experiences tangible change in everyday life. In other words, spiritual growth is not only about growing in knowledge of Christ, but it involves growing in such a way that the believer relates to God and others in a qualitatively different way than before they believed in him.[4]

The Goal

If spiritual growth requires real tangible change in a person, then it is important to recognize what that change looks like once it occurs. In Steven Covey’s classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he argues that to be successful one needs to begin a journey with the end in mind. He writes that an idea of “the image, picture, or paradigm of the end of your life as your frame of reference or the criterion by which everything else is examined” should be known at the beginning of the journey.[5] In other words, live your life with the end in mind. What do you want people to remember about you at your own funeral? His point is not to be grim, but to emphasize that to achieve a goal one must know what that goal looks like before one sets out to achieve it.

Biblical spiritual growth is not a vague concept without a tangible end result. The goal of spiritual formation is to become a disciple of Christ who walks with God in the context of a biblical community, and who in turn helps others follow Christ as a disciple. In other words, the goal of biblical spiritual formation is to effect change in a person to such a degree that he/she becomes a fully functional follower of Christ in the context of the church. Further, as one pursues the goal of Christ-likeness, it must be stressed that it is a goal that can be accomplished.

Spiritual Ecology

In order to better understand how the goal can be accomplished, Lowe and Lowe introduce a helpful concept they call an Ecological Model of Spiritual Formation. They argue that there is an “ecological motif running through the Bible that uses the ecological growth observed in nature to illustrate spiritual growth.”[6] The idea is that just as in nature life flourishes in the context of the larger environment where everything is dependent upon everything else (a symbiosis), so too spiritual growth takes place when there is an environment conducive to such growth. They write, “in God’s ecology, individual things and people do not grow alone.”[7] In a healthy environment everything is connected together and everything at some level interacts with everything else. There is an “interdependence of all living things.”[8]

In the same way there is a “spiritual ecology” that contributes to the spiritual growth of people.[9] The idea of a spiritual ecology encompasses more than just being in community, it includes a holistic environment that sets the “ecological conditions for growth.”[10] Those conditions include the people of the church and the use of their spiritual gifts as they invest in the lives of those within the church. For the environment to be conducive to growth, every member of the church must see the need of every other member. There is a necessary interconnectedness between each person. That is why the church is called “the body of Christ.” Hence, Lowe and Lowe argue that spiritual growth happens in the context of community. Spiritual growth, therefore, happens corporately.[11] They write, “individual growth can only occur within a defined ecology…” where “reciprocal ministry” takes place.[12]

Therefore, one of the challenges in the contemporary church is to see past individual professions of faith and begin to understand the need to see each person in the larger context of the church. Gordon Johnston writes, “unfortunately, many popular views of salvation feature a privatized, individualistic approach.”[13] In other words, people don’t always see the necessary connection of their profession of faith to the larger body of Christ as a whole. This is because, as Darrell Bock notes, “the individualism that pervades our culture … works against developing spiritual growth.”[14] But, as Lowe and Lowe point out, spiritual growth does not happen in isolation from the larger community of faith.

Borrowing from the field of biology, their model of Spiritual Ecology posits that there is a necessary “reciprocal exchange” that takes places between members of the community.[15] In biological systems “growth only occurs through … reciprocal interactions that spread needed nutrients among the connected members of the ecosystem.”[16] What is true of the biological realm is also true of the spiritual realm. Lowe and Lowe write, “we are on solid ground when we say all growth in God’s creation is ecological growth, for nothing grows alone and detached from other living things and persons.”[17] Unfortunately, there are barriers to growth along this axis. Until believers see the need to be fully engaged in the body of Christ, where they contribute to the mutual exchange of spiritual nutrients, there will be a dearth of growth within the church.

In his book Christless Christianity Michael Horton notes a barrier erected as a result of an individualistic approach to faith. That barrier is the “me-centered” approach to the Christian life where Christianity is reduced to a “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” He writes,

The focus (in churches today) … seems to be on us and our activity rather than on God and his work in Jesus Christ. …There is a tendency to make God a supporting character in our own little movie than to be rewritten as a new character in God’s drama of redemption.[18]

People often understand salvation as a personal matter because God is not seen as the holy creator and author of life around whom our life should conform, but as our personal therapist and life coach. Horton writes, “our practices reveal that we are focused on ourselves and our activity more than on God and his saving work amongst us.”[19] We come to church to see how we can “make God relevant” to our lives, instead of allowing God to remake us into the image of Christ.[20]

Growing in Christ

But the work of Christ was not to liberate God to become our therapist. God never offered to become a personal resource to make life better or easier for people. He came to defeat Satan, destroy sin, and put death on death row – all with the aim of glorifying his name amongst the nations. The effect of his victory over Satan, sin, death, and the world is to free people to live for God, so that they can fulfill their purpose for living – which is to glorify him.

But if a believer is to seek his glory, then he/she needs to learn that this is at the heart of what being a disciple is all about. Properly understood, the word disciple means one is a learner. John Piper writes,

The standard definition of “disciple” (noun) is someone who adheres to the teachings of another. It is a follower or a learner. It refers to someone who takes up the ways of someone else. Applied to Jesus, a disciple is someone who learns from him to live like him — someone who, because of God’s awakening grace, conforms his or her words and ways to the words and ways of Jesus. Or, you might say, as others have put it in the past, disciples of Jesus are themselves “little Christs” (Acts 26:28; 2 Corinthians 1:21).[21]

As people follow Christ, they learn to be like Christ. This description gets to the heart of what spiritual formation is all about. No one who comes to Christ is like him. They must learn this as they surrender to him in the context of the church.

As believers begin to follow Christ, there are two truths that will become evident. The first is that Jesus came to glorify the Father (cf. Isa. 42:1-9, 12; Isa. 43:7; John 12:18; 17:1). The second is that as disciples become little Christ’s, they too are called to live in such a way that will bring God glory (John 15:8). But, in order for a disciple to accomplish this, they need to have a sound theological foundation. The reason many Christian’s claim God as their therapist, and reduce their Christianity to an individual enterprise, is because they do not yet have a biblical understanding of God. In order to overcome this barrier (that prevents the church from growing and therefore from fulfilling its divine mandate), the church must lay the proper theological foundation in the life of believers.

Sound Theology

In his article, Introducing Spiritual Formation, Jonathan Morrow makes the case that spiritual formation must, first, rest upon the gospel of the kingdom. Properly understood, the gospel is not about going to heaven when we die. It is about “all of reality.”[22] He implies that the gospel invitation given to an unbeliever is often confused with the gospel of the kingdom. Often, an invitation to be saved from God’s wrath does not properly communicate the scope of the gospel’s claim over life. The gospel of the kingdom does not only bring one to heaven, but it reveals the authority of God that encompasses the totality of life. He writes that because of the gospel we are able to “enter the eternal kind of life now.”[23] Through Christ all of creation is redeemed. Therefore, there is no area of life that is left untouched by its influence. Therefore, spiritual formation must take place in the context of the gospel of the kingdom.

For this to take place, Morrow argues that there are “four prominent [theological] peaks” that a disciple must climb, and “one murky [theological] valley” one must descend if spiritual growth is to have the proper footing.[24] The point of learning sound doctrine is to emphasize that correct theological truth is necessary for one to have a proper understanding of God.

