As many of you know, I started seminary at Liberty University this past semester. I’ve shared bits and pieces of major takeaways on the blog’s social media platforms, but the bulk of the learning has really been shared in the local church ministry setting. Today, though, I’m sharing an assignment with you. Actually, as I type this, I’m doing the assignment.
The assignment? To write a blog!
The class? Research, Writing, and Ministry Preparation (or, as my schedule shows, RTCH-500).
Every student in the same degree path is required to take this class within their first two semesters…and here we are!
Part of the class focuses on Hermeneutics (fancy word for studying the Bible). Another part of the class focuses on presenting information in the Turabian Style (like APA or MLA but on steroids….and yes, it’s as invigorating as it sounds). Then, a final part of the class brings me to this assignment: spiritual formation. Yes, spiritual formation can still happen even though I attend remotely!
I know, there are naysayers who don’t believe that true spiritual formation can happen in virtual settings, but then again, that’s probably not you since you’re the one reading a Christian blog right now 😊 The book we used, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age, puts a lot of those objections to rest, or at least gives them a run for their money. It is well worth the read if that’s something you’re into.
Who doesn’t love killing two birds with one stone?! (Apologies to my animal rights activist friends, it’s the best phrase I have at the moment, but I’m happy to be more inclusive…or exclusive as it were…if you have a suggestion you know how to find me). #worksmarternotharder
OK, so back to this book and the assignment.
We were asked to reflect on what we read (students are still being asked to do that, apparently) and share two main takeaways that we want to bring along with us on our walk into ministry. I actually think that my selections can have broader implications than just to the seminarian or pastor so I’m hoping that you can glean something worthwhile as well. I’ve always said here that I won’t ever share guidance that I wouldn’t or didn’t actually follow myself so you can be rest assured that any takeaways will be incredibly practical.
A Perspective Shift
The first takeaway is more of a perspective shift than something which ought to be carried out. That said, I think this shift can greatly inform future actions. Also, I’ll note that the general sentiment is not new to us, but the authors present it is such a way that I have a new appreciation for how we fit into God’s plan. Here’s what they have to say:
As far as Scripture is concerned, growth is growth…God did not establish two separate laws of growth—one governing flowers and trees and another governing the Kingdom and the church. Growth in nature and growth in the Kingdom, the church, and the Christian partake of essentially/virtually identical patterns that require ecological connections and reciprocal interactions expressed as nutrient exchanges. In nature, the connections and exchanges are organic, while in the Kingdom and church, they are spiritual. In nature, the exchanges involve physical nutrients (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc.) In the church and Kingdom they involve spiritual nutrients (milk and meat of the Word) exchange through interactions with one another.Lowe & Lowe, Foundations of Faith in a Digital Age
If we keep this general framework in mind, we can apply what we know about growth to any of the organic metaphors in Scripture (i.e., I am the True Vine John 15:1, Body of Christ 1 Corinthians 12:27, etc.), which I think is probably what most of us have tried to do for an extent. After all, we understand the idea that a metaphor is meant to refer to something else so we glean what we can from the imagery provided. Here, the authors explain how the growth metaphors work.
Taking it one step further, I think it’s not only important to understand individual spiritual growth and corporate spiritual growth, but also how the two should be necessarily reciprocal to one another. There should mutual benefit whereby one strengths the other, so that neither is one always sucking the life out of the other nor is one always a consumer.
No. This won’t do.
Think of your best friend. Not the one that always only texts when there’s drama. Not the one you have to mentally prepare yourself to have a latte with. The friend that you are happy to be around. The one who is equally excited to see you. The one who you exchange gifts with just because. That’s what our relationship to the church should be like and vice versa. Here’s how the author describes it with, you guessed it, another metaphor:
Psalm 1:1-3 draws a comparison between the ecology of trees and the righteous person–who like the tree is “planted by streams of water” and “yields its fruit in its season”. Trees do not grow alone; they grow as they connect to and interact with a greater ecology that provides part of the nourishment and nutrients needed to sustain life and produce growth. The tree also contributes to the ecology in which it lives by adding nutrients to the soil and atmosphere and by hosting birds who will build their nests in its limbs.
