January 15, 2021

What Is Jesus Shaped Spirituality?

jesushalfThe past year and a half has been the most personally tumultuous time I’ve ever experienced as a Christian believer. At one time or another in this past year, I have re-evaluated every area of my Christianity, often with many tears, prayers and hours of reading. Much of this has been in response to the questions raised by my recent encounters with Roman Catholicism.

I entitled this adventure “Jesus Shaped Spirituality.” It’s a catchy and provocative label, but I’m not sure I could have come to your church and given a talk on what I meant by the phrase.

Today, I’m at a different place on that journey. I’ve now come to the place that Jesus shaped spirituality has some feel, form and substance for me. I have some confidence and comfort in expressing what I’ve discovered, reaffirmed and began to express to others.

I want to be clear that I am not trying to “return to primitive Christianity” or “reinvent the church.” What I am doing is developing a tool, a grid or filter, to interpret Christianity wherever I encounter it, by asking basic questions about Jesus. If I am going to be faulted, it will be for this: I am determined to be satisfied with nothing short of a Jesus-shaped Christianity, as best I can understand what that means.

This isn’t a staking a claim for a new denomination, but simply an expression of the shape of discovering, knowing and following Jesus as the one who reveals both the Father and the shape of human experience.

What does Jesus-shaped spirituality look like?

1) It is a spirituality rooted in the Biblical story. It is a spirituality that grows up in the narrative of the Bible and within the categories of the Biblical worldview. Most particularly, it is a spirituality of the Biblical story that is finally and completely about Jesus and understood in Jesus.

2) It is a spirituality where God comes to all people: in Jesus, through the incarnation, the Gospel, Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit.

3) It is a spirituality where God is available, immediately, through the mediation of Jesus, to all people, in the power of the Spirit as revealed in the Gospel.

4) It is a spirituality where Jesus is the ultimate sacrament, and all sacraments are visible, actual participations in Jesus as salvation.

5) It is a spirituality where the Kingdom of God is present everywhere and God’s people are called to be workers for and proclaimers of the Kingdom wherever God has placed them.

6) It is a spirituality especially manifested where the Gospel is explicitly heard, believed and practiced.

7) It is a spirituality where God is known, experienced and worshiped as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit as revealed by Jesus in scripture.

8] It is a spirituality of the compassion of Jesus for the whole range of human brokenness. It is a spirituality of kindness, gentleness and generosity to the hurting, the lonely and the wounded.

9) It is a spirituality where all people are called to the decisive act of public, intentional discipleship, inaugurated in baptism and continued, when possible, in a local church.

10) It is a spirituality of grace as understood in the teaching and actions of Jesus, and through the grace of God revealed in the Gospel.

11) It is a spirituality of inclusion, particularly imitating Jesus’ inclusion of outcasts, touching of lepers, respectful treatment of women, outreaches to Gentiles and liberating miracles for those who were considered beyond help, hope and forgiveness.

12) It is a spirituality that takes place in a movement of cross-cultural church planting. Jesus shaped spirituality is formed in the context of the outcomes and values that contribute to cross-cultural church planting, particularly in places where the Gospel has not been heard.

13) It is a spirituality that is shaped, whenever possible, in local churches and under the ministry of local church leadership. It is a spirituality that receives the ministry of the Spirit through the broadest possible experience of the church of Jesus.

14) It is a spirituality that announces and practices the end of religion, because all religion is fulfilled in Jesus. What remains of religion and religious practice is completely transformed by Jesus into a New Covenant understanding of the people of God.

15) It is a spirituality that calls all persons, and especially disciples, to continual personal transformation by grace in every area of human nature, experience and relationship.

16) It is a spirituality formed by the practice of prayer, reading scripture, worship, servanthood, mission and simplicity, both individually and, whenever possible, in community with other disciples.

17) It is a spirituality that is consciously, exclusively and intentionally Jesus-centered. The center and the boundaries of Jesus shaped spirituality are Jesus himself, as revealed in scripture, especially in the Gospels. It is a spirituality that takes all study of Jesus seriously, but affirms that Jesus is revealed with the authority of God in scripture.

