Hopeful Church

Don’t Just Inform … Form

Are we stuck in informational churches?

by N. Graham Standish 


“Yes! This is what’s missing in the church. This is what I’ve been seeking.”

It was my first year of doctoral studies in spirituality. I was immersed in the spiritual classics course, a three-semester deep dive into the writings of Christian spiritual masters throughout history.

Their insights were transformative, opening me to insights into the Christian life I hadn’t found in my seminary studies. What truly transformed my thinking was Thomas Kelly’s book, A Testament of Devotion. It opened up a whole new way of understanding the spiritual lifeBut it wasn’t just the book that impacted me. It was how we read it. I already knew how to read books in a typical, academic way — with an eye toward grasping the information. We read Kelly’s book differently. We read it formatively.

Formation vs. information

We’ve all been trained to read informatively. Years of schooling have drilled us to read relatively quickly in order to get the information into us so we can regurgitate it on an exam or in a paper. Years of reading news and gossip has similarly trained us to read quickly and informatively.

Formative reading (also called spiritual reading) is different. It’s intentionally slow, prayerful and reflective, allowing what we read to deeply shape our lives (for a free, downloadable resource on formative/spiritual reading and how to create small groups based on spiritual reading, go to www.ngrahamstandish.org).

Kelly’s book formed me. His emphasis on God’s presence within, of God’s grace working around us everywhere, and of God actively creating a blessed, grace-filled core in every church captured my imagination. The practice of formative reading also helped me realize that our churches had become informative rather than formative. It gave me insight into why so many people have walked away from Christianity: they want spiritual formation, not just religious information.

Formative vs. informative churches

How has mainline Christianity become informative? We’ve emphasized teaching theological information about Christian beliefs in our classes and sermons. We teach the context and history around a passage. We tell people what the biblical characters did and said and taught. We give people religious facts and history. All of this is important stuff, but this information by itself won’t deeply form people’s lives. It offers good information about God and life, rather than formation that connects us with God and helps us live deeply loving lives.

Learning to read formatively taught me how to pastor formatively. It taught me that everything we do in a church has the power to shape and form people spiritually. Everything from preaching to teaching to meetings to ministry to mission can nurture a deeper spiritual life that leads to a deeper life of service. It helped me realize that ministry and mission flow out of the spiritual life as spiritually mature Christians naturally become more ministry- and mission-minded.

How to create formative churches

What are examples of a more formative approach? One example is committee meetings. Generally, churches view committee meetings as a necessary evil. When we approach them formatively, though, they can become a primary way people can learn to pray and discern together while forming deeper relationships. In my previous church we used meeting times as mini-small groups to teach people how to listen for God together (resources can be found at www.ngrahamstandish.org).

Another example is preaching. I make sure in my sermons that I pragmatically teach people how to become awake and aware to God in every present moment, and how to hear and respond to God’ calling us to serve.

In teaching, I focus on what will help people form a deeper relationship with God that leads to deeper lives. Often, when leading conferences and talking about a more formative approach, I’ll ask pastors and others what they would include in a class on Jesus. They say they would talk about Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. They’d talk about where he went, what he did, and share the parables he taught. That’s all good information. But it’s still an informational approach. I’ll then ask them what a Pentecostal might teach. Usually, they respond with, “How to experience Christ in their lives.” That’s the difference in a nutshell. Informational teaching gives us a history. Formational teaching helps us become part of the ongoing story. Formative teaching still uses information, but in a way that serves formation.

To be formative means to be deeply spiritual, but even more it addresses the complaints of so many who’ve walked away from church, which is that we’ve become religious and not spiritual. They’re seeking formation. They’re seeking churches that can more deeply shape their lives, helping them live in meaningful and purposeful ways. As Presbyterians we’ve been part of a tradition that’s become increasingly informative.My experience is that as we become more spiritually formative, we discover people who become interested in discovering us.

The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program. He is the author of seven books on spirituality and congregational transformation.