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A Literature Review on 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. However, this is not the spiritual formation referred to in contemporary discussion of the subject.

Contemporary spiritual formation[1] is difficult to study. It is a multidisciplinary subject involving psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, education and theology. A review of the literature will show a large variety of definitions and practices associated with the subject. The language used, different philosophies and worldviews are different to different authors. Various authors differ in their approach to theology, anthropology and psychology. Others struggle between practice and theory. The fundamental commonality among the different authors is that concept of spiritual formation is about spiritual growth. However, their different basis of approach has lead to fundamental differences in their definitions and outworking of their concept of spiritual formation.

First, some authors used the word Christian spiritual formation to differentiate it from spiritual formation that occurs in different worldviews and religious traditions. In this review, I shall limit myself to Christian authors. Second, many authors equate spiritual formation to spiritual growth in persons. However, an argument can be made that spiritual formation also occurs to communities. This will be taken into consideration in the review. Third, some authors fail to differentiate spiritual formation from discipleship or use these words interchangeably. Others use words like faith formation, spiritual transformation, Christian formation, and spiritual growth. Finally, there are not many studies done to establish an exegetical foundation for spiritual formation as currently practiced in evangelicalism. The word “spiritual formation” does not appear in the Bible. Most authors just skim around the theological aspects and focus on the practice.

In this literature review of spiritual formation, I will examine the subject from five different approaches. I am using the word “approach’ as a metaphor because there are no single distinctive to categorise the different writings and often the areas covered by the authors overlap. Recognising this, nevertheless it will offer a way to evaluate the previous work done on this subject, and to also to furnish a backdrop to the theses to be developed in this dissertation.  These approaches are

  1. Social sciences
  2. Spiritual practices
  3. Christian traditions
  4. Teaching
  5. Community

This literature review is a brief overview and is not exhaustive. I have limited myself to a few key authors whom I believe offers some significant contributions to the discussion on spiritual formation.

    1. Social Sciences

In terms of spiritual formation, Dallas Willard is the most prominent advocate of the process. He 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). In Renovation of the Heart, he postulates that there are six aspects that make up human nature. They are

1.      Thought (images, concepts, judgments, inferences)

2.      Feeling (sensation, emotion)

3.      Choice (will, decision, character)

4.      Body (action, interaction with the physical world)

5.      Social context (personal and structural relations to others)

6.      Soul (the factor that integrates all of the above to form one life)  (Willard 2002, 30)

Willard defines the mind as “consisting of thought and feeling together”  (2002, 32-33 italics his). At the core of each human person is the human spirit. Choice or “the capacity for volition, and the acts of willing in which it is exercised, form the spirit in man”  (2002, 34). He then adds “thus will or spirit is also, as we have noted, the heart in the human system: the core of its being”  (2002, 34 italics his). In Willard’s model of the human self, the mind is thought/feeling and the spirit is heart/will. He then defines the process of spiritual formation as

It is the central point of this book that spiritual transformation only happens as each essential dimensions of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of grace from God. Such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by putting pressure on the will (heart, spirit) alone (2002, 41-42) 

In summary Willard regards spiritual formation as character formation (2002, 19). However he approached spiritual formation through the disciplines of philosophy, theology, psychology, and personality theories. Willard notes that “psychological and theological understanding of the spiritual life must go hand in hand.” (2006, 74). He coined the acronym “VIM” in describing the pattern of spiritual formation. VIM stands for Vision of living in the Kingdom of God now, Intention to be a “Kingdom person”, and Means of spiritual formation. (2002, 85). 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.”  (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 of spiritual formation is by studying and meditating on the Scriptures.

Richard Peace points out the model in its introspection of personality and use of psychological tool, may produce very individualistic Christians (2004, 164). A holistic spiritual formation is personal but not individualistic. Willard did devote a single chapter (chapter 13) in his book for community. In it he reveals “God’s plan for spiritual formation in the local congregation” which consists of  (1) making disciples of Jesus Christ, (2) engaging these disciples into the Trinitarian relationship, and (3) inner transformation of the disciples that they overflow into “doing the words and deeds of  Christ”  (2002, 240-251). Sickles comments that his impression of the plan is that it is more focused on developing individualistic Christians who then have or should have an influence in their community of faith and society as a whole (2004, 180-181). Willard has contributed much to the study of spiritual formation[2]. However I concur with Peace and Sickles that his approach to spiritual formation is humanistic and will produce very individualistic Christians. It reflects his influence by secular humanism and a certain nuance towards the institutional church. His division of human nature into mind, body, soul, and spirit is artificial. The model of spiritual formation involving these dimensions may not be as simplistic and orderly as he made it out to be.

