I haven’t always liked the word transformation.
I know it’s an important word. I know it’s a Christian word – one that points to the kind of change that happens when a person makes contact with God. I know that as Christians we are called to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18) and that this is a foretaste of the final transformation of our bodies and the resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:21).
And yet as I reflect on my experience in the church, I have felt a certain unease about this word.
It’s a God thing
This unease became more acute in fall 2003 when I embarked on a teaching career at Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask. As I read our promotional material and observed how we talked about what we did, I noticed that the word transformation was doing a lot of heavy lifting.
Transformation was the “product” we offered to students, parents and church leaders. It named our shared aspiration. It pointed toward the kind of change we envisioned for ourselves and for our children.
And yet the word always felt a bit strange on my lips. I was, after all, a child of the church. My journey seemed to be a slow, incremental march through the somewhat inevitable twists and turns of growing up in the MB family. It was the story of inhabiting a faith over an extended period of time. It was the story of an inheritance becoming something like a possession. My story didn’t seem all that “transformational.”
And as I compared notes with others, it seemed this story had some predictable plotlines. In my interactions with students over the better part of a decade, I saw versions of my story re-enacted on a regular basis. I saw young adults taking incremental steps toward clarity of convictions, risks in obedience, commitment to service and willingness to take their place within the church. The living water that Jesus promised (John 4:10) seemed to follow predictable grooves as it trickled into the lives of his followers.
But somehow transformation didn’t seem to be the best word to describe this reality. Transformation, as I understood it, pointed to something more dramatic. Something climactic or sudden, more like a U-turn than a steady climb. Something spiritual or charismatic – less predictable. Something less ordinary.
Transformation was something God alone could produce. To use this word glibly, it seemed to me, was to make promises that only God could keep.
It’s a human thing
So I backed away from transformation and leaned toward development in my conversations. Development, I reasoned, was a more honest way of describing the kind of change that was actually happening. It seemed to name the obvious connection between our growth as persons and our growth as disciples. It accounted for a steadily increasing awareness of and capacity to deal with complexity. It acknowledged the formative influence of our communities. It named the difference between “immature” and “adult” forms of faith and made some sense of the journey from one to the other.
I was so interested in the connection between human and faith development that I devoted a dissertation to it. I dove into theories of human development and tried to connect them to a growing faith in Jesus Christ. I saw how cognitive development was sparked by experiences of confusion and the desire for more adequate maps of reality. I learned how moral reasoning changed to accommodate more complex problems. I saw how social systems produced our categories and nurtured us into patterns of life.
I even saw how Christians tried to unite human development and faith development into stage theories showing how we progress through various “forms” of faith that align with these other human capacities.
But this too left me uneasy. Faith, after all, seemed to represent a different category than cognitive development. Our brains change whether we want them to or not. But faith? Faith is more than a human capacity. Faith is something that brings us into relationship with God.
If my reaction to transformation was that it promised what only God could deliver, development seemed to make God almost invisible.
In the spring of 2015, the ministry of Bethany College came to a close. This was a disorienting experience for all who were involved. We confronted the loss of something that we believed was valuable, and our own sense of personal vocations was destabilized.
For me, the year following closure was a time to focus more intently on the developmental questions that I had begun to ask in my dissertation. And in the midst of a season of personal loss and focused study, I encountered a theologian who changed and ultimately rehabilitated my understanding of the word transformation.
James Loder (1931–2001) was a Princeton educational theorist and Presbyterian theologian whose life and career was defined by a quest to unite spiritual experience with “ordinary” human development. He had encountered God in dramatic ways and wanted to take these encounters seriously. But he was also deeply convinced of the importance of the maps of human change offered by natural and social science. And the word that he used to capture all of this was transformation.
Most developmental theorists used the image of the teeter-totter. The goal of human development is equilibrium. The problem is that life routinely knocks us off balance. The teeter-totter wobbles. We are disoriented, destabilized, confused – even shipwrecked – along the way.
Development, in this sense, takes the shape of the teeter-totter gradually returning to balance. We account for whatever new fact or experience that has disrupted our lives, and we eventually regain equilibrium.
Loder was dissatisfied with this answer because he saw the entire cosmic and human journey not as an endless pursuit of equilibrium but as a slow march toward extinction. The journey doesn’t end in “balance” – it threatens us with ultimate loss.
It’s all about Jesus
Loder calls this threat the void. The key question with respect to human growth is not “How can I regain my balance?” but “Can I live into the hope that life will ultimately triumph over death?”
It is not just the fact that we are all destined to die. Loder saw the void in every experience of pain, loss, disorientation, conflict, rejection and failure, however large or small.
It’s embedded within every experience that reminds us that we are sinful, limited and frail.
It’s lurking beneath every relational breakdown, every experience of suffering, every lost opportunity for peace, every hermeneutical puzzle, every injustice, every regret, every nostalgic memory of a moment that cannot be retrieved.
