How is it that such a seemingly innocuous term generates so much misunderstanding and concern? In conversations with ministry leaders and pastors, who boldly proclaim Christ, there has been confusion about discussing spiritual formation – using words like “fuzzy” or “squishy” or simply choosing to not address it at all.
The disinclination to identify with the term “spiritual formation” is not without cause. In recent years, there has been a revival of sorts in the use of terms like spiritual, spirituality and formation. While use of the terms has increased, confusion about the meaning of the words has also intensified. However, it is important that the church embraces the process of spiritual formation as crucial to the maturity of believers into Christlikeness.
We are spiritual beings. While we have physical bodies, our lives are driven largely by an unseen part of us. Our spirit is the most important part of who we are, yet we rarely spend time fostering our inner life. Ultimately, that’s the essence of spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is rooted in biblical, historical Christianity and is essential to the evangelical global church to foster a process of healthy, holistic and integrated discipleship.
Christian Spiritual Formation Defined
Definitions of spiritual formation abound. One definition says it this way, “Spiritual Formation is the process by which the Spirit of God transforms our being into the likeness of Jesus, through a deepening intimacy with God and our intentional, obedient response of love in every aspect of life.”
Simply stated, spiritual formation is internal transformation that leads to external change.
Inherent in this definition are three key elements of Spiritual Formation: process, response, and result.
Spiritual formation is a lifelong process involving a response to the Spirit of God who draws us to himself. The result of the process of spiritual formation is a changed person who lives the mission of God out of a heart of love for God and for others. Understanding the totality of the process of spiritual formation creates the foundation for churches that want to provide resources and environments for holistic growth and maturity.
Biblical Background for Spiritual Formation
Scripture is replete with references that reveal the significance of spiritual formation in a person’s life. The following list of verses, while not exhaustive, provides a biblical foundation for understanding the process and result of spiritual formation. (All of the verses are from the English Standard Version ESV.)
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:18
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.
That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4: 20-24
…train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:7-8
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.
Galatians 4: 19
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their mind and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
Spiritual Formation and The Church
These verses are but a few of the passages of Scripture which refer to the process of spiritual formation in a person’s life. Critical to our understanding of these passages is the realization that they speak to the process of transformation. They also remind us that we are spirit, and that spiritual formation is the process of changing the internal life. If we are to facilitate Christian discipleship we must provide a formational vision that embraces the fullness of the abundant life Christ came to bring.
Yet, most of our Christian brothers and sisters are not being deeply changed by the gospel in ways that result in what Jesus promised as the abundant life. Our culture, and sadly many of our churches, seek to squeeze us into the mold of merely being nice and seeking a sensible consumer-oriented faith that meets our needs and avoids offending anyone else.
Spiritual formation is the task of the Church. Period.
Spiritual formation is at the heart of its whole purpose of existence. The Church is at a critical period. There is an opportunity to speak into the hearts of Christ-followers and help them attend to the inner life of the heart. The Christian life is often defined by the highs and lows that occur. Experiences that occur at summer camps, retreat weekends and special events or conferences potentially illustrate the high points of growth only to be followed by stagnation in growth.
Believers too often are frustrated or disappointed with their spiritual growth. One reason for this disappointment is that Christ-followers need to be challenged to practice spiritual disciplines that create the conditions by which the heart is transformed. By developing and maintaining a rhythm of spiritual practices, we remain open and available to receive the deep heart transformation that results in the abundant life about which Jesus spoke.
A New Model for Spiritual Formation
If the Church is to nurture, challenge and encourage believers to embrace an integrated approach to spiritual growth, a new model of discipleship is necessary. For too long the importance of internal spiritual practices has been misunderstood and even avoided by the evangelical church. Emphasis has been placed on knowing and applying (doing) biblical principles, but the disciplines of “being” have been minimized or de-valued as key elements of spiritual growth.
Examining the life of Jesus reveals that He created rhythms of life that reflected a balance of listening and doing. He often withdrew to commune with the Father and to be renewed for the redemptive work of the kingdom. The journey of faith includes spiritually formative practices that incorporate rhythms of study, reflection, silence, solitude and Sabbath.
Ruth Haley Barton says it this way, “I cannot transform myself, or anyone else for that matter. What I can do is create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place, by developing and maintaining a rhythm of spiritual practices that keep me open and available to God.” The church needs to create environments and opportunities for spiritual formation to develop internal habits of the heart.
Spiritual formation is a way of life.
It involves practices and disciplines that create a way of life that promotes transformation in our relationship with God, self and others. Spiritual formation is the awareness of God in our lives and the recognition that he loves us and desires a relationship with us. As we practice spiritual formation, we move beyond the knowledge of God and will come to a place where we experience him with a measure of fullness that we didn’t know was possible. Ultimately, spiritual formation practices impact every aspect of our lives and we are changed in all aspects of life.
Our churches need to be communities that intentionally develop the head, heart and hands of our people for Kingdom impact. Spiritual formation is the foundation for discipleship. As individuals in our churches experience deep soul transformation, they are more likely to become people who invite others to experience what it means to have a vibrant, growing relationship with Jesus.
Spiritual formation is not a luxury; it is a necessity if our churches are going to develop disciples who make an impact in our communities and our culture!