Missing the Point of Spiritual Formation

In churches all across the country, office doors are getting updated with new job titles. Instead of “Pastor of Discipleship” we now see “Pastor of Spiritual Formation”; the Christian Education department is now called the Department of Spiritual Formation; the Leader of Adult Ministries is now known as the Minister of Adult Formation. But a very sobering question must be asked as to whether or not anything else is changing besides the title. And sadly in many cases, such updates are limited to the terms used to describe the very same activities that occupied those spaces before the name changes.

Of course, we have always had this hazard with language. Terminology that is meant to convey one thing is routinely co-opted, diluted, and reused to lend credibility to something else entirely. Our culture has done this with the word “intolerance” for example. But our churches did this a long time ago with the words “relationship” and “fellowship” which in some contexts might mean nothing more than being in the same room with other people who think mostly the same doctrinal thoughts. Unfortunately, but predictably, this is now happening with Christian Spiritual Formation.

For those who still find this to be an unfamiliar term, it’s basic meaning comes from the idea that all of us are being formed spiritually all the time — by everything we think, feel, and do, and every internal and external response we have to those things which happen to us. Spiritual formation is inescapable. And as we are formed, we live out of the person we have become. We cannot do anything else. Even the choices we make in an effort to override our internal impulses, even those come out of who we are as a person.

But not all formation needs to be accidental. We can actually be intentional about some of the ways in which we are formed. What separates Christian Formation from accidental formation are the deliberate things we can do to alter the ways in which we are formed, so that we can then live more and more out of a Christ-like character.

Now at first glance, it is easy to say that is what church is all about. So what’s the big deal over updating our terminology? After all, were we not already doing intentional formation in our church? Well, maybe and maybe not. What most people do not see very clearly is that the vast majority of our churches — both conservative and liberal (but for very different reasons) — have been very busy doing something else, and calling it New Testament life. Remember how terms get misused? The truth is that the old terms have been misused for centuries. So updating them does not really help. What most liberal churches in the Western world teach is that we need to fix the surrounding culture in order to make life better. And most conservative churches teach either (a) we just need to get as many people into heaven as possible before the end; or (b) if we try really hard to be good people, God will help us.

None of these approaches address the real issues of God’s desire to be with us and change us from the inside out so that we can live the way He intended for us to live. We do not become good people by first creating the perfect environment. That would be like trying to build a skyscraper in order to produce a good foundation. It is simply not possible to proceed in that direction (not to mention, Eden was far more perfect than anything we can create). Nor can we achieve goodness by trying hard to be good. That is like saying if we hang enough artificial apples on a pine tree it will become an apple tree. No, the tree must first be transformed, and then it will produce real apples.

Christian Formation in our day — in its purest form — is a rediscovery of how we can be transformed from the inside out so that we actually become the kind of people who live out the life we see envisioned in the New Testament. This is not a minor shift in focus or a change in terminology. It is a radical change that impacts nearly every practical teaching about the Christian life that has been the norm in the West for at least the last 500 years. My hope is that Christian leaders everywhere will begin to see spiritual formation in this light, even before they have the training to grasp this experientially or to help their people move away from performance-driven Christianity into an authentic relationship with God. At the very least we will be casting a vision of what the Kingdom of God can be like, instead of merely changing a name plate on a door and maintaining the status quo.