What Is Spiritual Formation and Why Does It Matter?
It’s possible—perhaps even likely—that you’ve never heard the phrase spiritual formation before. It’s the kind of terminology that’s often sequestered in academic circles. But in recent years, the concepts and practices of spiritual formation have gained popularity in the church and brought related issues to the forefront for many believers.
If the emails we receive at Grace to You are any indication of the overall direction of the church, the popularity of spiritual formation has exploded in the last several months. Weekly—sometimes daily—we hear from men and women wrestling with difficult questions about the disciplines and practices of spiritual formation. They’re struggling to reconcile what they’re reading and hearing with the Word of God.
The topic has even come up in some of John MacArthur’s recent Q&A’s, so I know it’s on the minds of many believers and raising questions in congregations around the world.
Even forming a basic definition of spiritual formation is no simple feat. It’s a fluid concept, with a wide range of accepted meanings and applications.
In broad terms, spiritual formation is the process of spiritual shaping and growth. Sending your children to a Christian school would fall under the wide canopy of spiritual formation. The same could be said of any education tied to a specific religion—Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim schools all contribute to the spiritual formation of their students.
However, in Christian circles, spiritual formation refers to more than mere academic instruction. Most often, it’s a reference to the dynamic means of sanctification. It deals with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit and the various methods He uses to bring about spiritual growth in our lives.
It’s at this point things can become confusing. On one hand, there are the time-tested, practical Christian disciplines we’re all familiar with—things like personal and corporate Bible study, worship, prayer, discipleship, and service.
On the other hand, many of the leading voices in the spiritual formation movement stress the need for more intuitive interpretations of spirituality. They encourage believers to incorporate a wide variety of extrabiblical spiritual practices, such as contemplative prayer, silence, meditation, creative expression, and yoga. In fact, some of the most popular methods of spiritual formation have been lifted from Catholicism, new age mysticism, or other religions and rebranded with biblical-sounding terminology.
But any kind of subjective spirituality that draws your focus away from the Lord and His truth can have disastrous results, derailing your spiritual growth and cutting you off from God’s plan for your sanctification.
All true spiritual growth starts with the preeminent role of God’s Word in the lives of His people. But is Scripture alone enough for spiritual maturity?
That’s where we’ll pick it up next time.
In the meantime, we want to know what you’re hearing about spiritual formation. Is it even on your radar? Is this an entirely new idea to you, or is it something you’ve heard or read about in the past? Have you sat under teachers or been involved with ministries that encouraged spiritual formation? Maybe you’ve even tried some of the techniques and methods yourself? We want to hear your story in the comments below.
#1 Posted by
Alex Kelley | Sunday, September 09, 2012at
Thank you for your comments on Spiritual Formation.
It has hit the south...I graduated back in the 80's from DTS and heard of Richard Foster but paid little attention for I was growing in Christ through the normal means that I understood through the New Testament Epistles in particular. It has been in the last months at our church that I started hearing phrases like "Lectio Divina" and authors like Henri Nouwen. At first, I just paid little attention until I looked up the belief of these folks who are highly involved in the movement. I was aghast as to their beliefs. Why would we get any where near these people when it comes to leading people in spiritual growth? I understand how we can evaluate writers to know what is going on but not for the purpose of making disciples. Our church is also involved in read "the Good and Beautiful God". I have just started it and have problems with it as well. The other book that is being tossed around is "King Jesus Gospel" by Scott McKnight. It seems that the battle for our minds and hearts is from outside the church and now within through these ideas in a Bible Church. I would appreciate your prayers as I seek the best way to handle these issues. It is apparent that the Lord is still teaching me to confront issues in life lovingly. My tendency is to want to avoid them .... it is messy and I often want things neat and tidy. I would appreciate your prayers. Alex
#2 Posted by
Michael Brezinski | Monday, September 10, 2012at
I have never heard of spiritual formation. You're my only mentor.
#3 Posted by
Martin Seymour | Monday, September 10, 2012at
It's over four years ago that spiritual formation first appeared on my radar as the pastor of an inner city London church. Our young people visited our denominations national youth centre. There they met a new programme that included teaching and practice on Lectio Divina, labyrinth walks, writing prayers to send aloft on hot air balloons and the silence before icons and candles.
