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A Literature Review of Spiritual Formation

Dr Alex Tang

Historically the term “spiritual formation” was used to denote the training of men and women for full time church ministry (Sheldrake 2005, 309). The content of the curriculum was academic training on scripture, theology, philosophy and liturgy. It also involved training in the spiritual disciplines especially in a disciplined prayer life.

In recent years, spiritual formation is used in a different setting and carries differing connotations when used by different people. The modern spiritual formation[1] is different from the ancient usage of the word which was reserved for clergy or the training of the religious. Increasingly, discipleship is differentiated from spiritual formation. In spite of this, it is difficult to do a literature review on modern spiritual formation. The prestigious Christian Journal of Education published 6 articles with the words “spiritual formation” in the titles in 2000, 1 in 2002 and 2 in 2006. Therefore a total of 9 articles with the words “spiritual formation” in their article titles were published between 2000-2006.  A general survey of the Library of Congress online catalogue showed 7 books with “spiritual formation” in the titles and 97 books with “spiritual formation’ in the subject category was published in the same period[2]. It appears that there is not much being written on spiritual formation. Yet it appears there is much general interest in spiritual formation. Here are a few possible reasons why so little works were published with the words “spiritual formation.”

First, spiritual formation has become a buzz word and many authors use it even though their writings have nothing to do with inner spiritual growth. Second, because of the buzz, authors who deals with the issues of spiritual formation often refused to use the word spiritual formation. Third, some authors fail to differentiate spiritual formation and discipleship or use these words interchangeably. Others use word like faith formation, spiritual transformation, Christian formation, and spiritual growth. Finally, different authors study and write about spiritual formation from different perspectives. This is because spiritual formation can be approached from psychological studies, behavioural sciences, Christian spirituality, theology, social and postmodern perspectives.

In this literature review of spiritual formation, I will try to categorise spiritual formation studies into 6 perspectives, recognising that these studies often overlap and may also appear in more than one perspective. This is to help provide a more comprehensive overview on what has been written on spiritual formation. I will also be limiting this review to modern spiritual formation.


    1. Spiritual Formation through Psychology Perspective

In terms of spiritual formation, Dallas Willard is the most prominent advocate of the process. Willard defined spiritual formation as the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself (2002, 22). To Willard, spiritual formation is character formation (2002, 19). However he approached spiritual formation through psychology/personality theories. He coined the acronym “VIM” in describing the pattern of spiritual formation. VIM stands for vision, intention, and means. (Willard 2002, 85)

He writes,

“VIM” is a derivative of the Latin term “vis.” meaning direction, strength, force, vigor, power, energy, or virtue; and sometimes meaning sense, import, nature, or essence. Spiritual formation in Christlikeness is all of this to human existence. It is the path by which we can truly, as Paul told the Ephesians, “be empowered in the Lord and in the energy of his might”(Ephesians 6:10, PAR) and “become mighty with his energy though his Spirit entering into the inward person”(3:16, PAR) (Willard 2002, 85)

  1. Vision of “life in the Kingdom”

Spiritual formation starts with the vision of partaking of the life in the kingdom of God here and now. This means we experience the presence of God in our lives now. It also means that we take part in God’s mission on earth now. However this vision is not something we conjure up but has to be given to us by God.

  1. Intention to be a  “Kingdom Person”

After receiving the vision, we have to make a decision to intentionally be a “kingdom person.” This means is to trust, believe and obey the teachings of Jesus. This belief should not be just an intellectual acceptance but must be translated into action. To trust and to believe is to act out in obedience to Christ.

  1. Means for Spiritual Transformation

These “means for spiritual transformation” are, “for replacing of the inner character of the “lost” with the inner character of Jesus: his vision, understanding, feelings, decisions, and character.”  (Willard 2002, 89) This is achieved by discovering, reflecting, identifying and modifying the six aspects of human personality; thoughts, feeling, choice, body, social context, and soul that prevents us from becoming like Jesus. Once we have identified these failings we then take steps to retrain our inner person into a new worldview, habits, attitudes and feelings. The chief means is by studying and meditating on the Scriptures.

Willard has given the churches, a VIM model of spiritual formation. However the model in its introspection of personality and use of psychological tools, may produce very individualistic Christians (Peace 2004, 164). A holistic spiritual formation is personal but not individualistic. Even though Willard devotes a single chapter in his book for community, the impression is that his thinking is more on developing individualistic Christians who have or should have an influence in their community of faith and society as a whole (Sickles 2004, 180-181).

