Formation Occurs in Community
Over the last years that I have studied the disciplines of spiritual formation and served as a pastor of discipleship and Christian education, one of the common statements of belief that I’ve read as well as heard over and over is this:
“Discipleship (or spiritual formation) occurs best when people are in community.”
I’ve heard this phrase a number of different ways and the quote above is admittedly my own paraphrase, but the intent of it is accurate and I believe through experiential evidence that it is true… “Formation occurs in community.” All formation occurs in community not only Christian or spiritual formation; every person and every soul is being “formed” by the company they keep and the communities they are associated with. This type of formation occurs in us even when we are least aware of it; we are being formed and shaped by our communities both consciously and subconsciously.
I think one of the wonderful curiosities exhibited in human social behavior is the amount of conscious and subconscious peer pressure human beings have on one another. One of the most powerful examples that immediately comes to my mind is the old saying, “keeping up with the Joneses.” Other examples that are more personal in nature, but just as powerful are memories of how I have been formed in ways that I would not have naturally chosen and the community I was a part of made me into something I probably would not have been. Take for instance my years spent in the US Navy aboard a ship; I was in close community with a group of men from whom there was not much separation for long periods of time. The group that I hung out with had a specific music they listened to, a way of talking and joking with one another, and a few hobbies that were shared by a majority of the members in the community. By the end of almost three years of living with these guys I had adopted most of their mannerisms, grown to be a novice expert in several genres of music, and taken up the hobbies of photography and hi-fidelity audio equipment collecting. Also, my best friend aboard my ship was a fellow who passionately loved old Harley Davidson motorcycles and had a beautifully restored 40-something knucklehead. Although I have forgotten a lot of what he taught me, there was a time I was fairly conversational about the nuances of knucks, shovels, and pans, especially the post WWII years up to the AMF years models… and I never have been a bike rider or owner. Yep, formation occurs in community.
The communities that have born influence over me aren’t limited only to my military experience. I’ve been influenced by sports communities I have belonged to, both as player and as fan. Hobbies have come and gone in my life too, as my community of influence has changed because of season of life and geographical location. Another big influence in my life regarding how I have been shaped is employment. Places I’ve worked and the people I’ve worked with have been incredibly influential in my life. I think the primary reason can be similar to the circumstances experienced in my military years, we spend so much time together. I think work (employment) is probably the place most people spend the greatest amount of their time around the same people. The reality of this statement might be true even to the extent of amount of time you spend with your own family. In other words, you may be influenced by and influencing the people you work with more than your own family because you spend more time with them.
I challenge you to consider your own timeline of life and see if there are places and mile-markers you might recognize where you have been influenced, shaped, and formed by the community you have belonged. My youngest son tried to tell me that he was not easily influenced by community and he was his own person. I found it humorous that he would explain all this to me when most of what he wears has Aeropostle written on it. I brought this to his attention along with several other examples of formation that had occurred in him by forces outside of himself and after a brief moment of tension we had a nice belly laugh together as we mutually recognized how easy it is to be influenced by sources outside ourselves.
The point of this may or may not be obvious, but to my thinking it is fairly easy to conclude that where, how, and what I spend the most of my time doing is going to have the greatest impact on the shaping and formation of who I am. The more I think about it and the more I prayerfully meditate over it, the more I believe that everything affects our spiritual formation. Therefore, all formation is spiritual formation. The reality of this understanding is that some formation has adverse effects on our spiritual development and some aspects of our formation have positive influence developing our spiritual maturity. Formation occurs in community… the question to us is this; “What type of formation are we receiving from the communities that influence us the most?”
The knee-jerk response to this sort of dialogue usually ends up resulting in some discussion involving isolationism, but this is not the answer. As followers of Jesus, we are supposed to be the influencers of all communities. This is what is meant by being a “city on a hill” and “the light of the world.” Cutting ourselves off from some communities and cloistering ourselves in holy seclusion will not be helpful in advancing the kingdom of God. The answer exists in continuing to mix and belong to communities as God directs each and every one of our paths. The point to remember is that we are supposed to be the influencers in our communities… the yeast working its way through the dough of every community and/or the salt that brings flavor to all communities.
Salt has a tendency to lose its flavor and yeast loses its strength too and this is why it is necessary to spend quality time in the context of your faith communities praying for one another, encouraging one another, challenging one another to growth, and being reminded of the life-changing truth of God’s word through the testimonies of one another. After all, what good is salt if it loses its flavor? (Matthew 5:13) All formation occurs in community; what formation are you receiving and what influence are you to the formation of others in your communities?