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The Community in Christian Spiritual Formation

Dr Alex Tang

Community is increasing becoming prominent in the literature of spiritual formation. However, there are two ways of understanding community in relation to spiritual formation: the community that nurtures and the nurturing community.

(a)   The community that nurtures

In the community that nurtures, the community is the context in which spiritual formation takes place. People join a community for what the community may offer them. Then by taking part in the community undergoes spiritual formation. When they find that they cannot learn anymore from this community, they leave to find other communities that may help them.  This is akin to a university where one joins the community to learn skills for a certain profession or to acquire a degree. Once that is achieved, the person leaves for other communities.

Renovarē, a parachurch organisation has moved from their initial emphasis on “spiritual formation[1](initially called discipleship) to “spiritual formation based congregations.” Richard Foster first made mention of spiritual formation based congregations in his Pastoral Letter, May 2005 (Foster 2005) and one year later in May 2006 (Foster 2006). This time, he listed the characteristics of a spiritual formation based community:

the process of Christian spiritual formation and life-long discipleship is the foundation of individual and congregational life; everyone is encouraged to be involved in an intentional process for formation in Christlikeness; the natural outcome of events for individual participation in the fellowship is ever-increasing formation and transformation into the ways and heart of Jesus; spiritual formation in Christlikeness is a process not a program; pastors and lay leadership are fully committed to and participating in the spiritual formation process; there is a great diversity of sources to draw from for Christian faith and practice; the classical Spiritual Disciplines—such as prayer, fasting, service, and guidance—are highly valued, taught on, and practiced; and all are encouraged to explore the writings of the great devotional authors of the Church, such as Saint Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Others have recognised the importance of relationships in such community. Some scholars have identified the spiritual forming roles of spiritual friends (Benner 2002; Leech 2001; Moon and Benner 2004), and mentors (Anderson and Reese 1999; Houston 2002; Mallison 1998). James Houston (2002) identifies the importance of mentoring in spiritual formation in his book, The Mentored Life. These scholars have engaged in an important aspect of spiritual formation. American theologian James Wilhoit (2008) identifies spiritual formation as the imitation of Christ and affirms that it has to be done by and in the church in community.  Wilhoit centres spiritual formation in the context of a community, informed by the nature of man and of God, transformed by the Holy Spirit, and facilitated by formative practices. One important aspect that is pointed out by Wilhoit is that “conflict has a unique way of forming us” (2008, 174). This affirms that spiritual formation does not occur alone in a vacuum but in relationships with other people in a community.


(b)   Nurturing community

In a nurturing community, spiritual formation takes place because the person is the content of the community. One grows spiritually with the community because the community is growing. One becomes the community and takes on characteristics of the community. The analogy for this is the family. One is born into this and is always part of it even when relocated to a different geographic location.

According to Robert Banks in Paul’s Idea of Community, the apostle Paul’s key image for community is a loving family (1994, 47-57). Banks notes, “Christians are to see themselves a members of a divine family; already in his earliest letters Paul regards the head of the family as being God the Father” (1994, 49). The family or oikos (household) mentioned at the time of Paul is different from the nuclear family which consists of the father, mother and children. It includes parents, relatives, slaves, former slaves who are now clients, tenants and hired labourers (Meeks 1983, 30).

Craig Dysktra and Dorothy Bass has a nurturing community in mind when they describe the Christian practices which such a community will be practicing (Bass 1997; Dykstra 1987, 2005). The emerging church movement been rethinking, exploring and experimenting with the form the church should take in the post-modern 21st century (Gibbs 2005; Sweet 2003). They are examining spiritual formation as the matrix for their growth. Kimball writing about spiritual formation notes:

the emerging church must not settle for attending events and programs. Rather, we must be disciples of Jesus who are dependent on the Holy Spirit to transform us into people who love God with all our being and who love people so much that we cannot help but be mission minded. (Kimball 2003, 216).

Pagitt shows how spiritual formation is carried out in his church in Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church (Pagitt and Community 2003). While there have been many imaginative approaches, the key in many of their approach to spiritual formation is community based which appear to be one of their core practice. (Pagitt and Community 2003). It remains to be seen if they develop a nurturing community or a community that nurtures.



Anderson, Keith R. and Randy D. Reese. 1999. Spiritual mentoring: A guide for seeking and giving direction. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Banks, Robert. 1994. Paul's idea of community: The early house churches in their cultural setting. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Bass, Dorothy C., ed. 1997. Practicing our faith: A way of life for a searching people. Edited by Dorothy C. Bass. The practices of faith series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Benner, David G. 2002. Sacred companions: The gift of spiritual friendship and direction. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Dykstra, Craig. 1987. The formative power of the congregation. Religious Education 82, no. 4 Fall: 530-546.

________. 2005. Growing in the life of faith: Education and christian practices. Louisville, KN: Westminster John Knox Press.

Foster, Richard. 2005. May 2005: A pastoral letter from richard foster. Renovare.

________. 2006. May 2006: A pastoral letter from richard foster. Renovare.

Gibbs, Bolger. 2005. Emerging churches: Creating christian community in postmodern cultures. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Houston, James. 2002. The mentored life: From individualism to personhood. Colorado Springs, CO.: NavPress.

Kimball, Dan. 2003. The emerging church: Vintage christianity for new generations. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Leech, Kenneth. 2001. Soul friend: Spiritual direction in the modern world. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing. Original edition, 1994.

Mallison, John. 1998. Mentoring: To develop disciples and leaders. Adelaide, SA.: Openbook Publisher.

Meeks, Wayne A. 1983. The first urban christians: The local world of the apostle paul. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Moon, Gary W. and David G. Benner, eds. 2004. Spiritual direction and the care of souls: A guide to christian approaches and practices. Downers Groove: InterVarsity Press.

Pagitt, Doug and the Solomon's Porch Community. 2003. Reimagining spiritual formation: A week in the life of an experimental church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Sweet, Leonard, ed. 2003. The church in emerging culture: Five perspectives. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Wilhoit, James C. 2008. Spiritual formation as if the church mattered: Growing in christ through community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.


[1] The Renovarē Spiritual Formation Bible defines spiritual formation as “the process of transforming the inner reality of the self (the inward being” of the psalmist) in such a way that the overall with-God life seen in the Bible naturally and freely comes to pass in us. Our inner world (the “secret heart”) becomes the home of Jesus by his initiative and our response.” Foster 2005 p.xxix.



|posted 5 August 2008|


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