Fowler’s psychosocial stage development, Kohlberg’s moral development and Stevenson’s stages of life have incorporated our life events into spiritual formation (Fowler 1995). It has opened a way for scholars to examine and explore spiritual formation in different stages of our lives, our action and reactions, and how the church should equip us to face these issues (Fowler 2000; Hagberg and Guelich 2005).

David Benner’s psychospiritual model of spiritual formation integrates spiritual growth and psychological growth (Howard 2006, 231-236). As with Pennington and Mulholland,  Benner regards spiritual growth as evolving from our false self to our true self (Pennington 2000; Benner 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; Mulholland Jr 2006). In Labyrinth of Therapeutic Encounters, Anthony Yeo and others write about spiritual growth though counselling and psychotherapy in an Asian context (Yeo 2006).


    1. Spiritual Formation though Behavioural Perspective

Richard Foster’s The Celebration of Disciplines: The Path to Spiritual Growth reintroduce evangelicals to a large number of spiritual disciplines beyond the Quiet time, reading the Bible, praying and evangelism (Foster 1989). “New” spiritual disciplines are reintroduced such as silence and solitude (Barton 2004; 2006), the Jesus prayer, lectio divina (Peterson 2006), centering prayer (Pennington 1980), fasting, daily examen of our consciousness (Ivens 1998), spiritual direction, and the rule of life (Chittister 1992). These spiritual disciplines helped to instil in practitioners a habit of worship and listening (Willard 1988). Practising these spiritual disciplines also motivate people to recommit their lives to spiritual formation (Wilkins 1997).

Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass spearheaded a study on practices of the congregation that will affect spiritual formation (Dykstra 1987; 2005). They highlighted several practices[3] to concentrate upon (Bass 1997).

There are unfortunately not many books and articles that specifically focus on the spiritual formation of children[4] (Coles 1990; Bass and Richter 2002; Jordan 2004)[5].


    1. Spiritual Formation through Christian Spirituality

Some scholars have found help in the understanding of spiritual formation by studying the rich heritage of Christian spirituality. They examined the lives and writings of certain church fathers and mystics. Studies of Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle (Ashbrook 2003), the writings of Meister Eckhart (McGinn 2001), life of Francis of Assisi (Rohr and Feister 2001) and The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (Ganss 1991) provide a link to the rich heritage of Christian history. Christian spirituality helps us appreciate the spirituality of spiritual formation. Robert Webber in Ancient Future Faith series believes that in order for the church to move forward, she must first look backward to the ancient church. The ancient church has the precious wisdom that the present church needs to move forward into the postmodern era. (Webber 1999; 2002; 2003;2004;2006). There is also a revival of interest in spiritual direction as a way of facilitating spiritual formation.

The Christian practice of pilgrimage is being re-examined and the metaphor of spiritual formation as being a journey is being accepted widely (Hagberg and Guelich 2005). Mulholland writes in Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, “Spiritual formation is not an option! The inescapable conclusion is that life itself is a process of spiritual development…The Christian journey, therefore, is an intentional and continual commitment to a lifelong process of growth towards wholeness in Christ.” (Mulholland 1993, 24) 

Kenneth Boa, in Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation, identified twelve facets of spirituality to be developed in the process of spiritual formation (2001). These facets are relational, paradigm, disciplined, exchanged life, motivated, devotional, holistic, process, Spirit-filled, warfare, nurturing and corporate spirituality. Recognising that people have different temperaments and each will be attracted to a certain type of spirituality; Boa encourages them to try all. This is a welcome departure from a ‘one size fit all’ modern discipleship. Gary Thomas approached spiritual formation in the same way (Thomas 1996).


    1. Spiritual Formation through Theological Perspective

Modern discipleship programs are often very cognitive in orientation. However, this does not mean that spiritual formation is anti-intellectual (McGrath 1995). Spiritual formation embraces the intellect but moves beyond belief into action. We also need to re-examine our pedagogy/andragogy in a rapidly changing world (Gorman 2001; Johnson 2001; Shults and Sandage 2006).

Westerhoff’s seminal book, Will Our Children Have Faith?  was a wake-up call and caused Christian educators and scholars to re-examine their pedagogy and andragogy (Westerhoff 2000). This has led to increased interest in spiritual formation as an antidote to the schooling-instructional model (Westerhoff 1987; Johnson 1989; Hauerwas and Jones 1997; Pazmino 1997; Osmer 2005).


