In the early 1980s, educators from Nazarene Theological Seminary noticed an emerging trend among evangelical Protestants—an interest in spiritual formation. Their own deep concern to integrate learning with spiritual vitality prompted a decision to incorporate this discipline into the seminary’s curriculum. Soon, professors Morris A. Weigelt and E. Dee Freeborn offered seminary classes on spiritual formation to ministers in training. Their efforts were enthusiastically received and their work was later offered (along with others) in a 1993 book, The Upward Call: Spiritual Formation and the Holy Life, as well as in a 2006 publication, Living the Lord’s Prayer: The Heart of Spiritual Formation.
Since that time, Nazarenes across the church have pondered how believers are developed spiritually and how Christian communities are formed along the path of meaningful discipleship. In 2002, Nazarene Theological Seminary asked Doug Hardy, a native Canadian with an extensive background in psychology, counseling, and Christian formation and discipleship, to continue the work pioneered by Weigelt and Freeborn. His doctoral dissertation from Boston University focused on Christian spiritual direction.
Months ago, Hardy, moderated a discussion on spiritual formation at Nazarene Theological Seminary.
The conversation, which looked at Wesleyan spiritual practice and faith develpment in the local church, included these participants: Molly T. Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary; Hal Knight, Donald and Pearl Wright professor of Wesleyan Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology; Clair MacMillan, national director, Church of the Nazarene Canada; John Megyesi, senior pastor, Lowell First Church of the Nazarene, Lowell, Massachusetts; Danielle Jones, lead pastor, Summit View Church of the Nazarene, Kansas City, Missouri; and Phil Antilla, lead pastor, First United Methodist Church, Ashland, Oregon. An abbreviated portion of the panel discussion appears below.
HARDY: FOR THOSE CONCERNED ABOUT THE SPIRITUALITY OF OUR CONGREGATIONS, THE FORMATION OF OUR PEOPLE INTO CHRIST’S LIKENESS, HOW DO WE ASSESS A PERSON’S SPIRITUAL HEALTH? HOW CAN A PASTOR DIAGNOSE ISSUES THAT NEED ATTENTION? WHAT ARE IMPORTANT RESOURCES?
MEGYESI: Intentional pastoral care is a key. Spending time learning about, listening to, and being with the people in the community is essential. This allows me to detect issues that exist because we’ve spent time together.
JONES: We have to be with our people in a variety of contexts over a long haul to be able to identify spiritual issues.
MARSHALL: Some useful ministry language comes from the areas of spiritual direction, or spiritual companioning, or spiritual friendship—which helps facilitate the movement and recognition of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is really the director of anyone’s life, but the spiritual companion reflects meaningfully with people on their spiritual journey. If someone is forever angry, help them reflect on expressions of the fruit of the Spirit in their life. Ask yourself if this is anger or unresolved guilt. Does unconfessed sin trigger defensiveness? The caring conversation sometimes opens the window to trust one’s pastor enough to begin to unburden. My teacher at Southern Seminary, Wayne Oats, used to talk about overhearing others’ prayers. That’s what the pastoral or spiritual guide does as people begin to confess or lay out dimensions of their lives. So I think the language of interiority, the language of affections of the heart, and the language of dark night of the soul can become useful tools. Diogenes Allen’s book Spiritual Theology reclaims the historic and classic nomenclature that is useful for a pastor because it’s not exactly grief or mourning; it’s a certain disease of spirit. Knowing how to interpret that, reflect, and dissect what that is, is very helpful in pastoral work.
ANTILLA: I would encourage pastors to slow down and listen. We overlook the importance of this when it comes to discerning spiritual health in our churches. The best doctors slow down and listen to ongoing problems rather than quickly diagnose what’s wrong. We’re prone to be busy, but when it comes to the
spiritual life, we need to slow down, listen, and become more aware.
