An interview with Steven Laufer, Senior Pastor of University Baptist Church in Clear Lake since 2013, regarding discipleship and spiritual formation.
Interview with Dian Kidd, UBA Associate Director
How would you describe spiritual formation to a pastor who is unfamiliar with the term?
Spiritual formation, to me, is just different terminology to speak about discipleship. As discipleship has recently become isolated to Bible study, or academic growth, new terminology gives churches an opportunity to revisit and re-communicate discipleship in a more holistic manner, one which includes spiritual disciplines, worship, Kingdom service, and one’s personal communion with God. “Holistic discipleship” may be somewhat redundant, but it does address the need to “make disciples” instead of just teach the Bible. So I think of spiritual formation as “holistic discipleship.” A couple of other key traits in how spiritual formation is practiced with many current tools involve the use of small, spiritual formation groups where members strive to aid in one another’s spiritual growth, and the practice of spiritual exercises designed to develop and strengthen one’s spiritual disciplines.
How did the journey of spiritual formation begin at University Baptist Church?
One of our associate pastors became familiar with spiritual formation tools published by the Renovaré group and felt like they addressed a gap in the way we as a church were challenging people to grow spiritually. We recognize the possibility that church members can study for mere academia, can worship in a way that simply fulfills a checklist requirement, and can serve out of social justice concern, but in none of them be growing in their intimacy with God. Our goal has been to make sure all of these areas are connected to the goal of individual and corporate spiritual growth.
What obstacles have you faced along the way? Questions asked? False assumptions? Individual resistance?
One major obstacle we faced was the equating spiritual formation with the Renovaré ministry group, along with some of the negative web-based dialogue aimed at Renovaré and some of their key leaders. A second, though related, obstacle was the hesitancy of some people to embrace an admittedly ecumenical ministry tool.
What kinds of things have been helpful in overcoming the obstacles?
In response to these obstacles we have simply worked to educate our church that spiritual formation is the process, and Renovaré is one tool among many available. They are not one and the same. In other words, a church could engage in spiritual formation as it is currently defined without using Renovare tools or resources.
A second task was helping our members know what voices, both online and in our religious community, are trustworthy and worth their giving an uncritical hearing. Particularly regarding Renovaré, the online accusations regarding “Christian mysticism” and “ecumenical partnering” are widespread.
As to the first, we do not find the accusation to be true. As to the second, we find it to be true, but do not find it to be problematic. This last point, helping our church recognize its unique identity while being able to partner with other Christian churches for ministry and spiritual growth, has also been a key component of this process for us.
What is the general structure in which spiritual formation happens within the congregation?
In each of the last two Spring seasons we have encouraged all of our weekly small groups to participate in an 8-12 week spiritual formation study. Some groups have elected to do more during the year, others are content to do just one a year.
In addition, we offer an organized gathering of spiritual formation groups that meet on Sunday evenings for those who are not a part of our group system, or whose group does not participate in the other spiritual formation seasons.
What markers of progress in the area of spiritual formation have you seen in the congregation?
As we are learning, different personalities lead people to both feel close to God and to grow in their faith in different ways. For some members, long time Christians, the process has moved them from a lengthy apathy to a new season of spiritual growth, in some cases for the first time in their Christian life.
In other cases, the more contemplative approach advocated by Renovaré has not made quite the connection, but it has raised awareness for those believers toward a broader perspective of discipleship, and is challenging them to experience and express their faith in new ways.
What do you hope to see in the congregation in the future?
The main thing we hope to see is continued growth in the number of people taking responsibility for their own personal spiritual growth. We desperately want to be past the point where a majority of Christians feel like a lengthy period of stasis is an acceptable place to be in our movement toward Christlikeness.
How have the practices of spiritual formation impacted you personally?
Having a preference for the academic side of reading and study, the accountability to read also from the contemplative, or devotional, side of our Christian literature and heritage is a healthy component for me. And the process of doing so keeps my academic reading always with an eye toward my own spiritual growth and practice.
What would you say to a pastor to encourage them to bring their congregation to the Renovaré experience next April?
The Renovaré conference in April has the potential to completely transform the spiritual lives of some of the more “stale-grown” Christians in our congregations. And for all attendees it promises to challenge them to move ever forward in their spiritual development, and equip them to enable and encourage others to do the same.
Different personalities may take different things away from the experience, but everyone will be enriched through their presence.
"The Renovare conference in April has the potential to completely transform the spiritual lives of some of the more “stale-grown” Christians in our congregations."
Steven Laufer, Senior Pastor
University Baptist Church
First Presbyterian Church