Formed by Community for God: a book review

The old joke about seminaries is that they are cemeteries.  I first heard this when I was discerning a call to vocational Christian ministry. “Why do yo want to go to cemetery?” My theological education was decidedly more lively than this crypt-ish descriptor. God used my time in seminary to shape me.  As I wrestled with doctrine, but I also pressed into prayer and community and came face to face with some of the ugly bits of my heart that still needed to change. God was gracious to give me friends and mentors who spoke into my life.  But the point of the ‘cemetery’ label is well taken: learning about God–theology, biblical history, exegesis, hermeneutics, discipleship–does not necessarily translate into ‘life with God.’  Sometimes theological centers of learning fail to form us spiritually.

Paul Petit is aware of this phenomenon. As the director of the spiritual formation programs for Dallas Theological Seminary has edited a volume which describes a ‘community approach to becoming like Christ.’ Most of the contributors to Foundations of Spiritual Formation are somehow connected with Dallas (either were students there or teach at the institution); however this is a multidisciplinary project and each author has unique insights.. Contributors turn around the notion of spiritual formation and examine in from various different angles.  The result is a holistic and comprehensive look at what Christian spiritual formation is.

Howard Hendricks writes the forward and argues for the necessity of small groups for spiritual nurture. Pettit’s introduction helps give a relational, holistic definition for ‘spiritual formation’ and urges us towards the practice of Spiritual disciplines as way to cooperate with the grace of God operating in our life (we don’t change our hearts, only God does that, but we can participate in the process). Pettit’s introduction is unpacked further in part one of the book. Jonathan Morrow describes a distinctively evangelical model of spiritual formation in chapter one (a model that is Christocentric and biblically-rooted). Richard Averbeck unfolds the formative nature of Christian worship and how spiritual disciplines help us ‘lift our sails’ so that God’s Spirit can move us closer to Him.  Gordon Johnston and Darrell Bock explore the nature of spiritual formation in the Old and New Testaments, respectively. In both instances they focus on the nature of community and how it lays a foundation of response for growth.

In part two, the contributors turn their gaze toward the practical elements of Spiritual formation. Klaus Issler focuses on the soul and the emotional life in Spiritual formation; Reid Kisling explores the importance of character development in spiritual formation; Bill Miller looks at the nature of love as a ‘lived-out action’; Andrew Siedel examines our identity in Christ and its implications for Christian leadership; George Hillman describes God’s unique call on us as individuals (in service to the wider Christian community); Gail Seidel helps us attend to God’s transforming work in our lives by narrating our own life stories; finally Harry Shields explores the importance of preaching in spiritual formation.

Each of these essays are instructive and helpful for laying out a full-orbed vision of spiritual formation. I appreciated both the depth and the breadth of these essays. The authors delve deeply into the biblical foundations for community and spiritual formation. They also navigate theology, insights from contemporary psychology, and leadership literature. The multi-disciplinary approach models a ‘community approach to Spiritual formation’ even as the authors give pride of place to the concept of community in our formation. This means the authors (under Petitt’s editoral direction) practice what they preach.

The essays are fairly cohesive but the authors do not necessarily agree on every point. Howard Hendricks forward relativizes the importance of preaching in favor of small groups, whereas Harry Shields gives it a place of privilege. Yet the distinctions between each chapter also rounds out the picture of spiritual formation presented here. I recommend this book for seminary students and ministers hoping to grow spirutually and lead others in transformative encounters. This is a great resource. I give it four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book free from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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