18) It is a spirituality with a hopeful, optimistic eschatology of the Kingdom of God, inaugurated now and coming in fullness, announcing in advance God’s judgment of the world and God’s vindication of his people.

19) It is a spirituality that is not dispensed or controlled by institutions, but is accomplished by the work of the Spirit through whatever means God chooses as the shaping, forming element.

20) It is a spirituality of creativity, freedom and cultural diversity. We are constantly discovering and rediscovering Jesus in new ways. It is a spirituality that honors and appreciates the discovery of Jesus by those who have known Jesus before us.

21) It is a spirituality that receives and evaluates tradition, authority and theology within a living experience of discipleship to Jesus.


  1. I’m giving up blog reading for Lent, Michael, but this is a worthy enough post to carry me through to Easter. thanks!

    #1 – As parents we have tried to practice “narrative catechesis” for this very reason. The story is primary and the character of Christ fundamental. All else should flow out of those two things and live up to that ultimate standard.

    #4 Been thinking a lot about this lately. Too much quibbling over “This is my body” can obscure this fundamental reality.

    #5 Gave a talk recently on “Christian Engagement with the World.” You’re a busy person, but I would be curious to hear your thoughts.

    #10 The emphasis upon grace in action is crucial. Still learning.

    #13 Amen.

    #14 I think I may have mentioned this, but if you haven’t read it … Against Christianity by Peter Leithart.

    #18 All true pessimism is temporary in the Christian vision. Real. Honest. Sometimes necessary. But ultimately temporary.

    Many other good points, too, worthy of being meditated upon and lived out.

    Thanks and see you after Easter. Unless of course I decide that Sunday doesn’t count. 🙂

  2. “It is a spirituality that is not dispensed or controlled by institutions, but is accomplished by the work of the Spirit through whatever means God chooses as the shaping, forming element.”

    Do you think that relying on the work of the Spirit alone as our means of spiritual formation and growth is viewed as a threat by the institutional church? “Spiritual formation” sometimes seems to me to be one of the IC’s means of controlling its members.

    Thank you for this post. It does push out the edges of the box in a day when spirituality seems to often be limited to self-help books and TBN.

  3. Actually, and I mean seriously, it sounds like Catholicism to me! No joke.

  4. I enjoy the Christological emphasis of your post. This is why I like the prayer that supposedly comes from St. Patrick:

    Christ be with me
    Christ before me
    Christ behind me
    Christ in me
    Christ beneath me
    Christ above me
    Christ on my right
    Christ on my left
    Christ where I lie
    Christ where I sit
    Christ where I arise
    Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me
    Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me
    Christ in every eye that sees me
    Christ in every ear that hears me
    Salvation is of the Lord.

  5. GNW_Paul:


    I do see some crucial differences, especially regarding the sacraments and institutionalism. But hey…thanks!

  6. Imonk,

    Given your perspective I expected you would say exactly that. I don’t think that having an institution equates to “institutionalism.” Well catechized Catholics are well aware of the need for individual conversion and relationship with Christ; and they also understand that communion with the institution of the Church is a means of growing in relationship to Christ.

    The Church certainly has at suffered throughout it’s history from various degrees of “institutionalism,” and that continues to be a problem. As in all things human there are always tensions and extremes.

    As I’ve noted in previous discussions I don’t see an “anti-institution” spirituality as a legitimate expression of Christianity. An institution-less church goes against reason and human experience.

    The Gospels tell us that Jesus Christ founded an institutional and sacramental Church, the very concept of an non-institutional Church is an oxymoron to a Catholic (or Anglican, Presbyterian…) understanding. Within my Catholic understanding I can totally affirm each of your points, but it does require differentiating between “institutionalism” and “institution” on number #19, and a Catholic understanding of #14 although I’m not really sure what you mean by “the end of Religion” so I’m not agreeing to that, but I think I can make it work for me.

    Thanks for another good post.

  7. In order to say that institutions are essential to Christianity, you must define institutions in such a way that it embraces any kind of organization of any type in any form. Which sounds like a movement to me. I agree that movements will sometimes take institutional forms.