Our young people understood that these were deviant practices and refused to get involved. They have not since returned to the centre.
Since then, we've met candles and icons at our denomination's missionary conferences. These are taught by the organisers to assist in our prayers!
I've personally and publically complained concerning these practices and am now under a cloud of suspicion and disapproval, however, no attempt has yet been successful in disciplining me for my stand. Our local church continues biblically orthodox.
#4 Posted by
Molly Biscan | Monday, September 10, 2012at
" In fact, some of the most popular methods of spiritual formation have been lifted from Catholicism, new age mysticism, or other religions and rebranded with biblical-sounding terminology."
The above truth statement regarding the Spiritual Formation movement should cause any believer to have a red flag. I would encourage anyone delving into Contemplative practices to line up authors and books with the Word of God. And to research the beliefs and mentors that these authors promote.
#6 Posted by
Gregory Musgrave | Monday, September 10, 2012at
I recently withdrew from Multnomah University in Portland due to similar issues. This topic among other things being implemented as part of the education there began to really concern me. Not only do they have an entire department and staff that are committed to the students' "spiritual formation", they begin the semester by having all new students report to the psychologists or counselors for a mandatory interrigation the first week. The Dean of this department is a Woman with a degree in counseling, who is over several men on staff as well as hundreds of young men attending college. This department integrates 3 chapels per week which students are required to attend based on their course load. While chapel attendance is not in itself disturbing, the topics are. A women who runs a christian counseling center spoke about deliverence, and how at her clinic she had delivered several people, including pastor's wifes, from demonic possession. At other chapels, the President of the College, who has training in magic, provides magic shows in relation to a scriptural message. The English professor in a chapel titled Hot Topic, spoke of contraceptive issues. The Dean of Biblical languages holds a martial arts class in the gym of the college regularly and in looking at his website you find reference to Eastern practices of meditation and more. One student in the college magazine spoke of how Yoga is ok if you are "careful". My sons and I were walking to the library one day and while a tour for new students was taking place, a young woman was sprawled on the lawn in front of the library practicing Yoga in very inappropriate positions. This was very disturbing, and not a good thing to have young boys walk past.
I was in a life changing car accident in 2011 in my 42nd birthday which brought me to my knees in repentance. I was raised in a christian home and attended Grace Community church at about ages 10-12. My father attended Multnomah in the 1980s so I decided to go. I quickly came to the realization of how the enemy is at work, especially at so-called Christian universities.
My beliefs are in only the Word of God and not anything that strays from its truth. My family and I are having difficulty finding a church after our recent move due to this reason.
My intention is to write about this experience.
#7 Posted by
Randall Brookhiser | Monday, September 10, 2012at
Over the last two decades, churches and para-church organizations, I have served in use the "Small Group Bible Study" model quite frequently. Many, but not all of the leaders of these groups, over the years have been young Christians who get the latest "Bible Study" book online or at your Christian Book Store. Even SS Classes at churches I have attended rely very much on information by a variety of self-help books where the authors provide a garnish of scripture references to validate statements in their books.
For many years now I have studied through the Bible on a regular basis (using John's Study Bible of course) and I believe that I have "spiritually formulated" significantly by correctly interpreting the scriptures not by my power but by the Holy Spirit's work.
I can attest that it is the Holy Spirit constantly convicting me of sin in various situations and at the same time bringing the appropriate scriptures to mind. Often I learn the hard way but sometimes I steer away because of God's word in my heart.
One thing I have heard frequently in the past is that we grow through small group relationships with other Christians primarily. Some leaders make it seem at times that proper doctrine gets in the way of the spiritual growth because it might hurt relationships. We all know this philosophy is corrupted - proper Bible teaching must be there at the core along with the fellowship.
However, in the last year I have seen an improvement in this area at the church I attend. Our pastor is preaching more from the Bible with good interpretation and application not afraid to tell the truth. An adult SS class is being started where the Bible is the primary text. It is so good to this change.
Keep preaching the truth! God bless this GTY ministry!
#8 Posted by
Heath Holland | Monday, September 10, 2012at
Our church is preparing for the "fanning the flame" conference. I believe this will be an example - although I don't know much about it yet.