Each of these experiences threatens us in different but somehow similar ways. Each points toward the final loss, meaninglessness and aloneness that we anticipate in our own mortality. All that we are, all that we love, all that we accomplish and all that we hope for is threatened by the grave. And nothingness. Silence.
Loder noticed that experiences like these are normally the catalysts for change. It is in these moments, he suggested, that the structure of reality “cracks open” in a new way and reveals the chaos, the “tendency toward death” that lurks below.
Human development, he argued, is the way in which the human spirit grows in response to obstacles. Every human resolution to carry on “in the aftermath,” every reassembly of the fragments of our experience after they have come apart is evidence that transformation is stitched into the fabric of human identity.
To be human is to seek order in the midst of chaos, to long for resurrection in the aftermath of death.
Transformation, in other words, takes the shape of the cross and the empty tomb. It leads from Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross to the church’s joyful proclamation: “He is risen!”
But this basic human capacity for transformation is not enough. For Loder, this process of transformation itself needs to be transformed through a redemptive encounter with the Spirit of God. Human identity, he reasoned, is grounded in a primal fear of being abandoned. Much of our growth is a series of defensive moves by which we say “no” to the world before it says “NO” to us.
Human development may be transformational in character, but it is based on a fear of being rejected and ultimately alone.
It is only as we encounter Jesus that the transformational potential in the human spirit is redeemed and set free because it is in Jesus that the void is confronted, our sin is forgiven and the final enemy is defeated (1 Corinthians 15:26). As we repent of how we have become complicit in death, as we encounter a love from which we can never be separated, we experience a death and resurrection that is a foretaste of what is finally and ultimately our true home.
What about us?
As contemporary Canadian MBs, we ask the word transformation to do heavy lifting.
The word is nestled inside of our mission statement: “multiplying Christ-centred churches to see Canada transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ.”
Over the past two years, many church leaders have completed the Church Transformation Survey, which is designed to measure the effectiveness of our ministries and initiatives. The stated goal of the survey is “to track how transformation is actually happening” and to “move toward greater health and spiritual transformation as we join together on mission.”
We want to see transformation and have made it the standard by which we fund our ministries.
And yet it strikes me that we have not been especially clear on what we mean by this term. Is it simply a reference to “positive Christian change”? Do we use it as a terminological sign that something good is happening that we want to attribute to God? Is it a synonym for “conversion”? Maybe a euphemism for “missional activity”? Is transformation simply a handy container that we can fill with whatever content seems best to us?
My conviction is that transformation is a term that offers incredible potential for us as Canadian Mennonite Brethren. I believe it is a word that can help us understand both our missional and developmental calling. It can help us articulate both the transformative moments where the Spirit acts in decisive ways and what Loder calls the “mundane ecstasy” of ordinary Christian development.
I believe we should apply the word broadly and confidently because it addresses key elements of who we are as Mennonite Brethren. And it took a Presbyterian to help me see it.
We are a people who believe that we need to make experiential contact with God through Jesus Christ. We need to repent. We need to be forgiven.
We believe the Spirit is alive and somehow available in the midst of human experience. We believe that God is not a principle to be affirmed but a person to be encountered. And while this encounter can take a variety of surprising and unpredictable forms it is always in the direction of redemption.
This experiential drive is deep within Mennonite Brethren DNA.
And yet we know that much of discipleship happens in the space between these kinds of experiences. We have not always been good at articulating this, but the proof is in the historical pudding. We created schools and camps. We invested in Sunday School and VBS programs and youth pastors. We offer short-term mission experiences and service opportunities that we know have incredible transformational impact on those who participate.
In short, we have shepherded our young people through a series of institutional gates that, while not always uniformly successful, have been powerful affirmations that growth in faith happens in predictable (even programmable) ways.
My modest proposal is simply that the word transformation applies beautifully and practically to both.
As Mennonite Brethren, we should be able to confidently affirm that we are “about” transformation. Because transformation always refers to new life emerging from death; it’s the cross and resurrection all the way down. This can be a decisive moment of encounter with the Spirit of God. Or it can be a gradual process of assembling an ordered faith in the midst of a growing awareness of chaos. But the cruciform shape is always
And this is as it should be. We are a people who confess that Jesus Christ is the one through whom all things came to be and in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). And if this is true, then we should expect to see the tragedy and beauty of his cross and empty tomb at every point of the human journey. We should seek – and expect to find – transformation.
—Gil Dueck serves as program director at MCC Saskatchewan. Prior to this, he served for 12 years as instructor in theology at Bethany College. Gil and Shelley and their three daughters live in Hepburn, Sask.
When have you experienced the void, and how was it a catalyst for change?
When you hear the mission statement: “…to see Canada transformed by the good news…”, what pictures come to mind?
How would you answer Loder’s question: How can I live into the hope that life will ultimately triumph over death?
Description of a Growing Disciple