The ingredients for building a healthy corporate spiritual life through spiritual formation are simple and produce life-changing results.
By Coleman M. Ford, Ph.D.
I don’t particularly enjoy the act of baking, but I certainly enjoy eating what has been baked. Growing up, my mom made a delicious Texas sheet cake. It was regularly featured at birthdays, holidays, and just about every other time a cake was called for. It is simple, rich, and delicious. The ingredients for making the cake are basic. The process is almost fool-proof. And the result is something as close to food-heaven as one can get this side of eternity.
Often the best and most life-giving things are also the simplest ones. Like a good Texas sheet cake, the ingredients for building a healthy corporate spiritual life are simple and produce life-changing results.
What is corporate spiritual formation?
Corporate spiritual formation is the cultivated environment and intentional acts of the church, founded on the Word of God, that the Spirit of God uses to shape the people of God. Corporate formation includes the basic elements of worship through song, preaching, sacraments or ordinances, and several other practices and postures focused on the redemptive work of God.
When Christians show up to church on Sunday, they are entering into the act of formation with other believers. Christians weekly re-pledge their allegiance to God and re-commit themselves to one another and the work of Christ’s kingdom. So, what “ingredients” create a vibrant environment for spiritual formation?
1. The Word through speech
Corporate formation begins with a dedication to greeting one another, sharing God’s grace with Word-centered encouragement. Paul encouraged the church in Rome to “pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another” (Romans 14:19, CSB). Being for another’s good begins with building up others and greeting one another in the name of Christ. We are to “welcome one another, just as Christ also welcomed you, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7, CSB). Welcoming others, therefore, is one of the most theological things we can do on a Sunday morning."Corporate worship, whatever the mode, is intended to bring great comfort and godly conviction." — @colemanford Click To Tweet
Our speech in corporate formation also includes numerous opportunities for the Word to “dwell richly among [us]” (Colossians 3:16, CSB). Spiritual formation prioritizes the Word in every vista and venue of corporate life. From our call to worship to confession to closing announcements, the Word of God should permeate everything we do.
Paul’s instruction to Timothy must be taken with the utmost seriousness: “[Give] your attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13, CSB). Those dedicated to corporate formation should always err on the side of more Scripture in worship, not less.
2. The Word through song
Corporate worship, whatever the mode, is intended to bring great comfort and godly conviction. Whether backed by a guitar riff or an alto voice, corporate formation includes reminding each other of the gospel message through song.
Paul records two of the earliest hymns of the church in Colossians 1:15–20 and Philippians 2:5–11. These works contained the entire gospel story in hymn form. Telling of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, our songs must allow disciples to sing and confess the entire narrative of God’s Word.
Corporate formation includes singing about our struggles and God’s abiding love. We sing out with the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1, CSB). The best corporate worship weaves the thread of the gospel throughout. Prioritize the Word in worship and you will have disciples who prioritize the Word in their hearts."Prioritize the Word in worship and you will have disciples who prioritize the Word in their hearts." — @colemanford Click To Tweet
3. The Word through sermon
Since the Reformation, the regular exposition of God’s Word has been central in Protestant worship. Faithful preaching of the Word is built upon, and feeds into, other corporate practices. Paul tells Timothy unequivocally: “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2, CSB). This act of preaching and teaching includes correction, rebuke, as well as encouragement “with great patience.”
If our sermons are nothing but correction or rebuke, they can lead to abuse and manipulation. If they are nothing but encouragement, they can lead to excusing sin or inciting indifference toward holiness. The best preachers consider the people in front of them and apply the timeless truth of God’s Word to timely situations in our world.
Corporate formation also includes preaching that is faithful to the gospel and core doctrines of the Christian faith. This means all preaching, whether in Proverbs or in Philippians, needs to highlight the gospel message. The arc of Scripture bends toward the person and work of Jesus Christ. We also don’t jettison theology in preaching. We must recognize that Scripture and theology are partners. Faithful preaching of the text maintains, rather than disdains, Christian doctrine.