Staged-faith development is of interest to studies on spiritual development. 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 Basil Pennington and Mulholland,  Benner regards spiritual growth as evolving from our false self[3] to our true self (Pennington 2000; Benner 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; Mulholland Jr 2006). In this approach, age is not a factor in the equation. It is assumed that the revealing of the true self will be the ultimate goal of spiritual development. Hence it will be difficult to apply this in children and Adolescents who are in the process of developing their own identities. In Labyrinth of Therapeutic Encounters, Anthony Yeo and others write about spiritual growth though counselling and psychotherapy in an Asian context (Yeo 2006). This is a similar approach as Paterson’s model though not presented in religious terms such as contemplation (Patterson 1995). Though there is much to be said for such an approach, the reintegration of the ego is but one aspect of spiritual formation. Its weakness is that it is not holistic and the spiritual aspects of our makeup are not dealt with adequately. Malcolm Goldsmith invites us to explore spiritual formation by examining our personalities through the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality tests (Goldsmith 1997). There is much to be said for this approach as it recognises that the diversity of human personalities, and that there is no “one size fits all” approach in spiritual formation. Gary Thomas introduces a similar approach through various personality traits as modes of approaching God (Thomas 1996). Beck postulate a model by using personality theory to study Jesus Christ (Beck 1999). The limitation of these personality profile approaches is that the personality profile tool such as the MBTI is not specifically designed for spiritual formation. Also there are no studies done to demonstrate the reliability of Thomas’ questionnaires, Beck’s model or MBTI in correlating personality and spiritual growth.  American educator Parker Palmer discovered that we are most ‘authentic’ when we understand ourselves and our role in this world (Palmer 1993). Authenticity, like Maslow’s self-actualisation is a psychology term which indicates self-fulfilment. Whether it is equivalent to a biblical spiritual “perfection” or the true self will need further studies.

    1. Spiritual Practices

Dorothy Bass in differentiating “practices” as used by social scientist, moral philosophers and other religious traditions, defines them in a theological framework as “ patterns of cooperative human activity in and through which life together takes shape over time in response to and in the light of God as known in Jesus Christ” (Volf and Bass 2002), 3). Some will attempt to differentiate spiritual practices from spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are often understood to be personal or individual activities one perform to get closer to God and to discipline oneself. However, no one discipline exists by itself without interactions with others. Also there are also corporate spiritual disciplines that the whole community of faith can do together. In this study, I shall use spiritual practices as synonymous with Christian practices and inclusive of spiritual disciplines[4].

Richard Foster in his 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, prayer and evangelism (Foster 1989). “New” spiritual disciplines are reintroduced such as silence and solitude (Barton 2004; Barton 2006), the Jesus prayer (Church 1987), lectio divina (Peterson 2006), centering prayer (Pennington 1980) , fasting (Piper 1997), daily examen of our consciousness (Ivens 1998), spiritual direction (Moon and Benner 2004), and the rule of life[5] (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). James Bryan Smith in, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, notes that spiritual disciplines “are God’s instructions in how we are to live godly lives” (Smith 1991 , 55).

The practice of spiritual direction is a widely practiced in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches but is relatively unknown in other Protestant churches. Presbyterian Howard Rice notes that “spiritual guidance became an option which many Reformed Protestants did not understand or appreciate.” It is interesting to note that he calls it spiritual guidance instead of spiritual direction. (Rice 1991 , 134). Many Protestants are wary of spiritual direction because they do not understand its dynamics, and they overestimated the power spiritual directors may have over them[6].

