"God has designed you to be connected to him, the levels of intimacy increasing through the years. Don’t allow increasing ministry to decrease your intimacy, and don’t let your service exceed your worship.” But how do we increase our life of worship? What does it look like as a youth pastor to keep your heart amidst the chaos of ministry life? I believe that better understanding spiritual formation will point us more clearly toward this abundant life Jesus is calling us into.
“Spiritual formation” is often a vague term, and needs to be clarified. My favorite working definition is from JK Jones, the spiritual formation pastor here at Eastview Christian Church where I serve as the student ministry pastor. “Spiritual formation is the process where God the Holy Spirit takes the initiative, through various means, in cooperation with our response, and changes us to look like Jesus, in order to serve others, to the glory of God.” I love the flow of JK’s definition because it describes wonderfully that this adventure begins with God, continues through our cooperation with the work of the Spirit, and eventually leads us to be more like Jesus. God is the great pursuer and the sustainer of our life of worship! All we do in cooperation is a response to his love.
If we’re to keep our hearts in ministry, we must embrace the truth that spiritual formation is a communal reality. We respond to God’s love personally, but nothing we do on this journey should be private. As Bonhoeffer wrote in his book “Life Together,” “We are members of a body, not only when we choose to be, but in our whole existence.” On the inside of my wedding ring the words “better together” are engraved next to the date of our wedding. We kissed and did our exit walk in our wedding to Jack Johnson’s song “Better Together.” He so truthfully sings, “At least for most of the questions in my heart, like why are we here? And where do we go? And how come it's so hard? It's not always easy and sometimes life can be deceiving. I'll tell you one thing, it's always better when we're together.” Being an apprentice of Jesus is hard, and there will be many questions along this long road of obedience, but it truly is always better when we’re together. Find other men or women in the trenches of ministry to pour your heart out to, make sure you’re plugged into a small group of people who view you more as a friend than a pastor, and never settle for less than what God has for you in your marriage.
The question isn’t, 'Are people being formed?'
The question is, 'What are people being formed into?'
Spiritual formation is an inevitable reality for all of us. The question isn’t, “Are people being formed?” The question is, “What are people being formed into?” What part do people play in the formation of themselves? Proverbs 4:23 states, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flows the springs of life.” Vigilance is such a strong noun. It carries with it the idea of paying close and continuous attention. In ministry it’s easy to lose heart and become a shallow well from which we as servant leaders draw our energy, wisdom, and life.
What does this self-care look like? Charles Spurgeon calls this “the minister’s self-watch.” He explains in his “Lectures to My Students” that ministers are all tools being used by God for a variety of purposes, and it’s their job to keep themselves sharp and in order. Spurgeon writes about a great letter from the Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who is writing to a minister friend about how to guard the heart as he learns German and how to minister well:
“I know you will apply hard to German, but do not forget the culture of the inner man—I mean of the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his saber clean and sharp; every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember you are God’s sword, his instrument—according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
Spiritual formation is all about learning how to better take care of the culture of our inner person, our hearts. God desires to transform us as we continually turn to the Lord. The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” This is hitting at the heart of spiritual formation! We have the freedom in Christ to cooperate with the Spirit’s various ways to transform us into the likeness of Jesus, in order to serve others, to the glory of God.
We must be continual learners in how we can better watch over and cooperate with our formation and the formation of others. Too often, as a servant leader and as a minister of the gospel, I’ve found myself tired, worn-out, and burned-out on religion and ministry. I don’t want to lose the integrity of my heart as I pour myself out, and I realize that this is done with extreme intentionality in responding to God’s grace.
In America, where the culture is filled with disposable relationships and pastors who are constantly leaving their post for the next “big” thing, I want to be an exception with longevity and I know this doesn’t happen by chance. Do you?
Matt Fogle is a guest columnist for Christ In Youth. He has served in student ministry since 2012 for Eastview Church in Normal, Illinois.