    1. Spiritual Formation through Communal Perspective

Renovare, a parachurch organisation has moved from their initial emphasis on “spiritual formation” (initially called discipleship) to “spiritual formation based congregations”, to the “with-God” perspective of spiritual formation[6]. The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible defines spiritual formation as “the process of transforming the inner reality of the self (the inward being” of the psalmist) in such a way that the overall with-God life seen in the Bible naturally and freely comes to pass in us. Our inner world (the “secret heart”) becomes the home of Jesus by his initiative and our response.” (Foster 2005, xxix). The numerous essays in this study bible tries to show the bible from the perspective of  “with-God life” of spiritual formation (Foster 2005, xli-xiv). This definition emphases the transformation of the inner spiritual life, God’s overall plan, Jesus making his home in us and our response to him.

Others have recognised the interconnectedness of spiritual formation. They have examined the role of spiritual friends (Leech 2001; Benner 2002; Moon and Benner 2004), mentors (Mallison 1998; Anderson and Reese 1999; Houston 2002), and spiritual directors in spiritual formation. Gerald May describes, “spiritual formation is a rather general term referring to all attempts, means, instructions, and disciplines intended towards a deepening of faith and furtherance of spiritual growth. It includes educational endeavours as well as the more intimate and in-depth process of spiritual direction.” (May 1992, 6) Spiritual direction is gradually becoming accepted as an important tool in spiritual formation (Moon and Benner 2004; Bumpus and Langer 2005; Wagner 2006).

Craig Dysktra reexamines the importance of Christian church or community practices in spiritually forming the congregation (Dykstra 1987; 2005; Bass 1997). Similarly, Simon Chan and others has been looking at how liturgical worship and catechumenate influence the spiritual formation of a community of faith (Dawn 1989; Chittister 1990; Chan 2006).

Organisation theories have provided some exciting possibilities for the community of faith to practice spiritual formation. One of these theories is the learning organisation (Senge 1990). Here, instead of individuals learning individually, scholars are looking at the organisation as a whole in learning and living out their core beliefs (Kline and Saunders 1993; Kouzes and Posner 2004; Smith 2005). This is counter-cultural to our individualistic spiritual formation practices but may be more effective in the long run.


    1. Spiritual Formation through Postmodern Perspective

The church in the postmodern or postevangelical era is attracting a lot of attention (Sine 1999; Sweet 1999). The emerging church movement been rethinking, exploring and experimenting about the form the church should take in the postmodern 21st century (Sweet 2003; Gibbs 2005). Kimball writing about spiritual formation notes that “the emerging church must not settle for attending events and programs. Rather, we must be disciples of Jesus who are dependent on the Holy Spirit to transform us into people who love God with all our being and who love people so much that we cannot help but be mission minded.” (Kimball 2003, 216). While there have been many imaginative approaches, the key in many of their approach to spiritual formation is community based (Pagitt and Community 2003).

Brian McLaren is the most prominent spokesman of the emerging church movement and has written a number of books on a new kind of (postmodern) Christianity (McLaren 2001; 2004).

According to McLaren, discipleship may be described as knowledge = growth. (McLaren 2005). In Pentecostal and charismatic churches, spiritual experiences were valued as causing spiritual growth hence, spiritual experiences = growth. In recent years, there have been a profound influence of mainline churches by the charismatic movement and spiritual growth can be denoted by knowledge + spiritual experiences = growth. (McLaren 2005). However there is disillusion about the effectiveness of this formula as it was soon discovered that there is no real spiritual growth or personal or character transformation.

McLaren discerns,

“A number of factors may have contributed to this disillusionment, including boredom, pride over mastery of information (or experiences) without a corresponding transformation in character, a tendency to drift into esoteric or theological concerns far removed from making satisfactory interpersonal contact, superficiality, a sense that curricula and teaching methods were always shopping for the latest, greatest seminar, teaching series, or revival.”(McLaren 2005)

Instead for a more holistic concept of spiritual formation, he suggests knowledge + experiences + relationships+ practices + suffering + service + time = growth + health. (McLaren 2005)

  1. Knowledge.

Knowledge is important and there is a need to learn for spiritual growth. However the methods of teaching must change from didactic teaching to one that encourages us to reflect, to build upon previous knowledge and apply it to our own lives.