  8. It is amazing how differently we think. As I read through the 21 points of Imonkism I reached an almost opposite conclusion to GNW Paul’s. Point of view is powerful. However we get to these points, it is essential that we get there. Point 22 could be to have no other points, messages or missions that detract from the first 21.
    Thanks for the clarity Michael.

  9. In order to say that institutions are essential to Christianity, you must define institutions in such a way that it embraces any kind of organization of any type in any form.

    Why? I know where you are coming from on this, but I really don’t understand how you get there from the Bible. There are some reasonably specific descriptions of organizational behavior in Acts, and in the Epistles. Not to mention how an anti-institutional Christianity is supposed to arise out of a Jewish context? Early 2nd century (blah)(blah) (blah)…

    As for movements, I suspect you don’t consider longevity (intentionally or otherwise) to be a critical feature of a Christian movement, so that doesn’t work for me.

    No need to respond if you don’t want to drag this thread down that path. We can save it for another day.

  10. GNW_Paul

    We’re talking about a term neither one of us has defined, and both of us agree is a part of Christianity.

    Let it suffice for me to say that I believe the Holy Spirit can direct people, movements, events or institutions as he wishes. But Jesus is not an institution, and by relating to an institution, one does not relate automatically to God.



  11. Last from me for now: I agree relating to an institution does not automatically bring one into relationship with God.

  12. #9 — “continued, when possible, in the local church.” Ah, there’s the rub. It isn’t always possible, especially if the “church” is too entrenched in tradition to be a living, moving part of the organism, as opposed to the organization, of the Church as a whole. Some wine skins are better left alone so as not to spill the remaining life or lives it still contains. Still, even within the oldest traditions, there are still new skins being formed. That is one of the lessons I learned as an Assemblies of God monk with the Brothers and Sisters of Charity.

    Consequently, I’ve decided I can find Christ in any group of Jesus-Shaped Christ followers I happen to find myself gathered with. As I’ve told many people — there is only one Church in my town; we just happen to meet in different places. However, I still find it necessary to make at least one of these gathering places my “home church,” for lack of a better phrase. Alas, it has yet to happen. That is probably more a reflection of my prejudices and needs than it is on the state of the local church. Its a problem I’m still working through.

  13. Hi, I appreciate this discussion. I think I’m heading in a similar direction, but coming from a different starting point. Church unity was my launch into this journey, and I’ve been examining the issues of the protestant reformation, and coming to the conclusion I am no longer protesting – yet not becoming Catholic.

    I don’t know how to say this without sounding like I’m trying to just get a plug for my blog jonjourney.blogspot.com, so I’ll just come out and say it. I’m dying (ok maybe just begging) to get some feedback on where I’m tracking. I’ve been posting away putting my thoughts together, but I have no idea if any of it is making any sense. I’ve only really had one person give me any real feedback, and that was someone I know, and was expecting resistance from.

    Anyways, I’m not asking for a life long RSS commitment. Imonk, feel free to delete this comment either now, or later.

    Either way, I’m enjoying this conversation. God bless.

  14. Stay with Father/Son/Holy Spirit shaped life/spirit. Each reinforces the other. The ministry of the Spirit is to make Jesus known who is making the Father known whose pleasure it is to make his Son known. There really is a trinitarian knot to this that all comes together only in Christ. It’s cliche to say its all about relationship but this is how we ultimately know and are known as human beings and this is the work of Grace in our lives. All we ultimately can know about the reality of things comes to us through relationship to him. For example, I can know the idea of peace, understand and cultivate the condition of peace, experience the feeling of peace,speak peace,etc, but beyond this, I can live in relationship with the Person who is Peace and share this Person with others. So also way, truth, life,etc.

  15. Imonk,

    I think what you say to GNW_Paul on institutions, “We’re talking about a term neither one of us has defined,” could equally be applied to “religion” as used in your point 14.

    It is a peculiarly Evangelical (and I think slightly disingenuous) thing to define “religion” so negatively that it is necessarily in opposition to following Jesus and Christian discipleship.

    However religion can equally validly be defined (and is so defined by most non-Evangelicals) as any defined way in which humans relate to the divine, and that certainly encompasses following Jesus or pursuing a “Jesus Shaped Spirituality”.

