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How Do You Define Spiritual Formation?

Leadership / Spiritual Formation //

That’s not an easy question to answer.  On the surface, it may appear obvious – it is the process of becoming like Christ.  However, there are many interpretations of the terms and a broad scope of what the phrase can include. Dallas Willard (2006)[1] suggested:

We need to recognize that spiritual formation…is not necessarily a Christian spiritual formation. Spiritualities abound on all sides, and we are fast coming to the point where we have a spirituality of practically everything…All other ‘spiritualities’ present themselves as equal. (p. 71)

If you do, however, hold to a definition that is in line with what Paul describes in Romans 12:1-3 and 2 Corinthians 3:18, then I challenge you to think past how you define it personally and consider how you practice it corporately.

In our practice, do we define spiritual formation as a program’s outcome or do we embrace an ”ecology” of faith formation?

How do we know if our practice suggests we see spiritual formation as a program’s outcome?

  • We measure success by numbers in attendance;
  • The curriculum determines the outcome;
  • We ask questions that require a demonstration of remembering and understanding;
  • We challenge our people to attend, give, and serve;
  • We maintain an approach to spiritual formation that has worked for years; and
  • We focus on what we do when we’re together.

These are all good things but are they good enough to truly result in transformation as described by Paul?

On the other hand, how do we know if we define spiritual formation through our practice of an ecology of faith?

Sondra Higgins Matthaei[2] (2000), in her work Making Disciples: Faith Formation in the Wesleyan Tradition, suggested that as “ecology” addresses the interconnected relationships within nature, an ”ecology of faith formation” embraces the “interconnected, interdependent, and interacting complex of relationships, structures, and practices” within our churches.  In other words, we recognize that spiritual formation (faith formation) occurs in an interconnected system that includes corporate programs but also includes personal and corporate relationships, practices, rituals, and celebrations that happen in the church and outside of it.  Spiritual formation is greater than the results of our programs.

If we see spiritual formation as an ecology, our practice would:

  • Measure success by life change, becoming more like Christ;
  • Engage an outcome that flowed from the vision;
  • Encourage questions that move our people to deeper level thinking, reflection, analysis, and application;
  • Challenge our people to spiritual growth and a deeper commitment that results in giving, compassion, and serving;
  • Look for ways to create greater impact and adjust the methods to meet the new challenges and needs without compromising The Message; and
  • Focus on “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NIV).

Dallas Willard (2006) also suggested, “Everyone receives spiritual formation, just as everyone gets an education. The only question is whether it is a good one or a bad one” (p. 69).  Program defined spiritual formation isn’t “bad” it just isn’t good enough to move our people on to the kind of radical transformation Paul speaks of, Christ expects, and they are capable of through the work of the Holy Spirit.  That kind of spiritual formation understands and embraces the interconnected personal and relational systems, relationships, programs, rituals, and celebrations at work forming our people into the likeness of Christ.

What does your practice say about your definition of spiritual formation?

[1] Willard, D. (2006). The great omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s essential teachings on discipleship. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

[2] Matthaei proposes how the church today should establish a system of faith formation based on the writings and practices of John and Charles Wesley.

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About the Author

Colleen Derr serves as Professor of Christian Ministry and Congregational Formation at Wesley Seminary. She provides oversight to the M.Div. spiritual formation courses and the MA in Child, Youth and Family Ministry program. Prior to joining Wesley Seminary Dr. Derr has served as Director of Children’s Ministry for The Wesleyan Church and as Assistant Pastor of Fall Creek Wesleyan Church in Fishers, Indiana. She has been involved in local church Christian education for over 30 years. Colleen developed a children’s catechism program for The Wesleyan Church, Building Faith Kids, and a preteen discipleship tool, Explore. In addition, she developed a host of training materials for local church ministry leaders and has provided training and consultation for local churches across the country.