SPIRITUAL FORMATION: What is it ? (part 1)
(#256) EMERGING TRENDS IN THE CHURCH TODAY SPIRITUAL FORMATION (Part 1) - How is it defined by those who use it ?
What is Spiritual Formation? It is like buying a new car that is used – its your “new used car“.
Let’s attempt to just define the phrase and get a feel for how other people define it. Next episode, we will dive a bit deeper to reveal the history of the phrase and how it was used in the church.
It is so ingrained into the church vernacular, that most of us have heard of the term, read about the phrase from you favorite Christian author, your pastor and church use the phrase, seminary professors use it……etc.
It is not uncommon today, to see the phrase being used by those who sincerely assume they are using a biblical concept to describe a level of spirituality in their personal walk. Similarly, others, take this phrase to describe the biblical concept of discipleship that the church is called to carry out in its commission from Jesus. Still, others present it as the lost step child in the church, a phrase originating from the times of the early church who pursued a mystical path to spirituality – ie. the “new used car“. Today, many who view it in this manner are quick to point to the Desert Fathers (& mothers) who engaged in a form contemplative spirituality in their spiritual walk.
Like any term with a variety of usage stemming from contemporary to historical concepts, we should probably attempt to weigh the baggage involved and get a sense of how various people use the phrase SPIRITUAL FORMATION and what it means to them. Let’s look at several usages and definitions –
- (Christian Research) Spiritual formation = is the growth and development of the whole person by an intentional focus on one’s: Spiritual and interior life. Interactions with others in ordinary life. Spiritual practices (prayer, the study of scripture, fasting, simplicity, solitude, confession, worship, etc.).
- Spiritual formation = is the process of apparent spiritual development through engaging in a set of behaviors, termed disciplines. Advocates believe these disciplines help shape the character of the practitioner into the likeness of Christ.
- Though superficially similar to discipleship, spiritual formation is not merely concerned with biblical exhortation and instruction in orthodox doctrine, but also with the teaching of “many practices that opened [the believer] to the presence and direction of God, and nurtured the character traits of Christ into fruition”.
- (Robert Mulholland) Spiritual Formation = is the “process of being formed into the image of Christ for the sake of others”
- (Renovaré) Spiritual formation = is a process, but it is also a journey through which we open our hearts to a deeper connection with God. We are not bystanders in our spiritual lives, we are active participants with God, who is ever inviting us into relationship with him. 
- (Lighthouse Trails Research) Spiritual Formation = A movement that has provided a platform and a channel through which contemplative prayer is entering the church. Find spiritual formation being used, and in nearly every case you will find contemplative spirituality. In fact, contemplative spirituality is the heartbeat of the spiritual formation movement.
- (Dallas Willard) Spiritual Formation = [more of a broader discussion than description] “The more advanced they are in the process of spiritual formation, the greater and more pervasive will be their spirituality.”
- “[F]rom the viewpoint of those responsible to lead in Christ’s program of making students from all ethnic groupings, immersing them in the reality of the triune name, and teaching them to do all things he has commanded us (Matt. 28:19-28), Christian spiritual formation is simply indispensable.”
- “Sometimes we think of spiritual formation as formation by the Holy Spirit. Once again. That’s essential. We can’t evade it–formation by the Holy Spirit. But now I have to say something that may be challenging for you to think about: Spiritual formation is not all by the Holy Spirit. None without the Holy Spirit. But there’s always more involved. And here again we run into the problems of passivity over against activity. Here lies the deepest challenge to the very idea obedience to Christ in our times. We have to recognize that spiritual formation in us is something that is also done to us by those around us, by ourselves, and by activities which we voluntarily undertake …There has to be method.” from Spiritual Formation, What is it and How is it Done?
- (Rick Warren) Spiritual Formation = “From time to time God has raised up a parachurch movement to reemphasize a neglected purpose of the church… The Discipleship. Spiritual Formation Movement. A reemphasis on developing believers to full maturity has been the focus … authors such as … Richard Foster and Dallas Willard have underscored the importance of building up Christians and establishing personal spiritual disciplines…. [this] movement has a valid message for the church…[it] has given the body a wake-up call. —Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, p. 126.
- (Ruth Haley Barton) Spiritual Formation = (Former Associate Director of Spiritual Formation at Willow Creek Community Church) “A few years ago, I began to recognize an inner chaos in my soul . . . No matter how much I prayed, read the Bible, and listened to good teaching, I could not calm the internal roar created by questions with no answers.” “Beyond Words: Experience God’s presence in silence and solitude ” “I sought out a spiritual director, someone well versed in the ways of the soul … eventually this wise woman said to me, … “What you need is stillness and silence so that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear.’ … I decided to accept this invitation to move beyond my addiction to words.”
- (Youth Specialties) Spiritual Formation = In 1996, two Christian organizations, Youth Specialties and San Francisco Theological Seminary (Presbyterian Church, USA), teamed together to develop an approach to youth ministry that incorporates contemplative practices. In 1997, the Project received a grant from the Lilly Endowment to test a “spiritual formation model.”
- (Richard Foster) Author of the Spiritual Formation Bible = “By now enough water has gone under the Christian Spiritual Formation bridge that we can give some assessment of where we have come and what yet needs to be done. When I first began writing in the field in the late 70s and early 80s the term “Spiritual Formation” was hardly known, except for highly specialized references in relation to the Catholic orders. Today it is a rare person who has not heard the term. Seminary courses in Spiritual Formation proliferate like baby rabbits. Huge numbers are seeking to become certified as Spiritual Directors to answer the cry of multiplied thousands for spiritual direction. And more.” Spiritual Formation, A Pastoral Letter by Richard Foster
- (Larry Crabb) Spiritual Formation = “The next reformation is due. It will focus on what it means to know God with a power that changes who we are and how we relate. I predict the Spiritual Formation Forum will play a vital role in the Spirit’s next great movement.” Larry Crabb, The Association of Christian Counselors
- (Willow Creek Association) Spiritual Formation = ”The Practice offers Saturday morning meetings which provide a rhythm of worship, teaching on a particular spiritual discipline and time to experience or “practice” that discipline. This practice time allows participants to get a fuller understanding of how to incorporate the discipline in their daily lives.” Spiritual Formation at Willow Creek
As you can see, there are similarities and some differences in how people define and use the phrase Spiritual Formation. Some will include the concept of being on a journey in the effort to becoming like Christ. Others will use a phrase, Spiritual Disciplines, to outline activities that one can be involved in the process of becoming like Christ. Then, there are some who include the concept of contemplative prayer in their description – a contemplative spirituality that seemingly goes beyond what Scripture is discussing.
Note => Those who are teaching “spiritual formation” believe we cannot be “deep” Christians without it.
Next episode will continue to look at the historic origin and use of this phrase to provide context in coming up with a proper definition.