The first theological peak to ascend is the doctrine of the Trinity. Morrow writes that this doctrine, “serves as a reference point for all of reality,” because it reveals the relational nature of God.[25] The next peak is the doctrine of humanity created in the image of God. This doctrine informs a proper anthropology, and therefore helps believers better understand themselves and their place in the world.[26] Coupled with the doctrine of the Trinity, a proper anthropology helps believers understand how they relate to God and to one another. The third peak is the doctrine of Christ.[27] It is only through Christ that a person is restored to walk with God. Because of his death and resurrection an individual now has a relationship with God and with his children (other believers). The fourth peek is the doctrine of salvation. This doctrine teaches believers the means by which “God can righteously invite us into a love relationship with himself.”[28] However, without descending into the valley of sin and humanity’s fall from God, the foundation required for a proper understanding of God would be incomplete. These two doctrines put the others into perspective. They teach how humanity’s relationship with God and with one another was ruined, why people are inherently selfish, why we need salvation, and why we need spiritual formation once salvation is received.

To Morrow’s list should be added the doctrine of the church. It is in the context of the church where truth is taught, where disciples learn and grow, and where together they learn to glorify God. Again, the point of the above list is to emphasize the need for a proper theological foundation if one is to have a biblical understanding of God – for without which, true growth cannot take place. But an emphasis must be placed on the doctrine of the church were these necessary truths are communicated and lived out in community. The antidote to an individualized faith is not learning more truth but learning to live the truth in the context of community. Truth alone cannot lead one to walk with God. While the mind must be transformed (cf. Rom. 12:1-2), only through the context of the church will one be influenced to live the truths learned (cf. Heb. 10:24-25).

Connecting with Others

This is the argument Paul makes in the book of Philippians. Throughout the book Paul uses a series of “syn-compounds to describe the spiritual connections Christians have with other members of the body of Christ.”[29] The various syn-compounds can be translated as “together” or “together with.” One scholar “counts twenty-seven distinct syn-compounds that occur fifty-four times” in the book.[30]  William Dalton writes, “‘If a regular pattern of words and ideas is repeated in a way which reveals the inner movement and meaning of the text,’ we have evidence of a cohesive theme or motif that unifies the entire letter.”[31] The motif in the book of Philippians is the connectedness of each believer because of their mutual faith in Christ. By virtue of being connected in Christ, they are themselves united together. Indeed, the theme of unity is stressed by Paul throughout the letter. Further, it is because of their connection with each other that spiritual growth can occur. For example, Lowe and Lowe write that in Ephesians 4:16 Paul, “demonstrates … that horizontal connections between believers convey spiritual nutrients necessary for their continued growth.”[32]

In addition to the syn-compounds, Paul uses the word koinonia to emphasize the necessity of the church’s togetherness. The word can be translated as partnership or fellowship but communicates the idea of a mutual sharing of each other. For example, these words are used together in Philippians 1:5, 7. When combined with the syn-compounds the church members were “‘partners together’ or participants together’ in the grace of God….”[33]  This togetherness is emphasized in the very beginning of the letter where Paul writes, “Only let your (plural) conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you (plural) or am absent, I may hear of your (plural) affairs, that you (plural) stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). Each believer can only “stand fast” when standing together. And, when standing together they create an environment where lasting spiritual growth can take place.

Hence spiritual growth happens in an environment where a correct understanding of God is taught and where learning happens in the context of body of Christ as believers influence each other to walk with Christ in the context of daily life. It is important that the church both understand and teach that growing to become “little Christs” does not happen in isolation from other believers. The church (in opposed to the individual Christian life) must be seen as the context where true and lasting spiritual transformation takes place.

Foundational Elements

As each member of the church works together to create an environment where spiritual nutrients can easily flow from one believer to another, it becomes necessary to focus on foundational elements of faith in each believer. However, in our current culture, where faith has been privatized and isolated from the larger Body of Christ, when one thinks of foundational elements of faith, their mind will most likely focus on spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, worship attendance, service, and witnessing, with the individual person in mind – how am “I” doing in my prayer life etc. However, as Gordon Johnston writes, the individual, “isolated, self-guiding ascetic is vulnerable to spiritual imbalance.”[34]

Accountability

Without the community of faith to aid in our growth, our spiritual development will be stunted and perhaps even deformed. Think of what would happen to a baby if taken away from its parents and never allowed to experience the love and nurture they were meant to give. Any such child would suffer irreparable harm in their development. The Christian’s faith development was meant to be intensely relational (cf. Matt. 22:35-40). It was never God’s intention for believers to grow in isolation from others. As Darrell Bock observed, there is a necessary “relational dimension to [spiritual] formation.”[35] Therefore, when one understands that spiritual growth does not happen in isolation from other believers, the foundational elements of faith shift. This is not to suggest that prayer, Bible reading, worship attendance, service, and witnessing become less important. However, it is to recognize that these practices, if they are to be effective, are themselves built upon a broader foundation.

For example, we do not learn truth in isolation from our relationships with other believers. The same is true for prayer, worship, and witnessing (and for every spiritual discipline of the Christian life). Indeed, if truth is to be effective in shaping one’s walk with Christ, then it will be necessary for each believer to be accountable to the larger Body of Christ. I can say I believe in a certain truth, and I may even convince myself that I believe that truth. However, my testimony may, in fact, be far removed from my daily actions (cf. John 5:31). Therefore, reading the Bible may inform my mind, and I may believe in that truth with absolute conviction; but believing in a truth does not mean I am living that truth – no matter how much I may want to. Only as I allow myself to be held accountable to others, receiving guidance (and spiritual nutrients) from others, and inviting others to join my side to aid in my spiritual development, will I be encouraged to allow that truth to shape my identity in Christ.

In his letters, Paul uses a word to describe this process of growth in community. In 1 Thessalonians 3:12 he writes, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another….” The word abound is intimately connected with the words, “one another.” The church can only abound when each member intentionally gives a reciprocal love to one another. The Greek word allelon (translated one another) refers to reciprocal or two-way interaction between two people. Therefore Paul “expects reciprocal interactions” between the members of the church so they can help one another “produce further growth in love” throughout the body of Christ.[36] Without this element, growth will be seriously lacking.

Also, if true growth is to be achieved, spiritual formation must be seen holistically. In his video, Process Terms, Dr. Lowe rightly points out that terms such as “spiritual formation” can create an incorrect understanding of the process of formation, as it potentially limits one’s understanding of formation to the “spiritual realm.” True spiritual formation, and therefore growth, must be seen more holistically. It’s not “spiritual” growth. It is growth that encompasses the entire person. When a person is seeking to become more like Christ, every area of that person’s life must be impacted with growth. In Paul’s writings, he uses the Greek word auxano to describe growth in the Christian life. This word is used to describe both natural and spiritual growth. As Dr. Lowe remarks, “God does not have two spheres or processes of growth – one natural and the other spiritual.” Therefore, properly understood, the distinction between “natural” and “spiritual” is an artificial one. All of life is spiritual. But, for true holistic growth to take place, that growth must take place in the context of the community of faith where reciprocal love is given to one another.