    Having regular celebrations of the Lord’s Table is a religious activity, as are spiritual disciplines such as regular Bible reading and regular prayer. Looking after the widows and orphans is, according to James 1:27 in more traditional translations like the ESV, a religious activity.

    Rather than contrasting Christian Discipleship and “religion” we should contrast true religion and false religion: God-revealed religion and man-made religion; Jesus-shaped spirituality and the many other spiritualites being promoted in the World today.

    Because Spirituality, of course, is just as liable to abuse and misunderstanding as Religion: there’s a lot more false and dangerous around than true, but that’s no reason to stop using the word or re-casting it as a negative.

  16. iMonk –

    Beautiful and refreshing thoughts. Thanks.

    I might suspect you have read this book, but your thoughts find good company with Eugene Peterson’s thoughts in his book Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places. He looks at how Christ is displayed in 3 main areas: creation, history and community. Your thoughts here remind me of the way he worked out his own thoughts in the book.

    Thanks again.

  17. Thanks, Michael. Lots of mulling material here.

  18. Wolf Paul-
    You make a good point in your comment about the definition of religion. Too often, I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and done a disservice to true religion.
    One of the problems with speaking Evangelicalese.

  19. They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

    Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

    He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Mark 9:33-37

    For me this is it in a nutshell. I heard this passage read in Church the other day, and it was so what I needed to hear. I was dealing with the memory of the brokenness I suffered by a personally cataclysmic decision I made as a boy entering adolescence, realizing now that it was the pivotal moment of loss of innocence, loss of connection to a Power Greater and Better than me — One worthy of praise and veneration. I had no religion at the time, but had the sense of a Human Reality On High — and I was captive to a seriously dysfunctional and emotionally abusive household situation.

    When I heard this read, instead of seeing it as an admonition for my acting Christlike, I saw Jesus take the lonely boy I was then — and still am in so many ways full of fear and shame — into his arms, and consider that boy of such import to Him that whoever reached out to that child with acceptance and loving kindness would be found acceptable to the Father. And there were many that did.

    Walking in that healing knowledge, how can I turn away from others in like need? Is that not Christ-shaped?

  20. Michael,

    Do I remember correctly that you are somewhere in the process of writing a book? Would it be this topic by any chance? If not, it seems like it would take a book to in any sense adequateley communicate the thoughts outlined.

    I remember first learning the definitions of TULIP. It was beneficial, but it meant a lot more, and I learned a lot more, when contrasting them with the Remonstrance. In many points I hear arguments against . . . what? I can make some guesses, but they are only that.

    A twenty-one chapter book, a twenty-one week sermon series (when taking a break from the lectionary ;), three weeks of blog entries….any one would be good!

  21. “4) It is a spirituality where Jesus is the ultimate sacrament, and all sacraments are visible, actual participations in Jesus as salvation.”

    Yes. Absolutely yes.

    And today being Ash Wednesday, no better time to wish you all a fruitful and blessed Lent, in the expectation of the Resurrection and a holy Easter 🙂

  22. Memphis Aggie says

    I like #4 as well but we may interpret it differently ( I read it as Eucharistic) and I ‘m wondering what is meant by sacraments must be “visible”. Is that to distinguish it from the Eucharist? If so then we part company there. I thought you do not believe in the real presence so my read seems unintentional (I think you mentioned Zwingli once, am I remembering correctly?).

    #13 and #19 I have to disagree with and it’s not hard to make a Biblical case against local control, given letters of correction from Paul to disparate churches. Further I read Jesus as “top down” speaking with unheard of Authority not gathering ideas from the locals or validating local practices.

    #19 What if “whatever means God chooses” includes institutions? Does Jesus necessarily share your view? Just because he knocked down the institutions of that time and place does not mean he opposes institutions as a mechanism, in fact he lauded what the Pharisees said while castigating them for their actions. His criticism was of hypocrisy, in that they were two faced. This criticism of the state of a given institution does not necessarily mean criticism of institutions in general.

  23. Have you checked out http://www.jesusbrandspirituality.com/ ?

    I’ve heard good things, but have yet to read it. It just sounded similar to what you are saying here.

  24. Paul in the GNW says

    Memphis Aggie

    I am not understanding why we have to reject #13?
    It is a spirituality that is shaped, whenever possible, in local churches and under the ministry of local church leadership.

