By Rev. Dr. J. Patrick Bowman
Spiritual formation is a term, like holiness, that causes reactions in people. Some understand it and readily accept it, while those who do not understand it are usually hesitant and skeptical. In the post-modern context we live in, the words spirit, spiritual, and spirituality can and do recall many different images depending on a person’s background and exposure to them. Add the equally ambiguous word “formation” to spiritual, and it is clear why one might question the term spiritual formation for many reasons.
Spiritual formation has become one of the major movements of the late twentieth century. Spiritualities of all varieties have emerged on the landscape of our culture—Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Zen, various Eastern meditation techniques, New Age spirituality, and a confusing welter of cults, to say nothing of chemically induced alterations of consciousness.
In the face of a radical loss of meaning, value and purpose engendered by a largely materialistic, hedonistic, consumer society, human hearts are hungering for deeper realities in which their fragmented lives can find some measure of wholeness and integrity. They are seeking deeper experiences with God through which their troubled lives can find meaning, value, purpose and identity.
Even those in the Church can be expected to have a wide variety of ideas about what spiritual formation is and what benefits, if any, it might have for Christian growth.
The Christian community, which should have been a clear voice of liberation and wholeness in the wilderness of human bondage and brokenness, has too often been merely an echo of the culture, further confusing those on a wandering and haphazard quest for wholeness. A multitude of Christian “gurus” have emerged who promise their followers life, liberty and the perfection of happiness. Superficial pop spiritualities abound, promising heaven on earth but producing only failure and frustration for those genuinely hungering and thirsting after God.
The late American psychiatrist and theologian Gerald Gordon May (1940-2005) wrote, “Spiritual formation is a rather general term referring to all attempts, means, instruction, and disciplines intended towards deepening of faith and furtherance of spiritual growth. It includes educational endeavors as well as the more intimate and in-depth process of spiritual direction.” May’s definition adds the equally problematic “spiritual direction.”
Rev. Dr. Michael Long, Director of Spiritual Formation at Duke Divinity School says, “Spiritual formation is essential for holistic wellbeing and requires our intentional focus. Our spiritual formation groups create space for students to cultivate, nurture, and enrich their spiritual life. Spiritual formation encourages and strengthens spiritual disciplines that sustain students throughout their lives and vocational calling.”
In the General Introduction of The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible, the General Editors (Foster et al.) write:
Although the many Christian traditions differ over the details of spiritual formation, they all have the same objective: the transformation of the person into one of greater Christlikeness. “Spiritual formation” is 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. As a result, our interior world becomes increasingly like the inner self of Jesus and, therefore, the natural source of words and deeds that are characteristic of him. By his enabling presence we come to “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).
Despite what seems to be positive motives and outcomes from spiritual formation, not every Christian or Christian organization paints a positive picture. Here is a typical reaction:
The spiritual formation movement is very popular today. It is, however, in many ways a move away from the truth of God’s Word to a mystical form of Christianity, and it has infiltrated, to some degree, nearly all evangelical denominations. This idea of spiritual formation is based on the premise that if we do certain practices, we can be more like Jesus. Proponents of spiritual formation erroneously teach that anyone can practice these mystical rituals and find God within themselves.
Too often, adherents of the current spiritual formation movement believe the spiritual disciplines transform the seeker by his or her entering an altered realm of consciousness. The spiritual formation movement is characterized by such things as contemplative prayer, contemplative spirituality, and Christian mysticism.
True biblical spiritual formation, or spiritual transformation, begins with the understanding that we are sinners living apart from God. Our faculties have been corrupted by sin so that we cannot please God. True spiritual transformation occurs as we yield ourselves to God so that He may transform us by the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. At least half of every New Testament epistle is geared toward how to live a life well pleasing to God—by obedience and submission to the Holy Spirit in all things. Scripture does not only call us the redeemed, saved, saints, sheep, soldiers, and servants, but teaches us that only through the power of the Spirit we can live up to what the names mean.
Mulholland, M. Robert. “A Roadmap for Spiritual Formation.” Transforming Center, May 2016, transformingcenter.org/2016/05/nature-spiritual-formation/.
 May, Gerald G. Care of Mind, Care of Spirit: A Psychiatrist Explores Spiritual Direction. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1992, p. 6.
 Beebe, Gayle, and Richard Foster. “General Introduction.” The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible, Harper San Francisco, 2005, p. xxix.
 GotQuestions.org. “What Is the Spiritual Formation Movement? | GotQuestions.org.” GotQuestions.org, 28 Jan. 2011, http://www.gotquestions.org/spiritual-formation.html.