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”.1
The Renovaré website states:
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.2
- William Menninger discovers the book, The Cloud of Unknowing:
In 1974, Father William Meninger, a Trappist monk and retreat master at St. Josephs Abbey in Spencer, Mass. found a dusty little book in the abbey library, The Cloud of Unknowing. As he read it he was delighted to discover that this anonymous 14th century book presented contemplative meditation as a teachable, spiritual process enabling the ordinary person to enter and receive a direct experience of union with God.3
Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington and others who were students of Menninger disseminate these teachings.4
- Richard Foster writes THE CELEBRATION OF DISCIPLINE.=> This book launched spiritual formation into mainstream evangelicalism, and continues to be used today.
In The Celebration of Discipline, Foster shares the practices of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches that originated with the Desert Mothers and Fathers.
=> The Celebration of Discipline presents spiritual formation as attainable through the “spiritual disciplines.”
=> These disciplines are seen as a means of growing in spiritual maturity and depth. “In fact, the implication was that without the use of these ancient contemplative methods true ‘spiritual formation’ was not possible.”5
- Dallas Willard, a close associate of Richard Foster, writes The Spirit of the Disciplines. This book “reveals how the key to self-transformation resides in the practice of the spiritual disciplines, and how their practice affirms human life to the fullest.”6
The Spirit of the Disciplines is based on Willard’s understanding of Matt. 11:29–30. Willard teaches that the “yoke” spoken of by Jesus in this passage is to attempt to emulate the life of Christ in every way possible. Willard teaches that this emulation occurs through the practice of the disciplines.7 (For a comprehensive teaching on this passage in Matthew, read or listen to Dr. John MacArthur’s sermon, Jesus’ Personal Invitation, Part 2.)
Richard Foster founds Renovaré. This organization seeks “to resource, fuel, model, and advocate more intentional living and spiritual formation among Christians and those wanting a deeper connection with God. A foundational presence in the spiritual formation movement for over 20 years, Renovaré is Christian in commitment, ecumenical in breadth, and international in scope.”8
- The ideas presented by Foster and Willard continue to be propagated through the works and teachings of others.
- Spiritual formation is a primary teaching found in what has come to be known as the emerging church. Brian McLaren, a key leader in that movement, has acknowledged that both Foster and Willard are considered “key mentors for the emerging church.”9
According to proponents of spiritual formation, various “spiritual disciplines” must be practiced in order to experience true spiritual growth:
Christian spiritual formation is a God-ordained process that shapes our entire person so that we take on the character and being of Christ himself.
Properly employed…these disciplines help us attain increasing levels of spiritual maturity so that we respond to our life circumstances with the mind of Christ.10
In his book, The Celebration of Discipline, as well as on his Renovaré website, Richard Foster lists these disciplines as:11
- Entering into a “listening silence” in order to “hear God’s voice.” Similar to the meditation of Eastern religions.
- An “interactive conversation” with God. Practiced as contemplative prayer.
- “The voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.”
- “The mind taking on an order conforming to the order of whatever we concentrate upon.”
- “The joyful unconcern for possessions we experience as we truly ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Matt 6:33).”
- A “state of mind” for one to be “found by God and freed from competing loyalties.”
- Letting “go of the burden of always needing to get our own way.”
- “A pattern of service as a lifestyle…At the center is found a contentment in hiddenness, indiscriminancy.”
- Confession of sin to other professing believers.
- “Entering into the supra-natural experience of the Shekanyah, or glory, of God.”
- Learning to “heed the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Jesus.” “It is the perception that we have heard the Kol Yahweh, the voice of God.”
- Celebrating God in all facets of life.
Since the disciplines are not defined in Scripture, no concrete, definitive list is available. Consequently, Willard notes that we should not “assume that our particular list will be right for others.”12 This confirms the subjective nature of these practices.
[Christian Research Network]