Further, instead of seeing the traditional spiritual disciplines (which are usually practiced in isolation) as foundational for spiritual growth, those disciplines should, themselves, rest upon a more solid foundation. The difference between the two is the difference between what a believer does and who a believer is. Therefore, that foundation should include at least two elements: the believer’s identity in Christ and the believers heart surrendered to Christ.

The Believers Identity in Christ

When a person enters God’s kingdom through saving faith a fundamental transformation takes place. That individual is no longer living under the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18); they are no longer separated from God (John 17:3); they are given the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:12) by which they have a new, redeemed nature; and, they are now citizens of God’s eternal kingdom (Eph. 2:19). As such they have a new identity. Their new identity is grounded in Christ himself, and extends to every member of the body of Christ. Therefore, the most basic fundamental element of spiritual formation is for new believers to learn about their identity in Christ. Everything they will do (spiritual disciplines) to grow in their faith will rest on their identity in Christ. Darrell Bock writes,

Our identity as children before God allows him ‘to form’ our thinking about who we are and what we engage in …. But beyond a cognitive understanding is a relational dimension to spiritual formation, for it is our sense of relationship with and connectedness to God that reinforces the identity God has given us with his Spirit.[37]

As was seen in Paul’s writings, that “relational dimension” also extends horizontally to each member of the body of Christ. Our identity with Christ now connects every believer to each other. Therefore, through the Spirit of God, a believer’s identity as children of God in the larger body of Christ is formed; and with that identity comes a confidence by which the believer can begin the process of becoming “little Christs” (cf. Phil. 2:12-13).

Speaking about the importance for a believer to understand their new identity, Andrew Seidel writes, “Through our pilgrimage, one of the primary elements God wants to deal with is our sense of personal identity.”[38] Our identity is that aspect of self where we find our sense of significance in life. Before one comes to Christ a person may find their significance in things like their career, education, reputation, achievements, etc. However, after a person comes to faith in Christ their significance, meaning, and fulfillment in life are no longer found in such things. Instead, those things come from their relationship with God through Christ. Seidel writes that everything Christ did was founded upon the firm conviction he had in his identity as the Son of God. For example, “John indicates that it was what Jesus knew about himself that was the precursor to Jesus washing the disciple’s feet. Jesus had a secure sense of his personal identity … [hence] taking the role of a servant was not a threat to him….”[39] A believer’s identity in Christ allows one to trust in Christ as they let go of the world and begin learning to live for God. As Seidel writes, “A secure sense of personal identity is what sets us free….”[40]

A Believers Heart Surrendered to Christ

With an identity anchored in Christ, a believer can develop a firm security in their relationship with God. They may stumble along the way as they learn to be little Christ’s, but it is the believer’s identity in Christ that reassures God’s love for them. Much like a toddler who has taken its first shaky steps, a parent’s encouragement and words of affirmation compel the child to continue despite the many stumbles and falls they may experience along the way. God’s word gives assurance of God’s unconditional love and affirmation to those who are in Christ (cf. Rom. 8:14-16; 28-39). With that affirmation a believer can focus on the next foundational element of spiritual formation, a believer’s heart surrendered to Christ.

The idea of surrendering one’s heart contains two distinct, yet complimentary and important ideas. The first is communicated through the word “heart.” The heart is the center of one’s identity.[41] It is the seat of one’s will; and as the heart goes, so goes the person (cf. Prov. 4:23). The second idea is communicated through the word “surrender.” That’s not a popular word in Western culture, unless it is on the lips of a hero demanding the surrender of his enemy. However, in scripture the idea is not used of enemies, but is used to define one’s relationship to God. The word “surrender” itself is not used in the New Testament, but the idea of total surrender is. The Bible calls upon followers of Christ to place God above all things, even before the love of family and before one’s own life. To his disciples Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Matt. 16:24, cf. Luke 14:26). Taking up the cross is a call to die to self and to surrender one’s will and life to the rule of Christ. It means one places Christ first, before all things, and is willing to sacrifice everything for Christ (cf. Rom.12:1, Mark 10:28). When the words are used together, they communicate a spiritual reality that transcend their individual parts.

A person who has a heart surrendered to Christ has opened the totality of their life to the will of God (cf. Rom. 12:1-2). They are willing to follow Christ anywhere he leads and commands. Further, such a heart has placed the first commandment (Deut. 6:4-5), which is to love God above all things, as their greatest desire; and next to it, they seek to diligently love other believers (cf. Matt 22:39; John 13:35) as they strive to fulfill God’s will (cf. Col. 1:9; Matt. 28:18-20). As such a person strives to love God and his children, and is willing to surrender his/her life, they will also strive to glorify the Lord’s name as they obey his will. Hence, their walk with God is their life. They are not double minded (James 1:6-8), but fully committed to serving Christ on his terms.

It can be argued that the above description more accurately describes someone who has already experienced extensive spiritual formation. However, Christ gave that as the standard for following him when he first gave the invitation to would be disciples, not after (cf. Matt 4:19-20; Luke 9:59-60). The idea of surrendering one’s heart, therefore, should not be seen as a long-term goal, but as a foundational reality upon which the Christian life rests. Certainly, no one who surrenders their heart to Christ will perfectly love God nor perfectly follow his will. But only a heart surrendered can learn to do both. When I married my wife twenty-three years ago, I knew far less about her then than I do today. I can even say that I love her more today than I did then. But, on the day I married her, I had fully given her my heart and surrendered my life with the words, “I do.”

With the foundational elements of a surrendered heart that understands its identity is anchored in the person of Christ, a believer can enter the community of faith and begin to give and receive the spiritual nutrients that will ensure spiritual growth for both the believer and the body of Christ.

Heart Change

Once a believer has those two foundational elements laid down (a firm identity in Christ and a heart surrendered to Christ), a believer can begin to pursue those practices that will further contribute to their spiritual development. Grounded on the believer’s identity in Christ, there are two necessary structural components that must be built into each believer if effective growth is to take place. The first is that once a believer’s identity in Christ is understood (and accepted), that person needs to seek transformation at the level of the heart. Because a person is in Christ, they can now allow (and expect) Christ to change the “inner man.” In other words, they must allow the work of the Spirit to apply the truth of the Word of God with the intent of bringing about internal change (at the level of the heart and will). The second component (paradoxically) consists of seeking heart change in the context of the community of faith. As we have seen, God’s methods for spiritual growth never happen in isolation. As one writer said, God has a “divine-preference for human agency.”[42] Heart change can only happen when the community of faith works together in ministering the Word and when they also create an environment where authentic Christian living can take place.

Commenting on the need for heart transformation Klaus Issler made the observation, “I’m becoming more aware of the dark side of my heart.”[43] Every person who comes to faith in Christ is at one time or another confronted with the reality that sin resides deep within the heart. However, he asks the thoughtful question, “Is it possible that a heart can be so formed that we infrequently or rarely bear … bad fruit?”[44] Looking at Christ’s response to his captors in his last twenty-four hours before his crucifixion, Issler draws the conclusion that, indeed, a person can see such change in the inner man that their response to adverse circumstances can become like Christ’s response to his captors. Instead of seeking vengeance for those who mistreated him, Christ prayed for those who sought his death. He remained calm and did not sin in the face of his own unjust arrest and crucifixion.