HARDY: THINKING ABOUT SPIRITUAL FORMATION, PASTORALLY SPEAKING, IS HELPING PEOPLE NAME THEIR TEMPTATIONS AND VULNERABILITIES AND RECOGNIZING THAT DIFFERENT ONES AFFECT EACH PERSON IN A DIFFERENT WAY. IN WHAT OTHER WAYS CAN WE NOTICE, NAME, AND NURTURE THINGS THAT CAN HELP WITH OUR SPIRITUAL FORMATION?
MARSHALL: In Simply Christian, N.T. Wright talks about a longing for beauty that is akin to a longing for God. Something the orthodox have continued to see is that faith does not come only by hearing—that’s our Western way. Beholding the beauty of the Lord is a way—in a visual sense—to have an encounter with the holy.
MEGYESI: Some aspects of spiritual formation need to be grown and nurtured, such as the ability to know what we’re seeing and if it is something that’s holy and magnificent and beautiful. So nurturing discernment in a community is a helpful piece of this that I’ve been working on and growing in my own life as well as in my congregation.
MARSHALL: The little book by Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment, is one of the best handbooks to help there.
KNIGHT: The early Methodist people practiced discernment in their small groups. They also had a threefold rule of discipline: “Do no harm, do good, and attend to the ordinances of God.” It had specifics that weren’t meant to be exhaustive but were meant to illustrate what that might be. People say, “In America people don’t like discipline. They like freedom.” But if you’re going to be free to play the piano, you’d say, “Well, there’s a piano right over there, and there’s one over here.” I won’t stand in your way. Go and play concert piano. But you can’t unless you practice. That takes discipline. The difference with the spiritual disciplines is there’s another formative element involved, and that’s the Holy Spirit. But the idea that we’re just free is another cultural illusion. We’re free to be who we are, and part of who we are is that we desire. And we’re free to live that out, but what changes the desires? We can do what we will, but what changes our will? How does our will become a godly will?
JONES: This goes back to our talk about practices. I play the piano. I don’t need to look at the notes anymore because I’ve practiced it. I’ve done it with repetition
and regularity. So some of these practices—praying with repetition, with regularity, reading the Scriptures with repetition, with regularity—are now a part of me, and my imagination has been formed. My desires have been changed through doing these
ANTILLA: That’s the goal in terms of prayer. You embody the prayer. It’s not just something you’re reciting but something that flows from the depth of who you are. It’s just like being a musician. Look at the arm and the bow of a great violinist or cellist—it’s just one appendage. It’s just together, it’s seamless, flawless. It just flows out of them. You embody that, and I think we see that in everything, from the Eucharist to prayers,and so on.
HARDY: WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT INVOLVES DESIRE, DISCIPLINE, AND DISCERNMENT. BUT WE’VE ALSO RAISED THE POINT THAT—AND THIS IS WHERE PASTORAL LEADERSHIP COMES IN—THERE NEEDS TO BE DISCERNMENT ABOUT WHAT THOSE PRACTICES ARE. SO WE’RE CAREFUL THAT THE PRACTICES WE ENGAGE IN, THE DISCIPLINES WE ENGAGE IN, ARE SHAPING THE KIND OF DESIRE WE WANT TO NURTURE AS FOLLOWERS OF JESUS CHRIST.
MACMILLAN: Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Practice of the wrong things creates wrong attitudes and orientations.
MARSHALL: Augustine said, “Be careful of your habits, or you will form a chain of habit from which you cannot escape.”
HARDY: RESEARCH SHOWS THAT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN LEAVING THE CHURCH, PARTICULARLY YOUNGER GENERATIONS. SOME OF THESE PEOPLE DON’T CONSIDER THEMSELVES AS SPIRITUAL OR INTERESTED IN SPIRITUAL THINGS. HOW HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED THIS IN YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE AND WORK? AND WHAT ARE SOME OF THE POSSIBLE IMPLICATIONS OF THIS FOR HOW WE LEAD IN THIS AREA OF SPIRITUAL FORMATION IN TODAY’S CHURCHES?
