Forming Together

By Terry Maples, CBF Virginia Field Coordinator

If “forming together” is CBF’s Big Idea, how can congregations articulate how we seek to shape and form faith?

As a long-time congregational educator, I love the “big idea” emerging from CBF’s branding process! Forming Together captures my imagination and emboldens my conviction about how faith is formed and shaped. Forming Together is congruent with CBF’s understanding of spiritual formation:

Spiritual formation is the process of being formed in the image of Christ by the gracious working of God’s Spirit in community for the transformation of the world.

This definition reminds us faith is formed by God, is challenged and nurtured in Christian community, cannot be programmed, and is “caught” more than it is taught. Spiritual formation is an ongoing, life-long process. Its goal is to encourage believers to become like Christ in conviction, attitude, and action. Certainly, our formation is not complete unless and until we invest our lives in others.

Our understanding of forming faith comes from our experience and from scriptural insight. In Galatians 4:19, Paul says, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” The larger passage from Paul offers a beautiful theological treatise until a change in tone in verse 19. Here Paul speaks the language of deep love. He says, “I’m experiencing labor pains like a mother birthing a child.”  But we know Paul thinks this is ridiculous because then he says, “You’ve already been born! Why am I again feeling birth pains?” Paul insinuates he’s already been through the birthing process, and it isn’t normal to go through it again.

Why is Paul again sensing labor pains? He birthed the church and mentored followers rightly, but Judaizers appeared and taught something different. Paul’s young flock fell for their rhetoric hook, line, and sinker. Jesus Christ lived in their hearts but the Lord’s beauty was barely evident in their lives. That’s why Paul is again in pain.

What does Paul mean when he says, “until Christ is formed in you?” Paul means the goal of all Christians is to allow Christ to totally inhabit our lives. We strive to become like Christ (“little Christs”) in thought, word, and deed and are conformed to his likeness in every way. Jesus modeled for us what it means to love, serve, and sacrifice. Our assignment is to make Jesus tangible in the here and now.

“Does the kind of faith we shape and form in our congregations matter?” Unequivocally, YES! Our understanding of faith and how we shape that faith in congregations matters deeply. Congregational leaders must be very concerned about theological honesty, accuracy, and application. Far too many times what is said and done in our churches looks and sounds nothing like Jesus!

Allow me to illustrate. I grew up in Alabama where racism was real and conspicuous. Churches were complicit in supporting cultural expectations relative to race. The church I attended during my years as a student at the University of Alabama had a poor track record regarding racial issues. Years earlier when a black man tried to enter the sanctuary, the pastor stood in the doorway and did not allow him to enter (Recall George Wallace blocking African-American students from entering the University of Alabama.) How can people who claim to worship a God who is “no respecter of persons” and who assert “all are equal at the foot of the cross” treat other human beings with such hostility? I suspect members of this congregation joyfully sang, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” without an inkling of their disingenuousness. In this congregation and many, many others, cultural expectations collided (and continue to collide) with biblical teaching. Unfortunately, congregants of this particular faith body were rarely (if ever) urged to reflect upon the cultural practice of racism in light of scriptural truth that God loves all equally.

I contend the type of faith we shape and form is the most important assignment of Christ’s body the church! The clarion call is to shape faith that embraces the life, teachings, and ministry of the One we adore. That means we give priority to studying what Jesus taught, how he lived, how he loved—then practice what we learn in the context of community – with rose-colored glasses and blinders removed!

How intentional are we about what we seek to form? Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God and love neighbor – no exceptions! Nurturing capacity to love what God loves shows the world what it means to be Christian. We could never go wrong using those commandments to guide formation efforts. In addition, Paul provides a compelling list of what it looks like when Christ is formed in us. Hear these words from Colossians 3:12-17 (NRSV):

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Paul offers us a great place to start. Developing these characteristics is far more powerful than the bodies, buildings, and bucks score card many churches still use.

May our formation efforts birth compassion and forgiveness, yield disciples with capacity to love all God’s children, produce peace in our homes and the world, and result in gratitude and thanksgiving to God. I challenge congregational leaders to “travail in pain” and become midwives to the beloved community Christ intended. Amen!