Hence, Jesus made it clear that while the Kingdom of God refers to the rule of God over all creation, that rule begins in the heart (cf. Luke 17:21). He said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). For spiritual formation to be effectual, a believer needs his/her “internal life” to be in harmony with God’s kingdom. As Issler observes, “Jesus often makes a distinction between outer actions and the internal movements of the heart.”[45] True spiritual formation happens only to the extent that one’s heart begins to conform to Christ and his will for daily living.

The Pharisees found themselves at odds with Christ over this very point. They mistakenly believed that outward conformity to rituals and rules made one righteous before God. On more than one occasion, however, Jesus revealed the bankruptcy of their position (cf. Matt. 23:15, John 8:44). Instead of outward conformity, Jesus taught the necessity of inward renewal. But that inward renewal can only take place when one recognizes that the heart is infected with sin and rebellion (cf. Luke 7:36-50; 15:11-19; 18:9-14). It is not the righteous person that opens themselves to God’s “searching gaze,” but the sinner who acknowledges their own spiritual corruption (cf. Matt. 5:3). But paradoxically, the more one knows and acknowledges their spiritual corruption (understanding their identity), the more they can expect God to move in their life.

It is then that God effects (inner) heart change through the (outward) working of the community of faith. There are two means within the community that God uses to bring about heart transformation. The first is the environment of the church itself. The second is the public proclamation of the Word.

In her article Life Story and Spiritual Formation Gail Seidel says that, “You don’t live your story in isolation. Understanding your story in light of [the] larger metanarrative” of God’s story of redemption “encourages and gives relevance to corporate spiritual formation.”[46] In other words, each person’s life conveys a story, but that story is not their own. Every life lived is meant to bring God glory. Unfortunately sin and rebellion prevent one from doing that. However, when one comes to faith in Christ, they discover that history is in reality His-story. God is the author of history and he is bringing all of history to a climax, one that will glorify his name. Therefore, it is in the context of the community of faith where believers can learn authentically to tell their story.

Their story is ultimately the story of redemption. As believers share with each other their story of redemption they move “listeners to their own need for redemption…. Some listeners need to repent and confess their own sins as discovered in another’s story.”[47] But unlike the Pharisees that created an environment of self-righteousness, in order for people to freely share how God is forming one’s life story, and in-turn folding that story into his larger narrative of redemption, the church needs to encourage an environment where authenticity is highly valued. Quoting Paul Pettit, Seidel writes,

The Devil wants you to keep your secrets to yourself, to live in shame and condemnation. In Christ there is NO condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Being willing to share your heart exposes the shame and gives opportunity to see it for what it is – an imprisoning weight. When forgiveness and acceptance are offered by the community, freedom replaces the shame and the community is fully functioning. The process of accepting and loving one another is a powerfully releasing tool.[48]

Hence heart transformation happens when the community is working together to allow God’s redeeming power to shape their life story. Seidel writes, “Charting the hand of God in my life by processing through my own life story … gives great encouragement in spiritual growth.”[49] Therefore, when believers tell their stories and confess their sins to each other (as they seek transformation through God’s redeeming power), they bring God glory and invite others to share in that glory also.

The second way God uses the community to bring about heart transformation is through public worship and the proclamation of the Word. In his article Preaching and Spiritual Formation Harry Shields argues that sound biblical preaching is necessary if spiritual growth is to take place. He writes, “Throughout the pages of Scripture, especially the New Testament, preaching was the primary means that God used to transform people from those who were under God’s wrath to a people made new by his grace.”[50] Sound preaching can affect a believer’s life. It can influence them to “live, act, and think as Christ himself lives, acts, and thinks.”[51] This can happen because God has revealed himself (so he can be known) in the pages of scripture. Therefore, it is through the proclamation of the Word that God reveals himself (his person) and his will to those who are in union with him through Christ.[52] Hence, quoting Bryan Chappel, Shields writes that God uses the Word “to complete us.”[53] As the Word enters our brokenness and sinfulness, it begins to reconstruct within us God’s image in Christ (which was broken and distorted through sin). The Word brings both transformation and healing, allowing believers to grow in Christ.

This emphasis on the community affecting heart transformation is in keeping with the biblical emphasis of community. In his video, The Role of the Faith Community in Spiritual Formation Lowe states that, “Spiritual formation is divinely enabled by God through three essential resources: God’s Word, God’s Spirit, and God’s people, the church …. However, almost every sector of conservative Protestants completely ignore the role of God’s people to form one another spiritually.” But, throughout scripture there is an emphasis on the community working together to effect transformation. For example, Jude 20 states, “But you (plural), beloved, building yourselves (plural) up on your (plural) most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit.” While many in the American church read the pronouns in the singular, in the original language (Greek) they are plural, emphasizing the need for the community as a whole.

Another example where this emphasis is seen is in Ephesians 6:10-17. Many American Christians see the Armor of God belonging to the individual believer. However, all the Greek imperatives are in the plural: be strong, put on, take up, stand firm, and take the helmet, do not refer to the individual Christian but to the church body as a whole. In addition, all the Greek pronouns are plural also: you will be able to stand, our struggle, so that you will be able to resist, having your lions girded, having shod your feet, you will be able to extinguish. Lowe explains that, “If we pay attention to his words … the text forces us to conclude that the entire thrust of the letter is on the corporate or collective concept of the church…”  While it is unfortunately common today for the church to overlook God’s people in the process of spiritual formation, God has designed the church so that growth happens when God’s people work together.

Spiritual growth, then, takes place at the level of the heart as each believer allows Christ to change the inner man. But this inner change is affected by the community of faith that creates an authentic environment where God’s story is seen in each redeemed individual, and where the proclamation of God’s Word influences believers to live, act, and think like Christ himself.

Visible Change

As a person begins to grow in Christ, change can be seen. Spiritual transformation begins in the heart, is encouraged through the community of faith, but ultimately appears in the daily affairs of life. In his epistle to Titus, Paul encourages the church to “Adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Titus 2:10). The idea of adorning (kosmeō) means that Christians are to put on, or wear, the truth of God’s Word in such a way that it is seen by others. And they are to put on that truth “in all things” – that is, in every area of life. When one is wearing the truth, that truth brings visible change into one’s life – change that others can readily see, observe, and even follow.

In his book, Being Conformed to Christ in Community, James Samra discusses what that adorning looks like. As believers adorn the doctrine of God they begin to “mature” in their faith. To be mature is to be conformed into the image of Christ.[54] One is conformed into the image of Christ as they begin to “imitate” him. Samra writes, “Christ is clearly the ultimate standard of imitation [because] to be mature is to be like Christ.”[55] Hence, he “functions as the paradigm for believers.”[56] Therefore, one need look no further than Christ to see how to adorn the doctrine of God. Samra lists five characteristics one will develop as they seek to imitate Christ: they will be spiritual, holy, free, wise, and strong in their faith. This is not a comprehensive list but characterizes a believer who is beginning to adorn the doctrine of God.

