Spiritual Formation: What Does It Really Mean?

All of a sudden, after years of membership in your church, you start hearing “new” words used much more frequently than ever before, such as: Conversation.  Missional.  Incarnational.  Prophetic.  Mystery. Community.  Relational. Authentic. Post-modern. Deconstruct. Narrative.  Story.  Re-imagine.  Tribe.  Contextual.  Mystery.

Or phrases such as: “You can’t put God in a box.”  “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”  “The Bible is just ink on paper.”  Vintage Faith.  Vintage Christianity.

There’s more, and most of it has a totally different meaning than you might guess, and it’s not good, and they are usually signs that you may be conversing with a pastor, or other person, who has bought into the emergent movement, another “religion of man.”  But let’s look at another phrase here today: spiritual formation.

When was the first time you were aware that this term all of a sudden was being tossed around all over the place?  As a Christian growing up in the Nazarene church, I can tell you that I never heard this phase up until perhaps two years ago, at about the same time when I began researching and finding out about the horrors of the emergent church movement.  So what brought about the prominent use of this phrase, what does the emergent church define it as, and if so, is their definition biblically sound?

One mystic equates Christian mysticism with spiritual formation. He defines it as being formed, by the Holy Spirit, through Christ, in the image and likeness of God.    Sounded good, until I continued on to the pages where he promotes all sorts of heretical books by mystic writers; the usual suspects like Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, et al.

At Trevecca Nazarene University’s website, their definition is “Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.”  But as some of you know, that apparently includes the use of prayer labyrinths and retreats to Thomas Merton’s old monastery to “practice the silence”, certainly not biblically sound.

It’s even hard to pin down an exact definition of spiritual formation, and that’s where we can get into trouble.  What does it mean when someone mentions it to you?  Do you nod your head in approval, because it sounds pretty good to you?  Do you have some idea of what it is, yet you are not sure, and you don’t want to sound ignorant and unlearned by asking the person what they mean?  It could be, and so you go on thinking that it means one thing to you, but it might mean a totally different thing to the person talking about it.

Its like the word missional for me.  As missions president for a few years at my former church, I used to use that word in my yearly reports.  I would, with great pride, talk about the kind of church the Nazarene church was, that it was a “missional” church.  It was only until a few years later, when stumbling onto all this emergent silliness, that I realized that I may have been using the word while thinking of the traditional meaning of sending missionaries to the world to preach the gospel, when in reality, it seems that much of the Nazarene denomination’s use of the word is now, at best, confusing and changing like a chameleon, depending who uses the word.  It now often means a more social gospel-like, community oriented idea.

Back to spiritual formation.  Let’s cut to the chase: spiritual formation as defined and used by the emergent church crowd, is not a good thing.  If it’s not good, it’s not from God.  If it’s not from God, then there is only one other other source.  It can’t be bad and from God, so the source must be Satan.  Harsh words?  Perhaps, but if your conclusion about spiritual formation is that it is not of God, what else can it come from?  As you read the following article, remember that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.”  If you mix a little bad with a lot of good, it’s all bad.  To answer the well used phrase by some emergents, “you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater”…. yes, doctrinally and biblically, you can.

So it makes me ask the question: how did spiritual formation get thrown into the mix all of a sudden in the Nazarene universities?  It did not exist in the 70’s when I went to Eastern Nazarene College, as far as I know.  Who started the first spiritual formation theological degree program, and where?  And what was the biblical rationale behind it, that we missed something like this for so many years?  Is this an example of Brian McLaren and company’s assertion that we have not gotten it right in 2,000 years, and that now this is the “New Reformation” that is happening?  (Remember that these programs now use books by McLaren, Rob Bell, Richard Foster, and all sorts of teachers and writers who clearly do not come close to speaking the same language, or expressing the confidence in holy scripture that John Wesley had, even though they try to say he was an emergent).

Just thinking…


The following was originally posted at Nazarene Church Has Lost It’s Way.

Does “Spiritual Formation” Line up with God’s Word?

Spiritual Formation is common in our churches now. What exactly is it? The definition can vary from church to church. From research, I believe it is meant to push people to have a deeper spiritual life while emphasizing holiness. This in itself is not a bad goal. The problem is that it takes its direction from unholy roots. Some would claim that the roots lie in Wesleyan theology, but I could not find this. Holiness, yes.  Labyrinths, prayer beads, breathing exercises, cannot be found with Wesley, but rather in Catholicism and eastern religions. Spiritual formation contains many good attributes, such as self-examination and encouraging the practice of prayer and holiness. But where it strays and becomes a snare is when it entangles ancient heathen practices and ritualism in its teachings. In Jeremiah 10:2, Israel is commanded,” Learn not the way of the heathen…”and v.3 says, “For the customs of the people are vain…” By adding traditions that are used primarily in unholy religions, the will and work of the Holy Ghost is not aided. The Holy Spirit will always lead you plainly and clearly to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ.

