From education to formation

October 13, 2010 | Viewpoints | Number 20
Will Braun |

I hope no one will be too surprised or disappointed if I put aside my usual social justice subject matter to consider a more general question: How exactly do we become better Christians? I don’t usually use such Sunday school-ish terms, but it’s the closest I can come to what’s on my heart.

I feel that in our pursuit of spiritual growth we Mennonites rely too heavily on the education paradigm. We have Sunday school, Bible college, Scripture lessons, sermons about texts, and pastors trained primarily at academic institutions. Stated another way, I wish less of church were aimed at my head. Much of it informs me or makes me think, rather than engaging my body and soul as well. Exceptions exist: music, art, communion, silence and service opportunities. But I often long for a less cerebral and educational approach.

The alternative is something I experienced at the Hermitage, a Mennonite-run retreat centre in Michigan, where I did two three-month internships in the 1990s. At the Hermitage they speak not of education, but of spiritual formation. The term is common in the contemplative tradition.

As I understand it, spiritual formation is a process of becoming, of living into a depth of spirit. It requires quiet, stillness, rest, beauty and attentiveness to God. It can involve specific styles of journalling and reflection. It involves spiritual direction, a form of one-on-one spiritual accompaniment. It involves reading and thinking, but it is not education, nor is it about achievement.

Formation is less about striving than letting go. It is slow, even lifelong. The objective is to become more centred, prayerful, humble, patient and loving. I claim none of these qualities, but I do feel like I was given both specific practices and a general sense of how to nurture them in myself.

What I gradually began to experience at the Hermitage was a rhythm of life that balanced manual work, collective morning worship (sans sermons), reading, journalling, silence, ping pong, good conversation and walks in the woods. I observed people who lived well, with uncommon care and joy. But formation cannot ultimately be transmitted in word.

I had not been exposed to this anywhere else in my Mennonite experience. Bible college, Yoder’s writings and cross cultural service were all of great value to me, but they did not provide a structured, intentional and integrated path to becoming a better Christian in the way the Hermitage did.

Spiritual formation is not entirely foreign to the church. Our seminary has a professor in spiritual formation and worship, Marlene Kropf. Profound spiritual growth happens in classrooms, during service assignments and in church foyers. Scattered folks go to spiritual directors. But I believe we would benefit from a shift in our church culture towards formation.

This could involve more silence, more ritual, more use of the Bible as spiritual balm, rather than lesson books and training manuals for worship leaders and pastors. And I would suggest a prohibition on song leaders suggesting we pay special attention to the words. Give our poor brains a break; let us get lost in the music.

In the broader church, service assignments could include a program of thorough, intentional and collective spiritual reflection. And conference pastors could bring together the pockets of people already interested in formation to explore how to increase and promote spiritual retreat options. Young people should especially have these opportunities.

Education and sharp thinking are essential, but ultimately our world needs people of deeply rooted Christian character.

Will Braun attends Hope Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Man. He can be reached at wbraun@inbox.com.

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