To be spiritual (pneumatikos) means, first that a person is in Christ. Through faith one receives the Spirit of God (Eph. 1:13-14). But the fuller meaning is that the one who is spiritual has a “character [that] manifests the things of the Spirit” (p. 64). In 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 2:6-3:4 Paul is speaking to the Corinthian church about the divisions that unfortunately exist in the church. At the time of his writing, the members to whom he is speaking are considered “spiritual” because of the reality of Christ in them – i.e. they are saved. As Samra remarks, they have the “status” of being spiritual, but unfortunately, they have yet to live out of that reality.[57] They are exhibiting what Martin Luther called, Simul iustus et peccator, simultaneous righteous and a sinner. However, Paul’s desire for the church is that they begin to live out of their status as righteous, and, as a result, manifest what he calls in the book of Galatians the “Fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22). Because of the Spirit of God in them they have not only the status but also the ability to “Walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). In addition, because of the Spirit within them, they also have the ability to know, (i.e. understand) the mind of God (as revealed in the Word of God). Therefore, being spiritual means that one has both the ability to know God’s will and then the desire to live in a way that manifests the character of Christ. Hence, “Such a person’s character is aligned with their status as having the spirit.”[58] In contrast, the one who is unspiritual is the believer who, instead of living in accordance with their status, is living according to the ways of the world.

To be holy means to be “set apart/sacred to God, [and therefore] walking in ways pleasing to God.”[59] In Paul’s address to the Corinthian church he accuses them of acting like children (nēpios, infants in Christ, so ESV, 1 Cor. 3:1). Because they were not living out of their status as holy, they were instead “living in a manner inconsistent with the Spirit” and therefore thinking and acting in a manner that was not pleasing to God.[60] To be unholy, therefore is to live and think in ways that pertain to the ways of the world. Holiness, however, is to think and live in ways “that corresponds to [one’s] status as holy.”[61] In other words, to be holy is to live in ways that reflects/imitates how Christ lived in the world. As has been commonly said, believers are “in the world, but not of the world.” Therefore, to be free from the ways of the world, believers are called upon to “purify (ekkathairō) themselves of the yeast of malice and wickedness so that they can be a new lump without yeast – just as they really are (1 Cor. 5.7-8)” (p. 67). Hence, holiness is the character of Christ on display in a believer’s life.

To be free is “to be governed by the Spirit and Christ, not by the Mosaic law.”[62] In other words, believers who are being led by the Holy Spirit are not submitting “to the yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). The law can train a person much like a tutor, but it has no inherent power to change a person. When a believer submits to the law (Torah) they are putting themselves under a yoke that they cannot bear. They are, in effect, brought into bondage like a slave (cf. Gal. 4:1, doulos). However, in Christ, they are free from the burden of the law. They are now counted as Children of God (Gal. 4:6), and therefore free to live in the Spirit. Commenting on Paul’s to book the Galatians, Samra writes, “The thrust of Paul’s argument is that a believer who lives under the Law is like an heir who acts like a slave or a son who acts like a baby.”[63] In contrast, the one who is free has “Spirit-produced thinking and Spirit-governed behavior,” that is a result of being “bounded by Christ.”[64] Therefore, a free person is one who walks with God according to the leadership of the Spirit of God. They are not bound by traditions, rituals, or the expectations of people. In their freedom, they live to please God.

To be wise is to be mature in one’s thinking. That is, a believer’s mind is taken captive (2 Cor. 10:5), renewed (Eph. 4:23); and transformed (Rom. 12:2) by the mind of Christ – a mind available to them by virtue of God’s Spirit within them (1 Cor. 2:12). To be wise is to have in one’s possession not only knowledge of God, “but knowledge applied in love, i.e. wisdom.”[65] For example, Paul commended the Thessalonians for being wise when he wrote to them, “But concerning brotherly love you have no need that I should write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9). Therefore, a mature person is one who thinks like Christ by applying God’s Word (taught by God, theodidaktos) as Christ would apply it to daily life. To the degree that a person does not think like Christ, that person does not demonstrate that they are taught by God and therefore cannot be said to be wise. Ultimately, the one who is wise imitates Christ by loving others and seeking their good as they allow the Spirit of God to define the parameters of their thinking.

To be strong is to be steadfast and not easily moved by way of temptation or falsehood. Therefore, “To be ‘strong’ is defined in contrast to being weak…. To be weak is to stumble easily … or easily ensnared. It is to be in danger of falling, being destroyed, and not acting from faith.”[66] In Romans 4:20 Paul describes Abraham “as one who was made ‘strong’ (endynamoō) in his faith. When asked to sacrifice his son, he walked in faith, trusting that God’s promises to him (through his son) would still stand. He did not waiver and was therefore declared righteous before God. Hence one who is strong “has the ability to withstand challenges to one’s faith.”[67] Such a person maintains hope in the face of suffering, truth in the face of falsehood/deception, honor in the face of temptation and sin, and faith in the face of uncertainty.

All of these characteristics are ultimately found in Christ. Hence to the degree that one can manifest them, they are being Christlike (conformed into his image), and therefore spiritually mature. Spiritual maturity, therefore, rests upon that reality. However, Christlikeness is not something that happens immediately. As Samra emphasizes, each believer has the status of Christ (and his character) when they receive the Spirit of God. Learning to live out of the reality of that status, however, is a process that comes with time and practice. Paul emphasizes this reality is Philippians 3:12-15. Specifically, he writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. … Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you” (Phil. 3:12, 15). As Paul grew in Christ, so too he expected the church to follow his example (imitate him) as they sought to become like Christ themselves

In addition, as believers seek to become like Christ, they must necessarily seek transformation, or growth, throughout their entire person. Paul uses the word teleios (mature/perfect/complete) to describe this change (cf. Phil. 3:15). Lowe refers to this as the “whole person concept.” A person cannot grow independent parts. You cannot separate a person’s physical aspect from their spiritual aspect. As one writer said, “A person does not have a soul, they are a soul.”[68] Therefore, a person can only grow as a composite whole.  In classical Greek the word teleios referred to a fully developed adult.[69] A child does not grow/mature in only one physical trait. The body grows together, or it does not grow at all. In the same way believers who grow in Christ will grow in every area of their life. They will not pick and choose the areas where they will imitate Christ. They will seek to be like him in every avenue of life. In other words, they will grow holistically if they are to truly conform to Christ.

Finally, these characteristics of growth are a result of one who walks in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is ultimately the means by which a believer grows to maturity. The Spirit of God applies the things of Christ to the life of a believer. Samra writes, “It is the Spirits presence that makes believers sons of God and allows this sonship to be actualized in the process of transformation.”[70] But, to the extent that these characteristics are manifested in a believer’s life, that person can be said to be maturing/imitating Christ.

The Fellowship of Believers

However, for a person to mature as Christ intends (to be conformed into his image), they must be fully engaged in the body of Christ, his church. Hence, throughout this paper there has been an emphasis on the necessity of the community of faith in cultivating spiritual growth. For that growth to be actualized, however, the believer must actively participate in the life of the church. Samra writes that “Paul expected believers’ participation in the local community to be beneficial for their maturation.”[71] Without participating in the church, true spiritual transformation will be limited. However, as believers participate in the body of Christ, and to the extent that the church cultivates an environment where spiritual growth can take place (an ecological environment), then believers can and should expect their lives to eventually conform to the image of Christ. Ultimately, this is the goal and mandate of the church (cf. Matt. 28:18-20).

