Spiritual Formation in a Revivalist Culture

Tomorrow is Sunday.

While a lot of folks in the modern era see it simply as the last day of the weekend (“Sunday Funday” as it is often called), Christians for centuries have honored it as a day of worship and a time to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And as one who has grown up in church, such that Sunday (morning and evening, by the way, right along with Wednesday night prayer meeting) church is part of the rhythm of a standard week, I always have a faint longing for those exciting services when there’s an apparent “moving of God” in the service. And I’m always wondering if the next Sunday will bring one of those.

If you’ve been going to church regular enough for long enough, you’ve experienced these services: there’s a different atmosphere, there’s something very personal about the singing and the preaching, there’s simply something “special” that’s happening. Often, these services are marked by “decisions”–maybe public or personal, depending on the service and the tradition. In any case, these services stand out precisely because they aren’t what you experience every Sunday. In fact, you might have one of these every couple of months, at best.

Every church culture has their way of dealing with this longing. Some just go about their business, almost drone-like simply waiting for the day when one of these services happen. Others work hard with lighting, music, angel-voiced singers and special sermonic modes (from specific topics to stylistic flairs) to create the right mood. And still others will go as far as to schedule services with names like “revival services” and bring in special preachers.

You’ll notice I”m not saying these sorts of church services are bad. In fact, inasmuch as the palpable presence of God is real and not mere manufactured emotionalism, these transcendent moments are wonderful. Of course, each gathering of the church ought to be transcendent in its own right–they are, after all, attempting to exalt the God of the Universe and to edify the saints that Christ bought with His blood. But there’s something very right about one’s religion doing something to his heart, mind and body.

The problem is that too many churches and individual Christians can get so wrapped up in the ecstasy of so-called revival as to miss the real elixir of Christ for their souls. That is to say that we often seek revival (an inadequate, but close enough term to describe these moments where God “shows up” in church services) when God, through His infinite wisdom, is often speaking through the still small voice of His word and His people to provide us with real and lasting spiritual formation.

In other words, we’re quick to quote John 5:9 where it is reported that when Jesus healed someone, “immediately the man was made whole,” and apply it to our Christian walk. However, I think we miss the long, slow, quiet and very real transformation of Simon Peter from a brash racist and brawling fisherman to a pillar of the church of God who writes the encouraging letters we call first and second Peter. In Peter’s case, through a series of tests and trials, many of which are never read about and most of which aren’t really that dramatic, God forms his inner man to be something much more akin to the image of Christ.

Even the Apostle Paul, who did have his share of dramatic defining moments, owed a good deal of who he was as a preacher, a leader, a Christian and a man to the everyday working of God–from the years he spent in the desert (Galatians 1:17-18) being taught of God to the investment of Priscilla and Aquila into his life and ministry (Romans 16:3-4).

While the “revival” services get all of the press, it’s actually the week-by-week, “run of the mill” Sunday services that really contribute so much to our spiritual lives. What’s more, I think this is the real value of the church for believers: spiritual formation.

In fact, the next time you start to wonder what the point of church really is, think about the fact that for over 2,000 years Christians all over the world have been gathering together on Sunday mornings (and occasionally at other times). While certainly there were some special services in the mix, the weight of the glory that is “the church” is the fact that there have been literally millions of Sunday gatherings over the years, happening every week, year after year.

Which will do you the most good for your health and muscle strength in the long run? Going to the gym 3-4 times every week for 30-45 minutes over the next 20 years or spending 3-4 hours every day for a week and then quitting the practice altogether? Even if you could maintain the motivation through the pain, the limits of the human body would require you to slow things down if you ever hope to get any value out of the exercise. The real value comes through regular and appropriate doses.

That’s the power of going to church every week–no matter if the preacher’s sermon doesn’t quite hit all of the right notes, no matter if you’re not a fan of that particular song, no matter if you don’t quite feel “spiritual enough,” no matter if your church isn’t the most exciting or all that big.

No matter what. Just go. Just worship God in spirit and in truth.

Yes, you should seek to see Christ high and lifted up. Yes, there should be transcendence in the experience. Yes, you should absolutely enjoy the service when those revival moments happen. But you should also know that there’s value to your spirit by you just being there on that pew or chair or bench or whatever, holding your Bible, trying to focus on the preaching, exposing your ears (and those of your family) to the sounds of hymns and spiritual songs sung by regular folks trying to worship God too.

You likely won’t see instant results: you won’t suddenly kill all of your sins, love everyone as you should and surrender to a lifetime of sacrificial work for your community and the lost. The truth is that it will likely take a lifetime of God’s working on your heart to get you there. But that’s exactly what spiritual formation is. And you’re a sinful lump of clay that God loves enough to keep working on you … every day, slowly, steadily, simply … molding you into someone that looks a lot more like Jesus (Romans 8:29).