by Robert P. Maupin
Case study of how one missionary team (Mission Mexico City) tried to contextualize the spiritual formation process with urban youth in Mexico City.
Spiritual formation is an idea that has a broad range of connotations within Christianity. This article refers to the intentional arranging of our daily activities as part of the normal Christian life and how we, as disciples, use those activities to acquire the kind of life that reflects Christ to a dying world (see Willard 2006).
There has been new interest in many areas about spiritual formation and its use in the local church body. While many recognize that the spiritual formation of the missionary is essential to his or her missional effectiveness, it also seems incumbent that missionaries contextualize the idea of spiritual formation into their host context. This would show an intent that these contextualized activities could be used to aid in the growth of new disciples, church leaders, and mission strategy. This article is a case study of how our missionary team (Mission Mexico City) tried to contextualize the spiritual formation process with urban youth in Mexico City (2002-2006).
I spent the first nine years of my adult life in youth ministry in the Midwest and Southwest regions of the U.S. During many events and camps, students often decided to follow Christ for the first time. They would ask, “What do I do now?” Previously, many had heard “stop sinning” and “start reading your Bible.”
During those years, the writings of Dallas Willard, William Law, John Ortberg, and others gave me the idea to use spiritual formation as a concept of an interface to help adolescents understand how a spiritual God could interact with physical people. Traditional activities and habits like reading the Bible, examining our motives, praying for others, fasting, and journaling became ways that students, in their finite nature, could connect personally with the infinite God of the Bible.
The hope was that the students would use the interface idea to put themselves before God in such a way that they could learn to hear his voice and then love and obey him. Our main mechanism, beyond our mentoring program, became a series of devotional helps and practices written by our youth ministry staff that allowed students to be intentional about Bible intake, time with God, personal worship, and the strength to change sinful habits.
It became a cornerstone element to our ministry and a key aspect of my theology. After nine years of student ministry in our home context, my family and I transitioned with a wonderful team to a new ministry in Mexico City.
Working With and Among Urban Mexican Students
In the first stages of our work in Mexico, I spent time interviewing Mexican pastors and veteran missionaries about how our new group could help without being a hindrance. We had arrived with a very generic set of goals, but did not have a pre-determined strategy to implement them. Rather, we determined to spend time in appreciative inquiry regarding what our team could do for the Mexican churches during our language training.
As each interview progressed, we kept hearing more about youth ministry and discipleship. This matched out team’s gift sets, experiences, and desires. We began to plan what kinds of things we could do to engage in something that would be of service to the nearly dozen different Mexican churches we worked with in the area and the local church we attended.
I began with a visit to the two Protestant bookstores downtown. Nearly all the material we saw had been translated from English; we did not find any discipleship curriculum written by or for Mexicans. Although some of the translated materials were excellent, none fit what we saw as our target group: urban Mexican students.
After more conversations with teammates and our Mexican pastor, Ray, we developed a new plan we called La Vida Profunda (“The Deep Life”). Ray volunteered his church as a testing ground for the program, and the students in the church readily agreed to be our first attempt at a contextualized spiritual formation program.
The basic idea had three main structural components:
1. Develop highly accessible material that would be contextualized to our urban students.
2. Contextualize common mechanisms (Bible reading plans, prayer suggestions, etc.) that they could employ as tools for spiritual growth.
3. Develop events to reinforce teaching/habits and expose different churches to the program.
Phase One: Developing Materials
First, our team came up with a plan to write a series of broad outlines around a common theme (e.g., “the fruit of the Spirit”). We then asked a group of young people to help us write it in such a way that it used phrases, examples, and activities that Mexico City youth would instinctively understand.
When these were in place, one of the team members took over the work by formatting, editing, and preparing the lessons into a 13-week plan, complete with leaders’ pages, lesson plans, and suggestions for activities. These were revised again by our committee of Mexican youth and sent to a professional proofreader.
We then published 8 1/2 x 11 plastic ring-bound books (cost per book: $5) or a free PDF download. We printed three 13-week (designed for a semester) books: Spiritual Exercises, The Life of Jesus, and The Fruit of the Spirit. The printed copies were initially the most popular because, as one young leader explained, “The downloadable versions were more complicated to use because they were a lot of work to organize on your own.” She thought the printed books were the better option. However, for distribution purposes the online material has been seen as a better option.