As believers participate, they discover that they are a part of the community of faith. But it must be noted that the church is not so much a place as it is a living entity. The word translated “church” is the Greek work ekklēsia. Modern readers often associate the word “church” with a building and a piece of real-estate. However, the meaning of the word is much richer. In its broadest sense it means, “the assembled ones.” As such it refers to a group of people who gather for a particular purpose. Immediately one is struck with the fact that “the church” is not a building or even an organization (vis-à-vis an institution). Instead, it is a community that one belongs to. The community is the body of Christ. Hence according to Samra, the word ekklēsia also refers to one’s identity within the community. He writes,

Believers are members of the body of Christ and the people of God, drawing their identity from Christ and God. They are also members of the body of Christ and the people of God and by definition are united in community with other believers.[72]

The richness of the word reflects the depth of one’s participation within the community. This is no Rotary club where people have a common interest. This is the body of Christ where believers are joined in Christ together. Hence, by virtue of the Holy Spirit, they are united together, and therefore made one. Hence, their unity is a product of their oneness with Christ. They are not members of a club, they are (spiritually) joined together in Christ as an arm is joined to a shoulder – intimately connected.

As a result of their identity and union in Christ, believers enjoy what the biblical writers referred to as koinōnia. This word is often translated “fellowship.” However, the word means more than people getting together and spending time with one another. It refers to a sharing and partnership that their lives now enjoy as a result of being in Christ. Further, Samra notes that it is through this fellowship where God’s Spirit and grace are manifested.[73] The result is that believers now have the means by which to mutually edify and build one another up in Christ (through spiritual giftings, cf. 1 Cor. 12-13). This is a vitally important point to understand, for it is only through this fellowship that God is able to work through one another to deliver the spiritual nutrients that builds each other up, resulting in spiritual maturity and Christlikeness. Therefore, the ekklēsia (assembled ones) enjoying the koinōnia (fellowship) of God’s Spirit within and amongst each other, create the environment (supernatural?), and therefore the primary means, through which believers experience effective spiritual growth.

It was the reality of this environment that Paul appealed to when encouraging the Philippian church to strive for unity. He wrote, “Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship (koinonia) of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Phil. 2:1-2). The unity of the church (ekklēsia) rested upon the fellowship of the body through the presence of the Spirit which enabled them to love one another. This is the necessary ecological environment needed for spiritual growth to take place. Absent this supernatural environment where mutual edification takes place, spiritual growth does not happen.

Facilitating Growth

Once this environment is in place, it has the ability to facilitate specific aspects that nurture growth. Specifically, the church can encourage believers to learn to identify with Christ, endure suffering for Christ, experience the presence of God in Christ, receive the wisdom of God from Christ, and imitate Christ by following other Godly believers. This is ultimately in keeping with the goal of spiritual formation, which is to lead believers to become fully functional followers of Christ in the context of the church. Samra gives a detailed explanation of each component of faith. Our purpose here will be to briefly give a description of each, emphasizing the fact that these aspects of spiritual formation happen only when facilitated in the context of the body of Christ, to which all believers belong.

Identify with Christ

According to Samra, to identify with Christ is to associate so closely with Christ that one’s character and faith begin to be conformed to his.[74] This identification becomes a form of participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (as symbolized in baptism).[75] Hence, the believer begins to share in his new life as they are freed from the bondage of sin. As a result of this identification the believer is now free to live for God.[76] This identification is strengthened and encouraged through the community of faith where believers walk with one another, hold each other accountable, pray for and minister to one another, and help each other to forsake the ways of the world.

Endure Suffering for Christ

To endure suffering for Christ means that believers can stand up to and endure the opposition against Christ by the world.[77] As the community of faith learns to endure the world’s opposition, it begins to embrace the character of Christ as his character is formed in them. To the extent it embraces the character of Christ, the church can present Christ to the world (in opposition to the world). In the context of community, suffering refines the church as it forges holiness and obedience in one’s walk with God.[78] The result of the church’s obedience and fortitude is that God is glorified in the world by the church. Samra writes, “Through patience, tested character is developed and with tested character can come the hope of sharing in the glory of God.”[79] This process of being refined into the character of Christ requires the mutual comfort, compassion, edification, and fellowship that “might be found in the midst of suffering” – things that only the community of faith can provide for one another.[80]

Experience the Presence of God in Christ

To experience the presence of God in Christ means that believers are set apart for God and through him are made holy.[81] This concept finds its source in the many biblical encounters God’s people had with the person of God. Moses came down from the mountain glowing. Saul was changed as a result of the Spirit coming upon him at his coronation. Isaiah become a fearless prophet after an experience with God in the temple. In Zechariah, Joshua had his filthy closes replaced with clean clothes representing forgiveness when he stood before the angel of the Lord. The early church was transformed when the Spirit of God fell upon them during Pentecost. Saul of Tarsus became the apostle Paul after an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. The list could go on. Samra remarks that it is the presence of God amongst his people that bring about transformation. God demands holiness, but then through his Spirit he brings about the necessary transformation that enables his people to become what he wants them to be.[82] However, these encounters are never in isolation from the larger community of faith. In most cases they were encounters that enabled God’s people to serve him in the context of his people (cf. Paul discussion of Spiritual gifts in 1 Cor. 12).

Receive the Wisdom of God from Christ

To receive the wisdom of God is to submit one’s mind and will to the authority and admonition of the Word of God. Above we saw that the proclamation of the Word was a means for influencing the church to be like Christ. Samra takes the same position, namely that the Word is the primary means to receive apostolic teaching that brings instruction from God and therefore enables spiritual growth. In addition to that, Samra makes that astute observation that the writings of the New Testament were written to communities as a whole – hence we have the book of Philippians, Galatians, etc.[83] They were written to communities for communities. In those writings the wisdom of God in Christ was given to the church as a whole. Hence, “Paul felt that the community could facilitate maturation…”[84] because it is in the context of the church where one learns to live out of the truth “once and all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Imitate Christ

Finally, it is in the environment of the church where believers can imitate Christ by following other Godly believers. Samra writes, “Here the issue is that imitating Paul or other mature believers is a means of imitating Christ or becoming conformed to the image of Christ.[85] By following others, believers learn what faith looks like in the face of suffering, what sacrifice and service looks like when put into practice, what forgiveness looks like, what obedience looks like, what loving others looks like, etc. Through personal example mature believers are able to reveal what the Christlike life looks like in action.

But it is only in the community of faith (the ekklēsia) where godly, Christlike examples can be found. And, it is only through the spirit of fellowship (koinonia) where such people can invest in the lives of others as they seek to impart Christ to one another. Hence it becomes clear that the church, as a social (spiritual) network has the ability to infect other members of the community of faith as a spiritual contagion, spreading the faith, holiness, and love of Christ from one believer to the next.[86]

Plugging In

As the church seeks to impart these qualities of faith that ensures one is conformed into the image of Christ, it is necessary to discuss the means that will help facilitate spiritual growth. Here attention will be drawn to an area that is oftentimes overlooked: spiritual growth in the context of social networking. Dr. Mary Lowe states that “our social networks play a significant role in how we grow.” The communities to which we belong have a significant influence on our behavior. She also rightly points out that “Personal identity and meaning cannot develop in isolation.”[87]Hence, spiritual growth requires a community. Interaction with others is a necessary component of the maturation process. While our local church community is a necessary component of that process, the larger social networks around us can enhance our spiritual development.

