The Good and Bad of Spiritual Formation, Part 2

I’m going to try to wrap this up by answering some questions.

Aren’t you aware of the long tradition in Christianity of spiritual disciplines designed to bring our hearts into closer alignment with God’s will? How can you discount so much of our history and so many great teachers?

Maybe I’m misunderstanding what’s going on here, but this emphasis on spiritual disciplines reminds of the Pietism movement within Lutheranism, which influenced much of the rest of Christianity profoundly. Pietism was in response to the perception that Lutheranism had become too academic, too caught up in doctrine, and not sufficiently interested in the individual Christian having a regenerate heart.

One particular influence was in Methodism, in which John Wesley worked within the Anglican church to get away from its impersonal formalism and make Christianity intensely personal. He encouraged small group meetings that were remarkably similar to the meetings being recommended by Willard and Foster in the Renovaré movement.

It’s hardly surprising that we see this teaching renewed in American evangelicalism in reaction to any number of abuses. I mean, the church growth movement has shown tendencies toward a consumerist Christianity. Many churches have gotten away from preaching the Bible. And we live in a society increasingly interested in a spiritual experience.

None of this makes the Willard/Foster approach to spiritual formation wrong. It just tells us that we’ve been here before. After all, Foster is Quaker, and they are very much a product of the Pietist movement.

I say all that to say that I’m not opposed to spiritual disciplines and certainly in favor of seeking to be obedient to Christ in all things. And I think we all should want Christ to be fully formed in us. The goals are entirely laudable and sound. But the methods are flawed.

Pietism has a way of coming and going in Christian history. I think this is because it’s not really the answer to the question — or the cure for the problem. It is often better than what it replaces, but still not quite complete.

It’s good to add these disciplines to the spiritual buffet, but they are the salad course, not the meat.

But I know people who’ve been greatly helped by these disciplines. Just what is it you’re opposed to?

Well, I worry about turning Christianity into something that’s too personal and not sufficiently corporate — which is where we are, I think, in the United States today. This spiritual formation teaching has the potential to weaken the bonds of community as we are being told to seek highly individualistic, personal relationships with God away from the community. And if my quiet time or meditation or silence or fasting is where my spirituality is centered, then it’s not centered in the church. And it should be.

It’s understandable, because the church often fails to be the church it’s supposed to be — but the cure is to work to improve the community, not to abandon the community!

Recall back in the first post I quoted this from Willard —

Most of the activities commonly identified as “religious” activities can be a part of the process of spiritual formation, and should be. Public and private worship, study of scripture, nature, and God’s acts in human history, prayer, giving to godly causes, and service to others, can all be highly effective elements in spiritual formation. But they must be thoughtfully and resolutely approached for that purpose, or they will have little or no effect in promoting it.

Other less commonly practiced activities such as fasting, solitude, silence, listening prayer, scripture memorization, frugal living, confession, journaling, submission to the will of others as appropriate, and well-used spiritual direction are in fact more foundational for spiritual formation in Christlikeness than the more well known religious practices, and are essential for their profitable use.

Notice that he specifically says that study of the Bible and service to others “can be part” of spiritual formation but the more individualistic, personal practices of fasting, solitude, silence, etc. “are in fact more foundational” and “are essential.” I’m sorry, but I’ve seen in all before.

Back when the Crossroads Movement (latter the Boston Movement and later the International Churches of Christ) was getting started, their teaching emphasized certain practices — a daily quiet time and prayer partners. I was told by a proponent, “I’m not saying that a failure to do these things will send you to hell, but I can’t see how you’ll make it to heaven without them!” Been there, tried that, don’t want to go back.

Hence, I see in the Willard/Foster take on spiritual formation a weakening of body life, a turn away from works of service and toward Christianity as an internal experience of God, and even a step on the path toward a works religion.

Now, Willard and Foster are not at all intending to teach a works religion, but it’s hard to escape that result when you say that the path to obedience is “fasting, solitude, silence, listening prayer, scripture memorization, frugal living, confession, journaling, submission to the will of others as appropriate, and well-used spiritual direction.” None of these are wrong, but centering our Christianity on these practices is.

But aren’t things like social justice and communion a part of the Renovare program? Aren’t you overlooking these elements of their teaching?

Renovare encourages those participating to respond in six areas of spirituality, each reflecting a different strain of Christian tradition —

Contemplative: The Prayer-filled life
By God’s grace, I will set aside time regularly for prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading and will seek to practice the presence of God.

Questions of Examen:
In what ways has God made his presence known to you since our last meeting? What experiences of prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading has God given you? What difficulties or frustrations have you encountered? What joys and delights?

Holiness: The Virtuous Life
By God’s grace, I will strive mightily against sin and will do deeds of love and mercy.