MARSHALL: At the heart of this may be the presumed distance between spiritual formation and social action. Some young adults may say, “So what if you pray? Why not do something that makes a difference?” They see a spiritual practice as inaction, rather than the most formative action that allows sustained initiatives for justice. We have a lot of interpretation to do of how one flows into the other. The action-praxis-reflection model is not a bad way to learn about spiritual motivation and where God is at work in the world.
MEGYESI: I’ve recognized the same thing with a lot of our young people. If they are coming in and sitting and listening and being told something that’s not a part of their behavior or practices, it gets lost. But if they’re invited to participate in the liturgy of Sunday morning worship, or the liturgy that exists as the life of the community throughout the rest of the week, that’s significant. That changes things quite a bit. We use the language with all our people of them being main characters in the story and
trying to figure out what that means for them in the narrative of who we are.
It’s also important for us, as we talk about spiritual formation in the larger picture of the church socially and even denominationally, not to put individuals who are younger on hold until they reach a certain stage or level of maturity but to engage them in some aspects—making space and resources available where those individuals can participate, learn, and grow within the community as active partners and participants in what we’re doing together.
JONES: A practice that might be helpful would be intergenerational services and intergenerational activities. What a beautiful thing for the older person who thinks, I don’t have anything left to give to be able to mentor because they actually know and interact with a young person. And then for this young person to give value back and say,
“You matter in my life.” Value is given in both directions.
HARDY: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES FOR A PASTOR AND A CONGREGATION WHO WANT TO JOIN TOGETHER PIETY AND SOCIAL ACTION, AN ATTENTION TO THE INTERIORITY OF THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, AND SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT?
KNIGHT: They need to see those things not as parallel but as one thing that is organically related. Sometimes we’ll talk about orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy or, more popularly, the head, the heart, and the hands. But these are not three separate things. They’re one thing that comes together. Our society tends to compartmentalize these things, but they’re not compartmentalized in real life. They’re all linked. They’re all living out of a spirituality.
MARSHALL: I had an experience where some women in the church found ways to minister to street children in Yangon. It wasn’t an official ministry of the church in the beginning. But soon these women drew it into the orbit of the congregation. And so the social action, the piety, the empowering of laity—it was all seen in this capacity to make space for a multiplication of ministry.
KNIGHT: The early Methodist laity took initiative. In England, the Strangers’ Friend Societies developed because people were displaced from the rural areas and were coming into the coal mines and urban areas, and were often taken advantage of. And these Strangers’ Friend Societies were indeed the friends of the stranger—of the homeless person or the family living in an apartment below with one little window, raw sewage running outside, and disease prevalent. The Methodist laypeople saw that need and organized to meet the need. It was something John Wesley blessed, but it wasn’t something John Wesley came up with. But that’s the whole idea, and this has been replicated throughout church history and certainly throughout the Holiness Movement.
MARSHALL: That leads me to a question we’ve danced around. What in worship can awaken the kind of compassion and concern that leads to this? Some of it obviously is inspired preaching, but what are other dimensions? As I was thinking about the diversity of congregational makeup and congregational context, I thought of my sometimes stodgy church. Is there any room for ecstasy—where you literally stand outside yourself and care for others? Ecstasy is not just about me having a spiritual high; it is something that awakens a larger vision of humanity’s need. What is it that, when we are gathered, allows the flourishing kind of action we’re talking about?
MEGYESI: As a pastor, that moment often is people’s pain—death, a funeral. In that moment we realize the need to be there for each other in that community. Certainly there’s instruction that we are to remember our Lord’s death until he comes. But something happens when we gather around each other in death: We find out how human we really are. We spend time crying with each other, being broken for each other, getting past our need to shove a tissue in somebody’s face but actually listening to them and sharing with them—and not even being bound by words but being present to each other. That’s one of the places where it happens.