The fruits of the teaching of “Spiritual Formation” in our churches are many. I would address a few here. First, I believe it has resulted in spiritual relationships with people who are not saved. We are not to bond with unsaved people, religious or not. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 clearly tells us to “Come out and be separate.” We cannot study with the Catholics, who believe Mary is superior to Jesus, and pray to idols and be right with God. We cannot, in good faith, practice prayer meditation in the same manner the Buddhists do, and expect to please the God of Israel. Remember in the Old Testament how God got very angry when his people did not tear down the groves that the heathen had used for prayer. Surely, they could have prayed there, but God wanted them to have no part in even the appearance of evil. In I Kings 14:22-24, the Lord deals with this. In 2 Chron.19: 3, God blesses them for removing the groves.

This brings me to my second point; we are engaging in practices that we have learned from the ancient Eastern religions. Such as meditations, centering prayer, lectio divina practices, among others. Christianity has always stood apart from such mystical practices. Now we are teaching it in our Sunday School curriculum!! Another result from this emphasis on “Spiritual Formation” is our inclusion of those who do not worship Christ. “Spiritual Formation” always leads people to ultimately define God for themselves. In other words, I could pray to the God of Isaac, while you might pray to a “higher power”, or “Allah.” Follow the writings of those who are leading us in this movement. They start out pretty ordinary, but as they progress in the movement it always leads to the joining of saved people with those who may not even acknowledge His blood sacrifice for salvation. I believe this is an abomination in the sight of God.

2 Tim. 2:15,16,17a  “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker.”

One last fruit of this movement, which I would like to draw your attention to is this: Watered down preaching. This movement encourages a therapy couch type preaching, where we read and you tell me how it makes you feel and I tell you how it makes me feel. The pastor asks, “What do you think it means?” Instead of the Bible, the pastor reads from man-made lesson plans that incorporate, at best, the opinion and quotes of saved and unsaved alike!! What are you being fed at the house of God? Is it similar to watching a Dr. Phil show??? Pastors are to preach the WORD! They are to exhort us to live holy, God fearing lives. Not by teaching us how to walk a labyrinth, but by teaching the unblemished Bible!

In conclusion, I say we do not need to go to the heathen to learn how to worship or become holier. We just need to go to the Bible. It will teach you the difference between the holy and profane. And, if you are sitting under a pastor who does not preach the Word and you feel like you are starving to death, please, pray for wisdom. Ask God to lead you to the right pastor who can instruct you in righteousness, not in only a “form of godliness.”

2 Timothy 3:5 “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” V.7 “Ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”


8 responses to “Spiritual Formation: What Does It Really Mean?

  1. I wish I could rewind my life to see if I could spot some of the clues that were in place 10 years ago that the COTN was heading to the point that it is now. There are many pockets of believers in the denomination who don’t understand the emergent double speak that is used in the COTN publications and curriculum. I have heard it said by the COTN growth gurus
    that this “ain’t like your grampa’s church anymore”. I couldn’t agree more.
    Besides the redefining of scripture I find the redefinition of the great commission equally disturbing. Servant evangelism has replaced “Go and tell”. What does doing kind deeds profit if the message isn’t declared?
    Thanks Manny for your words of wisdom.

  2. Richard Foster’s version of Spiritual Formation:

    A Spiritual Formation Workbook – Revised edition: Small Group Resources for Nurturing Christian Growth by James Bryan Smith & Richard Foster – Evangelical Quaker


    Amazon’s Description
    This beginning workbook for Spiritual Formation Groups features guidelines for starting a group, study plans for the first nine sessions, and a questionnairethat helps map the way ahead. Based upon six major dimensions of the spiritual life found in the life of Christ and Christian tradition: The Contemplative Tradition – The Holiness Tradition – The Charismatic Tradition – The Social Justice Tradition – The Evangelical Tradition – and The Incarnational Tradition, this workbook program provides all the necessary ingredients to start and maintain a Spiritual Formation Group.

    Successfully used by thousands of Spiritual Formation Group participants, A Spiritual Formation Workbook has been completely revised to correlate with Richard J. Foster’s Streams of Living Water. Its new and updated exercises and teachings offer fresh perspectives on Christian faith and practice.

    Christian in perspective and ecumenical in breadth, RENOVARÉ (from the Latin, meaning “to renew”) is an effort committed to the renewal of the Church. Founded by bestselling writer Richard J. Foster, RENOVARÉ provides individual churches with a balanced, practical, effective small-group strategy for spiritual growth.

    What do Quakers believe?


    Branches of the Religious Society of Friends
    in the Americas


  3. Dallas Willard’s Spiritual Formation


    It is useful, therefore, to speak of “spiritual formation” by distinguishing three different meanings or moments.

    First, identifying certain activities as “spiritual” work or exercise, one can think of spiritual formation as training in these special spiritual activities. Certainly, this is a large part of what is found in many cases to mean “priestly formation,” or the “Spiritual formation” of the priest, as spoken of in Catholic literature, with the recognition that such formation goes beyond overt behavior and deeply into the inner or spiritual life of the individual.

    Marcial Maciel’s Integral Formation of Catholic Priests is an excellent treatment of spiritual formation as it bears upon the vocation of the priest.

    Amazon’s Integral Formation of Catholic Priests

    Who is Marcial Maciel?