    I guess I am reading it in such a way that it doesn’t necessarily deny a centralized authority, although that may be what IMonk intended. Although he does add “where ever possible” which leaves the impression that he acknowledges that it is not always possible for local leadership to be self-sufficient. Certainly, spirituality and the Church must be local and we do need local leadership.

    As a Catholic, I can live with this #13, although it may well be that IMonk doesn’t agree with how I interpret it.

    I think I do pretty much the same thing on #19 – I don’t think that the institution Catholic Church does control or dispense “spirituality.” As the body of Christ I certainly do think that grace flows through the Church. Of course partly I feel free to interpret broadly because “spirituality” is such a nebulous term. If you substitute Grace maybe it changes.

    Have a Blessed and Fruitful Lent

  25. Joey, that is another of Michael’s websites.

  26. Joey, sorry, I read it wrong, brand not shaped

    sorry for crudding up the com-boxes

  27. Paul in GNW:

    No, it’s someone else’s book 🙂

  28. Memphis Aggie says

    I’m open to ideas about both locality and institutional issues, depending on further clarification. I just don’t see them as especially central to Jesus’ mission or what defines Jesus. Obviously everyone who tries to define what Jesus meant is going to bring their own perspective. I’m responding to those parts of Michael’s perspective that I think are subjective. Of course everyone recognizes that I’m a Catholic and have my own subjective view/biases.

    I recognize the difficulty of the venture. I’m not denigrating it. It’s a good thing Michael is trying to do and this clarification is helpful, but it’s not an easy one. I intended my comments as constructive criticism of what I see as weak points on the list which I also think is too long diluting the best points, but again it’s not my blog list or idea just my opinion. Of course I’m not likely part of the intended audience anyway.

  29. Well, one parting of the ways will always be that I don’t believe Jesus instituted the modern papacy. I think Apostolic authority is there, and passed on to the New Testament, without infallible interpretation. So I’m always going to be at the Protestant party.

  30. The modern Papacy is the survivor of two thousand years of human waywardness. It survived only because of the primacy of the spiritual. On the temporal level the Papacy was utterly destroyed over and over by the work and influence of the powers and pricipalities of this world. Down below all the usual human chaos was always the primary mission of carrying the good news. There are always inspired leaders and seekers at work on the spiritual mission no matter how awfully the worldly affairs are mismanaged. Humans yearn for the spiritual side of the human mess. The mission is still there being carried out. But the church is not just Rome. God thinks and plans big and long. The Papacy is endowed with the greatest wealth of human thinking and does preserve it and defend it. More important, is that it is perhaps the sole guardian of what Protestants call “Hocus Pocus” or “Hoc est corpus meum”. For this, the Papacy and the RC church deserves honor and praise. They believed what Jesus taught and did not repudiate the Lord’s words for the expediency of making it easier to separate from and plunder the assets of the predecessor church. It is history that that church was contiuously besieged by politics, heresies, greed and every other weapon human evil could marshall to overcome it and these include the folly and imperfections of it’s own “servants”. As for myself I am Jesus guided as best I can be and I believe Jesus meant what He said about the bread and wine at the Last Supper.

  31. I need to add to my 8:20 PM post. My perception is that the RC preserves the Last Supper but the Protestant side preseved and developed our understanding of scripture. It is from my Protestant brethren that I learned the most about God’s ways. I see signs of a movement towards the Eucharistic celebration among Protestants and some converts to RC are among those who have been slammed by the truth of it. Meanwhile the Papists are going full tilt towards mining scripture for understanding while still clinging to theology, philosophy, cannon law and all the rest of the intellectual approach to understanding God. The Spirit works in wondrous ways strange to us.

  32. Friscosan — I hope you don’t mind if I duck when you let loose with your “cannon” law 🙂

  33. Friscosan — It occurs to me that Protestantism is like the Prodigal Son who, instead of coming back to the father’s plantation, has decided to create an estate of his own — to become a parent and patriarch in his own right. But being that his nature is “prodigal,” he begets others in his own likeness who also rebel and leave him, starting their own plantations. On and on it went exponentially. None can go back to the original homestead without giving up their prodigal character by which they all define themselves. And when “visionaries” rise up among them proposing that the diverse prodigal households move past their own divisions and theological differences and unify under some Christ-shaped rubric, they are all frozen by the realization that if they were to do that, no matter what they were to try, no matter what format or structure they were to choose, they would look just like their common parent, whose patriarchal authority they despise and reject.

