What is Spiritual Formation?
Spiritual formation is the process of sanctification in which God uses every circumstance in saints’ lives for the purpose of conforming them to the image of Christ and making them into loving members of His family (Romans 8:27-29). Theologically, spiritual formation is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit upon the redeemed human heart which produces the fruit of the character of Christ.
Practically, we observe that the term “spiritual formation” has become a mysterious and even controversial subject in the evangelical church today. Negative reactions to the term “spiritual formation” range from simple confusion about how spiritual formation is different from traditional discipleship activities to condemnation of those who use the term because it seems that the practices they promote are unbiblical or New Age.
These misunderstandings about spiritual formation do not stem primarily from disagreement on the need or biblical imperative for Christians to grow in their faith. The misgivings seem to involve uncertainty about who and what is involved in an effective process for Christian growth. As more Christian leaders experience questions or concerns about the level of spiritual maturity in their church members (or their own lives), spiritual formation has become a frequent topic in academic, theological, and church conference arenas.
Is Spiritual Formation Christian?
We are glad that you may be asking this question. Christians have a responsibility to discern and promote truth in our conversations about spirituality within and outside of the church. At Grafted Life, we unreservedly claim Jesus, the Son of God, as the cornerstone of our conversation in all matters pertaining to life and growth in true spirituality. All of our spiritual formation resources are designed to deepen one’s understanding of biblical truth and expand one’s experience of Jesus as the source of grace for salvation and sanctification in this life and the life to come.
Some things labeled “spiritual formation” are not what we would characterize as truly Christian spiritual formation. We live in a culture which is particularly charged to pursue spiritual activities and enlightenment, in order to find spiritual meaning in life. It is popular to welcome and sanction anything “spiritual” strictly on the basis of personal enjoyment or fulfillment. These spiritual activities and pursuits, however, may or may not have anything to do with the biblical God of creation and faith in His Son Jesus, who gave His life so that humanity could be restored in loving relationship with Him.
Cultural openness to spirituality presents a great opportunity for the gospel. Increased conversation around spiritual issues gives Christians occasion to talk about our relationship with Jesus with those who do not know Him. It invites us into honest conversations within the church—to explore how a life dependent on Jesus and His Spirit is changing (or ought to change, and isn’t) our everyday lives. We want our spiritual lives to be vibrant, transforming, and compelling for those who are looking for real spiritual answers.
Why Has Spiritual Formation Become Popular?
The movement toward spiritual formation began in the late 1970’s with the publishing of a book by Richard Foster called Celebration of Discipline. Foster, in the forward of his book, acknowledges the influence of Dallas Willard in helping him to understand and practice spiritual disciplines that deeply affected his relationship with God. Foster’s book and testimony resonated (and continues to resonate) with many Christians who were looking for something “more” in their spiritual lives.
The desire for “more” was often precipitated by common spiritual experiences, some of which were:
- Dryness in one’s spiritual walk which created a longing for a fresh encounter with Jesus’ “living water”
- Exhaustion in one’s spiritual activities which created a yearning to understand how Jesus’ yoke could be easy and His burden light
- Awareness that knowledge of Scripture alone seemed limited in its ability to transform the motivations of one’s heart
- Feelings of disconnection with the spiritual vibrancy of first-century believers described in the New Testament
- Disillusionment in the belief that significant life change was really possible in the Christian life
Foster’s book started a conversation in Christian circles that blossomed into the modern spiritual formation movement. The movement, simply put, is an ongoing dialogue about effective methods of sanctification. Many contemporary Christian authors have added their perspective to the dialogue, including philosopher Dallas Willard, pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson, and psychologist Larry Crabb, to name a few. The formation movement has also found insight in historical Christian writers and ancient church practices, most of which have enriched the discussion by helping us critique the cultural biases of our day.
Despite the recent popularity of spiritual formation, Jesus has always been engaged in growing His disciples, and spiritual growth has been important to His followers in every age. At the heart of Christian spiritual formation work is the desire to understand and surrender to all that Christ wants to do in our hearts, lives, and world. Part of that work is to enter into an honest, biblical, and Spirit-led evaluation of our contemporary practices in discipleship to see if they represent the fullness of what the gospel of Jesus Christ offers to those who are called to be part of His kingdom. That evaluation can lead to necessary correctives and/or new emphases for our current Christian culture.
