I was recently asked to participate in a group that is creating a curriculum in the area of “spiritual formation.” I have never really written or spoken much on this, but my nerve endings are a bit sensitive when the subject is introduced. In other words, I can hang with it for a bit, but when it is talked about in terms of “curriculum” or “discipleship” or forming the “whole spiritual person,” I start to back out.
What is “spiritual formation”? I am trying to be fair and representative of it, but I know there will be those who feel I have left something out. Nevertheless, here it goes:
“Spiritual formation describes a process or path to spiritual wholeness though a practice of specific disciplines including prayer, meditation, study, fasting, solitude, confession, and worship. The end goal is that the person would be more Christ-like.”
Nothing wrong with that. Right? After all, who would argue against the necessity of confession, prayer, and Bible study?! These are all staple food groups in the food pyramid…errr…circle (or whatever it is now) of the Christian life. And it is the beginning of a new year. Time to set new goals, agendas, remake ourselves, right the wrongs, and discipline ourselves in ways we failed to in the previous year. So, how can I have ill will toward such things? I don’t, but hang with me.
In the last ten years, “spiritual formation” has become quite popular. I took a course called “Spiritual Formation” in seminary. Many well-respected colleges and seminaries are even offering Master’s degrees in spiritual formation. It is nothing new and there is everything right about being disciplined. But the current practice seems to have evolved into some sort of perceived spiritual antibiotic to all sin, malnutrition, and disease.
At one time, I tried to get in with the spiritual formation thing. At least, I tried to understand it as a movement. I even offered an elective course at Stonebriar Community Church through the Center for Biblical Studies of Dallas Theological Seminary. Why? Well, everyone else was doing it! I am not going to mention any of the gurus in these circles (many of whom I have great respect for and from whom I have learned much), but I do have some things about which I don’t mind taking liberty to be somewhat offensive.
First, a confession: for me, listening to or reading books of this genre is like listening to an organ. I know, you love the organ. I don’t too much. It drains the life out of me. I only have enough breath to make it though half a sentence in each organ-led song and the sentences are not long. When I read spiritual formation books, it is the same. It takes me half a day to get through a paragraph and the paragraphs are not that long. When I finish the book, I usually think to myself, “That could have been said in a lot less space. Did I just lose a week off my life?” Dramatic? Yes. But I am speaking for myself here.
(Calm down and keep reading.)
It is not that I think this 21st century spiritual formation movement is necessarily wrong, I just don’t jump on that bus. My vehicle simply does not run on that fuel.
Having spoken of this in a somewhat subjective way, let’s get to my issue. I do think there are some things in the spiritual formation movement that can be counterproductive. No . . . I don’t think it is “new age.” No . . . I don’t think that it is part of the “one world religion.” No, I don’t think it is demonic! I have actually read many Christian critiques that argue for such. Don’t go there. Those who argue such need to stop, count to ten, spin around thirty times, and take a spiritually-disciplined nap.
There are some red flags to everything (including theological studies!). Let me list some here with regard to spiritual formation movement:
1. It can fail to account for individuality.
This is how, when, and where you need to pray. You need to fast at least once a month. Here is how you should read your Bible. Encouragers of this type often disturb me. Not because they are making me uncomfortable in spiritual laziness (well, maybe a little), but because they attempt to shape me into someone that I am not. The spiritual formation movement can have a “cookie-cutter” mentality where every individual loses their individuality. When you begin to tell me when and how to pray, confess, fast, read, meditate, and the like, you fail to realize that I am not you!
God created us individually. The community does not function properly until we are functioning within our individuality. You may get up early in the morning and pray with your kids, read your Bible, carry Scripture memory cards, and take your vitamins. This is wonderful. But when you begin to overlay your structure on my life, it does not usually work. We have to allow others to express their spirituality according to their various strengths and weaknesses. This is simply recognizing the way God made us. When we don’t allow people to work in harmony to their own spiritual DNA, we can actually stunt their growth.
