By Rev. Dr. J. Patrick Bowman
Having touched on the fears and concerns of some in the Evangelical tradition regarding spiritual formation, we will now reconstruct spiritual formation in a manner useful for further thought.
Working Definition of Christian Spiritual Formation
The first task is producing a working definition of spiritual formation. To do this I took a sampling of definitions from ten evangelical sources and composed a composite definition from them. It includes a primary definition, secondary definition, a human response, and an outcome:
“Christian spiritual formation is a Spirit-driven process in the tradition of Jesus Christ in which God uses every circumstance in saints’ lives for the purpose of conforming them to the image of Christ, by the transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself, a journey through which we open our hearts to a deeper connection with God in the context of community, and in accordance with biblical standards for the glory of God and for the sake of others.
“Formation is an organic, life-long, and holistic process involving right thinking (orthodoxy), right behaviors (orthopraxy), and right feelings (orthopathy) of individuals and communities, done in the power of Christ, through the character of Christ. This process involves the transformation of the whole person in desires, thoughts, behaviors, and styles of relating to God and others with love, where the outer life of the individual becomes a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus.
“We believe to be formed by the Holy Spirit in this way requires both participation and intentionality. We are not bystanders in our spiritual lives, we are active participants with God, who is ever inviting us into relationship with him. We foster this ongoing relationship in part through the learning and practice of spiritual disciplines such as meditating on scripture, practicing silence and solitude, and listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
“They are methods we use to “put off [the] old” and prepare our hearts for God to “put on the new” (Ephesians 4:20-24). As we make efforts to obey the directives God gives us, we begin to know Him more. Such life change is manifest in a growing love for God and others—a dying to self and living for Christ, where we find true satisfaction in life.”
Components of the Working Definition
We now examine the four paragraphs of the working definition more fully. Spiritual formation is first a process. Process, defined, is “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.” Although we participate in the process, our working definition places the impetus of Christian spiritual formation on the Father. This realization displaces the fear that “works righteousness” is a motivating factor in spiritual formation at its inception.
Our spiritual journeys are inspired by God, the Father. He has a vision for our lives to which he is absolutely committed. Romans 8:29 says, “For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his son, so that his son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” The Father knew you before the foundations of the world. He chose you. You are one of his many sons or daughters. And, he is committed to your becoming like Jesus. Everything that he allows or ordains in your life is connected to his resolute commitment for you to become like his Son.
However, the process of spiritual formation is also Spirit-driven. In other words, the Father uses the divine agency of the Holy Spirit in accomplishing His wishes for our formation. Genesis 1:2 tells us, “And the earth was a formless and desolate emptiness, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Gen 1:2 NASB). We begin our formation with God in the same way.
Additionally, this process is in the tradition of Jesus Christ. We notice that Jesus called His disciples, and as they traveled with Him, He modeled His ministry before them, instructed them, and imparted anointing to them for service (re: Matthew 4-10). The Gospels show this tradition as a distinct mentoring model of discipleship.
Mentors give themselves over entirely to engendering in their chosen pupils essential qualities of character or skills that are crucial to the continuance of a practice or way of life.
Jesus mentored the Twelve—“his own who were in the world” (John 13:1)—to know him (and, through him, to know the Father) and to re-present God’s love in the world. Even as he reminded them “servants are not greater than their master,” he washed their feet. It was a sacramental act—for it enacted God’s grace that transcends his simple deed—and a mysterious one. To Peter he said, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (13:7). By his simple act Jesus exemplified God’s love for them and called them to love one another.
Using this mentoring style, Jesus fulfilled the entire first paragraph of our definition as He used “every circumstance in saints’ lives for the purpose of conforming them to the image of Christ, by the transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself, a journey through which we open our hearts to a deeper connection with God in the context of community, and in accordance with biblical standards for the glory of God and for the sake of others.”
While it has once again become a priority in commerce to mentor and be mentored, the church has failed, in many ways, to adopt the tradition of Jesus in spiritual formation and leadership development.
The second paragraph of our composite definition of Christian spiritual formation begins, “Formation is an organic, life-long, and holistic process…” There are three key words here to consider. The first is organic.
