Stephen And Mary Lowe Offer a Biblical Defense of Online Spiritual Formation in ‘Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age’

Over the course of 30 years, the internet has inundated our lives, changing the way we access information, discover music, and shop for groceries. But has it also added a new medium for spiritual transformation?

Stephen and Mary Lowe address this question in Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth through Online Education. For over two decades, the Lowes have witnessed the evolution of online education as they helped launch Erskine Theological Seminary’s first online program in the late ’90s. In 2015, the Lowes left Erskine to share their expertise with the Rawlings School of Divinity at Liberty University, where Stephen now serves as the graduate chair of doctoral programs and Mary as the associate dean for online programs. The Lowes believe an interconnected view of ecologies can provide clarity—and hope—to those who remain skeptical of the transformative power of disembodied words.

Mark Galli, CT editor in chief, recently spoke with Stephen about his experience in online Christian higher education and how it can also be a tool for spiritual formation.

In thinking about forming spiritual lives or spiritual growth, what do you mean when you use the term spiritual formation?

Spiritual formation has to do with whole-person transformation into the fullness of Christ—borrowing that language from Paul in Ephesians 4. It’s a combination of this vertical connection that we have to Christ and the Spirit and the horizontal connection we have to other members of the body of Christ. Those all work together to form us individually and corporately into this image of Christ in all of its fullness and beauty.

So for you, spiritual formation has a corporate texture, not just an individual one.

One of the weaknesses of the traditional approach to spiritual formation is that it has focused almost exclusively on an individual relationship with Jesus and an interior spiritual formation through the use of spiritual disciplines. We think that is certainly necessary, but it isn’t sufficient to bring about whole-person transformation. The New Testament teaches that in addition to that relationship, iron sharpens iron—one person sharpens another—in those reciprocal relationships between members of the body of Christ as we encourage one another and promote one another’s spiritual growth and development. And that’s the missing piece.

What do you mean by ecologies?

We’re using it in the broadest possible way to think about the relationship between the individual and the larger context or setting or environment—or ecology—in which they exist. It balances that individual and community perspective, in that there are innate capacities that an organism has to foster its growth, but it cannot achieve full growth and maturity by itself. It can’t disconnect from the environment. There are nutrients and resources in that environment that it needs, and it shares its own with the other members of that ecology.

That’s how the writers of Scripture come at this issue of spiritual formation, or growth in righteousness. The language all seems to be drawn from creation, from nature—all of which we call under the umbrella of ecology. They use all this language to describe and illustrate spiritual growth in one form or another. It’s all the larger picture of growth in that growth in God’s universe is always ecological growth, no matter where you look.

Did you intentionally not use the more familiar language of communities here?

The problem that church leaders or Christian education leaders confront today is that they’re ministering in the digital age, but they’re using an analog model of spiritual formation. Their idea of community is individually oriented and place-based—there has to be a physical component, a face-to-face component, in order to be nourished. Our argument is that the Spirit of God isn’t limited to those environments.

If we really believe, as the Apostle’s Creed does, in the communion of saints and this notion of the spiritual household of God that Peter talks about, the household of faith that Paul talks about—these are concepts that embrace all realities, all experiences, whether we’re talking about physical or digital. The Holy Spirit can operate in any of those in the communion of saints in the body of Christ in the Spirit of God. All of these function in an interactive way regardless of the environment to bring about whole person transformation into the fullness of Christ. And ecology captures that better than any other term.

Why do you believe ecologies are central to spiritual formation?

It’s the way God’s made the universe to function. The “fear of the Lord” is an idiomatic expression that refers to submitting yourself to the way in which God has designed the world to function—socially, physically, spiritually, in every way. There is a set pattern to how things grow in God’s creation, and the way God has designed things to grow is ecologically. He wants things to grow through interconnections, through interactions, through the sharing of resources and nutrients, and all of that interactivity and interconnectedness produces beneficial outcomes for all the connected elements of that ecosystem.

So one’s ecology includes a much greater context than one’s community?

That’s right. All the different elements we tend to overlook or downplay we need to include in our understanding of what God is using to contribute to our formation. If we begin to take a zoomed out view of that, the language that helps us describe that is the oikos language, the ecology language. That’s why Ernst Haeckel, when he coined the notion of ecology, borrowed it from the Greek language, because originally it had to do with that household of the earth. And that original notion of some kind of a big picture view, how everything is connected and everything contributes to the whole, is why we like that ecological language.

Is there one ecology that is particularly important for Christian spiritual formation?

The most critical one is the ecology of family. That ecological environment is where the nitty-gritty work of spiritual formation should begin. It is a model we see in Deuteronomy 6 when Moses describes to the Jewish parents how they can pass on their faith to the next generation. It has all these different elements: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile. All these different parts of the family experience that he encourages parents to use to form their children spiritually.

How do you respond to someone who says you are making an idol of the family when the church is the new family of God?

The consistent pattern from Old Testament to New Testament is that the sphere of the family environment is where a lot of this basic work of formation is first introduced to children. Especially the Old Testament pattern shows the centrality of that environment that is ultimately preparing them to be members of a larger community. The tribe of household prepares the Jewish child for membership in the larger tribe or nation. In the same way, the cultivation of spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation in the Christian home prepares that child for effective ministry and contribution to the larger body of Christ, whether that’s in a local church setting, in some form of ministry, or in the wider church. There’s a relationship between those two. You can’t have one without the other.

Many argue that discipleship cannot occur without bodily interactions, yet you say the disembodied digital world still holds the potential for spiritual transformation.
How is that possible?

Paul had a spiritual relationship to his church, and he was able to present himself physically, to have a bodily presence in the community through the writing and reading of letters. Colossians 2:5 says, “For even though I’m absent in the body, nevertheless I’m with you in spirit.” This whole notion of apostolic parousia is part of the scholarly discussion of the New Testament. Parousia deals with the appearance and the coming of Jesus; the appearance of Paul in the locale has to do with his parousia. So apostolic parousia in the scholarly discussion has to do with both his physical presence and his spiritual presence in a congregation.

Paul thinks that he can affect the spiritual growth of the folks who are in his churches both through his physical presence with them and through the letters. He expects that the words are going to have a spiritual impact on them—that they’ll be encouraged by his words, that they’ll be formed by his words, and that the combination of those have a total effect on the people he’s trying to transform to the image of Christ.

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Source: Christianity Today