Questions of Examen:
What temptations have you faced since our last meeting? How did you respond? Which spiritual disciplines has God used to lead you further into holiness of heart and life?

Charismatic: The Spirit-Empowered Life
By God’s grace, I will welcome the Holy Spirit, exercising the gifts and nurturing the fruit while living in the joy and power of the Spirit.

Questions of Examen:
Have you sensed any influence or work of the Holy Spirit since our last meeting? What spiritual gifts has the Spirit enabled you to exercise? What was the outcome? What fruit of the Spirit would you like to see increase in your life? What disciplines might be useful in this effort?

Social Justice: The Compassionate Life
By God’s grace, I will endeavor to serve others everywhere I can and will work for justice in all human relationships and social structures.

Questions of Examen:
What opportunities has God given you to serve others since our last meeting? How did you respond? Have you encountered any injustice to or oppression of others? Have you been able to work for justice and shalom?

Evangelical: The Word-Centered Life
By God’s grace, I will share my faith with others as God leads and study the Scriptures regularly.

Questions of Examen:
Has God provided an opportunity for you to share your faith with someone since our last meeting? How did you respond? In what ways have you encountered Christ in your reading of the Scriptures? How has the Bible shaped the way you think and live?

Incarnational: The Sacramental Life
By God’s grace, I will joyfully seek to show forth the presence of God in all that I say, in all that I do, in all that I am.

Questions of Examen:
In what ways have you been able to manifest the presence of God through your daily work since our last meeting? How has God fed and strengthened you through the ministry of word and sacrament?

Now, each of these is excellent. If we were to each mature in all six areas, we’d be much better Christians. There is nothing wrong. It’s just that something is missing.

You see, the church is missing — or nearly so. In fact, it’s all entirely individualistic until you get to the very last question, “How has God fed and strengthened you through the ministry of word and sacrament?” And even then, the attitude toward church the question reflects is that it’s a place to be fed and strengthened by God. It’s a consumer mindset!

How about adding these two disciplines to the list?

Agape: The LIfe of Brotherly Love
By God’s grace, I will love my brothers and sisters in Christ as Jesus loves me.

Questions for Examen:
Did you participate in the assembly by encouraging brothers and sisters to love and good works? Did you encourage, strengthen, comfort, and edify your brothers and sisters while you were there? How have you served your brothers and sisters, honoring them above yourself, not just during the assembly but throughout the week?

MIssion: LIfe in the Kingdom
By God’s grace, I will serve alongside my brothers and sisters in God’s mission, participating in concerted, corporate action

Questions for Examen:
Would the work of your congregation in God’s mission miss you if you left town? Do you actively help your congregation be the church for which Jesus died? Do you selflessly offer your talents to God’s service as a part of Christ’s body?

As is typical of reform movements, they tend to overly focus on what’s missing, often failing to preserve what’s worth keeping. And this is what bothers me so much. To paraphrase Alexander Campbell, sometimes in fleeing Babylon, we overshoot Jerusalem and wind up in Rome.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to The Good and Bad of Spiritual Formation, Part 2

  1. Nick Gill says:

    Jay wrote: You see, I don’t see Christianity as primarily about our being good people. I think it’s more about our being on a mission together, and I don’t see the disciplines as being about that. But, again, I’d love to be proven wrong.

    Nick here: The disciplines don't make you good people. The disciplines are means of grace that help "equip us for the work of ministry" (Eph 4:12). They are practices that allow us to "train ourselves unto godliness" (1 Tim 4:7-8). Godliness is not primarily morality, but active ministry to the world.

    Overall, I do not believe Foster and Willard are prescribing the disciplines for people who neither have nor want involvement with the local church. I believe they are prescribing them for those people for whom the local church is as much a source of frustration and exhaustion as it is love and spiritual growth.

    You want brothers and sisters to come to the assembly equipped to build up one another, but where will they get such resources? From our own pitiful soulish powerpacks or from the Spirit of God?

    The disciplines make sense to me for three reasons:
    1) because in order to be an effective member of a team, you've got to practice. When I was in the Army, if my unit had an assignment, I would design training exercises to hone my unit's skills and strengths, their reflexes and instincts, until they knew in their sleep exactly what their role was. The old saying goes, "The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war." God gives everyone potential or raw abilities; only exercise and practice will hone them into effective skills. The mission of God is new creation: living that mission is incredibly complex and requires more than a desire to do good.

    2) because the transformation in 1 Cor 15 is from a person whose life depends on their own energy (psuchikos) to one whose life depends on the power of God (pneumatikos). The disciplines are ways of depending on God for strength.

    3) because I am getting increasingly tired of being told that the cure for Christian Fatigue Syndrome is to DO MORE GOOD WORKS; that no matter how much I'm involved with my local church, the solution to all my spiritual struggles is to get involved MORE. We preach baptism and involvement and hope that somewhere in there, godliness occurs.