Increasingly many psychiatrists and evangelical Christian counsellors have transit into the area of spiritual direction[7]. Psychiatrist 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. (1992, 6) 

May sees the connection between education (meaning Christian education) and the art of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction has often be regarded as ‘unscientific’ and regarded with caution by evangelicals. Recently however spiritual direction is gradually becoming accepted as an important tool in spiritual formation in Protestant circles (Moon and Benner 2004; Bumpus and Langer 2005; Wagner 2006).

Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass spearheaded a study on practices of the congregation that promotes spiritual formation (Dykstra 1987; Volf and Bass 2002; Dykstra 2005). Dykstra highlights that these practices are something not some activity people do for a faith community but action people do with each other in a faith community. They highlighted several practices to focus upon (Bass 1997). These practices are honouring the body, hospitality, household economics, saying Yes and saying No, keeping Sabbath (Bass 2000), testimony (Long 2004), discernment, shaping communities, forgiveness, healing, dying well and singing our lives (Saliers and Saliers 2005). Diana Bass continued the study by identifying common communal practices that contributed to mainline congregations growing or have renewed vitality in the United States (Bass 2004; 2006).

Story telling is an important part of spiritual formation. Theologian and ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre notes that human beings are basically story tellers (MacIntyre 1984). The re-discovery of the oral traditions of story telling and the development of Narrative theology and its applications brings an Additional dimension to spiritual formation (Hauerwas and Jones 1997; Brueggemann 2001). Closely related to story telling, narrative theology is the formative practice of conversation[8] among friends. Peterson highlighted this in The Wisdom of Each Other: A Conversation Between spiritual Friends (Peterson 1998),

    1. Christian Traditions

Some scholars have found by studying the rich heritage of Christian spirituality, help in understanding of spiritual formation. They examined the lives and writings of certain church fathers and mystics. Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water is a good example of an attempt to bridge the contemporary with the rich traditions of the past in Christian spirituality and spiritual formation (Foster 1998).

The six traditions he identifies are (1) contemplative (prayer-filled life), (2) holiness (the virtuous life), (3) charismatic (Spirit-empowered, (4) social justice (compassionate life), (5) evangelical (Word-centred life), and (6) incarnational (sacramental life). This is helpful as it reveals the different ways different person connects with God.

 This are not “traditions” in the traditional sense of the word but description of the various ways certain people, either by temperament or inclinations seeks the presence of God[9]. One may embrace the presence of God by the prayer-filled life (contemplative) while another needs the Word to feel his presence. However it is helpful to know the various streams. Renovarē, an organisation founded by Foster, has moved a step further by setting up covenant groups called Spiritual Formation Groups. These groups, made up of two or more people meet regularly after committed to a covenant to encourage, pray and keep other accountable in their daily lives. They seek to grow by using and reflecting on exercises from the five streams (Smith 1991). They are also encouraged to journal their experiences (Rea and Foster 1996). This is an excellent small group dynamics strategy conducive to spiritual formation[10]. A limitation will be if its members treat it as a program and the exercises something to be completed, then it will become another one of the many church activities. Done properly however, it may be a powerful avenue for spiritual formation. Another limitation is sustainability. One wonders how long a group can stay together. Spiritual formation is a process and takes time.

Singaporean theologian Simon Chan and others has been studying how liturgical worship influences spiritual formation (Dawn 1989; Chittister 1990; Chan 2006).  The Christian church has a tradition of using worship, liturgy and the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist as means of spiritually forming its Adherents. Bauman highlights the role of liturgy in spiritual formation (Bauman 1994). Anglican Samuel Wells have examined how worship forms character (Wells 2002). While it is acknowledged that worship, liturgy and the sacraments is spiritually forming, this spiritual formation is conditional on the participation of the worshipper. The rituals can be a powerful spiritual encounter or it may be a boring, dull act. Another factor is the frequent repetition of the liturgy may be spiritually affirming, or spiritually deadening.

There are increasing interest in the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Church Fathers and the Christian mystics. Some recent 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) have been published. They are important links to the rich heritage of Christian past. Ashbrock in his doctorate dissertation developed a spiritual formation model for the church based on Teresa of Avila’s seven mansions (Ashbrook 2003).