HARDY: DOES SOMETHING ABOUT THAT DYNAMIC MAKE ITS WAY INTO THE WEEKLY WORSHIP RHYTHM OF YOUR CONGREGATION? OR CONVERSELY, DO SOME THINGS THAT ARE A PART OF THE WEEKLY WORSHIP RHYTHM OF YOUR CONGREGATION BEAR FRUIT IN THESE TIMES OF DEATH, GRIEVING, COMING AROUND?
MEGYESI: Some pastors feel as though every week brings a crisis of some sort, some level of pain. But they also need to find ways to be able to celebrate together as a community, allowing that to be a lifecycle process for community as you go through all the different aspects of life together.
JONES: I wonder, too, about the opportunity for family prayer or a time when the congregation shares their needs. Traditionally in the Nazarene church, the pastor voices the concerns of the congregation because he or she knows those concerns. But I love this idea of the congregation being able to share their needs and concerns. And then maybe that becomes a moment where another person realizes, “Wow!” The Spirit really moves you out of yourself to care for that person.
HARDY: THE COLLECTION OF THE OFFERINGS IN WORSHIP SERVICES IS DESIGNED TO HAVE AN OUTWARD FOCUS, ESPECIALLY IF THE CONGREGATION’S CULTURE IS TO COLLECT RESOURCES TO HELP THOSE IN NEED—WHETHER THAT’S IN THE IMMEDIATE NEIGHBORHOOD OR NEEDS AROUND THE WORLD. ARE THERE WAYS WE CAN APPROACH COLLECTING AN OFFERING SO THAT WE COMMUNICATE OUR UNDERSTANDING OF SPIRITUAL FORMATION IN THAT VERY ACT?
MEGYESI: Our worship theology needs to include that process, doesn’t it? It needs to become not just something we do to accomplish a task. It needs to be part of the journey. Where does all of this flow in a particular theology of worship?
ANTILLA: Our church runs a food pantry, an opportunity to donate items to people in need. On a specific Sunday each month, as part of the regular offering, you bring things to donate. We’re trying to bring it into our process of worship and, by that, even our process of corporate spiritual formation. One of the things we emphasize is that
when we bring food, which comes forward during the monetary offering, we place it upon the altar, and it stays there for the rest of the service. The people who bring it forward are the children—we try to instill this in our young people at an early age. You’re giving not just your money, but you’re giving your extra food, you’re giving your
extra backpack and school supplies. We want that ingrained and embodied—that this is who you are.
HARDY: THE KINDS OF THINGS WE’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT ARE CERTAINLY CHALLENGING. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE KEYS TO AVOIDING PRESENTING THIS IN A WAY THAT IT SEEMS UNATTAINABLE? AND HOW CAN WE INCLUSIVELY WELCOME ALL THOSE WHO HAVE EVEN A MODICUM OF DESIRE TO LIVE A HOLY LIFE?
KNIGHT: I think two things are essential: First is a Wesleyan optimism of grace. The optimism is not in us and what we can do but in what God can do in us and through us. Optimism of grace takes into full account the realities of who we are and our situations but believes that God, through the Spirit, can take us and make us into what we can’t make ourselves.
The other thing is something Mark Thornton says when he reads Protestant writings that assert, “It’s all through grace.” He writes in the margins of these things “YBH,” which stands for, “Yes, but how?” And so it’s not a question of how do we make ourselves holy but how do we remain open to God? How do we remain receptive? How do we engage in the transforming relationship? Instead of saying, “You should be holy,” we need to tell people that there is a new life that God has promised, and here are some ways to open yourself to receive it—and we come back to prayer, to Scripture, to helping the neighbor, to the practice of Eucharist. And that’s the answer to the how. It’s not getting points with God. It’s opening up to God. And God will do that transforming work. Our job is not to do it; it’s to be open to what God does.
