The Centripetal and Centrifugal of Christian Formation

Over the past decade, I have been fortunate enough to be part of two very exciting, simultaneous conversations taking place as it relates to the mission of the church: spiritual formation and missional. My master’s degree is in spiritual formation, and the missional conversation has shaped my reading and influenced my ecclesiology immensely recently.

But if I am honest, and I am not the first to note this, these two very exciting and fruitful conversations seem to be vying for primacy of place. What is most important, especially as it relates to the nature of the church? These conversations are especially important given how fast and how deep our culture is changing and dividing, and ministry through the local church will look radically different soon.

(Side note: I am currently reading Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence. In it, she talks about how every 500 years, the church goes through what she calls a rummage sale, where a lot is re-examined and re-evaluated. Most likely we are in the midst of one. A topic for another blog.)

What if, however, these two conversations were not competitors, but rather the simultaneous nature of the mission of the church and the individual Christian life?

In his book, Imagining the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith writes, “Worship is not merely time with a deistic god who winds us up and then sends us out on our own; we don’t enter worship for ‘top up’ refueling to then leave as self-sufficient, autonomous actors…. Instead, the biblical vision is one of co-abiding presence and participation” (153). A little later he writes, “So even if there is a centrifugal telos to Christian worship and formation, there is also a regular centripetal invitation to recenter ourselves in the Story, to continually pursue and deepen our incorporation” (154, emphasis original).

When it comes to spiritual formation and missional theology, it is never an “either/or” but rather a deep “both/and.” Christian worship and formation should simultaneously be a centripetal force (a force that draws us in) and a centrifugal force (a force that pushes us out).

The centripetal pull of Christian worship and formation is abiding in Christ. It is an ever deepening experience of the heart of God towards me and all of us, namely that we are “imperfect people, clinging to a perfect Christ, being perfected by the Spirit” (Jonathan Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship). I will never arrive at a place where I know the heart of God perfectly; I need to be daily, and even hourly, reminded of the fact that Christ’s promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The centrifugal pull of Christian worship and formation is participation in the missio Dei. It is joining with God in what he is doing to build his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. As Christians, we never gather for ourselves, but rather to rehearse what God wants to do in and through us in our neighborhoods.

And these two must work together. We must be simultaneously pulled into the heart of God more and more and simultaneously pushed out into the world. But it is not done by human effort. The Holy Spirit must so invade our lives and our churches in order for this to happen. Left to our own devices, we humans will turn this into a neat, tidy program, or worse yet, 12 easy steps for growth.

What’s most fascinating about the simultaneous nature of Christian worship and formation is that when we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, we will experience both the centripetal pull and centrifugal push at the same time. As I experience and deeply abide in Christ, I will be propelled into mission. As I am pulled tighter and tighter into the arms of my loving, heavenly Father, I will be pushed by that same Father into greater and greater participation in his mission to seek and save the lost.

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