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Johnson, Susanne. 1989 Christian Spiritual Formation in the Church and Classroom, Nashville: Abingdon Press

by Dr Alex Tang


This is a thoughtful and insightful book about spiritual formation as practiced by the cultural-linguistic methodology. The concept of spiritual formation as linking with the meta-narrative Christian Story is an innovative approach to spiritual formation and Christian education.  The Christian Story approach was first popularized in New Testament studies especially in the story of St.Paul. This may be the first time it is applied to Christian education and spiritual formation. This book was written by Susanne Johnson, who was then associate dean for community life and assistant professor of Christian education at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

Johnson developed a concise description of a model of spiritual formation based on the Christian Story. Spiritual growth was when we recognize that we each have our own stories and that we need to link our stories to that of the Christian Story. The Christian Story forms the content of spiritual formation while the local congregation forms the context of our formation. The key this formation is participation in worship, praxis and instruction, using the means of grace.

For this model to work, the congregation must be a spiritually vital and spiritually growing one. Much of what Johnson has written depends on the congregation providing the context, the teaching and the modelling. What happens if the congregation is weak? What if most if not all of the members are worldly, attaching their stories to other cultural stories rather than the Christian story? Would spiritual formation take place in that congregation? One must take into account that the congregation also teaches the explicit, hidden and null curriculum.

This model also depends on strong Christian leadership who is aware of the Christian story and who can lead and design programs that involve participation, give group or individual guidance, teach the spiritual disciplines and live a life of worship.

It is interesting that Johnson took issue with modern psychology which she likens to a religion in itself and in faith developmental theories which she is afraid will be used legalistically by some Christian leaders. While there is some truth in her fears, one must also be reminded that these are wonderful tools which can help us to understand ourselves and our faith/moral development. As all tools, it should be used to produce results and not as an end for itself.

In summary, Johnson has produced an excellent seminal work on spiritual formation in the congregation based on the meta-narrative of the Christian Story.





“My overall intent is to explore spiritual formation as the decisive guiding image for educational ministry in the church.”(p.14)

1.      Drinking from our own wells: An Introduction

“Basics claims”

1.      The themes of participation and formation, theologically and educationally understood, are the threads that provide conceptual continuity.

2.      Spirituality is not a given. It is a reality that is learned…In this context, the Christian Scriptures and tradition, along with reason and experience, are decisive sources that evoke, shape, and sustain our spiritual existence as Christian believers.

3.      The primordial concern of spiritual formation is with the issue of becoming.

4.      The process of being changed is what Christians have called sanctification. It is what we mean today by the formation and shaping of Christian character.

5.      Another claim is that when we talk about spiritual formation, we are really discoursing about Christian formation…Our concern is not only with how a person becomes Christian but also with how one person helps another become Christian, and how we teach Christianity.

6.      When we discourse about spiritual formation, our conversation must also be about the church. (p.19-21)

“Understood from a Christian perspective, I propose that spirituality is our self-transcendent capacity as human beings to recognize and to participate in God’s creative and redemptive activity in all of creation.” (p.22)

[a spirituality that is both creation and redemption based]

“Christian spiritual formation has to do with finding out through and with the help of the faith community

·        how to be Christian in this times, in this place;

·        how to recognize and confess our self-deception;

·        how to walk according to the Spirit;

·        how to recognize where we are refusing Christian story  and choosing instead the stories of culture and civil religion;

·        how to acquire Christian character;

·        how to learn the skills required by the Christian story, such as praying, meditating, repenting, loving, welcoming the stranger;

·        how to actualize our Christian vocation over the course of a lifetime.” (p.28-29)

2.      Drinking form other wells: a partial critique

“This chapter explores the thesis that psychology is now the primary well from which contemporary Americans draw in their search for self fulfilment.”(p.30)

“Humanistic and transpersonal psychologies have begun to function for us as quasi-religious “myth-of-becoming”…A myth is a metaphor for reality, constructing how things ultimately are (a model of), and how we are to order our lives accordingly (a model for).”(p.32)

Modern psycho-culture has replaced Christian theological influence in our lives in the following ways (1) ethical egoism, (2) psychotherapy, (3) individualism, and (4) feminist theology.

