This is the first in a series of interviews about spiritual formation (from a variety of Christian perspectives). Today’s thoughts come from Rev. Dr. David M. May, Professor of New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, KS, and a member at Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO. He blogs at NTStudies. His faculty bio can be found here.

Why you should listen: Dr. May can keep two 8-hour class days interesting, perhaps the best classroom teaching presence we’ve had at Central – high praise among good competition. He combines child-like delight, pastoral sensitivity, and scholarly intellect with a bow-tie-wearing, tennis player’s body (and I hope you and he appreciate these qualities as much as I do). His course on Johannine and Pauline writings transformed my hesitance about them into a true and lasting affection, and I know I am not alone in this. He makes ancient coins interesting. Few can help Jesus’ parables breathe as deeply or live as brightly as he; if you can find his sermon on the parable of the talents, read it.

On to the interview!

How do you define spiritual formation?

I like to use the term askesis for understanding and defining spiritual formation. Askesis is the Greek word for exercise or training. Practice exercises the spiritual muscles. All areas of life can be utilized as an exercise for spiritual formation. C. S. Lewis perhaps captures it best when he writes, “I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so . . . . the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them—is always the same—do they make one more obedient, more God-centered and neighbor-centered and less self-centered?” *1

Importantly in this definition is that spiritual formation is conscious and intentional. One works toward formation. Also, the criteria for a healthy spiritual formation, as Lewis notes, are based on Jesus’ response to a scribal question: “30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

What sorts of practices or disciplines are part of your spiritual formation?

(1) Reading
(2) Writing
(3) Engagement with Creation

How do corporate and personal practices relate to one another in your own practice?

Ideally corporate and personal practices overlap. As the British poet John Donne eloquently wrote “no man [or woman] is an island unto himself.” Actually, only with great difficulty and great harm can one separate the personal from the corporate.

How do churches fare at helping their members better engage in spiritual formation?

Each church is different in how it assists its members in engaging spiritual formation. Some are more attentive and proactive with members, some definite spiritual formation in a narrow way and only encourage a particular type of formation, and others do not consciously focus on this aspect.

How can church leaders better help members with these sorts of issues?

Allow space for individuals to practice spiritual formation.
Provide models.
Provide resources that assist in the process of spiritual formation.

What would you say to a person who asked your advice as a sort of spiritual director?

You must read and write. Add to that advice the adjective “well.” You must read well and write well.

Two significant areas of spiritual askesis that will influence personal and also corporate identity as a Christian are reading and writing. While these disciplines may not seem specifically directed towards the spiritual, they are foundation for developing and maintaining one’s spiritual formation. To read is to engage with and learn from the great cloud of witnesses (and models) that have gone before. To write is to engage in a tactile experience of letting the reflections of one’s mind find an outlet in a concrete and tangible form. The written word is one which can be reviewed, revised, and revelatory, not only for the self, but also for others.

*1 W. H. Lewish, ed. Letters of C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), 268-69.

As a reminder: I’ve asked each person the same seven questions. As I receive their responses, I’ll post them here every few days. You are invited to add your own comments along the way. My hope is that these interviews will inspire all of us to approach the tasks of spiritual formation/discipleship with more thoughtful intention, that they will improve our ministries, that they will enhance the ways we talk and think about how our faith can progress from milk to meat (or from strained bananas to brussels sprouts, if you’re vegan!).