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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The problem that church leaders or Christian educators confront today is that they’re ministering in the digital age, but they’re using an analog model of spiritual formation.

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.

So you believe the classic idea of “the communion of saints” plays into all this.

That’s exactly what is happening in the gathering together of the physical body of Christ in a specific location—while we are gathered physically, there is a spiritual communion of the saints gathering with us. This is a highly dynamic understanding of this relationship between physical and spiritual that you’d find in the Passover celebration of the Old Testament and in the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament. The folks who were participating in future celebrations of the Passover were doing so as if they were experiencing the Passover themselves for the first time. And the same is happening in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We are experiencing firsthand the death, resurrection, and the later coming of Christ in that celebration, and we anticipate that by the things that transpire here. To me, that’s a much more biblical and theologically sound way of thinking about it than the typical criticisms that have been made of online education as non-incarnational and disembodied.

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Do you believe spiritual formation should be an overt goal of online education, or is it simply a byproduct of studying Christian material or material from a Christian perspective?

We believe it’s the latter, and we arrived at that because of how Jesus talks about it in his nature parables. In Mark 4:26–29, Jesus is relaying the parable of the sower. This farmer goes out and he sows his seed, and then Jesus says he goes to sleep. He gets up and does not understand how the grain has grown. But when it is ripe, he puts in the sickle and reaps the harvest. And that’s kind of how the spiritual ecology of the kingdom and the church work.

There are certain things that we have to do as God’s people. We’ve got to sow the seed, and we have to reap the harvest. But in between that growth process is something that the Lord does. God causes that to grow. That’s what Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth.” We do our part to create the environment—prepare the soil, plant the seed, do the watering—but in the end, the growth comes because the Spirit of God is working through and in all of those connections and interactions that produce the ultimate outcome of a bountiful harvest.

How would you respond to those who argue that you’re encouraging people to spend more time online instead of learning how to be with each other?

We’re not necessarily advocating that they do anything digitally. But in your model of spiritual formation you have to allow for all the possibilities of where that can occur. It may be you want nothing to do with online. That’s fine, but don’t say that is true then for every other person in the body of Christ. It may be that there are places where people can carry out their gifts and callings in that environment connected to things they’re doing physically.

One of the researchers I read made a compelling argument about teenagers. As the study focused on their digital media habits, she concluded that teenagers are not addicted to technology—they’re addicted to one another. Through the digital environment, they can be connected to one another without adult supervision. This allows them to create their own adolescent culture without having adults interfering. Technology is a means for them to connect with each other, and when they are together, they put the devices aside. The researcher also attended a Friday night football game, and she said at the game there weren’t any devices out. They were in the stands, being students, interacting with one another in a face-to-face environment and cheering their team on.

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If an institution, whether school or local church, were to try to create an online ecology, what would it need to produce spiritual growth?

Every ecology has to have two critical ingredients, whether it’s a natural, social, or spiritual ecology: You have to have interconnections and interaction. Everything in a natural ecosystem is organically connected to everything else. Quantum physicists have demonstrated to us that everything in the universe is connected to everything else. But those connections aren’t any good to the different elements of the ecosystem if they’re not doing something with them, if there isn’t something transpiring between those connections.

And the same is true in the spiritual ecology of the church. Simply because we gather together on a Sunday morning, we’re in the same locality, we have that connection, but that’s not enough. You also need interactions that transpire between those connections so that spiritual nutrients are spread and growth occurs.

What are concrete examples of interactions in the local church, for example?

You can do those any number of ways. You have all kinds of digital platforms and applications to make connections and interactions. You can do that through blogging, tweets, Facebook, and environments that you have embedded in a webpage for a local church. You can do it through emails, phone calls, text messaging. And through those you are communicating God’s Word. You are praying for one another. You’re sharing your life stories, your experiences. It is a rich environment only limited by our own creativity.

What are the major cautions churches or schools need to be aware of in trying to make use of digital platforms for spiritual growth?

Everything has to be grounded in the Scripture. Pay attention to the text of Scripture, and be faithful in your interpretation of those texts and drawing out implications and applications from them to the world in which we’re living. As long as we stay tied to the Scriptures, where we’re recognizing that what we are doing is something that is laid out for us if not in reality at least in principle, to me that is where the strength of any of these approaches comes from. And as long as we stay tied to that, it keeps us from going off the rails.

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