Rich Villodas: Deeply Formed—Part 1

Rich Villodas is the Brooklyn-born lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, a large, multiracial church with more than 75 countries represented in Elmhurst, Queens. Prior to succeeding Pete Scazzero to become lead pastor, Villodas gave oversight to New Life’s small groups ministry and served as preaching pastor.

His first book, The Deeply Formed Life, has become an acclaimed manifesto of spiritual formation for this generation, winning the Christianity Today Book Award for spiritual formation, and was recommended as one of Outreach magazine’s Resources of the Year for 2021. Outreach magazine editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor, who was also principal editor on Villodas’ booksat down with him to discuss how his early years led to his present role at New Life Fellowship, and how drawing deeply from diverse Christian expressions grounds his work as a pastor amid the significant spiritual and social challenges of ministry today. 

Tell us about your background. What was your path into pastoral ministry?

My journey to the pastorate began soon after becoming a Christian. At 19, I came to Christ in a storefront Latino Pentecostal church in Brooklyn. It was quite a moment—15 of my family members also made a decision for Christ that same night. 

As I became more involved in the church, I began to preach outdoors for small neighborhood services. I started to have a burning sense that I was called to be a pastor. I still wasn’t sure, though. 

But then, in the first six months after saying yes to Christ, there were about four to five different preachers from different churches who came to our youth gathering. They all had this classic Pentecostal charismatic moment of ministry time when they would call people out and give a personal word to them. One after another, they called on me. I would stand up, and each time they would say something like, “God has called you to preach and to pastor people.” Each time it was quite affirming, but also nerve-racking—and eventually became embarrassing when it happened three or four times in quick succession.

About six months after I came to Christ, my pastor, who was in his upper 60s, had a bad stroke. Suddenly he could not preach. So he started asking if I would go in his place. There I was—a 19- or 20-year-old going to preach in small churches around New York—in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens—supporting my pastor. That’s how my work of preaching began.

What came next?

Soon after that, I heard about a school called Nyack College that offered ministry training. I hadn’t even known that Christian colleges existed. I applied and got in. During those years, I studied pastoral ministry and theology and all the rest, then upon my graduation, went to seminary. Right after that, I was invited to join the staff of a very large church called the Brooklyn Tabernacle where I oversaw the college and young adult ministry as a pastor.

While in college, a professor me read something from Henry Nouwen—The Return of the Prodigal Son. And when I read it, I was so moved, but also I was taken aback. First of all, I thought, who is this Catholic guy? Are Catholics even Christians? That’s what I thought back then. I decided that I needed to read everything this guy had written. Now thankfully, Nouwen wrote small, short books. I was able to get my hands on most of them.

In one of those little books, The Way of the Heart, he talked about the contemplative, monastic tradition. When I read that book, I was incredibly moved. That year, it just so happened that a group from our college went on a trip to a Franciscan monastery where I tasted the depth of real Christian silence and solitude for the first time. And something awakened in me.

“The Christian life is not just going to heaven when we die, but having the very life of Christ formed in us.”

Then I thank God for the seminary professors a few years later who opened me to theology that existed outside of the United States—African theology, Latin American theology, Asian theology. Through those, I started learning about the global, historic church, and points of emphasis from throughout the centuries related to justice and in particular to the poor. I found myself in early 2009 incredibly shaped by that. And then going to New Life, I was exposed to a church with a paradigm that included emotional health—interiority as a particular value, as well as holding together sexuality and spirituality as parts of our formation and discipleship.

And that—conversion, words from others, a pastor who wanted to empower me, opportunity, training, encountering gifts from other Christian traditions, then ministry—was my journey into the pastorate and where I am now.

I appreciate the mentoring role that an older pastor had on you. That sort of relationship continued through your connection with Pete Scazzero, as you joined New Life Fellowship, didn’t it?

Absolutely. I had learned about New Life from Pete’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. When I read it, circa 2006, I was deeply moved by the concepts and the theology. I found out that Pete was in Queens, just a few minutes from me in Brooklyn. By  2008, I had connected with one of the pastors at New Life. I was interested in their values and the culture they had because of Pete’s leadership. They cared about things like racial justice and reconciliation, like emotional health and like serving the poor and marginalized in the community. I applied to be an assistant pastor, joined the staff at 28, and found myself working at the church while putting roots down into these historic Christian values.

About two years later, the elders invited me to go through a discernment process to see whether I would be a fit to succeed Pete. I was not expecting that at all. It was very surprising, but I learned that they had been in their own process for a couple years already. As we discerned, it was clear that it was right. In 2013, I ended up becoming the lead pastor at New Life. It’s been the greatest.

That initial connection with Pete’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is a natural segue into your book The Deeply Formed Life. What does it mean for Christians to be “deeply formed”?

First, The Deeply Formed Life came from reading Paul, especially the language where Paul writes to the church in Galatia that he’s in the pain of childbirth “until Christ is formed” in them (Gal. 4:19). I remember being shocked by that language when it really sank in for the first time. Paul is a pastor, longing for people to have the life of Christ formed in them. At its core, The Deeply Formed Life is me attempting to say in a different way what has been said for millennia: that the Christian life is one not just marked by going to heaven when we die but having the very life of Christ formed in us.

When I think about what a deeply formed life is, I think of the proclamation of the gospel. I think of those things that are forming us in the world. Because we all are being formed by something. But outside of the work of Christ, we have all been malformed and deformed by other cultural forces and ideologies and our families of origin and all the rest.

But at its core, I’m simply saying what has been said many times before—that we need to see the life of Christ being formed in our very lives.

That’s a perennial message: the call for every generation of Christians since the first disciples. But is there something about that message that you feel is particularly relevant or urgent for us today?