3.      Participation: Theological Foundations

“Realm of God refers to God’s presence and activity in human affairs”(p.44)

“ 1. The Realm of God is a shocking and radical reversal of he usual order of things. Through biblical images we see the New Creation pictured as (1) a dynamic interaction (2) between different people and between elements of creation (3) of a different, surprising sort, (4) which turns the world’s usual experience and expectations upside down!

2. Jesus Christ is the decisive revelation f God’s realm in human history.

3. God’s realm is received and not generated by human effort.

4. The invitation to God’s Realm is an invitation to embrace a covenantal way of life.

5. The community of faith, the church, is called to be the sign and sacrament of the world God wills.

6. Participation in the coming of God’s realm requires our complete and ongoing reorientation, a permanent metanoia or conversion.

7. Participation in the coming of God’s Realm requires freedom and creates freedom.

8. Since we live “between the times,” our participation in the Realm of God is provisional.

9. By the power of the Holy Spirit we participate in the coming of God’s Realm.

10. The Realm of God embraces the fullness of the human condition, as well as of all creation.

11. The spiritual disciplines, especially the sacraments, make visible God’s Realm in the world.

12. Baptism is our ordination into the ministry of God’s Realm in the world.” (p.44-54).

4.      Participation: Practical Foundations

“1. Through the spiritual disciplines we remember, anticipate, and participate in God’s story of creation and redemption.

2. Through the spiritual disciplines we posture ourselves to receive and actualize God’s grace in our lives, anticipating the day when all things are made new (Rev.21:5)

3. Through the spiritual disciplines we not only receive grace, but e also mediate signs of grace to and in the world.

4. Through the spiritual disciplines we express our Christian self-identity.

5. Concomitantly, through the spiritual disciplines our Christian self-identity is decisively shaped and formed.

6. Through the disciplined spiritual life we acquire deep and abiding dispositions, or habits of the heart.

7. Through the spiritual disciplines we remember our baptism, realize our vocation, and fulfil our Christian calling to the world.” (p.55-62)

Worship: A Pattern for Discipline

“The basic dynamic of worship-repentance, confession, praise, proclamation, prayer-provide the basic patterns for a disciplined spiritual life, individual and corporate.”(p.64)

5.      Participation; Church as context

“Where we find the church becoming itself, we find a community of lived faith where persons welcome strangers as bearing potential gifts; a community where diversity is celebrated and not looked upon as annoyance or threat; a community that nourishes individuality, avoiding both excess individualism and excess conformism; a community that provides equal access to leadership; a community that repents, prays, and praises together. This is the shape of life in the Realm of God!” (p.86)

6.      Participation: Story as Content

“Hauerwas suggests, therefore, that the soul of the narrative is not, as we commonly think, the plot. It is, rather, the unfolding of human character as people, circumstances, and events interact.”(p.89)

 “This ministry requires that in working with persons we (1) listen and accept unconditionally their life stories; (2) invite them to reflect upon and to bring their stories into dialogue with the Christian Story; (3) empower their stories to be interpreted by and caught up into the Christian Story; and (4) help them negotiate the Story in their own unique life contexts.”(p.91)

[ The Christian Story reveals the character of God, changes us, mediates the new world, subvert the old world, and  mediates hope and promise.]

7.      Christian Spiritual Formation

“1. Developmental theories tend to suggest their own build-in norms and rules for us…

2. We must not be seduced into using faith theory for purposes of intervention in ministry, that is, to try to prompt persons to move from one stage to the next…

3. Cognitive complexity does not exhaust the biblical understanding of faith…

4. Faith development theory is pressed by some leaders into an overall organizing mode for ministry…

5. Faith development theory does measure some development phenomena, to be sure, but it does not measure the progress of faith, biblically understood…” (p.119-120)

8.      Church: An Ecology of Spiritual Care and Formation

[Group guidance

 One-to-one guidance

 Hidden guidance

(a)    explicit curriculum

(b)   hidden curriculum

(c)    null curriculum]

9.      Christian Education for Formation

“First we must decide to become Christian. Next we must submit ourselves to prolonged instruction and initiation. We must give ourselves over to the Story, begin to participate in it; only then do we really begin to understand! Credo ut intelligam: “I participate fully in order that I might understand.”