  4. Nazarene Theological Seminary

    Master’s Degree Semester Course Syllabus, v.1
    PTH550 Christian Spiritual Practices: Prayer & Scripture

    Rev. Douglas S. Hardy, Ph.D.
    dshardy@nts.edu 816-268-5484

    Course Description

    This laboratory course in spiritual formation explores the Word-centered practices of the Christian
    spiritual life—prayer and the formative use of scripture (e.g., lectio divina, contemplative prayer,
    intercessory prayer, searching the scriptures).

    Students will study, practice, and theologically
    reflect on these as biblical, historical, and psychological perspectives are brought to bear on the
    experience of class members individually and in the context of congregational leadership.

    Students culminate the course by articulating a spiritual theology of prayer and scripture, and
    designing a strategy for the implementation of select practices in their personal and congregational

    Credit: 3 hours M.Div. Program Prerequisite: PTH500

    Course Objectives
    This course provides students with the opportunity to:
    1. Intensify and regulate prayer and Scripture practice in a context of support and accountability.
    2. Learn from a variety of classic and contemporary Christian approaches to personal and
    corporate prayer and engagement with Scripture.
    3. Strategize and strengthen personal discipline with respect to these means of grace.
    4. Clarify a theology of prayer & Scripture for spiritually formative Christian ministry.
    5. Develop skills in praying publicly and leading others in prayer.

  5. Northwest Nazarene University – School of Theology and Christian Ministries


    Spiritual Formation Textbooks

    PRTH6980. Topics in Spiritual Formation (Tim Milburn)

    Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. (ISBN 031026345X)

    Chalke, Steve. The Lost Message of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004. (ISBN 0310248825)

    McLaren, Brian D. A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004. (ISBN 0310257476)

    Miller, Donald. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Wheaton: Nelson Books, 2003. (ISBN 0785263705)

    Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998. (ISBN 0060693339)

    PRTH7580. Seminar in Spirituality and Ministry (Joe Gorman)

    Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Edmonson, trans. Orleans: Paraclete Press, 1985. (ISBN: 0941478297)

    Earle, Ralph H. and Mark R. Laaser. The Pornography Trap: Setting Pastors and Laypersons Free from Sexual Addiction. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2002. (ISBN: 083-411-9382)

    Hagberg, Janet O. and Robert A. Guelich. The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith. Sheffield Publishing Co.; 2nd edition (July 2004). (ISBN: 1879215497 and 978-1879215498)

    Nelson, Dean. God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009. (ISBN: 978-1587432330)

    Nouwen, Henri. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad, 1989. (ISBN: 0-8245-1259-6)

    Nouwen, Henri. The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey. Image, 1990. (ISBN: 0385416075)
    NOTE: We only use The Road to Daybreak in this course, but the Spiritual Journals are well worth the purchase if you can find them in print. They can be found in hardback and are only a few dollars more than if you buy a new copy of Daybreak by itself.

    Peterson, Eugene. Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994. (ISBN: 0802808484)
    NOTE: This will be the first text read in the class.

  6. The Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality

    The Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality (SSCS) exists to promote research and dialogue within the growing community of persons interested in the field of spirituality. The SSCS is ecumenical and strives to be inclusive of the widest possible range of expressions of Christian spirituality. Its work is interdisciplinary, encouraging the application of diverse critical approaches to the study of spirituality.

    About the Society

    While the emphasis of the SSCS is clearly on Christian spirituality, it also seeks to foster creative dialogue with non-Christian traditions of spirituality. The Society’s membership includes scholars active in a wide range of academic communities as well as artists, pastors, practitioners, and those in the helping professions—all those interested in reflecting critically on the life of the Spirit. Founded in 1991 at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, the SSCS was established to facilitate the scholarly examination of spirituality and to maintain spirituality as a regular part of the AAR program. The SSCS received recognition from the AAR as a Related Scholarly Organization in May, 1992, and held its first annual meeting in San Francisco in November, 1992. The SSCS meets annually in conjunction with the AAR meeting. In addition to an annual meeting, the SSCS has launched Spiritus, a refereed, scholarly journal that aims to foster dialogue about critical issues in the field of spirituality.



    SSCS at the AAR 2010 Meeting

    Atlanta, Georgia
    October 29 – November 1, 2010

    AAR 2010 Meeting Website

    Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality

    What is meant by “spiritual formation” in the shaping of religious leaders?
    3:30-5:30 p.m.
    Friday 29 October
    Location TBA
    The purpose of this workshop is to explore what is understood by “spiritual formation” and how the formation of students is being incorporated into master-level degree programs. Presentations include goals for spiritual formation within programs, courses being taught, and spiritual growth experiences offered. The workshop will explore the implications for teaching and research.
    Barbara Anne Keely will present insights gleaned from a consultation with faculty from twelve seminaries. The panel will expand the conversation to a broader ecumenical context.
    Convener: Barbara Anne Keely, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
    Panelists: Doug Hardy, Nazarene Theological Seminary ; Tim Hessel-Robinson, Brite Divinity School; Elisabeth Koenig, General Theological Seminary; Valerie Lesniak, Seattle University

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