Bad habits kill spiritual growth, and Dr. Victor Copan’s three-credit course on Spiritual Formation teaches how to break them.
As professor of Leadership and Biblical Studies, Copan has spent the past 14 years laying out the foundation for a book he wrote entitled, “Changing Your Mind: The Bible, The Brain, and Spiritual Growth,” which is based on his class and the biblical and historical materials he uses to help students unpack and demystify what spiritual growth is, how it unfolds, and more importantly, how to attain it.
This summer, he was invited to teach a three-day seminar on this topic at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D.C. The invitation came from the English-speaking pastor of the church—a man who’d struggled with drug addiction years ago and whom Copan was instrumental in leading to Christ.
Just like in his class at PBA, Copan’s hope is that people who have been exposed to these concepts take concrete steps in ways that will help them overcome patterns that have kept them stuck in the past. When asked how one can go about that, he said, “Read the book.” Meaning, of course, God’s Word—the only manual that can give a person true guidance and ways to identify those areas in their lives that need work.
In his Spiritual Formation class, Copan tells his students that this is not a one-size-fits-all plan. He begins the course, same as his book, by looking at the biblical foundation for understanding spiritual growth. The aim, the dynamics and the process—laying all that out by looking at various texts in the Bible that outline a unique path for spiritual growth. Like in 1 Corinthians 13:11, which says:
“When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”
Copan then switches to science, exploring recent findings of brain research, as well as scientific research on habit formation, bringing the class into a conversation with the process of spiritual formation. He ties that in with creation—how God created us as human beings, looking at all of our features and components.
“I make the case that we are called to become like Christ in every one of our dimensions: in our thinking, in our emotions, in what we do physically with our bodies, and then what we do in relationships with others,” he explained.
A holistic transformation has to capture with every one of those. And the class continues to explore ways to transform their minds, emotions and physical bodies—helping students take steps in developing their own plans.
The result of this class is seeing his students’ growth transformation in their Christian lives. “For the first part of the semester, I lay out this biblical foundation, and then toward the mid-point, I have each identify this one area that they target in their lives. Then, they develop their own plan, and for the rest of the course they’re working on this, giving me weekly progress reports,” Copan continued. “They also meet with their accountability partner to talk about how things are going, to pray for one another, and see if they need to change the things they’re working on to make it more effective.”
At the end of the semester, Copan has his class do an evaluation: what they learned from that experience—what went well, what didn’t. Since he came to PBA in 2004, he’s been working out the course’s kinks, and so at the end of each assignment, he asks for his students’ feedback. The weekly spiritual formation small groups assignment is quite popular, and many of these groups have continued to meet well past the end of the semester because of the bond that they’ve created.
Their last assignment is a case study, where students view themselves as pastors, ready to meet with a person who says, “I’m struggling in this area. I’d like to get freed from this, but I don’t know what to do. How can you help me?”
As his students move into ministry, they are called to help people. And instead of just saying, “Pray for it and try harder,” Copan trains them to equip people with tools that will get them unstuck from their strongholds.
"It's been very gratifying to see how my students have grown through that process. And when I get the feedback on that last assignment, they remark how helpful that was to put all the pieces together, knowing that they have tools now for the future,” Copan said.