Traditionally, when one comes to faith it is expected that the new believer spend time learning about their faith in the context of what might be dubbed the traditional worship service. They are encouraged to attend and perhaps take notes, and they are encouraged to read their Bible while at home. Unfortunately, this environment does not promote interaction amongst others. However, while there is great value in the worship service, with the advent of the ever-growing list of digital technologies, one’s growth can be enhanced through the many avenues of social networks found on-line.

Churches can facilitate growth by providing on-line opportunities for people to make spiritual connections with other believers who also seek growth in their walk with Christ. These types of connections have been referred to as “Networked religion.”[88] Campbell and Garner share that these communities, “Are personalized social networks of shared interest, allowing individuals to choose the extent of their involvement and connect multiple social contexts simultaneously.”[89] This provides people the opportunity to become involved in communities of faith otherwise prohibited by time and space; hence, supplementing their ability to interact with others and thereby grow in their faith.

In the past, before the advent of the many social networks that now exist, people relied on the traditional meeting hour(s) to ingest the spiritual nutrients that enabled spiritual growth. However, those meeting times were limited by many factors, not least of which is the limited time actually spent together. However, with the advent of networked religion, people can leverage their ability to engage in relationship building with the purpose of seeking mutual spiritual edification. In addition to meeting once or twice a week at a specific location, believers can meet on places like Facebook, Skype, or one of the many on-line networks. The purpose for utilizing these technologies is two-fold.

The first, already stated, is to be intentional about building relationships in Christ. The one major drawback to the traditional worship hour is that almost no interaction takes place between fellow believers. People listen without any interaction with others, and then go home.  With no interaction there is limited ability for what Lowe and Lowe refer to as “reciprocal exchanges.”[90] People come to church and sit in a pew listening to the preacher expound on spiritual truth. And while that is needed, and while there is great value in the preaching of the Word (as discussed above), with no interaction with other believers, the reality is that most of what is preached is forgotten by the end of the day, and there is no (or limited) accountability for what is learned. The result is that spiritual growth is limited.

The reality is that such a format has limited value in creating a truly ecological environment. In nature, an ecosystem is comprised of vast networks of interconnecting systems where everything in the environment is dependent upon everything else.[91] Change one factor in the environment and it has rippling effects on everything else in the ecosystem. In the same way, for effective spiritual growth to take place, it is necessary that there are very real relational connections between believers that allow for the mutual exchange of spiritual nutrients. Unfortunately, the traditional worship hour cannot create a holistic environment that fosters true relationship building amongst members of the community of faith.

In Contrast, Lowe and Lowe list six qualities of “relational development” that believers can experience in an on-line environment. These include, developing close relationships, caring for one another, feeling valued, staying connected with others, experiencing intimate communication (where encouragement and accountability are had), and allowing members “‘to go deeper more quickly and bypass the small talk that many believe is ‘not essential for establishing relationship and interaction.’”[92] Hence, the on-line environment has the advantage of helping believers in their “relational development,” while at the same time allowing for more flexibility in their schedule to work on relationship building. Further, as these relationships grow, members of the on-line group soon “desire to have face to face contact, to extend their relationship to a new level.”[93] Thus, the result of utilizing on-line social networks is that believers can develop faith-based relationships that will aid in their spiritual growth, that otherwise may never have occurred.

The second reason to utilize technology is to be intentional about facilitating the environment where those now thriving relationships can “mutually assist” one another in their spiritual formation. The key word here is “intentional.” Lowe and Lowe write that, “In order for an on-line community to develop, it must receive the same attention from its members as it does in the face-to-face communities. The formation of community is largely dependent on the reciprocity of relationships.”[94] However, in our current culture where most people feel overwhelmed by the busy demands of daily life, the ability to invest in another’s life seems out of reach. But an on-line community brings that ability within reach. It affords believers to be intentional about interacting with others. Whether it be a short prayer posted on twitter directed to the group, or a blog relating how a spiritual truth impacted one’s life (story-telling), or an in-depth Bible study with members scattered across a large geographical area, but communicating via a social network, the on-line environment has the advantage of helping believers be intentional about engaging others. And that’s the point.

Ultimately, the use of technology is about people engaging people for the purpose of mutual edification that results in real, tangible spiritual transformation. Technology in the form of social networks provides that opportunity.[95] “Put another way, bidirectional influences” via digital networks are afforded, where human interaction fosters mutual benefits that promotes growth through an environment that, in its absence, would never happen.[96] Hence, through the use of technology, believers now have access to both people and communities that they would otherwise never hope to connect with.

It must be noted, however, that these new communities are not meant to replace the “traditional” community of faith. Campbell and Garner write, “People may join an online community to meet specific relational or informational needs, such as in-depth Bible study or spiritual support, yet this involvement augments and is in addition to, rather than a replacement for, an embodied offline worship experience.”[97] But these new communities, while supplementing the traditional community of faith, also have the ability to enhance the traditional community by allowing more influence (read spiritual nutrients) to flow into the community from outside sources, enriching the environment.

These communities also have the added benefit of connecting local communities of faith to peoples of faith in other cultures, further enriching the tapestry of the local community. Hearing about challenges to the faith other people face or praying for the needs of others in faraway lands, and even connecting via a social network to share in a worship experience, are all possible today because of networked religion. The result is that local communities of faith have the opportunity to join the global community of faith by connecting with other cultures and people that just a generation ago was not possible. And such influence and opportunity can have a profound impact on the local community, forever changing and impacting their walk with God.

Hence, the on-line environment provides the ability to connect and build meaningful relationships with others while at the same time promoting effective spiritual growth whereby believers can encourage one another as they seek to follow Christ, reveal Christ, and be little Christs to the world.

Giving Back

As social networks are utilized for supplementing and enhancing one’s spiritual growth, a final consideration is in order. As believers are intentional about connecting with others on-line, they must stay focused on the purpose for which they are using technology in the first place. They are seeking to enhance their walk with Christ. As such, they are seeking to grow as a fully functional disciple of Christ. A fully functional disciple is one who is, in turn, making disciples – i.e. investing in the lives of others. One writer has said that, “discipleship is about conformity to Christ.”[98] Conformity happens when one is intentional about following Christ, and Christ was intentional about investing in those around him. Therefore, if one is to be a “little Christ,” then they must also be investing in the lives of those around them.

The on-line environment has the ability to enrich one’s growth as a disciple by allowing believers to invest in others. In his book, Church is a Team Sport, Jim Putman rightly observes that “discipleship is a process that can only be accomplished through relationships.”[99] Therefore, while believers are seeking to supplement their faith in an on-line environment, they must resist the temptation to ingest spiritual nutrients without feeding others who are in their social network. Growth in Christ does not happen only by receiving spiritual nutrients but is also dependent upon feeding others.