Organic process is a principle in the sciences, the arts, and many other arenas. We can borrow from its meaning in biology, which says, “the process of an individual organism growing organically; a purely biological unfolding of events involved in an organism changing gradually from a simple to a more complex level.” The definition can be restated in spiritual terms as, “the process of an individual growing spiritually; a purely spiritual [God initiated] unfolding of events involved in a believer changing gradually from a simple to a more complex level.”Formation is also an individual process. “Even though we’re purposed for the same destination, we’re individual people on unique journeys. We have different backgrounds, different shaping events, different struggles, and different needs for character development. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to transformation.”
Spiritual formation is also a life-long process. As stated above, formation is a gradual change from a simple to a more complex level. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), an American theologian and Baptist pastor wrote, “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of getting individuals into heaven, but of transforming our life on earth into the harmony of heaven.” The implication of this is:
Thus, the Christian life is a life-long realization of what our lives can be when lived fully aligned with God’s purposes for us. This is a journey in which we must be fully and daily engaged. Imitating Jesus and becoming like him fully depends upon our cooperation with the grace he willingly extends toward us. Of course, Jesus made it clear that his work of transformation would progress from the inside out: a new mind and heart with new motivations would generate new ways of behaving.
The process of Christian spiritual formation is additionally holistic. Holistic, defined, is “dealing with or treating the whole of something or someone and not just a part.” One writer put it, “Christian formation spans everything we do as people of faith. From our architecture to our word choice, from how we greet one another at the door to how (or if) we allow space for doubts and questions of faith.” She went on to say, “ A deep, lasting, durable faith grows within our youth [but certainly not limited to youth] when they are invited to participate alongside a community that actively lives out its love for Jesus in the world; when they see the faith we proclaim actually makes a difference in life. This is faith formation. It is a holistic approach to spiritual formation.”
Healthcare providers have placed increasing emphasis on the complexity of the human being in saying, “The main concept behind the mind-body-spirit connection is that we are all more than just our thoughts. We are also our bodies, our emotions, and our spirituality … all these things combine to give us identity, determine our health, and make us who we are.” The apostle Paul realized this when he wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Honoring the holistic process of spiritual formation offers a wider application to the when, why, and how of living responsibly before God.
In recognizing and practicing Christian spiritual formation as an organic, life-long, and holistic process, the outcome will include right thinking (orthodoxy), right behaviors (orthopraxy), and right feelings (orthopathy) of individuals and communities, done in the power of Christ, through the character of Christ. It will involve the transformation of the whole person in desires, thoughts, behaviors, and styles of relating to God and others with love, where the outer life of the individual becomes a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus.
The third paragraph in our composite definition of Christian spiritual formation begins, “We believe to be formed by the Holy Spirit in this way requires both participation and intentionality. We are not bystanders in our spiritual lives, we are active participants with God, who is ever inviting us into relationship with him.” Author Mindy Caliguire brings out this participation and intentionality in writing:
Spiritual growth and intimacy with God are cultivated by attending to what’s current between us and God. When we become aware of how God is currently growing us, we are wise to divert energy there rather than try to forge a different path based upon an artificial growth map that we or anyone else might impose on our spiritual journey. If we respond to God as he makes us aware of areas of growth, we will become exactly who he has in mind for this season- and then the next, and then the next.
But in what ways can we open the door to become aware of how God is currently growing us? As our definition continues, “We foster this ongoing relationship in part through the learning and practice of spiritual disciplines such as meditating on scripture, practicing silence and solitude, and listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.” This is the “scary” part for many Evangelicals, as we already discussed. The fear of falling unawares into Eastern religious, New Age, or Roman Catholic practices have caused a hesitancy to participate in legitimate spiritual disciplines that are deemed too subjective in nature. But in doing so, many have sidetracked the holistic aspects of spiritual formation we just addressed.
However, not every Evangelical organization has written off the subjective elements of spiritual formation. The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary at Evangel University offers a 3 Credit Hour course in Practical Theology, “PTH 557 Spiritual Formation of the Minister.” The stated course learning objectives in the syllabus include the following, which they label “a ‘toolbox’ of five spiritual formation means that will help students discern and conform to the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.” The formation means are:
- Experiential Learning including a Mentoring Dynamic: This means is centered on experiential learning with the three components of (a) doing ministry, (b) reflecting on ministerial experiences with a mentor, and (c) determining how to approach leadership issues in the future. Students will explore the Biblical mentoring through the Paul and Timothy dyad. A personal ministry readiness assessment and a 360 assessment will be utilized to help students discern developmental emphases.
