Tired of a surface-y Christianity?
Dive into the deeper waters of spiritual formation.
By Dieter Zander
There was a time when everyone knew what the word discipleship meant—studying the Bible, praying, and learning the doctrines of Christian faith. But the church’s understanding and language of discipleship are changing. Today we are hearing the new language of “spiritual formation” everywhere. But this new language can cause confusion. What is spiritual formation, and how do we do it?
As I have investigated these things, I’ve discovered that spiritual formation isn’t as new and mysterious as I had thought. In fact, there are examples of formation everywhere we look, and many simple ways of understanding how spiritual formation takes place. Dallas Willard has compared the process of spiritual formation to that of learning a foreign language. I have found another metaphor most helpful.
Stuart Cove is one of the world’s premier scuba diving instructors. His dive shop in the Bahamas has certified more than 10,000 people over the past 25 years. From observing Stuart, and his team of divemasters, I discovered that the scuba certification process parallels the experience of Christian spiritual formation. If, like me, the new understanding of discipleship that is emerging has intrigued you, I hope this exploration of scuba diving and spiritual formation brings you new clarity.
In our world there is widespread longing for a spiritual life. People are eager to hear about others’ spiritual discoveries and experiences. Some try “snorkeling” in various forms of spirituality, even Christianity, but they never get beyond the surface—they are left with a longing for more.
Jesus of Nazareth comes to spiritual “snorkelers” with a simple invitation, the same one he proclaimed 2,000 years ago: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news. Come to me, and I will teach you how to live life to the fullest in my Father’s kingdom.” Jesus is the Divemaster who teaches us how to go beyond the surface to experience the full reality of life in God’s kingdom.
In scuba certification, Stuart Cove teaches truths about atmospheric pressure, the effect of breathing compressed air at different depths, indicators of dangers under the water, etc. His students must believe this information and remember it if they hope to enjoy, and survive, the diving experience.
Like learning to scuba dive, learning to live in the kingdom of God requires students of Jesus to master basic information. The Scriptures, and particularly the teachings of Christ, give us the vital truths that we must believe and remember in order to enjoy, and survive, the spiritual life. But, possessing knowledge from the Scriptures alone does not result in experiencing the kingdom of God, just as grasping scuba theory does not qualify a person to dive. Most scuba instruction occurs in the water. To learn how to live in God’s kingdom we must also be willing to get wet.
Only when students enter the water do they discover that Stuart, the divemaster, has real knowledge and experience about diving. He demonstrates how to breathe through the regulator and clear the mask when it fills with water—which it surely will. He demonstrates how to communicate under water, and how to handle emergencies. He demonstrates all that will be necessary in order to live under the water. Stuart’s teaching process requires students to then imitate him—to do the same thing he did, just as he did it.
Like the divemaster, Jesus’ instruction also begins with demonstration. His life shows us how to exist in the kingdom of God. He demonstrates how to be obedient, faithful, humble, and submissive. He shows us how to access the power of God and bring it to bear on the afflictions of the people around us.
After Jesus demonstrates some aspect of kingdom living, we are invited to imitate him, to do the same thing he did, just as he did it, in the context of our own lives. This is where spiritual formation often differs from previous methods of discipleship. Spiritual formation equips us to do what Jesus did through practice and discipline—not simply the learning of truth.
Although Jesus, the Lifemaster, easily demonstrated skills such as loving an enemy, not being anxious, or speaking the truth, for us these new skills may seem unnatural and awkward. But with practice under the watchful eye of the Master we can learn to perform the skill just as he did.
After receiving certification and enjoying life under water for the first time, new scuba divers soon discover that there is more to learn. There is specialized information and instruction for deep water diving, fresh water diving, high altitude diving, and wreck diving. Some people never progress beyond basic scuba certification, but once they experience the beauty of the underwater world, many are compelled to keep learning and explore even deeper. To continue this learning they must stay connected with a divemaster.
This is how living in the kingdom of God works as well. Once we’ve begun to learn how to live in the kingdom we quickly discover that there is so much more to learn. And we realize that our unique gifts and calling may require very specific instruction that goes beyond basic certification in the spiritual life. Jesus, the Lifemaster, is qualified to teach us all that we need to know and do.
—Dieter Zander is pastor of arts and spiritual formation at Bay Marin Community Church in Navato, California, and founder of the church planting ministry ReImagine.