The Ecology of Faith Formation

Christian communities reflect the presuppositions and lived experiences of their members, so formation must take into consideration the backgrounds and cultures of the participants while intentionally building a “kingdom of God” culture. This requires a posture of humility, as listening and considering “the other” prove crucial to formation of meaningful communities, as poignantly illustrated in the movie “Of Gods and Men”[1]

The forming of spiritual communities, while actively listening and learning from others, must not fail to take their main cues from the purposes, convictions, practices, and patterns of living demonstrated by Jesus. A community’s ability to expect a kingdom of God culture while remaining grace-filled and humble requires prayerful consideration, conversations, and shared convictions. Foundational to the ecology of a Christian community are formative purposes, theological convictions, core practices, postures, and shared rules or patterns of life. The modern proverb, “you get what you aim for,” holds true as a community builds upon its purposes, principles, and practices. As I discuss several necessary elements for an ecology of faith formation in community, I shall also note ways my church community can grow in some of these areas.

Formative Purposes

The purposes of a spiritual community are multi-faceted, but as the church reflects Christ among the world perhaps Jesus’ words in Luke 4:18-19 best sum His purposes.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

A Christian community reflects Jesus’ purposes to the world around them. Two more key scriptures I include for formative purposes focus on mission and justice.

In Mt 28:19-20, Jesus calls his disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey His commands. In Gal. 2:10, Paul tells the disciples that they must remember the poor. A spiritual community must discern whether the community reflects these purposes.

While a Christian community must never forget its mission (I believe a church that neglects its mission dies), Jipp challenged my thinking concerning this mission as he asks Christians to consider themselves as guests rather than hosts. For spiritual forming purposes, it is crucial for the Christian to remember that at any table Christians are, in fact, guests of Jesus’ redeeming love. I believe the ecology of faith formation can be revitalized by consistently coming alongside, not as hosts, but viewing ourselves desperately needy and dependent upon the welcoming and reconciling presence of Jesus.[2] I was further challenged by Jipp’s words:

The church may fulfill its vocation by actively engaging in building friendship with adherents of other religions in their own neighborhoods and/or workplaces, by educating themselves about where refugees are resettled and pursuing intentional relationships with them, and in looking for ways to intentionally reintegrate and welcome the formerly incarcerated into one’s church and society.[3]

My spiritual community, “The Heart,” or the Greater Hartford International Church of Christ is a multi-ethnic, multi-generational close-knit community of Christians. We more often refer to each other as disciples of Jesus and consider each other as brothers and sisters. The International Churches of Christ are a worldwide family of churches brought together by a mutual desire to work together. Before someone becomes a member of the local church, they go through Bible studies to either decide to become a disciple and be baptized (and then added to the church in the spirit of Mt. 28:19-20 and Acts 2:36-42), place membership as one who has already become a disciple, or be restored to the fellowship if they have wandered.

The members are taught that to live as a Christian (or disciple of Jesus), one must first decide to commit themselves to become a follower of Jesus. They would have evaluated teachings of Jesus such as Lk 9:23 and Mt 10:37-39, where Jesus teaches that following Him is an “all in” decision. Because of this, the membership shares common formative purposes I would summarize to include the following: to worship God in community; to be a light to the world; to help each other grow toward maturity by being involved in each other’s lives; to seek and save the lost, and to remember the poor. While we have a beautiful and effective benevolent arm of the church, called HOPE worldwide, I believe we can fall short of some of the lifelong purposes that Jesus intended when announcing His ministry in Luke 4 and upon which Jipp expounded. The kind of comradery and involvement Jipp describes cannot be accomplished in “one and done” encounters of helping the poor, preaching the good news, or freeing the oppressed. As Seth Clark poetically penned, “I can think, say, and click correctly, yet wokeness won’t end walls. Kinship gazes awaken vision; Pinky kisses stir my soul. I cannot not act now.”[4] I plan to learn how to better walk alongside the other as a guest, more fully imitating the purpose of Jesus as He shared His ministry. In doing so, I pray this will spread.