2. It can set one up for unrealistic expectations.
I have seen many people who jump head first into the “spiritual disciplines.” They are excited because they have structure. There is an ABC to their spiritual growth. For the first time, they realize they have not grown because they have not followed the “right” pattern. Before they have even had a chance to test the longevity of their new method in their own lives, they are pressuring others to follow with them.
I always give it a few months. I was there myself at one point. Real life has a way of laughing at our paradigms. Sooner or later most people find that the spiritual life is not produced through the A + B = C path. When this happens – when their expectations are not met – they not only give up on the form, but they get discouraged thinking it is the fault of the principles. In other words, if fasting every third week and practicing the Lectio Divina every morning does not fulfill the hyped expectations, then it is both prayer and self-discipline that failed, not my legalistic structure. This is wrong. Prayer is indispensable. Properly understood and practiced, fasting strengthens the will and tests commitment. Bible meditation is our food. But a one-size-fits-all pattern for practice quickly becomes empty spiritual calories that can make us malnourished.
3. It can hinder the spontaneous nature of the Spirit’s movements.
I know of some people who need to practice the spiritual discipline of taking a break from their spiritual routine. In weight training, one of the worst things you can do is to get stuck in a routine for too long, because our muscles get used to the same things over and over again. Things need to be changed up from time to time. We call this “shocking” the muscles. Some of us need our spiritual muscles shocked. For some, spiritual routines are the enemy of growth. Our habits become enshrined and untouchable. To break this routine causes us to be down, discouraged, and feeling like our spiritual equilibrium is off. What we often don’t realize is that these routines are actually controlling our person more than the Spirit of God. “The wind blows where it wills, so it is with the Spirit of God.” The Holy Spirit is faithful, but does not always follow our calendars.
When we attempt to structure our spiritual life, we can make the mistake of trying to twist the arm of God in our development. We don’t know exactly when or how God’s Spirit is going to move in our lives. We need to make sure that our mentality in spiritual formation does not create an implied path that God must follow. I fear that the mentality of this spiritual formation movement implicitly leans in such a direction. It is not unlike the dark side of the charismatic movement where a theology of expectation can get in front of God. Unfortunately (and fortunately!), God does not check our calendars to see when he is going to make his moves in our lives. His grace is the controlling force and it knows how to get the job done better than our routine.
4. It can be a replacement for trust, belief, and faith.
I think we can often mistake busyness for belief. In other words, we often think that if we are doing enough stuff, then we must believe in what we are doing. This is not true. I have seen far too many people who go through the movements of spiritual disciplines precisely because they cannot find a foothold in their faith. They believe their actions can create belief or at least be a placeholder for it. Belief is the foundation for the action, not the other way around. While many in this movement place a strong emphasis on belief and the discipline of study, I find that as a whole, it serves in a very secondary capacity. This is unfortunate. One of the worst things we can do as Christians is give people an excuse for not examining the reality of their belief. Doing “things” is easy. Following steps and rules is a snap. Belief – true belief – is often hard.
However, I do need to mark what might be somewhat of an inconsistency in my thinking here. I do encourage people who are doubting to continue in their Christian routine, even though their beliefs are tipsy. However, I don’t think this is a permanent thing. Our beliefs should eventually reclaim their position as the guides of our lives, not our routines.
Talk to God, control your will, stay broken before God, and diligently search for truth. These are the principles. Even have a disciplined routine. Fast once a week, pray with arms in the air, repent to other people, get up early and meet our Lord, and meditate on the Psalms. When you do these things – however you do these things – Christ will be formed in you and others will see Christ in you. I promise. But, realize that there is not one path to Christ being formed in you and God will not be controlled by your structure. If you get this, then call it spiritual formation, Christian discipline, or whatever. In the end, it is the Christian life where he who is at work in you will perfect his work in you. Your spirit will be conformed.
My Facebook friend asked me yesterday “Why do some people hate the spiritual formation movement with such a passion?” I know those people. But they usually hate everything with the same passion. I don’t hate the Spiritual Formation Movement. I just think there are some red flags that we need to be aware of (and the organ draining that I experience is not really one of them!).
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]