4. The Word through sacrament
Let me explain my use of the word “sacrament.” This is a loaded term and contains a lot of baggage for Protestant Evangelicals. I certainly do not want to present a stumbling block to you. If this word hangs you up, the word “ordinance” is just as sound and faithful to Scripture. Historically, however, Protestants have been comfortable with the word “sacrament” so long as it did not equate to earning salvation and was limited to two specific acts empowered by the words of Christ: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Corporate formation means taking the practice of the Lord’s Supper seriously. Paul’s admonishment and instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17–32 assume an intentional practice of it. The Lord’s Supper is one of the defining marks of our unity in Christ where there is no longer “Jew or Greek, slave or free, [or] male and female” (Galatians 3:28, CSB). Paul states elsewhere, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26, CSB). We affirm our bond with each other and the promises of the gospel. Thus, it is to our detriment when we neglect the Lord’s Supper.
Baptism is even more foundational. Entrance to the table of Christ presumes a baptism into the life of Christ. We enter the family of God through the door of baptism. We celebrate baptism and take its implications seriously. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are essential means of grace for corporate formation, which in turn impact our personal formation. Both sacraments point to the abiding presence of Christ in the church and His members.
5. The Word through service
Jesus made clear he “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28, CSB). Corporate formation recognizes the love of Christ is the foundation of service (Galatians 5:13). A heart of service also leads the church to identify and cultivate the gifts of its people. Peter tells the church, “Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve others, as good stewards of the varied grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10, CSB). When people are encouraged to use the gifts God has given them in the local church, marvelous things happen."When people are encouraged to use the gifts God has given them in the local church, marvelous things happen." — @colemanford Click To Tweet
Too many Christians feel deficient or unusable because we have not been encouraged to see our gifts as vital and necessary for God’s kingdom. The Holy Spirit thinks otherwise. Paul explains: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that are weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:21–22, CSB). The church fails when we prioritize one gift to the neglect of the others.
As ministry leaders, we are called to lead by serving. We model through humility. The best leaders equip others to serve and help them see their contribution as valuable for God’s kingdom and the good of others. A serving church, with serving leaders, is a church filled with grace that spills out into their everyday lives.
6. The Word through sacrifice
Corporately we need to be attuned to the needs of others to the point we will sacrifice as needed for the good of the other. Paul encourages the church to submit to one another out of fear and reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). Corporate spiritual formation recognizes that without the community, we have little context to live sacrificially.
Paul exhorts the church: “Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, CSB). We are called into a “burden-bearing” life in the church to mirror Christ’s love. When we commit to living sacrificially, we put ourselves on the pathway of God’s grace and provision.
7. The Word through study
Studies continue to show Americans are unfamiliar with the Bible, and churchgoers fare only slightly better. Jen Wilkin hits the biblical literacy nail on the head: “Because we do not know our Bibles, we crumble at the most basic challenges to our worldview.” Nothing can replace a direct engagement with God’s Word."Christian formation demands we take equipping the saints to understand God’s Word seriously." — @colemanford Click To Tweet
While a biblically-sound and doctrinally-astute sermon is key, we need environments to explore God’s Word in more detail. To equip saints for biblical literacy, specific structures should be in place to ensure these tasks are accomplished. Christian formation demands we take equipping the saints to understand God’s Word seriously. The study of God’s Word is a means of grace because it leads us closer to the God of grace and love.
The promise of spiritual formation
Like a Texas sheet cake, simple ingredients produce fantastic results. Your church may have a long way to go for healthy spiritual formation to take place, but mixing in these ingredients slowly and carefully will help. Thankfully, we have a perfect Savior who is perfecting His people by His Spirit through the work of His imperfect church. Only in glory will we see the fullness of what God is doing through us and in the church.
The writer of Hebrews gives us this encouragement, “Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:23-25, CSB).
For permission to republish this article, please email Marissa Postell Sullivan.
This article is adapted from portions of “Formed in His Image: A Guide to Christian Formation” (B&H Books, 2023).