Theological Convictions

A Christian community must hold the conviction that the church is not God’s afterthought. The Triune God planned for the church since the beginning of time (Eph 1:22-23, 2:19-22).  A relationship with God requires relationships with the Christian community. A spiritual community must be devoted to each other and as much a part of each other as the parts of our physical bodies (Rom 12:4-5: 1 Cor 12:12-27).  While a community may excel in acceptance and showing love, if the community weakens its theological convictions, it will soon fail to resemble Jesus. Perhaps Ephesians 4:4-6 sums some of the most basic theological convictions necessary for a spiritual community. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

The Lordship of Jesus must be a theological conviction for Christian communities. There are not different roads to God apart from Jesus (Jn 14:6). One cannot be His disciple if they do not decide to follow Him above everything else (Lk 9:23-25, 14:25-35). The call and cost of discipleship is high. If Jesus is not at the forefront of who a community follows, they lose the meaning of the church.  Love for others must also be a core conviction. Without love, a community can be like a clanging gong (1 Cor 13:1-3).  Forgiveness must also be a core conviction (Mk 6:15). As Huckins and Swigart so wisely stated concerning conflict and forgiveness, “Surprisingly, while it wears many faces and speaks in multiple languages, conflict is not the problem. The problems are our pride and how we choose to deal with the conflicts our pride generates.[5] While love, lordship, discipleship, and forgiveness must be core convictions, if a spiritual community has no expectations for holding to these theological convictions, it will become little more than a service organization. The admonishment the Hebrew writer gives tells us we are not to neglect meeting together, admonishing and encouraging each other every day (Heb 10:24-25). Jesus’ view of the church as His body is not merely poetic metaphor, but an expectation of function.

My church family believes that righteousness and relationships are inter-related. As Seth Clark notes, “the older definition of uprightness or being in a right relationship with others (especially God) is lost on most of our contemporaries.”[6] While we teach this, I think the second definition Clark mentions, translated as “justice,” needs to be more vigilantly practiced in my community. Huckins and Swigart reach to the heart of a caring community as they remind that “Jesus consistently contended for both the marginalized and the powerful by humbly immersing himself into their broken lives with wisdom, compassion, and healing.[7] I (and we) need to grow in intentional learning from people in such marginalized communities.

Core Practices

The book of Acts tells of core practices of the newly formed church. Chapter 2, verses 36-42, tells of their devotion to the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. They shared all things in common so there was no one needy among them. This is a high calling but a good place to learn of important core practices. The Scriptures are full of admonitions concerning the ways we are to treat one another. A Christian community must be concerned for its relationships. When a church grows large, to accomplish this it seems wise to employ something like the Rock Church’s call for everyone to be in a small group. In my church community, small-group participation is an expectation for church membership so that the leaders who are responsible for shepherding the church can make sure the needs are being met by each other. This changes the paradigm from clergy/laity to one where the leaders equip the saints for the work of ministry, rather than seeking to do it all (Eph 4:11-13, 2 Tim 2:2).

While my church community has its own liturgy of songs, a testimony at the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and a sermon, I believe there could be more group participation beyond singing. I had not experienced the kinds of liturgy such as in the Common Prayer App before this class and have found it much more meaningful than I had imagined.


A spiritual community must have a posture of humility and offer a place to belong, but it must also be transformative. As my friend Jeff wisely stated in a forum discussion, “I believe this suggests that hospitality provides more than just a good meal and uncritical acceptance of everything that culture throws at us. Instead, hospitality becomes a kind of hospitalization that heals brokenness rather than just affirming it.”[8]

This need is easier to conceptualize than practice, and I wish Jesus could tell us directly what it looks like. Often, Jesus’ acts of gracious hospitality culminated with a charge to “go and sin no more” or as with Zacchaeus resulted in specific, measured displays of repentance. Jesus fully loved and offered hospitality without condoning sin. He called for repentance from all, but displayed and communicated His deepest, healing love. This healing love must not become a transactional offering of hospitality but “the primary impulse of hospitality is to create a safe and welcoming place where a stranger can be converted into a friend.”[9] Friends may be converted to Jesus or they may not, but either way they remain friends.

Currently, I see my church practice begin with teaching and then acceptance. I think Jesus’ way begins more often with love, acceptance, and then teaching. This is not always the case, however, and I am pondering this in my heart. My community is better at being host than guest, which can put one more often in the posture of the teacher and less often the learner.

