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Johnson, Susanne. 2001. Christian Spiritual Formation in An Age of “Whatever” Review and Expositor, vol.98 no.3 Summer: 302-332

by Dr Alex Tang


            In a concise and well annotated paper, Johnson made a good case for the congregation as the primary agent for Christian spiritual formation. She started her discussion with a historical review of the conflicts of different approaches to Christian education and summaries by categorizing the different approaches into three categories which she named orthopraxis, orthodoxies and orthokardia – right practice, right beliefs and right emotions.

            She then goes on to list the criteria for a good model of spiritual formation. Such a model should have the right mix of allowing God to work and for cooperation of the people being spiritually formed. It should balanced in the sense that it incorporates all different approaches to Christian education while firmly fixing the person in the context of his life situation.

            That done, she introduced the idea of the Christian Story and how it is important in spiritual formation to realise our own stories and how our own stories fit into the bigger picture of the Christian story. She makes a string case for cultural-linguistic approach.

Within the framework of the Christian Story, Johnson introduced the means of grace as ways of getting into the story. It is interesting that she mentioned John Wesley who defined means of grace as having two components- means of piety (which in modern terms, spiritual disciplines) and means of mercy (social work). She identified members of the congregation who are practicing the spiritual disciplines or practices as agents of change if they would mentor younger members in the faith. This led to her conclusion that the congregation, not extensive programs as the key elements in spiritual formation.

I agree with Johnson that a model for spiritual formation should be holistic. And I agree with her the importance of the Christian meta-narrative and the means of grace. However her main emphasis seems to be Christianity are caught, not taught. One develops in spiritual formation by being mentored by the practitioner of a specific Christian practice. There are four things needful in this approach.

First is that we should always take into account the developmental aspect of spiritual growth. One of the failures of intentional Christian education programs is the failure to take into consideration that people are at different stages of development in a congregation. There must be specificity in our approach. Hence in a congregation, one needs to have specific programs to meet the needs of the persons at different stages of their spiritual growth and their life stages. This will not happen at an ad hoc way in a congregation.

Second, different people learn in different ways. There is no ‘one-size-fit-all’ in Christian education. This is the same in spiritual formation. Mentoring and modelling may work for some but not for all. Some may prefer a more structured teaching program while others a coffee shop dialogue learning. Some may be high tech, low touch while other low tech, high touch.

Third, while people learn best in a congregation, Johnson has assumed that the congregation is alive and vibrant in Christ. What happens if the congregation is not growing in its spiritual life? If a congregation is so like the world in its consumer and passive spectator character? How then can one receive means of grace in spiritual formation in such a congregation.

Finally, there is still a need for comprehensive, appropriate instruction in the basic tenets of our beliefs. One can argue that everyone in the congregation can teach. Yet many do not know the basic tenets of their faith. How are them then to teach. Would it be a matter of the blind leading the blind? There is still a lace for instruction in the faith by one who is educated in that area. Such a person must not only well versed with the Word but also in educational pedagogy.

Johnson has highlighted how important the congregation is in the context for spiritual formation. But I do not agree that the congregation is the content of spiritual formation. The content of spiritual formation includes the transcendent God, his revealed word and his created world.



| posted 26 April 06 |





Bridging our Educational Divides

“Within postmodernism, we find a preference for experiential, participatory, and action-reflection modes of education, over transmissive ones, an emphasis on the subjectivity of learners rather than the objectivity of the material being taught, and a disease with institutionalized and organized aspects of religion”p.310

“Rather than choose one camp or another, or even attempt simply to give them equal weight in pie-slice or compartmentalize fashion, we need to find a way to synthesize strengths and to overcome weaknesses of each perspective. We need to forge a more holistic theological model in which to ground the enterprise of Christian education-or Christian spiritual formation-in the twenty-first century”p.313

3 models: orthopraxis, orthodaxis and orthokardia

“Our efforts at Christian formation ought to be measured by how well they permit believers to acquire orthodaxis, orthopraxis, and orthokardia as complex, interrelated, integrated dimensions of their fundamental character and self-identity as Christians.

In order to avoid continuing to fall prey to worn-out and misleading theological divisions, we need a perspective on Christian spiritual formation that does at least the following things. Our model must

  • keep in  proper balance God’s objective work on our behalf and our subjective appropriation and participation in it;
  • keep faith and works, spirituality and justice, organically related in a holistic practice of Christian faith and life; and
  • introduce and initiate persons into the Christian faith as a complex, integrated set of practices, beliefs, and holy affections that constitutes a counter-cultural way of living in the world.”p.314


The Formative Power of the Christian Story

“To do “the Christian thing”, to go about being a Christian in the world-cultural-linguistic thought suggests-involves knowing how, knowing what, and knowing why in simultaneous and interrelated fashion.”p.315

“Christian spiritual formation, in this view, primarily aims for knowing-how to be Christian in this time and in this place, seeing Christian self-identity as a Way of Life in the world. Knowing how, of course, is far more than technique or method. Knowing-how implies learning how to be the living text of Christianity. In order to be the text, one must know the text. One must know the text not just in a detached, objective way; rather, one must have assimilated the text into one’s ways of being and doing and valuing in the world.”p.316

“The Christian Story includes its own logic of appropriation and of participation, and so introduces another conception of formation in contrast to that of the experiential-developmental philosophy.”p.315

“What is distinctive about Christian formation is not the process but rather the basis and consequent shape of our basic character and self-identity. To be sanctified is to learn to see ourselves and to see the world as being redeemed in Jesus Christ, to see ourselves as participants in this redemptive activity, and to score our lives accordingly. How we see the world, and how we see strangers and neighbours, is a function of our character. We come to see, not just by looking, but by training our vision. How we see is shaped by the  convictions we deeply hold, by the practices in which we engage, and by the Story we are attempting to tell by our lives.”p.317-318

Christian Spiritual Formation and the Means of Grace

“John Wesley’s distinctive contribution to the wider church is his insistence that works of piety (openness to God) and works of piety (openness to neighbour) together constitute the means of grace. What he referred to as “works of piety” are today being called spiritual disciplines and Christian practices.”p.319

“When we understand our spirituality as participation in the life of the triune God, then we maintain the preveniency of God’s justifying and sanctifying grace. The task of Christian spiritual formation, as a systematic, sustained, and intentional ministry in the church is to equip believers, and to help them learn, both individually and corporately, how to participate in ever more wholehearted, ever more faithfully, and ever more developmentally complex ways in God’s creative and redemptive work in the world.”p.321

  • Christian practices are cooperative and communal
  • Christian practices are experiential
  • Christian practice are dynamic
  • Christian practice are cognitive
  • Christian practice are historical
  • Christian practice are developmental
  • Christian practice are counter-cultural
  • Christian practice are contextual
  • Christian practice are dialectic
  • The Congregation as a set of ecclesial practices p.322-328


The Formative Power of the Congregation

“Thus, it is commonly accepted that the primary means for spiritual formation is living closely and intimately in a community of believers who themselves know well the Christian story and who are deeply and actively engaged in its practices. Of indispensable importance is the role played by sponsors, by mentors, by godparents, by spiritual guides, and by the caring company of the faithful. One learns how to pray, praise, witness, and worship, less from a book and more from living in community with persons who are well versed in these practices and are willing to initiate others. The effectiveness of Christian formation in the congregation-far from depending on extensive programming, large Sunday Schools, big buildings, or gymnasiums for youth-is determined above all by the quality of life together, and by the depth and breadth of engagement in Christian practices that goes on there.”p.328


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