All of this the psalmist understands, not only about the ecology of trees but the ecology of the righteous person who does not flourish alone but as he or she is planted within a defined ecology. Righteous people avoid the detrimental social ecology described in Psalm 1:1— “council of the wicked,” “path of sinners,” “the seat of scoffers” — and places themselves within the beneficial ecology of the law of God and of God’s people who follow that law…
The flourishing trees and the righteous give evidence of health and vitality through observable indicators that confirm growth while also confirming the viability of the natural or spiritual ecosystem that produced them.Lowe & Lowe, Foundations of Faith in a Digital Age
Isn’t that incredible?! I don’t know why I never thought of our life in the church in such a way before, have you? In some sense, my analogy to your best friend was flawed; it still focused on individual-to-individual relationships. Here, we see how we are part of something bigger, something more lifegiving while we also serve to give life to it. Kinda like how Penn State alum are all part of a massive group of people who bleed blue and wear white to a football game once a year…but not.
So that’s the perspective I’m taking away from this class. It’s much more wholistic than what I had going on in my brain prior to seminary.
Now, and much more briefly, here’s an action step as my second takeaway:
I am intentionally going to work toward keeping human interactions human.
Sounds easy, enough, right?
How many hand-written letters did you write last month? Year?
When was the last time you didn’t text your sister when you wanted to tell them something?
Technology is AMAZING and a timesaver in soooo many ways, but if we rely just on technology then we are missing something. Perhaps facetime works best instead of coffee dates because of busy mom lives. That works for a season, but don’t allow that to be diluted even more to only emoji-filled texts.
Believe me, this message is for me more than anyone. I would rather do almost anything at all then pick up the phone, but human interactions are necessary. As the authors mentioned, “technology alone cannot maintain human relationships and should not attempt to replace them.” So what does this mean for me, personally?
If I’m shepherding a group of leaders at church then I need to be intentional about connecting with each of them individually outside of a group chat. If I’m hosting an online study, I need to create opportunities for interaction: interaction with me, with the content and between the participants themselves. I need to connect with the participants outside of the zoom, even if its just another zoom.
But, maybe your connections look differently. Maybe they look more like mine when my ministry hat is swapped for my mom hat.
Maybe you’re consistently opting for grocery delivery orders (guilty!) as opposed to getting out and have an opportunity to interact with, extend grace to, or bless someone.
Or, maybe you stick to streaming home workouts, but never interact with other health-minded adults irl. I’d say I’m guilty of that one, too, but tbh, I don’t work out at all and, at the moment, I don’t seem to have a shortage of health-minded friends…but you get the idea.
Technology is great, but in moderation.
Now, to wrap up today’s blog I’m going to leave some advice for a future seminary student. Yes, this is also part of the assignment, just bear with me and don’t despair! This tidbit will serve all of us well, whether we are pursuing higher education in ministry or not. My advice is borrowed from another book we used in class: Surviving and Thriving in Seminary. It’s straightforward, life-altering, life-giving, and usually easier said than done. Ready for it?
Spend time with God.
I just wrapped up the entire Simply Still Series so I won’t revisit everything we reviewed over the last few weeks, but think about it: how much time do we really spend with God. Not for God. Not learning about. Just with.
John 15:1-5 teaches us how Jesus is the true vine, and we are to abide in Him. We can actually apply the brief growth teaching from before to this metaphor as well. How does one abide? One is consistently with. Vine branches don’t just pick and choose when they get to be on the vine. They are in a constant state of mutual benefit with the vine itself.
How can we remain in Him if we don’t spend time with Him?
In His Presence?
In His Glory?
Praising Him for His work on the cross? For the mercy He shows us, not because we are worthy but because He is?
While we can certainly present petitions, sorrows, and thanks to our King (and we should!), there is also something to be said about just being with Him. Not asking for a single thing; just being an open vessel to receive whatever the Holy Spirit wants to reveal to us, as opposed to coming forth with a pre-populated agenda.
Friends, if the idea of meeting God with a blank slate is scary to you, try just starting with 5-minute intervals. Also, check out an earlier series on Meditating Biblically. There’s a lot of suggestions there for those who desire to plunge into more intimate times with God. If you’re not there yet, that’s OK. Take what you can and leave the rest.
Well, friends, if you’ve stuck with me this long I appreciate you coming along for the ride of this assignment! As some of you know, I went to Asbury this week so I’m praying through what to share from that experience. It’s a lot to digest, but I’m sure you’ll be hearing about bits and pieces of it in my next few posts!
All my love,
 Stephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 42.
 Ibid., 29-30.
 Ibid., 91.
 H. Daniel Zacharias and Benjamin K. Forrest, Surviving and Thriving in Seminary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017), 42.