    I believe what we are doing must be secondary to who we are becoming. Anyone can do some good works. You don't even have to get wet to do that. Only a fully equipped godly believer can know exactly the good work that needs to be done, and actually do it when it needs to be done.

    I am going to begin working through the Renovare Spiritual Formation Guide entitled, "Living The Mission." I will blog about it over at Fumbling. Perhaps it will help change your mind about Spiritual Formation.

    in HIS love,
    nick

    PS – Foster and Willard, et al, also prescribe the disciplines of Koinonia (Fellowship), Guidance, Confession, Celebration, Service, Submission, Worship which I believe are community-specific. They cannot be done alone. Also, I believe such disciplines as Fasting, Prayer, Study, and Silence ought to be done communally. In fact, the only Discipline that requires solitude is, well, solitude (perhaps Examen as well). The others are to be practiced in the context of the Christian community, as part of the with-God life.

    The six streams of spirituality aren't so much recommendations as recognition of 2000 years of Christian history. The Incarnational Life encompasses your ideas of mission, and the Compassionate Life encompasses your ideas of Agape. The questions are I-centered because it is not our business to examine the lives of others.

    The whole point of the with-God life is so that WE can be in every place the dwelling place of God.

  2. I have what, to me, is an interesting agreement and disagreement with you.

    First, I agree that a personally disciplined spiritual life is a good thing — but ultimately it falls short of what God seeks from us.

    But I don't fully agree that a believer's life can only be fully in service related to the ekklesia (forgive my personal distain for the word, "church")

    I agree that the fellowship of believers is very important to us — we are social beings and are helped by the encouragement of others. Personally, I contribute to my local fellowship in numerous ways, but I see those contributions of money or service, as only a small part of demonstration of what I believe and my commitment to Jesus.

    But I also believe that congregational fellowship is really an unavoidable results of believers following Jesus model of loving one another the way he loved us.

    Regretably, I think we've institutionalized the fellowship. In the American culture, this may have been unavoidable, but I don't think it's necessary to the manifestation of the fellowship of believers, as described or presented by the New Testament Text.

    My commitment is to love others the way Jesus loved me — which is a limitless commitment — and applies to those both inside and outside of the fellowship.

    It is in striving to explore the limitlessness of that commitment to love the way Jesus loved, that I find the best in spiritual formation.

  3. xray342 says:

    As a former eight-year member of the International Churches of Christ (from 1998-2006), you've successfully nailed down the problem of what happens when spiritual disciplines become the exclusive focus of a Christian's life instead of their relationship with Jesus Christ. The "evangelist" in the Cincinnati Church of Christ pushed Foster's book heavily the last few years I was a member. (Ironically, he was pursuing a Master's degree at Cincinnati Christian University – an Independent Christian Church school!) Of course there were the other disciplines, but the biggest two that are consistently recognized and used to rate a Christian's effectiveness and worth in McKeanist churches are the daily "quiet times" and prayer times. (Note that the "prayer partner" concept has evolved into full-blown authoritarian discipling relationships, so daily discipling was introduced as a discipline of sorts as well. And when you were discipled, you were expected to change immediately on the spot!)

    P.S. The quote “I’m not saying that a failure to do these things will send you to hell, but I can’t see how you’ll make it to heaven without them!” is one of many classic examples of lines used to control people. I thank God that He has allowed me to leave and become an authentic Christian!

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Nick and David,

    Consider this model. The church is the body of Christ. Church leaders are called to equip the members for good works. Good works not only are acts of love, they attract people to Jesus.

    Good works fit into at least two categories. First, there are the good works that we do as individuals quite apart from congregational life — but equipped by congregational life.

    Second, there are works done as part of the congregation — church plants, free health clinics, food distribution, etc.

    Both types are essential. We do the first because it's in our nature. We do the second because some works can't be done alone — we need lots of people and resources to pull off a clinic. And these also help draw people to the body of Christ.

    Sadly, many of our congregations do little of the second type. They don't feed the poor or clean up creeks or serve the needy other in a token way. As a result, the members often feel unfulfilled, ill-equipped, and frustrated.

    For them, church is the assembly — communion, some songs, and sermon — which is not enough. It can lead to a low view of church life.

    The fault, however, is squarely in the congregational leadership.

    Do I think a believer has to provide service through his ekklesia? Well, I don't think in those terms, really. Rather, I think a congregation needs to participate in God's mission and needs to equip and lead its members to do the same. They are on the same mission and should work hand in hand.

    It certainly doesn't mean members must do their good works through the church. But neither should members abandon the church to do good works — if the church is providing effective leadership and opportunities.

    God may well call individual members to different works. A church has to allow for that.

