Adult Spiritual Formation in the Parish: NCD Insights

Article posted: 23 Sep 2010

By Ralph G. Bowles, NCD Project Officer, PMC

"Discipleship is a lifelong calling to reach our full potential in Jesus Christ." (George Barna)

The healthy growth of a church is very dependent on the spirituality of its members – specifically on the balanced quality and the enthusiasm of the members for their faith. Natural Church Development research has identified a range of factors that contribute to the kind of spirituality that is correlated to growth potential of churches, as well as delivering high levels of satisfaction and inspiration.

"Passionate Spirituality" (NCD) is about the processes of building up Christians to maturity in Christ (Col. 1:28). In this area of church life we are dealing with the foundation of everything – how our churches "form" and nurture the faith of the members. Other characteristics identified by NCD as vital for the health of churches give us clues to how church members can be assisted to grow spiritually.

The NCD research has shown that there are 8 quality characteristics that need to be balanced and strong for a church to be healthy and have good growth potential. These are the factors that will be important for forming church members.

Personal Spirituality

1. The Bible

The Bible is fundamental to the formation of Christians. Church members need to be introduced to the reading and application of the Bible as God's Word for their lives. It is the sacred tradition that the church has received and passed on (1 Cor. 15:1-11). It is the Story that encompasses our individual stories. Tom Wright says: "The New Testament understands itself as the new covenant charter, the book that forms the basis for the new telling of the story through which Christians are formed."

Helping church members to know the Bible, to read it and study it, to shape their lives by its message – these are not optional issues for our ministry. This is not an elective in church life; it is a core skill for Christian discipleship.

2. Prayer

The first disciples asked Jesus Christ: "Lord, teach us to pray." (Luke 11:1). By praying with one another and for one another we will teach church members to pray. By instruction and example, we must help Christians to connect with God through prayer "in the Spirit".

A rich, growing experience of prayer-fellowship with God is the pathway to spiritual growth.

3. Experiences of God

We want to help church members to put their faith to work in applications in daily life. The connecting of Christian faith and the teaching of the Bible with the decisions of

everyday life is very important. This is the dimension of obedience to God's commands. We are to shape our lives by repentance and obedience to our living Lord.

There will also be experiences of connection with God. The Christian life is a relationship with God so we will be open to receiving answers to God or a sense of God's presence and guidance. The nine Styles identified in NCD research remind us that church members have different ways of connecting with God's reality. 1

We need to help believers to reflect on their experiences of life and to meet situations with faith (2 Cor. 1:8-11). Personal spiritual disciplines of self-examination, living by faith in God and looking for God to hear our prayers will all open up this dimension of experiencing God.

Church Community

4. Fellowship

We grow in our discipleship when we learn from others and share with others the journey of spiritual development. Small groups or some similar form of Christian sharing and friendship in spiritual matters will be very powerful for spiritual formation. In closer sharing of small fellowship groups, we are influenced by other people with different gifts.

A church that is serious about spiritual formation of adults will create a network of small groups for helping people grow spiritually in study, prayer, love and service.

Sharing the spiritual journey and being close to others in the church in a community of loving relationships will be very important to our maturing.

Worshipping together too is an established and important part of our church life. This is the public ministry of a worshipping congregation. Being part of the gathered church is essential to spiritual growth.

5. Service

Discovering and using one's spiritual gifts in service to God for others in the church or the world is vital to a fruitful Christian growth. Again, this is not an optional extra or elective. It should be a priority for our churches to help all their members to identify their particular gifts and place in God's service.

6. Mission

We want to train soldiers, not feed consumers at church. Our goal must be to encourage church members to be part of the mission of the church – in service to the needs of the community and in outreach with the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. People will

find different ways of being involved in the mission of the church, but every Christian must learn that being on mission with God is part of the normal Christian life.

7. Support and Direction

To help church members grow in their spiritual lives, the leaders of the church mustr offer them examples and models to follow. Will they see our commitment to prayer, to evangelism, to the Bible's message and usefulness, when they look at us?

Leaders also must be supportive and helpful in giving explanations, guidance, encouragement, challenges and direction to church members. The important roles of modeling and relationship are vital. How can we personally mentor and develop church members on their individual journey with Christ? What system will we use to make mentoring for spiritual growth (spiritual direction) a basic part of church life – and not an optional extra for the keen members?

Putting these essential factors in spiritual formation together, they point to Christian Small Groups as the best vehicle for working on this goal. We will certainly need an integrated approach to this discipling or spiritual formation goal. It will shape our preaching, our pastoral care, our programs for children and youth and many aspects of church life. But the most useful and workable strategy for the goal of formation may be the Small Groups method.

Small Groups for Spiritual Formation

In a good, balanced Christian Small group, members can learn about the Bible and explore its application to life.

There are opportunities for prayer and sharing experiences of life and of God. Spiritual gifts can be discovered and often used in the context of the group.

There is care and mentoring through good leadership and a supportive and challenging group.

Through the small group, new leaders can be trained and mentored. The members of the church can be closer to the leaders on a better ratio.

Leaders and fellow members can model Christian examples.

The individual needs of members can be more easily discerned and addressed. Members can get an experience of team-work in mission, when the group becomes involved in supporting a service or mission activity.

A Small Groups System

Intentional discipling or spiritual formation will require a good small groups system, with trained leaders and a team-approach. The Small Group leaders will have an important responsibility, so it is vital that they work together under the pastoral leadership of the church. They will need support and regular accountability through team meetings.

To undertake an intentional program of Spiritual Formation through Small Groups will require a two level or stage of small groups:

  1. The Entry Level or Formation stage: the Small Group will take people through basic areas of discipleship development (listed above). There are many good available materials to cover the essential areas.
  2. The General Level of Small Groups: for people who have covered or completed the discipleship stage and topics.

Footnote 1: C.Schwarz, The 3 Colors of Your Spirituality.