  1. Experiences.

Spiritual experiences should be encouraged in contemplative practices where the presence of God is experienced in the routine of normal life rather than in manipulative situations.

  1. Relationships.

Relationship is more important in the model of the mentor and apprentice than in the modern discipleship model. The mentor is a spiritual friend (anam cara) who may also be a spiritual director (from the Benedictine tradition) to the apprentice rather than just a disciplemaker.

  1. Practices.

While the spiritual disciplines (quiet time, reading the Bible, witnessing, attending church) offered by the modern discipleship model have value, it often leads to the acquisition of knowledge only. We should learn from the monastic tradition where the spiritual disciplines are seen as more than the acquisition of knowledge but for self-mastery for character or spiritual formation. Practices like fasting, contemplation, meditation, silence, solitude, simplicity, generosity and hospitality leads to greater experience of God than in just knowing about him.

  1. Suffering.

Suffering is an important practice in spiritual formation. In knowledge-acquisition suffering is acknowledged but often avoided. In spiritual formation, suffering is embraced as a means of spiritual growth. It is through these dark nights of the soul that we come to know ourselves and God.

  1. Service.

Serving is an important part of spiritual formation. We serve not only those in the community of faith but also those outside. Service is missional in that we align ourselves with the great redemptive work of God.

  1. Time.

Time is an important consideration in spiritual formation, especially in our modern time-driven world. It takes time for spiritual formation to takes place in a person’s life. The idea is to mature with time, as we go through the seasons of our lives.


This brief survey of the literature on spiritual formation and its related areas reveal how new the subject is and how much further work need to be done to clarify, quantify and make relevant to the individual Christians and their communities of faith.


[1] Subsequently, spiritual formation will mean modern spiritual formation in order to distinguish it from spiritual formation of the religious in past centuries.

[2] The Library of Congress online catalogue search-engine located 22 books with the words “spiritual formation” in their titles. There were altogether 259 books which contain “spiritual formation” in their subject category.  Out of this, only 7 books with the words “spiritual formation” in their titles were published between 2000-2006. There were 97 books with “spiritual formation” in their subject category published the same time period. All this shows that there are not many books published on the subject of spiritual formation directly.

[3] These practices are: honoring the body, hospitality, household economics, saying Yes and Saying No, keeping Sabbath, Testimony, Discernment, shaping communities, forgiveness, healing, dying well, and sing our lives. They have published and are publishing a series of books on each of the practices.

[4] It is promising  to note that more scholars are focussing their studies on children. Examples are Andersen, W., D. Cohen, et al. (2003). "Theology of Childhood: a Theological Resource Framed to Guide the Practice of Evangelising and Nurturing Children." Journal of Christian Education 46(3 Dec,): 5-31.;Hill, B. (1990). That They May Learn: Towards a Christian View of Education. Flemington Markets, NSW, Lancer Books.

[5] Books about spiritual formation for children sometimes overlap with education. Westerhoff, J. (2000). Will Our Children Have Faith? Harrisburg, PA, Morehouse Publishing. Is one example. Others include Harris, M. (1989). Fashion Me A People: Curriculum in the Church. Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press.;Johnson, S. (1989). Christian Spiritual Formation in the Church and Classroom. Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press.

[6] Richard Foster first made mention of spiritual formation based congregations in his Pastoral Letter, May 2005 and one year later in May 2006. This time, he listed the characteristics of a spiritual formation based community: the process of Christian spiritual formation and life-long discipleship is the foundation of individual and congregational life; everyone is encouraged to be involved in an intentional process for formation in Christlikeness; the natural outcome of events for individual participation in the fellowship is ever-increasing formation and transformation into the ways and heart of Jesus; spiritual formation in Christlikeness is a process not a program; pastors and lay leadership are fully committed to and participating in the spiritual formation process; there is a great diversity of sources to draw from for Christian faith and practice; the classical Spiritual Disciplines—such as prayer, fasting, service, and guidance—are highly valued, taught on, and practiced; and all are encouraged to explore the writings of the great devotional authors of the Church, such as Saint Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Foster, R. (2006). May 2006: A Pastoral Letter from Richard Foster. Heart-to-Heart, Renovare: 1-6.p.1



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Ashbrook, R. T. (2003). Mansions of the Heart: A Spiritual Formation Paradigm for the Church based on Teresa of Avila's Seven Mansions, George Fox Evangelical Seminary. D.Min: 155 pages.

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