    Among my concerns re the disciplines is they don't address this aspect of Christian living — which I see as extremely important. Church life — living as a body — is perhaps the most important praxis. But it needs to be living with a purpose — living in mission.

    But the underlying problem is not the disciplines. It's leadership.

    Now, if the disciplines were to be taught as equipping for service (not just for service) — real, honest-to-God service of both types — and not imposed but laid out as tools to be used as needed — I'd be a big fan.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Readers,

    Nick's blog is at http://fumblingtowardseternity.wordpress.com/. I'll be interested to read his posts on spiritual formation.

  6. Nick Gill says:

    "Now, if the disciplines were to be taught as equipping for service (not just for service) — real, honest-to-God service of both types — and not imposed but laid out as tools to be used as needed — I’d be a big fan."

    Now I understand why it SEEMED like we were disagreeing! This is exactly how I think of the disciplines! As exercises unto GODLINESS (not quietist personal piety), and as tools that equip us as individuals and groups for the really hard work of ministry.

    And imposition rather than recommendation is just foolish among brothers. Not that it doesn't happen, but it is foolish.

  7. Nick Gill says:

    Shoot, now that you've given a pointer to Fumbling, I'm actually going to have to start up again!

    Thanks for the reminder and the link!

    in HIS love,
    nick

  8. Rick Geddie says:

    Agreement with Nick from 5/28

    I am a member of a church that believes it has community developed. But I am one of those who has GREATLY benefitted from a small group emphasizing SF and personal reading of THE DIVINE CONSPIRACY by Willard. I don not think we are called to have our only relationship with the Father through the church. That is old-school catholic (not very old-school Catholic, however).

    Our particular church congregation is WAY too big for me to even experience much of the Father in context with. There is so much "business" and structure of our own involved with the corporate body, that the God I meet there (in the corporate context) gets boring really quickly.

    However, in the last year I have experienced a new level of awareness of and relationship with Jesus by myself in my home clothes closet. I have listened to thousands upon thousands of sermons, participated in wonderful works of service to others, given up annual bonuses and weekly income to various needy causes, but coming to know God (in my closet) is more valuable to my spirit, my walk, and my purpose than any of those things. I can't imagine what the fruit of these coveted times in my closet with my heavenly father will be (and I am counting this as a particular discipline of which I am reaping a harvest from the Lord).

    I whole-heartedly believe that knowing Him at each level (each more intimate than the previous) is as important as knowing and obeying his will at each level. I think this is what SF is. It is the laying down of the fleshly confidence in ME, to give over to Him in silence, in fasting, in prayer, in meditation, … so that He, and not his will, his word, his magnificence, his holiness, his righteousness, or any other characteristic or offering of his, but He is leading, feeding, influencing, directing, … me.

    Now, relative to the community. The church has almost lost community, I believe. (You could contrast acts 2 with present day sharing, fellowshipping, meeting needs. Or you could look at how few of us meet our neighbors with a pie or cut their grass without a specific request. We seek houses that meet our high-class specs, rather than choosing a house simply because we could serve in that neighborhood with our spiritual family.)

    But all of that is precisely because we don't abserve and practice whatever discipline the Lord is trying to teach us with, not because individual disciplines preclude community development. When we are in community with the triune God, we observe how community is lived out, and then the triune God models to us HOW to live in community – – – perfectly.

    It's not – the not eating – but the admitting that "Lord you are the one who nourishes me" that is the value in fasting.

    It's not – the not being around others – but the admitting that "Lord YOU are my company and my primary friendship" that is the value in solitude.

    It's not – the reading of words – but the admitting that "Lord YOUR historical faithfulness to your people through the ages is evident to me, is sweet to me, is cherished by me as I realize you are just as faithful to me" that is the power in feeding upon His word.

    It's the heart's posture toward God, ultimately, that is the benefit of any given discipline, not the discipline of itself. And yet, without a discipline to allow the heart to address God (or to respond to God) in relationship, how is the relationship maintained? It just isn't, at least I don't see how.

    I feel our leaders need to disciple us in various disciplines, regardless of what they are. Not force us into a list of behaviors, but reveal their own hearts as they engage in disciplines that draw them nearer to the heart of God.

    I have been in classes where the most well formed and conceived disciplines were discussed and found them to be extremely dry. I have been in my closet exerting a sloppy and ill-formed discipline in honest contrition before my God, and met him.

    I think the reason that SF appears to preclude community, is that we aren't extremely aware of what community is in this John Wayne individualist Western society. In other words, the Trinity is not evolved from American thought of success, but out of His own power exudes selfless powerful humility that respects and embraces "other" as "self".

    SF is the process of recognizing perfect community, and how I am part of it and how I am part of others and how others are a part of me. This may seem new age-y, but I assure you that is not my slant on this. In fact, maybe the reason that new-age theology is so attractive to some, is that we have done such a poor job of recognizing true community.

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