My concern in this letter is for us to think together about a matter of genuine personal and ecclesiastical significance: how we might help to bring the modern spiritual formation movement into a growing maturity. Some of us have been at this spiritual formation work for a while now, long enough to see quite a mixture of helpful and decidedly unhelpful things set forth. It is time to assess where we have come and to think together about the way forward.

Maturing The Modern Spiritual Formation Movement

The task of maturing the modern spiritual formation movement is complicated and will challenge our finest thinking and most creative energies. There are two reasons, at least, for the complication. To begin with, the continuing popularity of spiritual formation today has meant that all kinds of writing and speaking has now gone forth on the subject. Frankly — and I hate to say it in such a blunt matter — much that has gone out under the name of spiritual formation has been done by people who simply have not thought substantively on the subject, and (dare I mention it) we have to wonder if they themselves have been spiritually formed to any substantial degree. Hence, a great deal of Holy Baloney” is out there now, and the average person is quickly going to despair at attempting to distinguish the good from the bad. 

Then, secondly, people in general and Americans in particular are a fickle lot, and they tire quickly. Many, in fact, are already going on to the next fad. And let’s be honest: how many of us can truly wrap our minds around the notion of a forty-year journey into the subterranean chambers of the soul? That was Moses’s experience of character formation in the Egyptian desert, you recall. Forty years! Are we not tempted to opt instead for a short-cut or two? Impatience is a primary spiritual problem in our day. 

These things need not discourage us, however. The human need — and longing — for substantive formation of heart and soul and mind and body into Christlikeness is always before us. It is not going to go away. No doubt our work will now be more difficult with those who feel they have tried spiritual formation, and it failed them, when all they really tried was some little five steps to blessedness.” Remember, we are not presenting people with any program,” but with a life. We simply and powerfully introduce them into an ongoing, interactive relationship with Jesus, their ever-living Savior, Teacher, Lord, and Friend. Apprenticed to Jesus they will be able to go forward from faith to faith and from strength to strength. 

Here now are a few things to keep in mind as we continue our efforts at maturing the modern spiritual formation movement. 

1. We take the long view … always. 

We think in terms of lifetimes and centuries. The soul lives forever. It is precious beyond imagining. Investing deeply in even a few folk will count for all eternity. Sure, many in today’s religious climate will go on to other more interesting” topics. We bless these folk and pray for their well-being and growth in grace. But, there are plenty (vast numbers, in fact) who are committed to the long haul. They really want to be like Jesus with all their heart and soul and mind and strength. These are the ones we invest in. And, believe me, investing in these precious lives will take all the energy and all the time and all the prayer and all the weeping and laughing and singing and hoping we can possibly muster. 

2. We refuse to think of spiritual formation in terms of various practices … ever. 

In another era those practices were things like a quiet time” and Bible study of one sort or another. Today it is Lectio Divina and journaling.” May I say as clearly as possible: Christian spiritual formation has nothing essentially to do with such practices. Many practices can be genuinely helpful in their place, but they are not it.” What is it” is LIFE — life with Jesus, interactive relationship with the great God of the universe, inner transformation into Christlikeness. Now, this reality can happen with Lectio and with journaling,” and it can happen without them. It can, and it does! The tendency today, unfortunately widespread, is to think of spiritual formation exclusively in terms of practices of one kind or another. Please, dear friend, do not fall into this trap. It will only produce legalism and bondage, and it utterly defeats spiritual formation. Many of the familiar practices are useful, to be sure, and some more than others. But none is essential. We all are to walk with the living Christ and then in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).

3. We engage in spiritual formation for the sake of the Church universal … always. 

Sectarian reform movements that cement an eternal split only become ends in themselves. We work instead for the transformation of the whole Church. We love the Church, the people of God, in all her multi-faceted expressions. Traditional. Contemporary. Liturgical. Charismatic. Emergent. Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant. Big church and little church, house church and crystal cathedral. We attempt no end run around the Church. God is with his people in all their waywardness and silliness, and so are we. 

4. We do not center on curriculum based solutions … ever. 

Curricula of all sorts are important but they come way down the line in formation work. Curriculum must always be subservient to ideas and ideas must always be subservient to relationship. In The Divine Conspiracy Dallas Willard (rightly in my estimation) has a chapter entitled, A Curriculum for Christlikeness.” However, this is chapter nine and comes only after both a careful delineation of the unique qualities of the interactive relationship between Jesus and his apprentices and a careful explication of the central ideas related to this life in the kingdom of God. Far too many people rush to the curriculum program of chapter nine without establishing into their lives the foundations set forth so carefully in all that comes before. We must not leave out the curriculum work, but it never comes first and it must never be central. Nor can it ever be a cookie-cutter” curriculum. Unique, individualized people require unique, individualized curricula. Frankly, cookie-cutter” curricula are very much like cookies — all sweetness with precious little nutrition. 

5. We draw wisdom and insight from the ancient sources … always. 

We reject the heresy of the contemporary. The people of God throughout history instruct us in the way eternal. Bible sources and post-Bible sources. We learn from Moses. We learn from Luther. We learn from Joseph of Arimathea. We learn from Catherine of Genoa. These are our teachers, our models, our inspiration. 

6. We do not aim at outward action … ever. 

It is the renovation of the heart we are after. This inward work is much harder than mere outward conformity … and easier. Harder because we cannot see it, test it, control it. We cannot program the heart of another human being. We cannot program our own heart. But this is what makes it easier. God is the One who sees the heart. God is the One who tenderly programs the heart … always allowing time and space for our will to turn and respond to divine Love. We are working in conjunction with a greater Plan, a greater Planner. We are part of God’s great Renovation project for human beings. And so we can work resting. We can labor under God’s abiding grace. 

7. We are keenly aware that true inward transformation will incline our hearts toward suffering humanity … always. 

Deep suffering is found everywhere; among the down and out and the up and in. As our hearts are increasingly renovated, they will become increasingly tender toward the bruised and the broken, the helpless and the hopeless. We then will find ways to move outside our insulated bubbles of security. Trevor Hudson, a South African pastor and writer, during the darkest period in his country’s history of apartheid developed an eight-day experiential program designed to help young South Africans reflect upon the meaning of their faith and discipleship within the harsh and oppressive sociopolitical realities of their nation. Trevor calls this experience The Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope.” Oh, may we find ways to come alongside suffering human beings and together walk the pilgrimage of pain and hope! 

Friends, right now spiritual formation is popular and much sought after. This time will pass, and when it does we will continue on. Frankly, whether we are in the limelight or in obscurity is of no consequence whatever. Such matters are wood, hay, and stubble. We seek everlasting results: gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor. 3:12). So, dear friends, live faithfully to the end. Be constant in season and out. Proclaim the good news of the kingdom. Walk cheerfully over the earth. 

Photo by Zach Reiner

Text First Published August 2010