Shared rules/patterns of life

A Christian community’s shared rules and patterns must remain relational, drawing the community closer to Jesus and to each other lest traditions, rules, and forms of religion (2 Tim 3:5) become shared but ineffective dogma.  I found myself intrigued by some of the corporate practices of the church Kathi introduced us to and want to further think on ways some of these might revitalize my/our practice.[10]

Because of the strong use of the Scriptures in application and the encouragement and expectation that members are reading their Bibles, most in my church community are biblically literate, though I believe this can too easily tend toward formation that becomes systematic, rational, and more in need of Wesley’s “experience.” Perhaps we should regularly borrow the words of Sister John’s first prayer at the convent, “Please God, let me know you.”[11]


How important an exercise to think through a spiritual community’s formational purposes, theological convictions, core practices, postures, and shared rules or patterns of life. Without such reflection, church leaders can easily begin chasing a moving ball down a hill rather than leading a team of players through deserts, mountains, and valleys.

Purposes, principles, convictions (or lack thereof), and practice can help move others toward God or away from Him, even if an element of “religion” remains. How easy it is to stray off course, weaken, and dissipate if one is not intentional.

As I read my cohort’s accounts of faith formation in the churches they interviewed, and as I sat down to speak with another minister to hear his and his church’s story, I felt that my church leadership could greatly benefit from sitting across the table with others who desire to follow Jesus to find commonalities instead of differences, where we too often begin.

Many of our church members have been converted from inherited traditional religions, where the message of Jesus did not change their lifestyle or thought patterns. Because of this, it is easy to first notice what was wrong with where they came from. We would do well to understand more fully Huckins’ and Swigart’s words, “If God is unity in diversity, then when the Triune God created, the realities of diversity, distinction, and uniqueness were certain to inhabit creation.[12] I wonder if Huckins and Swigart might find some of our good stances on morality needing more spirituality as summed in their words, “Morality is about saying and doing the ‘right’ things. Spirituality is the process of becoming fully human by allowing the Spirit to form and inform my everyday participation with God in healing a broken world.”[13] May God help us all draw closer to Him and each other.



Clark, Seth David. Church at the Wall: Stories of Hope Along the San Diego-Tijuana Border. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2022.

Huckins, Jon and Swigart, Jer. Mending the Divides: Creative Love in a Conflicted World. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2017.

Jipp, Joshua W. Saved by Faith and Hospitality. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2017. Kindle Edition.

Salzman, Mark. Lying Awake. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

[1] As a group of monks faced a difficult community decision, their ability to consider each other above themselves proved crucial to their community.

[2] Jipp, Joshua W., Saved by Faith and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017) Kindle Edition, 36-37.

[3] Jipp, Saved, 8, 99.

[4] Clark, Seth David, Church at the Wall: Stories of Hope Along the San Diego-Tijuana Border (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2022), 120.

[5] Huckins, Jon and Swigart, Jer, Mending the Divides: Creative Love in a Conflicted World. (Downers Grove, IL:: Intervarsity Press, 2017), 27.

[6] Clark, Church at the Wall, 3.

[7] Huckins and Swigart, Mending, 39.

[8] Week 4 forum post by Jeffrey Jewett,

[9] Jipp. Saved, 2.

[10] Kathi introduced the Kingdom Living Messianic Congregation. They practice rhythms such as weekly home groups, Saturday meetings, and festivals. Their Shema groups meet together for honest exchange and also together memorize the Sermon on the Mount and pray daily through the Psalms.

[11] Salzman, Mark, Lying Awake (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 179.

[12] Huckins, Jon and Swigart, Mending, 26.

[13] Huckins and Swigart, Mending, 53.

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About Jeanie Shaw

After retiring from forty-five years in full-time ministry, Jeanie Shaw went back to school to earn her master’s and doctorate in spiritual formation and discipleship. She also serves as a certified Christian life coach who loves helping people discover the joy, peace, and purpose that come from finding and following God’s plan for their lives. She has taught classes and workshops all over the world and has written numerous books. She has four grown children, eight grandchildren, and a golden retriever who thinks he is human. When she is not reading, writing, coaching, teaching, or enjoying her family she might be found walking along rivers, learning new lessons about life.

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