#10 Posted by
Daniel Kassis | Tuesday, September 11, 2012at
I started a blog a few years ago so I could write about my seminary experience. I posted a summary critique of Richard Foster's "Celebration of Discipline." It has consistently been the most-read post on the blog. I don't even have to promote it. Week after week, dozens and dozens of visitors find my post by searching about Foster and/or spiritual disciplines. There is a great need for solid biblical information on this topic. I'm so thankful GTY is providing its usual reliable insight.
#11 Posted by
Jeff Weaver | Tuesday, September 11, 2012at
Here is a quote from our local PCA pastor regarding "hearing God" at a silent retreat:
"We talk about Christ being “Lord” … that he is the master, the discipler, the teacher, the one who calls the shots. We readily acknowledge that the job of a disciple is to follow and learn, both of which suggest taking us to places and teaching us things that we do not already know. And when that happens, the key issue is … trust. I’m willing to trust him to get me into heaven, but not through a weekend? Go figure. And how can I trust him if I don’t know what it is he wants me to trust him for? … if I haven’t heard from him?
People who go on the silent retreat are usually surprised at how nice it is to be quiet … to sleep … to savor the beauty of the surroundings … to have time to think … to have no appointments to keep. One guy said he’d never felt closer to a bunch of people in his life … and he did not know any of them before he came, or talk to them most of the weekend! But the thing they like most of all is that you hear God. You really can hear God. He knows how to get through to you. But when do you take time to stop … and listen … really? John Eldredge says the Holy Spirit is like a shy animal; you have to be still and quiet for a long time before he will show up and draw near to you. "
#12 Posted by
Amanda Bowers | Tuesday, September 11, 2012at
Thank you soooooo much for taking this up! From where I sit this is as important as the charismatic movement. I have lost an entire church because I was considered hyper critical when I raised concerns over Richard Foster being used in our SS class. Then I continued to see other leaders and teachers using folks from Mark Driscoll to Rob Bell to Tim Keller. All of which endorse the spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation in some degree. Thankfully some respected pastors are finally beginning to shed light on this movement. Thank you so much and I look forward to these posts!
#13 Posted by
Steve Mateuszow | Tuesday, September 11, 2012at
Thanks for posting this. When I received Jesus as Lord and Savior, my wife and I were involved in a Charismatic church. Not only was emotionalism highly prevalent, with a disdain for doctrine and theology, the pastor was very fond of Richard Foster and contemplative spirituality. This only goes to show God's sovereignty in salvation, as my wife and I still heard the gospel, despite a lot of bad theology. As God in His grace, began to increase my knowledge and desire for truth, I began to be very uncomfortable with the direction of the church, and position in certain beliefs (especially eternal insecurity). The straw that broke the camel's back was a book that was introduced for a bible study called "Holy Fools". This book praised the antics of Roman Catholic mystics such as Thomas Merton and others. When I expressed my feelings to the pastor, I was reprimanded and told that I was being ridiculous and divisive. One of the things that was done in this church was visualization and guided imagery, as well as something called "soaking". As I look back, I'm so thankful for God's hand in sovereignly pulling my wife and I out of this church. We are now part of a Reformed Evangelical Free Church. I am deeply grateful for John Macarthur and this ministry, as well as many other godly men that have helped us learn truth.
#14 Posted by
Beth Varley | Tuesday, September 11, 2012at
My husband and I went through the same thing. God is so faithful! It is hurtful though to be turned on by people who the week before loved you. But i don't know if its because we live in the "religious" belt - the South or its more universal but we are having a hard time finding even a Baptist church with good doctrine. Seems everyone is more interested in church growth than in the purity of God's Word. Its very disheartening. I'm about ready to stop church and just listen to GTY. I know that's not what God wants though. They come down on you like a ton of bricks if you stand on the Word and you are unloving if you object to the kids church leader openly supporting gay marriage. I'm so discouraged.