  When conducted within the above perspective, instructional activity will aim to (10 acquaint persons with or reintroduce them to Jesus Christ; (2) convey to young people and adult converts the basic Christ witness of faith, in continuity with the original message of Jesus and the apostolic church; (3) help persons to interpret, to understand, and to live in light of the Christian story; (4) teach skills of critical inquiry into Scripture and tradition; (5) teach Christians the skills of critical engagement with culture (praxis), so that they can help shape the public; (6) immerse believers in and help them reflect upon their experience of the means of grace; (7) help believers originate their own witness to the good news, rather than remain as passive recipients of someone else’s witness” (p.149)

“Steps in the Divine Dance of Redemption

  1. Consciousness raising is the entry point into shared Christian praxis. It begins in collective story telling. When we name with others our experience, what seemed originally to be an individual problem is exposed as a basic pattern affecting all society. Each person discovers that she or he is not alone.
  2. Historical-contextual investigation is a process of connecting our particular experiences to a larger historical framework. Christian education is a matter of helping specific faith communities inquire into the church’s experience as seen in its Scripture, in its historic experience, and in its present and varied circumstances…
  3. Theological reflection seeks not merely to reassert traditional theology but to ask whether and how the theological tradition offers a genuinely liberating word for a specific community…
  4. Norm clarification is the movement wherein, in light of our theological reflection, norms are generated, clarified, weighed, and used as guides to choices.
  5. Strategic options for action must be generated, calculating their possible long-term consequences…
  6. Annunciation and celebration is the reconstructive phase of shared Christian praxis, possible only after our self-conscious critique of society, dominant culture and tradition…
  7. Reorientation and reentry, along with reengagement, carry us further into the divine dance of redemption…”(p.151-152)


“Throughout the previous chapters, we have emphasized the following major points concerning Christian spiritual formation:

  1. Formation begins with our baptism into a community of intentionally lived faith and relies upon the formative and transformative power of the congregation throughout a lifetime.
  2. Formation places equal emphasis upon both content and process (for experience)…
  3. Formation is a lifelong affair involving highly complex, organically related processes and content, a partial list of which includes
    • Exemplars, spiritual guides, role models, official and “ordinary” saints of the church, faith relationship between individuals of different generations
    • Dialogue, critical inquiry, interpretation, reflection, and feedback within a community of care and guidance
    • The church’s internal life, including its polity, administration, supervision, leadership, politics, and how the organizational elements either empower or disenfranchise active participation in the church’s worship, witness and work.
    • Attitudes, affections, and actions appropriate to Christian character, demonstrated and supported in the faith community.
    • “functional apprenticeships” wherein young people and catechumens are given opportunities to establish relationships with faith mentors, wherein each one of us is given the opportunity to develop and exercise leadership skills, wherein each one of us is shown models of vocation and helped to discover his or her unique path to vocation and discipleship.
    • Lithurgy and paralithurgy where the Story is dramatized and rehearsed through ritual, rite, silence, and song.
    • Spiritual disciplines, including the means of grace and works of mercy as we are immersed and trained in them and helped to practice and reflect upon them together in groups marked by covenant relationship environmental influences that are both explicit and hidden, including all the formal and informal enculturation processes of the church as it engages in its worship, work and witness
    • Languages and symbols-acquired through worship, instruction, and praxis-that instil values in us and that shape us to see and do this rather than that
    • Critical inquiry into Scripture and tradition, including critical appropriation and revision of the church’s common memory
  4. Formation includes equal emphasis on worship, praxis, and instruction as the dynamic, organically related, and interlocking processes of Christian education…
  5. Formation places equal emphasis on the individual and community…
  6. Formation is intimately concerned with shaping our subjectivity as individuals, our attitudes and affections. The focus of formation is character…
  7. Formation equips us to be critically self-aware of the culture in which we participate and know the difference between the Christian Story and the many stories of our culture that bid for our commitment and loyalty...
  8. Formation requires a community that is intentional and disciplines in its spiritual life…
  9. Formation depends on the authoritative exercise of the offices of spiritual direction, teaching, and prophetic judgment.
  10. Formation involves more than self-development (pulling innate goodness out of us); it is concerned with clearing away self-deception and sin and putting something into us (through worship, praxis and instruction).”(p.157-158)


|posted 6 May 2006|

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