Is spiritual formation important?

January 23rd, 2017

I recently attended a spiritual formation retreat and met a man who was kind, helpful and a lifelong Christian. He wasn’t excited about attending the retreat, but he did so at his wife’s request. After five days of biblical and contemplative teaching, prayer, worship and times of silence, we debriefed on our experiences. For me, the event had been affirming, illuminating and transformative. He was rather indifferent about the week. He said, “You know, I don’t really think I need to change. Me and my false self are doing just fine.” His comment was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but only slightly. He was perfectly content to live his life the exact same way he had for the past 60 years, with the occasional delivery of a pie to his neighbor as his nod to Christian practice.

Contrast that to another man I met who engages in centering prayer twice a day, goes on silent retreats several times a year and studies Scripture daily. Both are good men, yet one is intentional about spiritual growth while the other isn’t. I’ll never know how Christians can follow the same teacher while journeying on different roads. But I also will never know why some seed falls on rocky soil and some seed falls on good soil (Matthew 13:3-9). What I do know is that following Jesus isn’t supposed to be easy (Luke 9:23-24). It’s in our nature to be anxious, self-centered and distracted. We’re not naturally inclined to grow in the likeness of Christ, who was trusting, self-giving, and attentive. It takes practice.

In my role at my church, I oversee a spiritual formation program called Alpha, a review of the basics of Christianity. Many who take this course have attended church their whole lives, and while they might know about God, they don’t know God. As they proceed through the course, their spirits take on a new shape, formed by the life-altering revelation that they’re not alone in this universe. They begin to understand there’s an indwelling presence that is for them, not against them. We call this the “head to heart drop.” Spiritual formation, the emptying of ourselves to be filled with new life, isn’t comfortable, but it does lead to a kind of abundant life we could never have generated on our own. In the Gospels, we read story after story of people being radically changed after meeting Jesus. Likewise, our only response to a genuine encounter with the Divine is transformation.

Spiritual formation defined

Before stating what spiritual formation is, we should define what it isn’t. We’re not talking about personal development or motivational theories as described in resources of the self-help industry. What we’re talking about is an approach grounded wholly within the context of a belief in our utter dependence upon God, who was made manifest in Jesus. So what is spiritual formation?

Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, is an organization that offers spiritual resources to those involved in service and activism by rooting social change in contemplative spirituality. Founding partner Phileena Heuertz defines spiritual formation as “a process whereby we adopt practices that help us deepen our openness and receptivity to God’s presence and action in our life.” Heuertz engages in and teaches practices such as centering prayer, breath prayer and lectio divina as avenues for spiritual formation. She believes spiritual formation is vital for living into the highest ideals of our faith as taught by Jesus, ideals such as loving our neighbor as ourselves, loving our enemies and boundless forgiveness.

Richard J. Foster authored one of the best-known books on spiritual formation, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. He also founded Renovaré, a Christian nonprofit that provides resources for spiritual formation. Renovaré’s website defines the term as an active process and “a journey through which we open our hearts to deeper connection with God.”

Dallas Willard is a professor and author who collaborated with Foster on The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible. In the article “The Making of the Christian” in Christianity Today, Foster and Willard were interviewed and asked about the difference between spiritual formation and discipleship. According to Willard, “spiritual formation is character formation” establishing the character of Christ in a person. “Everyone gets a spiritual formation. It’s like education. Everyone gets an education; it’s just a matter of which one you get,” he said. Willard thinks the concept of discipleship is still important but that it has lost some of its meaning in today’s world. He argues that on the theological right, discipleship is just about training people to win souls; and on the left, it’s about social action, but both leave out character formation. In the same interview, Foster emphasizes that spiritual formation isn’t about behavior, rules or belief systems. If you have multiple verses memorized and can answer certain theological question correctly but you’re full of bitterness or pride, you’ve missed the concept of spiritual formation. The goal isn’t perfection, Willard states, but rather “learning to do things that Jesus is favorable toward and doing it out of a heart that has been changed into his.”

Engaged disciples

In the book Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, Catholic priest Henri Nouwen divides spiritual formation into seven movements, connected to different stages of our lives. In the early part of our lives, formation moves from opaqueness to transparency and from illusion to prayer. In our mid years, we move from sorrow to joy, from resentment to gratitude and from fear to love. In our later years, mature spirituality moves from exclusion to inclusion and from denying to befriending death.

Churches have a stake in encouraging spiritual formation. Church consultant Dr. Phil Maynard believes the nationwide decline in church attendance is related to practices that support membership over discipleship. In order to embrace spiritual renewal and foster engaged disciples, churches should “shift their thinking and practices from fellowship to hospitality; from worship as an event to worship as lifestyle; from ‘serve us’ to service; and from survival mentality to generosity.” This is accomplished by pushing church members out of their comfort zones into paths of spiritual growth.

How to engage in spiritual formation

Foster’s Celebration of Discipline elaborates on practices he believes are for everyone, not just spiritual giants. These practices invite us to move from a life of superficiality to one of depth, freedom and abundance. According to Foster, inward disciplines include meditation, prayer, fasting and study. Outward disciplines include simplicity, solitude, submission and service. Corporate disciplines include confession, worship, guidance and celebration. To be clear, practicing these disciplines doesn’t earn us favor with God, nor should we participate in spiritual formation to impress others. The goal is to equip us to live in the presence of God.

In her book Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton says the desire for a deeper level of spiritual transformation is key to connecting to and recognizing God in our lives. She encourages silence, lectio divina, taking care of our bodies and examen (a prayerful review of our day) as ways of feeding our soul and fostering intimacy with God. There’s no one right formula to practicing spiritual disciplines. Christians should feel free to engage in those methods that have the most meaning for them and produce spiritual fruit in their lives.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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