The above discussion noted the reality that relationships must be reciprocal and bidirectional if they are to be beneficial. Lowe and Lowe write, “as in various components of an ecosystem, the reciprocity that a person encounters through bidirectional social interaction and influence is critical for the continued growth and development of that person.”[100] In other words, for holistic spiritual development to take place in any individual, that person must have genuine interaction with others, but that includes giving to others what they need to experience growth themselves. This is the meaning a reciprocal and bidirectional. In our individualized culture we can (and often do) make the mistake of believing that because we have received something by way of spiritual edification, that we have therefore grown. However, growth is dependent on not only receiving, but on giving also.

When a relationship is truly bidirectional and reciprocal, the result of that connection will be fruitfulness in the members of the community as a whole. In an ecosystem, nutrients do not flow in only one direction. Hence for any ecology to flourish, nutrients must flow in every direction simultaneously. In a biological environments’ fruitfulness is a product of the interdependence of all living things. Lowe and Lowe write, “Alfred North Whitehead noted that ‘the various parts of nature are so closely interdependent, so densely woven into a single web of being, that none may be abstracted without altering its own identity….’”[101] It can be surmised that for believers to take from an environment without seeking to replenish, or to give back, then they are in effect altering their own identity for the worse. But a healthy spiritual ecosystem is maintained when members both receive and give so all members may benefit and flourish at the same time.

This is in keeping with the relational nature of true saving faith; which is itself a reflection of the triune nature of God. Campbell and Garner write, “God is three independent realities who share the same will, nature, and essence.” They go on to describe the intra nature of God (i.e. how members of the Trinity relate to one another) as the “immanent Trinity.” They write that this is “a constant state of mutual interpenetration, partnership, purpose, dependence, and love. Therefore the three realities of God within the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are understood to function in an unbroken fellowship of love with one another.”[102] (p. 83).

The relationships between members of the community of faith were and are meant to reflect the love of God into the world. Therefore, they too must reflect a state of mutual interpenetration, partnership, purpose, dependence, and love. This can only happen when each member of the community is intentional about investing in the other members of the community. The church can reveal the nature of God only to the proportion that they are loving and investing in each other (cf. John 13:35). The very nature of love demands this. (cf. Phil. 2:4). The result is that as each believer seeks to nurture those in their social network (both online and offline) they will paradoxically reap the fruit and ensure their own spiritual edification and growth.

References

Convey, S. (2013). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Campbell, H. & Garner, S. (2016). Networked theology : negotiating faith in a digital culture. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Academic.

Horton, M. (2008). Christless Christianity. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books.

Hull. B. (2016). Conversion and discipleship : you can’t have one without the other. Grand Rapids MI. Zondervan.

Laniak, T. (2006). Shepherds after my own heart : pastoral traditions and leadership in the Bible. Downers Grove, IL. InterVarsity Press.

Lowe, M. (2018). Social networks and spiritual formation, part 1 (Video Presentation). Retrieved from: https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_450294_1&content_id=_26074095_1.

Lowe, M. (2018). Social networks and spiritual formation, part 2 (Video Presentation). Retrieved from: https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_450294_1&content_id=_26074100_1.

Lowe, S.D. (2018). Reaching the goal: Process terms of spiritual formation (Narrated PowerPoint). Retrieved from: https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_450294_1&content_id=_26074080_1.

Lowe, S.D. (2018). The role of the faith community in spiritual formation (Narrated PowerPoint). Retrieved from: https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/execute/content/file?cmd=view&content_id=_27207284_1&course_id=_450294_1&framesetWrapped=true.

Lowe, S.D. (2018). Whole person transformation (Narrated Power Point). Retrieved from: https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_450294_1&content_id=_26074090_1.

Lowe, S. D., & Lowe, M. E. (2018). Ecologies of faith in a digital age: Spiritual growth through online education. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Pettit, P. (Ed.). (2008). Foundations of spiritual formation: A community approach to becoming like Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

Piper, J. (2014). What is a disciple? Desiring God ministries. Retrieved October 30, 2018 from: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-a-disciple.

Putman, J. (2008). Church is a team sport : a championship strategy for doing ministry together. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books.

Samra, J. (2006. Being conformed to Christ in community : a study of maturity, maturation and the local church in the undisputed Pauline epistles. New York, NY:T&T Clark Publishing.

Notes:

[1] Pettit, p. 20

[2] Ibid p. 51

[3] Ibid p. 59

[4] Ibid, p. 110

[5] Covey, p. 105

[6] Lowe and Lowe, p. 5

[7] Ibid, p. 5

[8] Ibid, p. 14

[9] Ibid, p. 20

[10] Ibid, p. 43

[11] Ibid, p. 60

[12] Ibid, p. 61

[13] Pettit, p. 77

[14] Ibid, p. 109

[15] Lowe and Lowe, p. 60

[16] Ibid, p. 186

[17] Ibid, p. 29

[18] Horton, p18

[19] Ibid, p.18

[20] Ibid, p. 19

[21] Piper, 2014

[22] Pettit, p. 36

[23] Ibid, p. 36

[24] Ibid, p. 37

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid, p. 38-39

[27] Ibid, p. 42

[28] Ibid, p. 43

[29] Lowe and Lowe, p. 150

[30] Ibid, p. 151

[31] Ibid, p. 152

[32] Ibid, p. 154

[33] Ibid

[34] Pettit, p. 78

[35] Ibid, p. 109

[36] Lowe, 2018

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid, p. 181

[39] Ibid, p. 182

[40] Ibid, p. 183

[41] Ibid, p. 181

[42] Laniak, p. 22

[43] Pettit, p. 121

[44] Ibid, p. 122

[45] Ibid, p. 125

[46] Ibid, p. 219

[47] Ibid, p. 233

[48] Ibid, p. 234

[49] Ibid, p. 243

[50] Ibid, p. 248

[51] Ibid, p. 247

[52] Ibid, p. 246

[53] Ibid, p. 250

[54] Samra, p. 97

[55] Ibid, p76, 73

[56] Ibid, p. 72

[57] Ibid, p. 65

[58] Ibid

[59] Ibid, P. 66

[60] Ibid, p. 67

[61] Ibid

[62] Ibid, p. 68

[63] ibid

[64] Ibid, p. 67

[65] Ibid, p. 69

[66] Ibid, p. 70

[67] Ibid, p. 71

[68] Lowe

[69] Samra, p. 61

[70] Ibid, p. 110

[71] Ibid, p. 133

[72] Ibid, p. 134

[73] Ibid, p. 136

[74] Ibid, p. 112

[75] Ibid, p. 153

[76] Ibid, p. 114

[77] Ibid, p. 154

[78] Ibid, p. 116

[79] Ibid, p. 117

[80] Ibid, p. 155

[81] Ibid, p. 119

[82] Ibid, p. 159

[83] Ibid, p. 162

[84] Ibid, p. 163

[85] Ibid. p. 125

[86] Dr. Mary Lowe

[87] Ibid

[88] Campbell and Garner, 2016, p. 65

[89] Ibid, p. 166

[90] Lowe and Lowe, p.69

[91] Ibid

[92] Ibid, p. 80

[93] ibid

[94] Ibid, p. 84

[95] Ibid, p. 88

[96] Ibid, p. 90

[97] Campbell and Garner, p. 67

[98] Hull, p. 15

[99] Putman, p. 131

[100] Lowe and Lowe, p. 126

[101] Ibid, p. 121

[102] Campbell and Garner, p. 83

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s