Grafted Life’s Spiritual Formation Work
Grafted Life equips Christians to look practically at what is involved in the process of becoming like Christ and living in His family.
Jesus lived and modeled a life of dependence on the Father and the Spirit. For the repentant and redeemed, we too can live dependently on God, as we were originally created to do. We come into the faith, however, with many unhealthy and independent relational habits that keep us from continually abiding with Jesus. We are broken, not only by our own sinful choices, but also by our learned habits of relationships with others.
Jesus’ wants to teach us how to function as members of His family and to lead us on the road to wholeness. That growth process includes an honest evaluation of our hearts and the state of our current relationships. As we bring our broken realities to Jesus to seek His mercy, we receive an experience of forgiveness and love. As we engage with God through the Word, prayer, and fellowship with other believers, we grow to know, love, and trust Him more completely. We also learn many things about ourselves—where Christ is changing our hearts to reflect our new identity in Him, as well as discover places of unbelief that hinder us from engaging with God as He desires.
All circumstances in our Christian walk can contribute to the deepening of our loving reliance on Christ and His Spirit to do the work of transformation that our souls require. We only need to learn to recognize and cooperate with the Spirit’s daily work in our hearts. As we do, we begin to experience the abiding relationship that Jesus promised.
The regeneration of the human heart starts with an experience with God—an opportunity to feel His love, receive His forgiveness, experience His comfort, correctly understand His goodness, and encounter His loving correction. Each of these experiences tutors and frees the believer to love God in return. As we live in the circle of God’s love, we in turn can love ourselves in truth and can give love to others as well. True spiritual formation offers relationship restoration on every level.
Our Priorities for Spiritual Growth
Grafted Life’s mission is to assist Christians to grow in their awareness and loving response to the Spirit’s work of heart formation and thereby become fully dependent on their relationship with God. We focus our resources around four areas of engagement:
Discernment: We help Christians discern the relational invitations of God.
Discernment is the spiritual awareness of God’s activity in the world. We grow in discernment as we know and love God more deeply, interact with the corporate body of believers, and listen to the Word of God. Scripture refers to this as “eyes to see and ears to hear.”
Community: We help the Body of Christ live in loving community.
Christians need to experience healing love through relationships, including both personal times with God and corporate experiences with the Body of Christ. Love is an experiential gift from another. We learn to love by being known and receiving grace for who we really are. As we grow in our love for God and one another, we demonstrate Jesus’ presence in the world.
Self-awareness: We help believers understand the internal barriers and beliefs that keep them from loving and freely following God.
To cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts, we must attend to our motives, areas of unbelief, and falsehoods about God, ourselves, and others. We need God’s help to live in honesty about our hearts. Believers through the ages have embraced regular self-reflection with God as an integral part of spiritual growth. What we don’t know about our hearts can hurt us and others by hijacking our behavior, when Jesus admonishes that our behavior should flow naturally from our love for God.
Participation: We help Christians engage in discipleship activities that can deepen their relationship with God.
Jesus repeatedly connected the finding of the kingdom of God with the one who was actively seeking. We can seek God by engaging in spiritual activities and disciplines. We do this not so that we can grow in measure with our efforts, but rather to intentionally participate in our relationship with God.
Let’s Work Together
Most churches are dedicated to help unbelievers find a relationship with Jesus and to helping believers grow in Christ-likeness. Living dependently on God is critical to both pursuits. Grafted Life desires to partner with churches and leaders who long to see how their efforts in discipleship can be coupled with a greater cooperation with the work of the Spirit—a work that offers each person the opportunity to experience deep change in their heart and life.
If you would like to learn more about Grafted Life’s resources, we invite you to explore our ministries.
Learn more about Life with God, a 1-3 year discipleship curriculum built for Christian small groups that creates relationally capable people.
Learn more about spiritual direction, a ministry of relational care that helps believers discern how God is leading and loving them on a daily basis.