Phase Two: Contextualizing Mechanisms
After publishing Spiritual Exercises, we realized that many of the students with whom we were working would learn about spiritual formation mechanisms, but would not have access to them over a long period of time—and thus not begin to create habits for interacting with God personally.
Therefore, we began working with a young student named Saúl to help us develop these. He took several well-known youth ministry ideas (e.g., Bible reading plans, prayer diagrams he found online) and adapted/translated them into Spanish. A Christian therapist gave us permission to translate and use a document he had created about poor thinking habits. Disciplines for the Inner Life by Bob Benson Sr. and Michael Benson gave us the idea to create single-page weekly devotional sheets for students. We developed a total of fifteen weekly devotionals and called them Salvavidas (“Life Preservers”). The guides to prayer and the Bible reading plans were based on Dick Eastman’s “Hour that Changes the World” and Robert Murray McCheyne’s plan to read the Bible in a year.
Phase Three: Developing Events
Once we finished our primary material, we designed a series of events that would reinforce (or introduce) the idea of practical discipleship mechanisms and teaching to youth and church leaders. For this, we partnered with several missionaries and pastors to create a series of outings led by a team member named Sheldon.
As a former Eagle Scout, Sheldon and another person, Luke, used backpacking, caving, rock climbing, paintball, and sports as both examples and formats to teach and experiment with spiritual growth principles. We teamed up with several veteran missionaries and developed retreats designed to help young leaders develop holy habits.
These retreats included teaching times and physical activities designed around the idea that we must train ourselves to be spiritually mature. The events turned out to be fun, memorable, and productive for the students. As we neared the end of our term with Mission Mexico City, we began to look back at La Vida Profunda.
The rich experience of working through large concepts of spiritual formation and then wrestling with how to make them applicable to our context was helpful to us personally. The students we worked with scrutinized our lives and families as we were in the process of writing the material. We were required to live out what we were asking them to write. Questions about our own Bible reading and spiritual disciplines were common. Beyond the accountability benefit, it was deeply rewarding to write with our team of students. They brought a dramatic improvement to our Spanish. The process also gave us more insight into their lives and culture.
The contextualization of spiritual formation is not necessarily new, except in terminology. When St. Patrick traveled, he left detailed instructions for how his new Irish converts were to behave. Loyola’s (or Benedict’s) rule was along the same lines of thought. Frank Laubach’s work among the Moros of the Philippines was the context for his famous “Game with Minutes.” Clinton Arnold showed that the early Church had a recognized format for training new believers that was remarkably similar to what we often refer to as spiritual formation today (Arnold 2004). Thomas á Kempis, Jeremy Taylor, Watchman Nee, and Augustine were all part of this tradition as well.
Addressing Changes concerning Contextualizing Behavior
Contextualizing any kind of behavior can lead to a slight deviation from the intended meaning and function given by the importing culture. During our attempt to develop La Vida Profunda, we tried to stay true to our original intent: helping students learn to leverage their actions in such a way that they could both know God and act as disciples of Christ.
It was not easy. We often found ourselves stuck in our own understanding of spiritual formation encased in our own experience. The Catholic/Protestant tensions in Mexico caused many evangelicals to be wary of any activity that is seen to “bring God’s favor” or that might become ritualized. A significant fear we faced was not that our students would ignore the material, but rather ascribe some kind of pharisaical meaning to their devotion. We made a lot of mistakes. In the midst of these struggles, we came up with three issues we consistently re-emphasized.
Leveraging basic elements of spiritual formation. The first was a genuine attempt to understand the most basic elements of spiritual formation as leveraging, rather than justifying. While not trying to follow the sacred/secular dichotomy, we did want to move past a sense of the mystical and surreal that often accompanies words like “prayer” or “listening to God.” To do this, we spent considerable time studying Willard (2010) and others as a team. It became an issue of trying to define the behaviors we hoped to foster in our students that would then correspond to our original ascription of meaning. This was more challenging than we thought.
Writing as a team. The second issue was that of writing as a team. We spent (seemingly) an inordinate amount of time talking with Ray, other pastors, missionaries, students, and others. who all had opinions and issues they thought were pertinent to the work of La Vida Profunda. After those conversations were distilled, the outlines were written and then expanded in conjunction with the students who helped us write the lessons.