Yeah, absolutely. I started writing the book a bit like Eugene Peterson translated The Message. It didn’t start with him wanting to translate the whole Bible. It started with him trying to serve his local congregation. He wanted to help them understand the book of Galatians. While wrestling with how he could make those words accessible to them, he started translating the letter fresh for his people in his place. 

That’s how this book started for me, too. I wanted to help my people understand five particular values that make up our congregation. Those five values—contemplative rhythms, racial reconciliation, interior examination, sexual wholeness and missional presence—have so impacted my life that I found great joy in writing about them. But as I dove into the work, that scope shifted. I don’t want to sound like I’m overreaching, but I did sense that what I was trying to do was to provide an ambitious reframing of spiritual formation for a new generation.

“Can we learn from people who are not like us? Or are our ‘fences’ so rigid that we’ve become stuck in them?”

Discipleship and formation cannot stay in the realm of generalities or ambiguities. We can’t just talk about faith from a vague perspective. We must get particular—very particular—about our formation. And so, The Deeply Formed Life became about identifying particular points of formation, discipleship—what it means to follow Christ in a healthy, deeply formed way in this particular cultural moment. In our moment.

In our congregation, it was pretty clear what were the particular areas of emphasis in which we needed to have Christ formed in us. We needed to talk about contemplative rhythms: slowing down in a very busy and frantic culture. We needed to talk about racial justice, about seeing the gospel create a new family that bridges and breaks down all kinds of barriers. We needed interior examination for a world that often lives on the surface and to talk about sexual wholeness in a culture that often segments and splits body from soul. We needed to talk about missional presence in a way that could move us beyond simply being spiritual consumers.

I was trying to be as specific as possible to engage what our culture needs right now. Every generation will have its particular idols and particular areas of struggle. These were some of our largest. It’s not exhaustive. However, I do think those five values are really important for the moment we are in. The Deeply Formed Life, at its core, examines how the life of Christ is formed in us by asking the specific questions of pain or possibility in our spiritual lives.

What are some of the markers of shallow formation in our churches or in us?

First, an inability to integrate well. Can we learn from people who are not like us? Or are our “fences” so rigid, whatever our background, that we’ve become stuck in them? If integration is hard or impossible, we’re likely shallowly formed. I’ve been impacted by so many kinds of Christians. By various evangelical traditions, Pentecostal and charismatic traditions, traditions oriented by justice, Protestants, Catholics and so many specific strains of practice within the diversity of our faith.

In mainstream evangelical tradition, the emphasis is often pretty exclusively on right thinking, right belief. But we all know people, I’m sure, whose theology was “perfect,” yet their spiritual life was … not. The malformed person can have good thinking that doesn’t move to right action. It doesn’t cultivate what the Holy Spirit wants to make real in our lives. The same principle is true for charismatic Pentecostal traditions. There, the emphasis is so much on “right” experiences with God that people miss out on the call to embody the holistic, balanced life that Christ calls us to in our day-to-day life. In those two simple examples, both traditions might have something to learn from the other, don’t you think? And isn’t it a bit shallow if they can’t?

“One of the most frightening side effects of the malformed life is not being able to actively discern God’s presence.” 

So malformation can come when we compartmentalize ourselves or our faith. But on another level, malformation happens because of our lack of interiority. What is happening “inside” us? When we think about some of these aspects of racism or justice or sexuality, so much of the work that we do tries to get thought and action right, but rushes to that end. It does not incorporate a commitment to interior examination, to slowing down, to growing in prudence, wisdom, prayerfulness, contemplation. And so we find in ourselves a kind of reactivity, a frenetic and frantic existence. We are not getting the kind of time that we need with God and the kind of time that we need to look within to actually follow Christ in the particular moment and context that we find ourselves in. All told, there is a simple disconnect between being and doing. How do we hold together being and doing in our discipleship and leadership? How can we be healthy and balanced as we follow Christ in the world?

Finding a deeper level of contemplation and interior examination is so critical. We’re malformed merely by living in this age. Life today cultivates an uncritical allegiance to the very powers of the world. To the spiritual idols that often subject us to slavery and bondage. One of the most frightening side effects of the malformed life is not being able to actively discern God’s presence, God’s call. We live uncritically, and as a result we are shaped by the various forces around us instead of by Christ. 

All of those seem like facets of what you call in your first chapter, an “exhausted life.” That word—exhausted—is complex. You’re not simply talking about feeling tired. Rather, our inward resources have been spent past the point of health. I suspect many readers of this interview, especially with the various stressors of the past two years, are feeling that exhaustion. What is the first step to moving toward this greater health and rootedness you describe?

I get how setting aside time or mental energy for the work of prayer and interiority might feel just like another thing to do in an already full to-do list. But contemplation and the to-do list are not in the same category. We give out of who we are in God. I think of Parker Palmer’s quote, when he said burnout “does not result from giving all I have: It merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.”

How can I live from who I am in God? How can I truly offer God to people through my work? How can I live so that interior examination doesn’t just become another thing on the to-do list? The deeply formed life is who I’m called to be. Out of our rooted life in Christ, everything else flows. Yes, we are exhausted. But we cannot do without this. When it is real it is not a source of exhaustion. It is a solution for it. If that is not the case, we must rest from a place of deeper abiding. (If prayer leaves us more exhausted when we’re done than when we started, I don’t know that we’re doing it right.)

How do we move away from transactional prayer? How do we move from always needing to get something from God, in order to be with God? I don’t get it right all the time. But from Christian tradition I’ve tasted contemplation and rest. I have gotten to the point where I don’t know if I can do life—let alone ministry—without them.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Rich Villodas where he discusses the value of contemplative prayer, how he navigates the complexities of leading a multiethnic church, and how leaders can pursue deeper spiritual formation.