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Synopsis of James Bryan Smith’s Church Leaders Forum: “How We Are Formed … and Transformed”

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Photo by SPS Student Matt Gebhart.  Article by SPS Student Megan Wildhood.

On Wednesday, April 9, 2014, the Seattle Pacific Seminary community welcomed James Bryan Smith, executive director of the Apprentice Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation and theology professor at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. SPS professor Dr. Bob Drovdahl introduced and summarized one aspect of Dr. Smith’s work: Discerning false narratives from true ones and the implications of doing so for discipleship and transformation.

We strive to be Christ-like people. We know the clear call from the Gospels — there’s a certain kind of life we ought to be living. Yet we struggle to truly live faithfully to this life we find in Scripture. Smith said the struggle comes from our misdirected focus on willpower. He suggested that we have an inordinate confidence in our will’s ability to change us. 

But transformation isn’t a function of the will. “The will is a capacity to choose, but it has no power. The choices we make are largely informed by outside influences,” he said, referring to our narratives, images, and thoughts. We make up easily remembered stories to understand truth and reality. In terms of discipleship, instead of focusing on behavior management, Smith believes we should ask, “What are the right stories about God?”

“Spiritual formation is largely taking out false narratives and replacing them with the mind of Christ,” he said. We haven’t put enough stock in our narratives, which is a real danger, because as James Allen says, “As we think, so we live.” And we think, remember, and grow primarily through our stories.

As pastors, church leaders, and those who strive to walk in love, we have to learn how to isolate these narratives that are crippling people. People lack joy in their life with God, and it’s partly due to their stories about God. A 2004 Baylor University study found that 38 percent of American Christians see God as an “angry judge who is poised to punish us for our sins.” This is a very different image than the God that Jesus revealed, one who radically forgives and reaches out to the least, the last, and the lost.

Smith argued that this narrative is reinforced by how we are raised. We commonly grow up being punished for bad behavior and rewarded for good behavior. He hypothesized that we also like the idea we can control God through our behavior. “Grace is disorienting because we are given things we didn’t earn, which feels suspicious to a culture predicated on hard work and individualism,” Smith said.

But as Dallas Willard says, “If you’ve got toxic narratives and you start the process of spiritual formation, [these narratives are] going to get worse.” An example can be seen in the rampant narrative of legalism that has two main outcomes: pride or guilt. False narratives also lock the church into focusing on behavior, causing fear of failure and imperfection among its members. As a tragic illustration, Smith told of a woman going through a divorce who explained why she was leaving the church: “The church is the last place I want to be when I’m going through a personal struggle.” The church at large is not seen as the source of love and care for the struggling, poor, and lonely that it is called to be.

But the real gospel is that we don’t face life alone. Jesus came to give us life with God now, not just in heaven when we die. Faith is interactive knowledge, which is why we can grow in it. Smith said, “You don’t take a leap of faith, you take a leap with faith.” It’s not striving to believe something you don’t. Grace is not simply unmerited forgiveness, but it’s also God’s action in our lives and something we grow in.

Hope — one of the most misused Christian terms — is certain, not just wishful thinking. There is no doubt in hope; it anchors the soul. And that’s because we live in the light of the Resurrection, which changes everything. Sin and death have been defeated and we know the end of this story. As an Orthodox priest said, “Christians have their roots in the future and their branches in the present.”

Posted: Wednesday, April 30, 2014

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