- A Wesleyan Model of Accountability: This means of spiritual formation is centered on a list of questions shared in a small group setting that will promote encouragement and accountability to personal and ministerial growth. Students will explore the accountability model of formation emphasized by John Wesley in the First Great Awakening in the 1700’s.
- The Spiritual Exercises: This means of spiritual formation centers on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Students will explore five foci within the Spiritual Exercises which include (a) discerning God’s love, (b) discerning what distorts God’s image inside you, (c) aligning your heart with Jesus’ mission in the world, (d) learning how to suffer for God’s mission in the world, and (e) entering into the joy of God’s work in and through your life.
- Key Dynamics within Personal Devotion: This means of spiritual formation will help students conceptualize how to center the personal voice of God for one’s life in a way that is highly personalized and practically applied. Students will explore mystical aspects of spirituality from the 17th century’s influence of Jeanne Guyon and note its correlation to early Pentecostal pioneers of the 20th century.
- Soaking in His Presence with Others: This means of spiritual formation will center on altar experiences and how they practically shape our destinies.
It is important to note that each of these formation tools has predominantly subjective elements to them. We can break down these tools into the basic components of spiritual mentoring, small group accountability, spiritual disciplines, personalized and practical devotions, and group experiences. However, it is uncertain how these same practices have or have not been promoted in a congregational setting by students after their ordination.
The final paragraph of our composite definition begins, “They are methods we use to “put off [the] old” and prepare our hearts for God to “put on the new” (Ephesians 4:20-24). In other words, these methods are meant to be transformational as opposed to strictly educational or inspirational.
Mulholland has written:
When spirituality is viewed as a journey, the way to spiritual wholeness is seen to lie in an increasingly faithful response to the One whose purpose shapes our path, whose grace redeems our detours, whose power liberates us from crippling bondages of the prior journey and whose transforming presence meets us at each turn in the road. In other words, holistic spirituality is a pilgrimage of deepening responsiveness to God’s control of our life and being.
The efficacy of something is determined by assessing the purpose for which it is intended and measuring how close it comes to fulfilling that purpose. There is a danger in substituting the original intended purpose in spiritual formation for another purpose (re: education or inspiration) that may be easier in its implication but misses the mark. Inspirational education may help define what spiritual formation is but can never be a substitute for the actual process.
Our composite definition ends with, “As we make efforts to obey the directives God gives us, we begin to know Him more. Such life change is manifest in a growing love for God and others—a dying to self and living for Christ, where we find true satisfaction in life.” So, there is proof to the efficacy of Christian spiritual formation. It will be the ripe fruit of the Spirit manifest in our lives to feed the spiritually starving around us.
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 Whiteaker, C. J. The Process of Spiritual Formation CJ Whiteaker. Shepherd’s Inn, 1 Jan. 2020.
 Kruschwitz, Robert B. “What Do You Think? Christian Reflection Christian Reflection the Real Meaning of Mentorship.” The Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University, 2008.
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 Whiteaker, C. J. The Process of Spiritual Formation CJ Whiteaker. Shepherd’s Inn, 1 Jan. 2020.
 Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. 1917. London, Forgotten Books, 2017, p. 134.
 Orthner, Dennis K. “Assessing Spiritual Development: Reflections on Building a Community Measure.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, vol. 14, no. 2, 12 Aug. 2021, pp. 198–210, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/19397909211036138, 10.1177/19397909211036138. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
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Gerber, Rachel. “Deep Faith: A Holistic Approach to Spiritual Formation.” Mennonite Church USA, 18 Oct. 2016, http://www.mennoniteusa.org/faith-formation/deep-faith-holistic-approach-spiritual-formation/.
 Mehr, Bonnie. “The Importance of the Mind-Body-Spirit Connection during Times of Stress and Anxiety.” EHealth Connection, 24 Mar. 2020, blogs.cooperhealth.org/ehealth/2020/03/24/the-importance-of-the-mind-body-spirit-connection-during-times-of-stress-and- anxiety/#:~:text=The%20main%20concept%20behind%20the.
 Caliguire, Mindy. Discovering Soul Care. Downers Grove, Ill., Ivp Connect, 2007, p. 53.
Oney, R. Michael. PTH-557-Spiritual Formation of the Minister. The Assemblies of God theological Seminary, Oct. 2017, agts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/PTH-557-Spiritual-Formation-of-the-Minister-Oney-SP18.pdf.
 Mulholland, Robert, and R Ruth Barton. Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove, Il, Intervarsity Press, 2016, p. 16.