What is ‘Spiritual Formation?’

I am in a Dmin program at the local Seminary. Last week I took a course on ‘Leadership in Spiritual Formation.’ I was shocked (and delighted) that the prof, an executive pastor in a mega-church, has found himself on a journey to the church fathers and the ancient practices of ascesis as described by the Desert Fathers.

Recently, Willow Creek Church has put out a study based on a collection of surveys called Reveal, which ‘revealed’ that much of what Willow has done (mega, super size, seeker everything) has not formed disciples. In fact, they found that those involved most in church activities were the least ‘formed’ of the ranges of people that pass through their ‘big barn.’

It is easy to pick on the consumerism of mega-churches, but even our best churches (of all traditions) are finding it more and more difficult to make disciples who are mature and passionate about Jesus.

We all know that if we ‘did it like the apostles’ we would be great. The second century catechumanate would be outstanding. But in the land that produces the most Christian materials, that has access to more discipleship ‘stuff’ than any other culture in the history of the world, we can’t seem to make disciples. In fact, by population, we are becoming more and more ‘unchurched’ and are in need of missionaries to us!

2 thoughts on “What is ‘Spiritual Formation?’

  1. Padre,
    i couldn’t agree with you more. at the church i am connected with we have been thinking about this more and more. why is it that some followers of Christ can sit in the pews for decades, and still be suckling from the proverbial tit, not moving on to more solid food?

    i think there are many reasons this is happening, and i wont cover them all here, but i may suggest one reason. size.

    in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, he writes, “if you wanted to bring about a fundamental change in people’s belief and behavior, a change that would persist and serve as an example to others, you needed to create a community around them, where those new beliefs would be practices and expressed and nurtured.”
    a church the size of Willow Creek may just be too big for authentic community to happen and therefore the Gospel to be lived out. Gladwell talks about the magic number of 150 as the maximum amount of genuinely social relationships that a human being can have.

    i know that most of these churches have small group programs, but are those groups functioning as Gospel centered groups? do they cause the believers to realize their sin and repent of it? do they spur each other on to have meaningful relationships with non-believers? or do they simply engage in each other’s lives and become homogeneous groups of people sitting in the same living room of the same house with the same people for years?

  2. This is a move in the right direction, but I would argue a change of terms is necessary. Too often, spiritual formation is merely a catch phrase for spiritual humanism (I’m ok, you’re ok). In our diocese “formation” is the new buzzword, but no one is talking transformation.

    This is the key element lacking in the “consumerist” religion of the US today (on both sides of the theological spectrum). We need to talk about discipleship as Spiritual Transformation, and then seek to live those transformed lives.

    “If any man is in Christ he is a new creation”…

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