JONES: Maybe we’ve thought of righteousness as a moral thing with moral decisions, instead of righteousness as dwelling in God. So when we make holiness dwelling in God, that changes everything. Now I can do what you’re saying. I can be open because the end goal isn’t something I’ve done or accomplished; it’s being with, dwelling with, God. KNIGHT: And then wherever you are in that journey is wherever you’re supposed to be. MARSHALL: And we expanded the language. Holiness is not what you abstain from. Holiness is not simply for introverts of contemplative practice or whatever, which drives some people crazy who are active and overt in what they want to do. So we find ways to say, “Yes, building the global mission residence next to our church is spiritual practice. Yes, picking up the neighbor for church is spiritual
So we expand the ordinariness of holiness. It really is drawing closer to the neighbor, drawing closer to God. Folks who sit on the pews who think, I’m not a leader. I’m not holy—they’re doing the gardening at the church. They’re making sure the boiler is working. They’re doing this and that in their community. And we must name and bless that as participating in holiness.
KNIGHT: And to remind people that holiness—as you say, Molly—is not fundamentally about what you aren’t, or refraining from this or that. Holiness, fundamentally, is about love. It’s about our loving as God loves. It’s something we are and do. There are other fruits of the Spirit, but that something is centered in love.
HARDY: APPROACHES TO HOLINESS AND TO SPIRITUAL FORMATION HAVE SO STRONGLY ACCENTED THE “NO” THAT IT’S HARD SOMETIMES TO FIND A “YES.” IT WILL TAKE THE FORM, FOR EXAMPLE, OF LEGALISM, AND WE’VE SEEN HOW THAT CAN BE PROBLEMATIC. WE’VE ALSO NOTED, HOWEVER, THAT THE NEED FOR DISCERNMENT SUGGESTS THAT WE CAN’T JUST SAY YES TO EVERYTHING AND EXPECT THAT WILL LEAD US ONTO THE PATH.
KNIGHT: It’s not antinomianism, and it’s not legalism. Those two will get us off the path. And that could be the things we see in life becoming consumerism, for instance, a life of acquisition, trying to acquire things. We need to say no to anything that tends to pull us away from God or our neighbor. The problem is, we don’t see this stuff because we’re in it. So we see it gradually. We see it in pieces. And I think the Spirit shows it to us. Then we deal with that which we see. And we pray for God to remove it, not because these are bad, even though they are. It’s because of what they pull us away from; because we want our hearts to be with God.
MARSHALL: I had to decide to say no to anger. I taught a dozen years at a seminary and was a tenured professor there. I was pushed out the door because the seminary changed its position on women in ministry. I had to deal very strongly with myself. I could be continuously angry from having been wronged, and I could withhold forgiveness. And it would be an insidious, burning, toxic residual in me that would keep me from being able to say yes to where God was beckoning me. To say no to that anger and to say yes to releasing it was one of the hardest spiritual disciplines I’ve ever undertaken. But it made a great deal of difference. When people continued to write ugly essays about me, questioning whether I was even a Christian, I resisted answering those charges. I resisted lobbing things back that would have enmeshed me in
this ongoing, destructive internecine. I had to say no to that. And I had to ask the Holy Spirit to replace that anger with the graces of stability and conversion of all ways of life and other things, lest that absolutely twist me for the restof my life.
MEGYESI: How much that would change all of us to even think at a level of self-control. So many issues, every one of our people, the conversations we then share with our children, in the community to have this most basic-level conversation of spiritual formation at the level of self-control. Let’s learn to control ourselves when we’re in the midst of a particular situation.
HARDY: WE DO LOTS OF THINGS, BUT WE ARE CALLED TO BE SPIRITUAL LEADERS. I WOULD INVITE ANY OF YOU TO SHARE A SENTENCE OR TWO OF ENCOURAGEMENT AND CHALLENGE TOWARD BEING THE SPIRITUAL LEADERS GOD INVITES US TO BE.