Robert Webber in his 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). Webber’s work on worship has stimulated a convergence in the sacramental, charismatic, and evangelicalism. Looking into the past for spiritual resources for the present is also the central thesis of Williams’ Evangelical and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Williams 2005). He is the editor for a series of books, The Evangelical Ressourcement,

The term ressourcement was coined by French Roman catholic writers in the mid-twentieth century as descriptive of theological renewal that declared Christians must return to the sources (ad fontes) of the ancient Christian tradition. The operative assumption was that the church is apostolic (formed and directed by the Old and New Testaments) and also patristic (indebted to the intellectual and spiritual legacy of the fathers of the church). Much of our understanding of the Bible and theological orthodoxy, directly and indirectly, has come through the interpretive portals of the early church, which is an integral part of the Protestant identity, no less than it is for Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. (2005, 9)

While it is true that the historical aspect of our faith is important, there is a danger that the ancient church be romanticised and regarded as a golden age. It must also be recognised that where our biblical studies and theologies stand today is the result of two thousand years of continuous study by thousands of Christians, and sociocultural interactions of the result of these studies and society as a whole. Each successive generation has built upon the work of preceding ones.

One of the key ideas of spiritual formation is that spiritual growth is a process, a journey or a pilgrimage. The early church recognises the stages as purgative, illuminative and unitive (Groseschel 1983). The Christian practice of pilgrimage is being re-examined and the metaphor of spiritual formation as a journey is slowly 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.” (1993, 24). Hagberg and Guelich identify some stages of the Christian life (Hagberg and Guelich 2005). While it is recognised that the spiritual life is a journey, it must be pointed out that the term is metaphorical. The same criticism for psycho-spiritual staging can also be applied here. Human beings are complex beings and do not often follow a set pattern of development; spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

The Church tradition is to nurture and develop holistic Christians. 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 (Boa 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’ model of Christian education.

    1. Teaching

Teaching and learning is a recurring theme in any discussion on spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is not anti-intellectual (McGrath 1995). Spiritual formation embraces the intellect but moves beyond belief into action. There is a need to re-examine our teaching and learning in a rapidly changing world (Gorman 2001; Johnson 2001; Shults and Sandage 2006). Theologian Gordon Smith postulates that spiritual immaturity or retarded spiritual formation may be due to an inadequate theology of conversion being taught (Smith 2001).

The centrality of the Bible is regarded as the foundation for spiritual formation. Mulholland’s, Shaped by the Word: the Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation highlights the importance of biblical studies in spiritual formation (Mulholland 1985).

Renovarē Spiritual Formation Bible is a study bible with  articles and notes on spiritual formation and living a ‘with Christ’ life (Foster 2005). Other than studying Boa recommends we pray the Scriptures (Boa 1997). However the Bible is not the only source from which we can draw nourishment for spiritual formation. Eugene Peterson points out spiritual readings, novels, poetry, music, and drama as other sources of nourishment[11].

Westerhoff’s classic, Will Our Children Have Faith?  is a wake-up call and caused Christian educators and scholars to re-examine their pedagogy (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). Susanne Johnson’s seminal work, Christian Spiritual Formation in the Church and Classroom, provides an important link between Christian education and spiritual formation (Johnson 1989).

According to Johnson,

Christian spiritual formation has to do with finding out through and with the help of the faith community

·        how to be Christian in this times, in this place;

·        how to recognize and confess our self-deception;

·        how to walk according to the Spirit;

·        how to recognize where we are refusing Christian story  and choosing instead the stories of culture and civil religion;

·        how to acquire Christian character;

·        how to learn the skills required by the Christian story, such as praying, meditating, repenting, loving, welcoming the stranger;

·        how to actualize our Christian vocation over the course of a lifetime. (1989, 28-29)

And with regards to Christian education, she writes,

First we must decide to become Christian. Next we must submit ourselves to prolonged instruction and initiation. We must give ourselves over to the Story, begin to participate in it; only then do we really begin to understand! Credo ut intelligam: “I participate fully in order that I might understand”.

