A few days ago, I saw a Facebook posting about a wedding I helped conduct in 1998. There was an accompanying picture that showed the couple with me, half my present size and with black hair. I can’t remember the details of that wedding and, though the couple was very dear to me, we have hardly kept in contact in recent years. But I do recall that I was very involved in their lives at a certain chapter of our lives. And perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that they remembered my journeying with them because then, and now, I strongly hold to the conviction that the most significant ministry is personal and therefore relational. In holding to this I show myself to be a disciple of James Houston, the founding principal of Regent College. He wrote:

Personal relations require us to attend to the particularity of the other. Uniqueness is a God-given gift of our personhood that we must celebrate in each other. Thus one of my inner habits has been to cultivate a prayerful attitude in the presence of other people, whispering inwardly, “Lord, make me reverent in the presence of this unique child for whom you died.” (Joyful Exiles [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006], 135)

I don’t want to sound like a Luddite, but my fear of so much ministry going online, especially in this period of the virus pandemic, is that we might lose these personal and relational dimensions of ministry. Of course, different subjects call for different approaches to teaching and I am slowly discovering the things that something like Zoom, for example, can indeed maybe do even better than live meetings. Still, I can’t see discipleship as one-size-fits-all mass production. In the enthusiasm to do things with the new technologies we must remember that in-depth spiritual formation is personal and relational.

We must always remember that Jesus came to us in the flesh and He came to “tabernacle” (made his dwelling) with us.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14 NIV)

A key part of His ministry was a three-year road trip with a community of 12 disciples, a ministry that was personal and relational.

I also note this interesting word in 2 Timothy 3:14–15:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (NIV)

And from whom did Timothy learn the Scriptures? From his grandmother and mother.

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. (2 Timothy 1:5 NIV)

We speculate as why Timothy’s father is not mentioned. Perhaps he was a Gentile who never embraced Christ or maybe he passed away early. In any case, Timothy’s basic spiritual formation happened in the home — personal and relational.

I can imagine Timothy growing up observing the modelling of his mum and grandmum. He would see how their lives illustrated the biblical truths they taught. And when Timothy was older, I am sure there would come the questions: “Mum why did you do this? Grandma why did you refuse to do that?” It is interesting that in 2 Timothy 3:16–17 Paul reminds us of the divine origin of the Word, but in his discussion with Timothy, it is the lives of his grandmother and mother that Paul points to as the basis for Timothy to trust the Word. I have no doubts about the objective veracity of the Bible. But if the question is, “How do we share the Word with others in a way that will impact them?”, Paul would say that it was through the modelling of lives that lived out the Word — personal and relational.

I had a Zoom tutorial with some students from my Biblical Graduate School of Theology “Introduction to Spiritual Mentoring” Class a few evenings ago. I had divided the class into two groups and “met” with them over Zoom. It was a great time. As a teacher I was especially happy to see that they had all understood what I was trying to convey to them in my teaching. I suspect some felt freer to share over Zoom than if we had all been in the same room. As always, I ended the Zoom session more tired than I would have been if I had conducted the same exercise live. But the session gave me a fresh appreciation of what can be done through platforms like Zoom and how it is incumbent that we explore how we can use new communication technologies to do theological education going forward.

My highlight of the evening was when one of the students thanked me for my effort to video-tape most of the lectures, and for the Zoom tutorials. He understood that it must have been tough for me. He said he knew I wanted so much for the teaching to be personal and relational, and “live”. I was deeply touched by his comments. I need to say that I had two live sessions with the class before government regulations made live classes impossible. In one of those sessions I had dinner with some of the students and this student was one of them. I suspect that in that conversation over the meal he had caught some of my values and passions.

I see the present season as a special season when we have to adapt to a new and hopefully temporary “normal”. In many ways we have reasons to be grateful to this season. It has forced us to step back to re-examine how we do things, including spiritual formation. We will re-emerge with fresh appreciation of how we can do things better, including more strategic use of communication technology. The church has often been the slowest to change.

However, certain biblical convictions remain, one of which is that spiritual formation is best done personally and relationally. If it was good enough for Jesus, well…. At the earliest possibility, Bernice and I will proceed to have members of the class over to our home for dinner.