MEGYESI: I could start with a hearty thank you to all of those who have served before me,who have gone through this process in the best of times and worst of times—who’ve prayed, who’ve offered themselves to be disciplined, strengthened, and held accountable in areas of their own growth. And with that I would like to then remind all of us—whether we’re in education, administration, or pastoral ministries—of the power of the community and the gift that God has given to us in each other. We’re not just trying to deal with people who just don’t get it, but we are loved by those who are growing with us in this process. I do believe that we are gifted in our callings and blessed
with an opportunity.
So that’s the optimism of God’s grace in my own life, knowing that God has allowed me the privilege of doing what I do. This has not been by any means me being burdened by what I’m called to do, though it’s not always easy. It will require much because that formational process sometimes is done not just with a cool, wet cloth but sometimes with a chisel and hammer. But we are blessed with the opportunity to travel together. God has given us each other.
MARSHALL: The thing I’m most thankful for in thinking about spiritual formation is what the apostle Paul calls “the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:19, KJV), that we can lean into the reality that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, changing us from one degree of glory to another. All of this comes from theLord, who is the Spirit.
MACMILLAN: A very formative moment in my spiritual journey was at the back of the sanctuary at my first pastoral assignment. A certain board member—you’d call him the main man in the congregation—never lingered, but this morning he had scowled significantly through the message and stayed around afterward. After everyone else was gone he took me by the lapels of my robe—face to face. He said, “Young man, you’re not old enough to have lived long enough to have sinned enough to be sorry enough to know what you’re talking about.”
I had preached on forgiveness, and I was glib and desperate. I had the privilege of visiting with him days before his death and discovered why he had such a problem with forgiveness. As a soldier in battle, he had encountered an enemy soldier who was hopelessly wounded. The soldier said, “Please shoot me.” And this man said, “I did.”
I’ve never heard a sermon on forgiveness where that doesn’t come back in living color for me. Because he had the courage to say that, I had the privilege to communicate forgiveness to him, in the terms that Jesus bought for us on the cross. And before he died, he knew he was forgiven.
Every time I look at that congregation, the potential for someone else like that to hear what I say—and my need to hear what they say is even more urgent. So pastors, preachers, laypeople, Sunday school teachers—it’s a journey.
KNIGHT: This reminds me of a situation I had as a pastor. A lady wanted me to visit her husband. I found out he had cancer, but they didn’t tell him. He knew he wasn’t well, and they knew he was dying, and he’d never been baptized and did not profess Christ. He’d had nothing to do with the church since he was a teenager.
So I went to visit the gentleman. When he was nineteen, he had been going to church, and at his church a man stood up and said he was an alcoholic and had been living a lie. He said he was getting help and wanted to ask God’s forgiveness and the congregation’s forgiveness. The pastor hugged him, but after the service, the deacons met and voted him out of the church. This ill man said, “I walked away, and I’ve had nothing to do with church since.”
I was horrified by the story. I tried to convey that Christ was not in that. And I told him as best I could, as a fairly new pastor, about Jesus. I asked him, “Would you like to profess faith in this Jesus?”
He said, “If that’s who Jesus is, then yes, I would. And I need to be baptized.”
I said, “I know you’re not well. I can come here for the baptism.”
He said, “No. I want to go to church.”
He came, and though we weren’t set up to do immersions at this church, we baptized him. He could not come back to church and died soon thereafter. I won’t forget that. Here’s a person—because of what a church did—alienated from Christ. That’s a sobering thought. My hopeful comment is different, but it does come out of things we’ve been talking about. That’s simply this: Jesus is risen. It’s not up for a vote. The crucified Jesus is risen and alive, and the Holy Spirit has come. Even when things do not look so good, that remains true. And so we always have a hope that the world cannot take from us. Nor can anything take us from the love of God in Christ
ANTILLA: So when we think about spiritual formation, it is a challenge believing that we actually can live lives of perfect love. That’s radical in this world. But we also remember that Christ died not for the godly but the ungodly, and yet through the death of Jesus, we died with Him, and we rise with Him. Because of that, as Wesley might even say, the way God becomes human is the exact same way that we might become like God, whose very nature and name is love. Amen.