 When conducted within the above perspective, instructional activity will aim to (1) acquaint persons with or reintroduce them to Jesus Christ; (2) convey to young people and adult converts the basic Christ witness of faith, in continuity with the original message of Jesus and the apostolic church; (3) help persons to interpret, to understand, and to live in light of the Christian story; (4) teach skills of critical inquiry into Scripture and tradition; (5) teach Christians the skills of critical engagement with culture (praxis), so that they can help shape the public; (6) immerse believers in and help them reflect upon their experience of the means of grace; (7) help believers originate their own witness to the good news, rather than remain as passive recipients of someone else’s witness” (1989, 149)

Johnson describes Christian spiritual formation as a process of learning “how to” while Christian education is a process of learning “what is” - to be a Christian. The Christian Story is the strand that ties Christian education and Christian spiritual formation together.

Spiritual formation should be applicable to all ages in the church. There is an increasing focus on the spiritual formation of children[12] (Coles 1990; Bass and Richter 2002; Jordan 2004)[13]. Australian Glenn Cupit is doing excellent work exploring the spirituality of children (Cupit 2001; Cupit 2005). American educator Michael Anthony is also exploring children spirituality and formation in Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation (Anthony 2006). Four models of children spiritual formation were examined: (1) Contemplative reflective model (cultivating a quiet spirit) (May 2006,45-102), (2) Instructional analytic model (child evangelism and Bible memorisation) (Carlson and Crupper 2006, 103-163), (3) Pragmatic participatory model (high energy activities) (Graves 2006,165-223), and Media driven active engagement model (video based curriculum) (Ellis, Bumgart et al. 2006, 225-277). The American approach to children’s spiritual formation is very different from the Australian. Cupit’s approach is to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit while the Americans’ are more method-driven, and more instructional schooling type of teaching. It must be noted that these studies are from different cultures. The Americans are comparing models while Cupit is not.

    1. Community

Renovarē, 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. The Renovarē 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.

Richard Foster first made mention of spiritual formation based congregations in his Pastoral Letter, May 2005 (Foster 2005) and one year later in May 2006 (Foster 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.

Others have recognised the importance of relationships in community. Some scholars have identified the spiritual forming roles of spiritual friends (Leech 2001; Benner 2002; Moon and Benner 2004), and mentors (Mallison 1998; Anderson and Reese 1999; Houston 2002). James Houston identifies the importance of mentoring in spiritual formation in his book, The Mentored Life (Houston 2002). These scholars have engaged in an important aspect of spiritual formation. Spiritual formation does not occur alone in a vacuum but in relationships with other people in a community. Craig Dysktra re-examines the importance of Christian church or community practices in spiritually forming a congregation (Dykstra 1987; Bass 1997; Dykstra 2005). Initially many Christian practices are sociological structures but recently some theological foundations have being laid (Volf and Bass 2002). As has been noted earlier, it not only the practices that is important but the fact that these practices are to be done together by the members in a community.

American theologian James Wilhoit identifies spiritual formation as the imitation of Christ and affirms that it has to be done by and in the church in community (Wilhoit 2008). He lists 12 corollaries of spiritual formation which serves as an overview of spiritual formation. They are:

1.      “All persons are formed spiritually. It may be in either a positive or negative direction. This formation may involve the cultivation of virtues that promote trust in God and foster social compassion or may leave persons wary, self-protective, and unable to promote the welfare of society.” (p.17)

2.      “Christian spiritual formation; (1) is intentional; (2) is communal; (3) requires our engagement; (4) is accomplished by the Holy Spirit; (5) is for the glory of God and the service of others; and (6) has as its means and end the imitation of Christ. (p.23)

3.       “The gospel is the power of God for the beginning, middle, and end of salvation. It is not merely what we need to proclaim to unbelievers; the gospel also needs to permeate our entire Christian experience.” (p.29)

4.      “Christian spiritual formation seeks to foster a joyful apprenticeship in which we learn to live out the great invitations of Jesus, especially those concerning the life of prayer and love.” (p.45)

5.      “The fertile field for formation is a community genuinely aware of the depth of their sin and the reality of their spiritual trust. True formation requires that the community deeply understands that they cannot cure the sickness of their souls through will power alone.” (p.63)

