What is spiritual formation, anyway? What does spiritual formation mean and why is it important? This is the first post in a series from James Bryan Smith–“Defining Spiritual Formation”–on the importance of knowing what we mean when we say “spiritual formation.”
One of the greatest challenges in the area of spiritual formation is to define what it is. Dallas Willard often cited his main concern was not that the interest in formation would grow rapidly (which it has), but that it would grow without a strong, clear foundation, and a body of knowledge to support it.
One of the primary aims of Apprentice Institute is to give an intellectual, even academic, understanding of spiritual formation in order to aid leaders and churches who are assisting others in their growth. This need became very clear when I met a young woman, recently hired as the pastor of spiritual formation in her church. I asked her about her training and background in formation, and she said, “I don’t have any training or background. Frankly, I am not even sure what spiritual formation is.”
As they say, “Houston, we have a problem.”
In Need of a definition
In this series I hope to offer an intellectual solid, yet easy to understand and apply, definition of Christian spiritual formation. In this post we’ll focus on the importance of having the right definition.
One of the things I learned as an apprentice of Dr. Willard was the importance of defining terms. I said to him once, “You define words differently than others, and it changes everything.” He laughed and nodded. I asked how he came to this practice, and he said he learned this from Aristotle, who taught the practice of term logic.
When most people define grace they mean “unmerited favor.” When Dallas defines grace he means “God’s action in our lives.” The difference is huge. By limiting grace to merely unmerited favor we leave out the unearned grace that comes to us in myriad ways: by grace I have air to breathe; by grace God speaks to me through the Word; by grace tulips make me smile.
Voltaire famously said, “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” I would modify that by saying, “If we want to talk about spiritual formation, we must first define our terms.”
The term spiritual formation has emerged quickly in the last decade, and few have a solid working definition.
In the 1950’s church people talked about Christian Education when they described the way they nurtured people in the faith. We had pastors of Christian Education on staffs. In the 1980’s the key term for Christian growth was Discipleship. It is a great term, but it became obsolete when it was reduced to merely having a quiet time.
Still, people hungered for a genuine, deep, spiritual connection with God and a desire for a more peaceful, meaningful life.
The term spirituality became popular among the masses at the turn of the century, as people began saying “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” If you asked them to define spirituality you would get a vague answer, usually something involving “deeper” experiences. The problem with this is that it’s aim is to have experiences but is disconnected from forming people in meaningful ways. I might feel a warm sensation in meditation, or feel centered when walking a labyrinth, but if my narratives about God or myself are toxic, these experiences simply will not overcome it.
It’s up to you (us)
I first encountered the term spiritual formation in 1984, when Henri Nouwen used it in a letter he wrote to me in response to a letter of mine in which I asked him which seminary would help me in my ongoing spiritual growth, a term I had come to use. Henri wrote, “There is no seminary that will help you with your spiritual formation, that will be mostly up to you (italics mine).”
Gradually, thanks to people like Henri, a term once used in Catholic circles (usually only by monastics), began to emerge among Protestants. By the late 1990’s I was hearing the term all the time. And yet, I could find no solid, working definition.
This lack of a clear definition led to a problem we are still faced with today. When some Christians hear spiritual formation they mistakenly assume it is a New Age, or Eastern, method (at best), or perhaps a step into the occult (at worst).
For many years I watched as my mentors, Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, were accused of being liberal, New Age, heretics who were out to destroy souls with their teaching on meditation and listening to God. I am honored to say that, as of the past two years, I am also being cited as one of these heretics. I am happy to join their ranks, but unhappy that people mistake Christian spiritual formation for some bleary-eyed, unmoored, unorthodox mysticism.
So let’s change all of this. If we get a solid definition of Christian spiritual formation we can help people practice Christian spiritual formation. And if we do it well, it would go a long way to helping the nervous people put down their pitchforks and join us. I would love to have lot of feedback on this. I will offer my own thoughts and perspective, but don’t want this to be a monologue. So, stay tuned, and we can start a good dialogue, and who knows, maybe change the world.
**Featured Image Photo Credit: Notre Dame door, Jill Nicole. Photographer