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What’s the Verdict on Spiritual Formation?
by Daryl E. Witmer
QUESTION: What exactly is Spiritual Formation?
On its face, spiritual formation seems to refer simply to the growth and development of one’s spiritual life and awareness. In this sense, spiritual formation is the common ambition of all religions, not just Christianity. But in a more formal sense, and in a strictly Christian context, Spiritual Formation has come to refer to an organized movement in the Church that promotes a holistic development of the inner spiritual life of a believer by means of certain spiritual practices and disciplines.
QUESTION: Is anything wrong with Spiritual Formation?
As the term itself stands, certainly not. The Bible encourages healthy spiritual growth (Galatians 4:19; Ephesians 4:13). But historically, many avid promoters of spiritual formation were Desert Fathers and Roman Catholic mystics who subscribed to doctrines and practices which were not Biblical. And more recently the formal Spiritual Formation movement has come to encompass an ever-widening range of controversial eclectic interfaith practices. For instance, certain mainline denominational groups have for some time incorporated the Enneagram, massage, inner healing, mandala exploration, yoga, and certain Buddhist practices in their recommended approach to meaningful Christian spiritual formation.
Today many conservative evangelicals seem to be following a similar path. Just six years after an article in Christianity Today* cautioned about the dangers of veering from a fully Christian approach to spiritual formation, and cited use of the labyrinth** as one example of such deviation, an evangelical group known as the Spiritual Formation Alliance (SFA) has scheduled a forum at Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin (where Stuart Briscoe has served with distinction) that will feature use of a Prayer Labyrinth. SFA’s web site says: “Keeping with contemplative Christian tradition, a guided prayer time will literally walk you through a labyrinth-style path, offering opportunities to receive from God on your pilgrimage.” Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), Wheaton Bible Church, and Denver Seminary are among the many reputable evangelical ministries who are listed as “Friends of SFA,” which claims to have been “working behind the scenes of the spiritual formation movement” since 1999.
QUESTION: What is contemplative, or centering, prayer?
To some Christians, contemplative or centering prayer might just be another name for being quiet in God’s presence – listening, reflecting, and meditating on His Word – just as we are encouraged to do in Scripture, e.g. Psalm 46:10, Psalm 63:6, Psalm 119:48.
But to others who speak for the Spiritual Formation movement, there are other meanings. One source says that “the purpose of centering prayer is to clear the mind of rational thought…” and that “ideally, the prayer will reach the point where the person is not engaged in their thoughts as they arrive on their stream of consciousness” a phenomenon known as “the unknowing,” a term familiar to many promoting spiritual formation.
One source says that centering prayer means focusing on God, but others speak of concentrating on “the stillness of the universe,” or of “centering down on our own inner selves.”
QUESTION: What is Lectio Divina?
Lectio Divina (for Divine reading) is a method of Bible reading often encouraged by spiritual formation advocates that emphasizes communion with God rather than instruction from God. Critics claim that such an approach will erode the critical recognition of God’s truth in Scripture as being objective and authoritative.
QUESTION: Are those who speak out strongly against Spiritual Formation and contemplative spirituality, such as Ray Yungen in his book A Time of Departing, ©2002-2007 Lighthouse Trails, just being alarmists?
Not necessarily, although Yungen’s indictments often seem too sweeping, condemning the good with the bad.
QUESTION: So what is the verdict here on Spiritual Formation as a whole?
Many Christians today seem restless for a deeper walk with God – which is a good thing. But in the quest for a new, relevant, and effective spirituality, caution must be exercised lest one cross the lines of orthodoxy in doctrine or practice, or end up aping the approach of others who have crossed the lines of orthodoxy. It is an absolutely critical time to test the spirits (1 John 4:1), and to be discerning (Hebrews 5:14). True spirituality will not result from slick seminars, tricky techniques, fancily packaged programs, ritualistic asceticism, or spurious props. Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, the Life, and the credentialed author of faith.
* Three Temptations of Spiritual Formation, Evan Howard; © 2002