6.      “Our soul-thirst is powerful, and it makes all of us idolaters. The Bible sees idolatry as a universal problem. Communities have a unique way of embodying a corporate pride that blinds us to the forms of idolatry. Also, faith communities can challenge idolatries practices like racism in ways an isolated Christian seldom will.” (p.76)

7.      “Worship filled with prayer and praise and opportunities for confession, repentance, receiving the sacraments, hearing and giving testimonies of God’s activity, and learning/challenge is the most important context of community formation.” (p.86)

8.      “‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Eph. 5:20). Submission, restorative disciplines, and accountable spiritual leadership are ancient formative practices that mark healthy formative churches.” (p.90)

9.      “Christian spiritual formation should always be more than the teaching ministry of the church, but never less. True formational teaching is compressive, deeply orthodox, healthy, and anointed by the Spirit of God.” (p.139)

10.  “True Christian spiritual formation forms Christians with a deep identity and engagement with the church worldwide.” (p.156)

11.  “Evangelism is an essential part of spiritual formation. Evangelism, as people are called to faith in Christ, is the initial act of Christian formation. The act of evangelism is a powerful means of formation for the believer who reaches out of love to share the good news.” (p.167)

12.  “Conflict has a unique way of forming us. In conflict, our natural patterns of defensiveness arise, and in this vulnerable place, we can experience much growth as we learn that Jesus’ teachings are so sensible.” (p.174) (Wilhoit 2008)

Wilhoit centres spiritual formation in the context of a community, informed by the nature of man and of God, transformed by the Holy Spirit, and facilitated by formative practices. One important aspect that is pointed out by Wilhoit is that “conflict has a unique way of forming us” (2008, 174). Obviously this is different from many “Christian” teachings that advocate conflict avoidance as a way of keeping peace in a Christian faith community. This is especially true in an Asian context where conflict is to be avoided as conflict will result in a no-win situation.

Dynamic systems and organisational theories have provided some exciting possibilities for the community of faith to practice spiritual formation. 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). In his definition of a learning organisation Senge writes, “Learning in an organisation means the continual testing of experience, and the transformation of experience into knowledge, accessible to the whole organisation and relevant to its core purpose” (Senge, Cambron-McCabe et al. 2000). Senge’s concept of a learning organisation goes deeper than the traditional schooling model pedagogy. It involves transformational change or metanoia in the leaders and people of the community so that they can become who they are meant to be (Senge, 1990, 13). Building upon this Kerke adds the characteristics of a learning organisation are

·        They provide continuous learning opportunities.

·        They use learning to reach their goals.

·        They link individual performance with organizational performance.

·        They foster inquiry and dialogue, making it safe for people to share openly and take risks.

·        They embrace creative tension as a source of energy and renewal.

·        They are continuously aware of and interact with their environment. (Kerka 1995)

For such an organization to exist, Senge highlights five disciplines that the organization must master and continually practice: personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking (Senge 1990; Senge, Ross et al. 1994; Senge, Cambron-McCabe et al. 2000). This is counter-cultural to our individually focused spiritual formation practices but may be more effective in the long run. Australian Nancy Ault uses the systems theory to develop a life long  and sustainable Christian education model (Ault 2005). Similarly, Australian Glenn Cupit uses the same theory to develop a model of Christian education in children (Cupit 2001). While the systems theory and systems thinking is attractive, the limitation to the theory is that as the system gets bigger, it becomes more complex. The more complex it is, the more variables there will be. There will reach a stage in which there is just too many intangible variables that whatever systems archetype[14] of the systems theory uses will break down.

The church in the postmodern or post evangelical era is attracting a lot of attention (Sine 1999; Sweet 1999). The emerging church movement been rethinking, exploring and experimenting the form the church should take in the postmodern 21st century (Sweet 2003; Gibbs 2005). They are examining spiritual formation as the matrix for their growth. Kimball writing about spiritual formation notes:

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).

Pagitt shows how spiritual formation is carried out in his church in Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church (Pagitt and Community 2003). While there have been many imaginative approaches, the key in many of their approach to spiritual formation is community based which appear to be one of their core practice. (Pagitt and Community 2003).

