He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28 NIV)
Imagine building an architectural structure consisting of two tall towers. The taller you want the towers to be, the stronger the foundation of the structure must be. Otherwise the two towers will be unstable and indeed may fall. With this metaphor, Dr James M. Houston taught us about the need to build a strong foundation of character before we embark on building the twin towers of knowledge and skills.
The world we live in is awash with knowledge. Seminary students and indeed any follower of Christ could easily be enamoured with the acquisition of knowledge. We also live in a pragmatic age where we want to be skilful so that we can be effective in what we do. It is also very possible to be given to the chasing of new and better techniques, and now also technology, to get results.
But if we build these twin towers of knowledge and skills without first building a strong foundation of mature Christlike character, we open ourselves to pride, which often opens the door to other sins. I first heard Dr Houston teaching this 40 years ago and many events since then have proven him right. Many key Christian leaders have fallen and they fell not because they were not knowledgeable or not effective. Usually they fell because of some failure in their character.
The foundational nature of Christlike maturity was one of many lessons I learnt from Dr Houston when I was at Regent. Reflecting on a Christian way of learning, Dr Houston wrote:
All meaningful conceptions gained in biblical study must be related to personal and social life. It is the formation of Christian character and conduct that is essential, not just being an academic factory that manufactures products called “degrees” and “diplomas.”
(James M. Houston, Memoirs of a Joyful Exile and a Worldly Christian [Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019], 63.)
The above quote is prophetic and something to be revisited as Regent celebrates her 50th birthday.
Coupled with Houston’s commitment to the centrality of spiritual formation was his commitment to relationships as a key way we do spiritual formation. He writes:
I have devoted my life to mentoring, first as an Oxford don for twenty-five years, teaching in a secular environment, and then for another thirty years at Regent College among theological students. It has been an enriching life, in deliberately choosing to be a facilitator of the hearts and minds of others . . . I have learned to interpret the knock at my office door, not as an interruption but a fresh opportunity to learn more of the mysteries of our humanity.
(James M. Houston, The Mentored Life [Colorado Springs, CO: NAVPRESS, 2002],13–14.)
I did “Christian Spirit” under Houston and a self-study course on spiritual direction, a large part of which consisted of spending time with him and being guided by him. I have met Dr Houston a number of times since and as I think about my time at Regent (1981–1985) I continue to reflect on the key lessons I learnt and who I learnt them from. I realise that I am completely sold out on the belief that character formation is central to Christian ministry and that mentoring is a key way that happens. It is very much the DNA of my present ministry, and indeed my ministry through the years. It is part of who I am.
I wonder how Regent is doing in this area these days. There are those who tell me that the emphasis has shifted to better academics but the school is no longer so strong in relational spiritual formation. There are others who strongly disagree and say that the school’s emphasis on this area is as strong as ever, if not more. What I do know is that it will really be a shame if we lost this emphasis on relational spiritual formation. It may very well be the greatest gift that Dr Houston, the founding principal, gave to the school. As for myself, with the years that God gives me, I will follow Houston and continue to be a “facilitator of the hearts and minds of others”.