A Spirituality of Graduate School: Mission and Formation

A slightly longer version of this post originally appeared in July 2015 as part of a series I began (but have yet to finish) on the Emerging Scholars’ Network Blog. You can see the original post here

Greg Thompson once said in my hearing, “Mission without spiritual formation and virtue is impossible. But spiritual formation without mission is solipsistic.”

I doubt I am alone in thinking that Greg’s comment has the ring of truth to it.

Surely, many of us must sense that there is something deeply wrong with, say, the person or the church that pushes spiritual disciplines, and liturgy, and the cultivation of virtue, but is allergic to overt evangelical witness and sees any attempt to persuade someone of the objective truth of the gospel as being somehow in bad taste. It’s not that their emphasis on spiritual formation is fine so far as it goes, and that they need only to add a little evangelism to their diets. It’s that their very emphasis on spiritual formation itself, separated from evangelical witness, has become warped, curved in on itself, making practitioners of such spiritual formation curved in on themselvesHomo incurvatus in se(“Humans curved in on themselves”), was how Martin Luther described humanity in the state of sin. Spiritual formation disconnected from witness becomes self-serving, narcissistic, merely therapeutic, and, in the end, unspiritual. 

Similarly, the person or church that is aflame with evangelistic zeal but lacks a corresponding zeal for the patient, painstaking task of cultivating Christian character will often wind up preaching either “cheap grace,” on the one hand, or a patently false gospel of instantaneous moral transformation (that is bound to lead to disillusionment, deception, or despair), on the other. Likewise, an evangelistically zealous person or church, if they do not take seriously the necessity of rigorously thinking through the implications of the gospel for their politics, their economics, their art, their culture, will wind up not only being shallow but also preaching a gospel of private spirituality and of a “god” who is, to borrow J.B. Phillips’s phrase, “too small.”

InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries identify as our core values 1) spiritual formation, 2) the integration of faith, learning and practice, 3) the development of authentic Christian community, and 4) evangelism and service (or, better, evangelism-cum-service). I joined GFM precisely because I share these core values and believe deeply that they are essential not only to our mission on campus but also to the mission of the Church as a whole in our emerging secular age. However, that being said, merely enumerating these core values as I have just done can leave one with the impression that they represent merely an ad hocselection of “stuff Christians like,” a sort of grab-bag of disparate theological or spiritual goods. If that were the case, then it would be quite possible to imagine that some GFM staff might be perfectly able to take some of these core values while leaving (or, at any rate, de-emphasizing) others, and still do justice to the values for which they have an affinity. (e.g., “I’m not so much an evangelism kind of person. Spiritual formation is more my thing.”)

But my sense is that these values are anything but ad hoc and separable. A deep, underlying logic binds them together such that you cannot do a disservice to one without undermining or warping the others. “Mission without spiritual formation and virtue is impossible. But spiritual formation without mission is solipsistic.” Each of these values, while distinct, must go together if they are to be authentically lived out at all.

Over my next few posts here I will try to examine some of the interconnections between our spiritual formation, the task of integrating our faith with all of life, our life together as the Body of Christ, and the mission of the Church. In order to see the interconnections between these values and tasks we will need to situate them within a broader theological framework, namely, within the Missio Dei, “the mission of God.” Here is where we’re going:

  • Missio Dei: The Context of Our Callings
  • Vocatio Christi: The Contours of Our Callings
  • Vocatio Christi: The Cost of Our Callings
  • Formatio: The Task of Our Callings
  • Communio Sanctorum: Our Common Calling

I hope you will read along and share your thoughts.

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