 In this brief survey of the existing literature on spiritual formation, a few issues stand out. First, the study of spiritual formation covers such a large area of human growth and experiences that it involves many theoretical, philosophical, cultural, socio-political, linguistic, and psychological framework. This is made more difficult in the paucity of studies from the Protestant tradition that deals directly upon the subject.

Second, there is no clear cut demarcation between spiritual formation and discipleship in the literature. Some authors used the word interchangeably while others dismiss the differences with a few sentences. Bill Hull in The Complete Book of Discipleship writes,

So discipleship means the state of being a disciple. In fact, the term discipleship has a nice ongoing feel – a sense of journey, the idea of becoming a disciple rather than having been made a disciple…

Most accurately, spiritual formation describes the sanctification or transformation of disciples. The term has become popular for those who want to avoid the baggage that discipleship has carried in recent years. Disciple does dominate the Gospels, while spiritual formation describes spirituality in the Epistles.

However, because discipleship has stood the test of time and links believers directly to Jesus, I’ve chosen it to describe the contents of this book  (2006, 35 italics author’s)

It must be noted that Hull is writing for a popular readership. It seems that Hull did attempt to differentiate discipleship by using spiritual formation as meaning sanctification and spirituality in the Epistles. However in his 2007 introduction to his revised and expanded 1988 The Disciple-Making Pastor, he writes “discipleship is now being conducted under a different name, such as spiritual formation, mentoring, coaching, spiritual direction, and so on” (2007,13 italics his).

Finally, there are not many serious studies done on establishing a biblical and a theological basis for spiritual formation[15].  Dallas Theological Seminary theologian Michael H. Burer offers the only serious biblical study in an article posted to an online website, Bible.org. In the article Towards a Biblical Definition of Spiritual Formation: Romans 12:1-2, he offers an excellent exegetical foundation for spiritual formation (Burer 2007). British theologian Loren Stuckenbruck in “Spiritual Formation” and the Gospel According to Mark focuses not on spiritual formation but on his thesis that the Gospel of Mark is a compilation of “select stories about and instructions by Jesus in a certain way” (Stuckenbruck 2002), 80 italic his) to “underline for a believing Christian community the implication of this truth (the gospel of Jesus) for their lives” (2002 , 81). He concludes by “the story of Jesus in the gospel is about spiritual formation; it draws the church into an experience of trust in God who is very much alive.” (2002, 90). Spiritual formation is explained in a peripheral way in this article.

A lot more work needs to be done in our understanding of spiritual formation. However there has been much research done in spiritual theology. Eugene Peterson, who is emeritus professor of spiritual theology in Regent College, Canada defines spiritual theology “to refer to the specifically Christian attempt to address the lived experience revealed in our Holy Scriptures and the rich understanding and practices of our ancestors as we work this experience out in our contemporary world of diffused and unfocussed ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’” (Peterson 2005, 5). This seems to parallel our research area of spiritual formation. There is much overlap and it appears that there will be fertile interactions between these two disciplines in the future[16].

 

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Soli deo gloria

14 April 2008


Endnotes

[1] For the rest of this paper, I shall use the word “spiritual formation” instead of “contemporary spiritual formation.” It shall be understood that I am not referring to spiritual formation for the religious orders.

 

[2] Dallas Willard’s examination of the spiritual disciplines led him to a deeper understanding of human nature. See Willard, D. (1988). The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. New York, HarperCollins Publisher. That led him to character formation by deepening relationship with God. See Willard, D. (1998). The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. New York, HarperCollins Publishers.; Willard, D. (1999). Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. Downers Grove, IL., InterVarsity Press. Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO., NavPress. was where Willard formalises his thinking on spiritual formation. His next two books are expansion on the same theme. Willard, D. and D. Simpson (2005). Revolution of Character: Discovering Christ's Pattern for Spiritual Transformation. Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress.; Willard, D. (2006). The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship. New York, HarperCollins Publisher. Willard has made available many of his articles and writing online in his website, Dallas Willard at http://www.dwillard.org/default.asp.

 

[3] Catholic Trappist Basil Pennington describes the false self as a “construct…made up of what I have, what I do, what people think of me.” Pennington, M. B. (2000). True Self, False Self : Unmasking the Spirit Within. New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company. p.32; Protestant theologian Robert Mulholland defines the false self by its characteristics; “ fearful, protective, possessive, manipulative, destructive, self-promoting, indulgent, distinction-making – which shapes our perspectives, attitudes and behaviour patterns.” MulhollandJr, M. R. (2006). The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self. Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press. p.44.

