Type “spiritual formation” into Google, and you get lots articles about how to do it and just as many websites of people anxious to sell their services as experts in spiritual formation. And you get lots of folks who think it’s heresy. Interesting stuff …
Part of what’s happening is that people are just calling all sorts of things “spiritual formation.” It can mean “making converts” or “maturing converts” or “learning certain spiritual disciplines.”
The same is true of another buzzword: “disciple.” Spiritual formation is often described as the process of making converts into “disciples.” But different authors have different notions about just what a disciple is. Does it mean demanding drone-like obedience, as some have taught? Or learning all you can about Jesus, as some have taught? Or being a diligent evangelist, as others have taught? Or maybe it means any Christian at all?
For some, a disciple is a Christian who practices spiritual disciplines. For others, a disciple is a Christian who has attained to a high level of maturity, being very much like Jesus. For others, a disciple is simply a Christian who very much wants to be like Jesus. It’s all so confusing ..
And by now you’ve noticed that this idea of “spiritual disciplines” is a part of this conversation. Increasingly, the idea is that Christians practice “spiritual disciplines” to engage in “spiritual formation” with the result that they become “disciples.” But every author has a different list of disciplines.
You see, nowadays, you can hardly attend a seminar or read an evangelical website or periodical without running across some mention of these terms, and yet there is little common understanding as to just what they mean. It’s a strange phenomenon.
For the next little bit, I’ll therefore deal with the terms as used by two popular authors — Dallas Willard and Richard J. Foster. Willard says in his essay, “Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done” —
Spiritual formation in Christ is accomplished, and the Great Commission fulfilled, as the regenerate soul makes its highest intent to live in the commandments of Christ, and accordingly makes realistic plans to realize this intent by an adequate course of spiritual disciplines. Of course, no one can achieve this goal by themselves, but no one has to. God gives us others to share the pilgrimage, and we will be met by Christ in every step of the way. “Look, I am with you every instant,” is what Jesus said; and it is also what he is doing.
Now, we see here several key thoughts in the spiritual formation movement.
* It’s about fulfilling the Great Commission.
(Mat 28:19-20) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
However, it’s not so much about converting the lost as what happens after they’re converted. They are to be taught “to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Willard notes (and I most heartily agree) that churches of all stripes often fail to create converts who are particularly obedient. They feel saved. They may be regular in their attendance. But they aren’t transformed into Christ-like people.
And it’s true that we have a very serious, very significant problem with converts who aren’t very much like Jesus at all. We have members who’ve attended for 20 or more years who are just as worldly as before they were baptized. That’s a problem. A big problem.
* Willard prescribes for this condition a dose of “spiritual disciplines.” He and Foster make a point of trying to recover practices once more popular in Christianity as a way to help people become more Christ-like. These disciplines are —
solitude and silence, prayer and fasting, worship and study, fellowship and confession, and the like. These disciplines are not, in themselves, meritorious or even required except as specifically needed. They do, however, allow the spirit or will — an infinitesimally tiny power in itself that we cannot count on to carry our intentions into settled, effectual righteousness — to direct the body into contexts of experience in which the whole self is inwardly restructured to follow the eager spirit into ever fuller obedience.
Willard does not deny the power of the Spirit to change us. Indeed, he’s counting on it. But he believes we have to make ourselves available to the Spirit through these disciplines.
In a letter to a group of Christians in Idaho Springs, Willard writes,
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.
All such activities must be seen in the context of an intimate, personal walk with Jesus himself, as our constant Savior and Teacher. No formula can be written for spiritual formation, for it is a dynamic relationship and one that is highly individualized. One can be sure, however, that any God-blessed undertaking of spiritual formation will include much of what has just been mentioned here.
Richard J. Foster offers a similar list of disciplines in “SPIRITUAL FORMATION: A Pastoral Letter” —
What are these Spiritual Disciplines I am speaking of? Oh, they are many and varied: fasting and prayer, study and service, submission and solitude, confession and worship, meditation and silence, simplicity, frugality, secrecy, sacrifice, celebration, and the like. The commonly identified public religious activities are important to be sure, but the less commonly practiced activities like solitude and silence and meditation and fasting and submission to the will of others as appropriate are in fact more foundational for Spiritual Formation. All Disciplines should be thoughtfully and resolutely approached for the purpose of forming the life into Christlikeness, or they will have little or no effect in promoting this life.
Now, I can’t disagree that the problem Willard and Foster seek to remedy is real. It’s very, very real. We need more commitment from many of our members. But is this the solution? Do we need to encourage our members to engage in these practices as the best way to get the uncommitted committed? (Oops .. I’m being SO old-fashioned. I meant say, to get those not spiritually formed formed spiritually.)