    For it is their common dilemma that it is in their rebellion from the Apostolic Papacy that they are unified ….

  34. Surfnetter–

    We are all unified, Protestant and Catholic and everyone in between, because the same Holy Spirit has granted His imprimatur upon “whoever believes” (John 3:16). When I was a monk, I got so tired of hearing (usually) well-meaning Catholics tell me I was less of a Christian because I didn’t believe in Apostolic Succession, the Pope and Transubstantiation. If I were such a prodigal son, then why would the Holy Spirit chose to live in me? Furthermore, when the Charismatic renewal hit the Catholic church in the sixties, it was the RCC who went to the Assemblies of God headquarters in Springfield, MO to ask questions about what was taking place, not the other way around.

  35. Memphis Aggie says

    We may be unified by faith in Christ but our divisions are real and they are not over trivial matters at all. Our differences with respect to faith , scripture, tradition and the real presence have enormous consequences in how we observe and practice our faith. While I understand the impulse to minimize them to make peace, the reality is that these are substantive differences that all Christians must wrestle with. The Real Presence might mean little to you, but to me it’s central. Likewise I don’t find scripture alone to be sufficient, but others will definitely disagree.

    The beauty of this site is that here we can examine the reasons for our disagreements civilly. If it becomes yet another closed circle of affirmation, I ‘ll loose interest.

  36. My point being — there has to be some structure. It is an corporate organization in the physical world as well as an “invisible” spiritual entity. The structure of the Catholic Church goes back in Apostolic succession to Peter who was the first CEO.

    It has come to be called the Papacy.

    What’s your point …?

  37. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Friscosan — I hope you don’t mind if I duck when you let loose with your “cannon” law… — Surfnetter

    Did enough of that kind of law back in the 17th Century. And it’s also the title of a new Eric Flint time-travel novel set in that period.

  38. Surfnetter:

    If you have decided to tell us that the modern papacy was there from the beginning, I’m going to call an ambulance.

    Not Peter as head of the apostles, but the modern papacy.


  39. Yeah, im — Peter walked around in a fish hat and wherever he went dozens of colorfully dressed Bishops followed him around, bowing and kissing his ring whenever they addressed him.

    Peter didn’t wear a suit and a tie either — and I don’t think he was a Republican.

  40. Except for the times of schism, the leadership role that the Bishop of Rome had over the entire Body of Christ in the world was continuous until the 17th Century. Since then the Papacy has been modified a bit more to the preferences of the likes of Luther, Calvin and even you, im, don’t you think …?

  41. imonk: you wrote

    Let it suffice for me to say that I believe the Holy Spirit can direct people, movements, events or institutions as he wishes. But Jesus is not an institution, and by relating to an institution, one does not relate automatically to God.

    that expresses a very nuanced truth very elegantly
    very well said….wish I’d said it first…..

    I’ve been following your web site now for about 3 months, and my church homies are probably praying daily that I not pester them about “imonk this” and “imonk that”

    Fortunately, I’m a crummy listener
    🙂 GREG R

  42. Boaz Ralston says

    You are describing Lutheranism.

    I think this was close to Luther’s definition of sacrament: “all sacraments are visible, actual participations in Jesus as salvation.”

    In other words, sacraments are the means by which we receive his grace. His physical body and blood, and the water of baptism.

    I know you don’t like closed communion, but half of LCMS doesn’t practice it, and neither do smaller synods, like AALC.

  43. paul wrote that existentialism was valued and preached up to a point, then we’re in wing and a prayer country. I too had unrealistic expectations of the church and its sacramental approach it seems that this has become set in concrete mainly because it worked for a time 2000+ yrs but is it valid for today we have to go back to the grassroots, find out what the basis is, seems to me that the keystone has been rejected once again nothing new and has become very head orientated.

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