 

[4] In an article I classify spiritual disciplines into (1) inward, (2) outward, (3) corporate (which includes Christian practices), and (4) circumstantial. I have incorporated the Christian practices of Dysktra and Bass into corporate spiritual disciplines. In inward, outward, and corporate spiritual disciplines, we have a choice whether to participate or not. We have control. However, there are many circumstances where we find ourselves in which we have no control. Our response to such circumstances such as waiting, suffering, and persecution is as much a spiritual discipline as the other three categories. I call these circumstantial spiritual disciplines. see Tang, A. (2008). "Not Just for Monks: Spiritual Disciplines for Anyone who wants to Love God and Others More." Asian Beacon 40(1): 8-9.

 

[5] The rule of life is a pattern of community living that a group of Christians agree to. Commonly it is based on the Rule of Benedict or the Augustinian Rule. These monastic Rules have been modified for modern living. See Chittister, J. (1990). Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St.Benedict Today. New York, HarperCollins Publishing Company.

 

[6] Personal communication with Father Thomas Green, a Jesuit  who is a spiritual director for more than 40 years and author of  Green, T. (2000). The Friend of the Bridegroom: Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with Christ. Notre Dame, IN, Ave Maria Press.

 

[7] Notable examples are Larry Crabb, David Benner, Gary Moon, Tan Siang Yang and Gerald May.

 

[8] Conversation is such an important aspect of spiritual theology that Eugene Peterson subtexted his magnus opus of 5 volumes (3 have been published so far). Peterson, E. H. (2005). Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids, MI., William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.; Peterson, E. H. (2006). Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids, MI, William B.Eerdmans Publishing Company, Peterson, E. (2007). The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company.

 

[9] James Bryan Smith describes these as movements in church history. Each of this movement has a chosen example: Augustine (contemplative), John Wesley (holiness), George Fox (charismatic), Francis of Assisi (social concern), and Martin Luther (evangelical).

 

[10] Renovarē has produced some valuable resources for these Spiritual Formation Groups. Some examples are Graybeal, L. L. and J. L. Roller (2007). Prayer and Worship: A Spiritual Formation  Guide. New York, HarperOne.; Graybeal, L. L. and J. L. Roller (2007). Living the Mission: A Spiritual Formation Guide. New York, HarperOne.

 

[11] in Peterson, E. (1996). Take and Read: Spiritual Reading, an annotated list. Grand Rapids, MI., William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company., Peterson introduces a numbers of books that nourishes the soul. He also introduces poetry, novels and essays in Peterson, E. H. (1997). Subversive Spirituality: . Grand Rapids, MI., William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Renovarē introduces listening and studying great hymns for their Spiritual Formation Groups. Janzen, J. L. and R. Foster (1995). Songs for Renewal: A Devotional Guide to the Riches of Our Best-Loved Sings and Hymns. New York, HarperCollins Publishers.

 

[12] It is promising  to note that more scholars are focusing 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. Cupit has an interesting approach via dynamic systems theory. See Cupit, C. G. (2001). A Critical Evaluation of Biblical Perspectives on Spiritual Development and of Dynamic Systems Theory to Identify Major Implications for Public Educative Care of Children. Perth, Murdock University. Ph.D: 450.

 

[13] 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.

 

[14] Peter Senge has listed some systems archetypes in the appendix to his book. These are (1) balancing process with delay, (2) limits to growth, (3) shifting the burden, (4) eroding goals, (5) escalation, (6) success to the successful, (7) tragedy of the commons, (8) fixes that fail, and (9) growth and underinvestment. See Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York, Doubleday. p.378-390.

 

[15] Personal communication with Assistant Professor Michael Burer , New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary on this subject.

 

[16] Personal communication with Professor Eugene Peterson at the Spiritual Formation Forum in Los Angeles, USA on May 19-21, 2004. Prof. Peterson prefers to use the word Christian spirituality rather than spiritual formation.

 

 

 

 

               

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