Over the summer months our office revisits our past year of experiences in Truett’s Spiritual Formation courses. We review student feedback and think about our core objectives and overall approach. The courses have different components, and different points of focus within each component. Keeping everything clear is a challenge.
For the coming year, we’ve designated three primary spaces in each course: Teaching, Covenant Group, and Canvas.
The teaching space is led by an instructor, either Professor Angela Reed or myself, and is focused on the application and practice of spiritual formation concepts and ideas in the life of the leader and the life of the community. Not only are we teaching key spiritual disciples and a theology of spiritual formation, we are helping students make connections to their lived experiences as disciples of Jesus as leaders and as part of the body of Christ. The key questions here are: “How does my understanding of spiritual formation and commitment to spiritual practices shape me as a leader?” and “How do these concepts and practices shape the life of the Christian community?”
The covenant group space is led by mentors. Covenant groups are subgroups within each spiritual formation course and consist of five to eight students. These groups focus on the spiritual disciples (or practices) and their experiences with those practices, building relationships in Christian fellowship, and providing accountability for one another.
Canvas is our designated space for written assignments and online community. In the online tool, Canvas, associated with our course, we use discussion prompts and discussion boards to invite student to reflect on their experiences and their reading, and to interact with one another after submitting an initial response. Our mentors and instructors also interact with students in this space.
In an effort to better explain the spiritual formation process, we’ve also created two more visual diagrams that represent differences in approaching the spiritual life from grace-based and guilt-motivated frameworks. First I’ll explain the guilt-motivated framework, and then I’ll say a few words about our grace-based perspective.
In our conversations with students and in our experiences in ministry, we’ve found that many have adopted a guilt-motivated approach to the spiritual life, one that is rooted in misunderstandings of the Christian gospel and subtle (and sometimes overt) shifts toward a works-righteousness way of sanctification. Students are often clear that they are justified by grace, but struggle to see how grace continues to be the dynamism at play in spiritual growth.
Years ago I heard John Ortberg give a talk wherein he talked about a guilt spiral, an approach to the spiritual life where people hear about various ways of connecting with God and, after being compelled, they give it a try. After trying a while, they get tired and fail, and as a result they quit. But then as time passes and they hear more sermons and exhortations to be “doing” certain things, the guilt accrues and becomes too much to bear, and as a result trying begins again, only to repeat the whole cycle over again, spiraling down and down in defeat.
A guilt-motivation approach to spirituality, given enough time, deadens the soul. We need an alternative, a way of approaching the spiritual life that is undergirded, informed, and animated by grace. It is God working in and through us, even as we commit and decide to follow after Jesus Christ.
Professor Reed speaks about this process as a spiral, and our key words recast our understanding of growth.
First, we commit to act. We do the things that Jesus has called us to do. This draws together many streams within the Christian tradition, including the contemplative and activist streams. Our actions are done in response to the calling of Jesus and in line with our tradition.
After taking action, we reflect on what took place. What did we think? How did we feel? What happened? What went right? What went terribly wrong? What was helpful? What was unhelpful? Where was God? Where were the points of resistance? What adjustments are possible? What did I discover about myself?
Then, we learn. We pay attention to our answers and make note of our new knowledge, which includes knowledge of God, self, and our world.
Finally, we refine. We look ahead to our next action–whether it be prayer, fasting, service, sabbath, or some other action taken with God–and prepare to engage from our new point of growth.
This process also spirals, but in a virtuous way. Experience deepens and knowledge deepens.
Our models are in process. We’re constantly listening and discerning and seeking new and better ways to connect truths about the spiritual life to our students as they find themselves today. But these models are a good start, a good foundation, and reflect concepts that we will explore in the year to come.