#15 Posted by
Pauline Yates | Tuesday, September 11, 2012at
How long is the LORD going to put up with this wicked generation. When is the time of fullness going to come in ? I am so struggling at the present time with these things in my church. Struggling to know how and where to draw the line. Bill Hybels is the latest false teacher my Pastor is using to make his points.Video clips with Tom Cruise,. Churches that teach truth are so in short supply. We badly need fellowship with other believers but WHO are they ? Where are they ? How blessed are you folks out there who are able to go to a Biblicaly sound church. I am battle weary and I know some of you are too. Come soon Lord.
#16 Posted by
Pierre Blanchard | Wednesday, September 12, 2012at
The false teaching invading our churches is so subtle. It's becoming increasingly difficult to pinpoint and without the Holy Spirit is next to impossible to detect. I am so concerned for our youth and those who are new believers. I keep reminding myself that the Holy Spirit is continually at work and will protect us from false teachers if we would only listen. Like others here have mentioned, it's seems as if the churches that teach sound doctrine are becoming harder to find. I feel blessed to have GTY to fall back on and help me to discern the truth of Gods word.
#17 Posted by
Mae Ella Jones | Wednesday, September 12, 2012at
We too have been out of a local church. Pushed out by "mime" dancing, and "book" teaching. We have not been able to find a bible teaching church. Thank you for your blog on this subject. I did not know what name to give what we have been faced with. It is lonely, but God has given us one special couple to fellowship with and GTY. Thanks for the solid teaching!
#18 Posted by
Jesus Rodriguez | Wednesday, September 12, 2012at
I rarely blog, although I read much of it. My wife and I lived in San Diego and we attended Grace Community as much as we could. We traveled from Chula Vista, and from Placentia (OC). Then we lost everything when the economy went bust. Our kids (two girls) moved to Iowa to attend ISU. Shortly after, because there was nothing to hold me here in Ca, we moved to join our kids in IA. Ames IA, has hardly any good church. I find and meet many professing Christians, however, after digging deeper into what they believe, I am surprised that their believes or what they are exposed to is very much faulty. We are attending a church that leaves much to be desired, but we go nonetheless. I recently heard a local radio host stating that just listening to MacArthur electronically is not enough that the personal contact is very much necessary to make disciples. I agree, but when you cannot find mature teachings what can you do? Become gullible and fall for these so call teachers of the word. We have followed GTY and Grace Community for years and we need this food for our spirits.
Thanks John and everybody in GTY
#19 Posted by
Stephanie Cellucci | Wednesday, September 12, 2012at
We also lost our old church to the likes of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, etc. It seems to be seeping in to almost every church here in our town.
According to this quote from Richard Foster in 2004, the term Spiritual Formation comes from deep within the Catholic church. That doesn't seem like something we would want to be emulating.
"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."
Also from the same article by Foster, "Frankly, no Spiritual Disciplines, no Spiritual Formation." The spiritual disciplines go hand in hand with spiritual formation. Richard Foster is the main one who introduced the disciplines into the Protestant church. And J.I. Packer in Rediscovering Holiness said that others who write on the disciplines are standing on the shoulders of Foster.
Source for Foster quote: http://web.archive.org/web/20100601012402/http://www.theooze.com/articles/article.cfm?id=744
#21 Posted by
Sandie Matthews | Saturday, September 15, 2012at
I've never heared of this practice or Richard Foster, I was listening to my Christian radio channel, & this subject came up, it talked about this subject & also said if we had any of the books that he listed to BURN them, this is "Practice of Deception" To my surprise when I went to my book collection I had 3 of the 4 books he said to burn, I didn't burn them but I put them in the garbage I didn't want to sell them or give them to any book store. I don't want the books in the hands of the innocent and Thanked Jesus for bringing any type of deception & New Age to my attention!! I have a neighbor who talked about you & your books & your sound teaching in the word. What a blessing she is..Thank you I have read 3 of your books & reading one now. I feel truly Blessed by them. Peace to All
#22 Posted by
Molly Biscan | Tuesday, September 18, 2012at
Jeff you say John Eldredge says the Holy Spirit is like a "wild animal". What does the Word say about the Holy Spirit? Agreed we need to take thoughtful time to study Gods Word...... but spititual disciplines (that have been of mans suggestion) are not the pathway to God.
#23 Posted by
Molly Biscan | Tuesday, September 18, 2012at
Jeff I was responding to your pastors quote. My apologies I read your post incorrectly as if you were quoting that.