These efforts helped us clarify our intentions and meaning on multiple levels and allowed us to hear where our translations were being misunderstood and often disregarded. The give-and-take dialogue developed a deep sense of trust between our expatriate team and the students. After this trust grew, the students began to openly question our teaching and intention. They were genuinely trying to understand our deeper motives. In a face-saving culture, this level of trust was delightful and incredibly helpful.
Being available and able to follow through. The third issue was availability and deliverability. For churches dealing with poverty issues, computers and PDF files were not options. Having the different books readily available, pre-printed and for sale, became a part of the process that allowed smaller churches to have access to the material in a way that did not place it beyond their financial reach. The handouts were simply formatted and easy to copy at a papelería. We made these books available at conferences, events, and a few churches. The electronic version was designed so that if we left, there would be a source-point for the material.
The case for contextualizing spiritual formation hinges on the common experience where, in spite of having local churches planted, it remains common for people to not know some of the basics of growth and transformation. We saw our work with La Vida Profunda as a complement to the work of the Mexican churches, not as a replacement or improvement.
Continued study on contextualizing spiritual formation is essential. More study on the nature of intercultural communication and spiritual formation would be helpful. Case studies of localized forms of spiritual formation from different mission contexts would reveal new practices that relate to rural/urban issues, regional, or macro-cultural obstacles.
As this idea is researched further, new formats for helping local leadership programs might develop. Further benefits would come as this idea is integrated into theological education worldwide. In any case, La Vida Profunda was a blessing to us and we rejoice to see several people taking the idea and making it relevant to their own contexts.
IMPLEMENTING LA VIDA PROFUNDA:
TWO STUDENT EXAMPLES
After leaving Mexico, two of the students sensed a call to enter missionary service. Saúl left Mexico to study in Dallas with the goal of someday leading a church plant in Mexico City. Mayra went to study in Costa Rica in preparation to become a church planter. Both have graduated and have used La Vida Profunda in their ministries. Saúl was a leader in many ways on his campus and implemented La Vida Profunda ideas to help disciple his fellow students. Mayra is now the youth pastor of a church plant in San José.
Both feel as if they are using their own material they helped write to develop the students with whom they are now serving. Below, each shares a short testimony of how the process and the material have helped.
While working with Mission Mexico City, I was asked to help with the writing, translation, and development of La Vida Profunda. As I first read through the pages, I discovered several things that became very useful in my life and ministry. First, the writers used a helpful structure to encourage those with little or no experience in ministry to lead a small group. Second, class set-ups had a highly creative design, and yet were simple to produce. There was no need to spend large amounts of money to make the lessons relevant or attractive; the teachings and actions of every lesson were what really made it fun. Third, I appreciated that many nationals were involved in writing the lessons and the practical life applications. This made the teachings relevant and appropriate for Mexican students.
When I first read the lessons on the “Spiritual Disciplines,” I discovered many new exercises. Some of these disciplines (e.g., the prayer journal, “dates” with God) have become part of my disciplines and have driven me closer to God’s presence.
Finally, the accessibility of this material is a great advantage for youth ministers in Latin America since there is no cost for downloading the books. Since they have permission to make copies, this could be one of the most valuable sources we have.
La Vida Profunda was a door of truth in my life. I had always heard of God, his work, and his miracles, but I had never felt his reality in my life. Each week we studied together helped me to know that the promises of God are not just stories, but are promises for me! I learned practical things to change the quality of my life. The trips were challenges where I could learn to design a stronger faith. They helped me remember that Jesus is with me in every difficult moment. I learned how to work with youth; today, God has given me the opportunity to be a leader in a youth ministry called “Salvation Generation” in a church in Costa Rica.
I am currently using La Vida Profunda with my own students so that they learn to have a faith that is active—that goes to every place in every circumstance. It is a faith that should be a way of life, not just a religion.
Arnold, Clinton. 2004. “Early Church Catechesis and New Christians’ Classes in Contemporary Evangelicalism.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47:39-54.
Willard, Dallas. 2006. The Great Omission: Rediscovering Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco.
_____. 2010. Spiritual Formation: What It Is and How It Is Done. Accessed April 25, 2010 from www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=58.
Robert P. Maupin teaches intercultural studies at Lincoln
Christian University in Lincoln, Illinois. Previously, he worked in
youth ministry for nine years and served in Mexico City.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 396-402. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and
Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be
reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.