What Use Is Spiritual Formation in the Contemporary Church?

This particular post title showed up as a search result that has brought users to this blog.  I hope they have found what they saw useful, but it seemed like such a pertinent search question that I thought it might be useful to address it directly.

The problem with addressing it directly, however, is that it may depend a great deal on what is meant by “spiritual formation”.  Spiritual formation can be understood simply as a contemporary phrase meaning sanctification, the process of growing or being made increasingly Christ-like.  In this context, spiritual formation is not really something useful to the contemporary church so much as it is one aspect of the purpose of the church – to continually present a context wherein sanctification of the individual and the community is encouraged.

More likely, however, spiritual formation is understood in this question in one of two other, related ways.  First, it may be understood as the spiritual formation ideal or movement within contemporary Christianity, as manifested by groups such as Renovare or IVP’s Formatio books.  Second, it may be seen as techniques, activities, or programs that people take on that are supposed to help them become spiritual in some fashion.

Looking at spiritual formation in one of these two ways becomes rather complicated, particularly when you try to understand what it’s good for in the church.  Formation as a program is just that – another program.  It may be a program that helps certain people, and the Holy Spirit may use the materials to reach out to particular members of the congregation for the purpose of conviction, revival, encouragement, or the like.  And it may be a program that doesn’t fit the church and may be an expense to garner resources that are not helpful or meaningful to the congregation at the time.

(I did not intend for this post to become technical, but I suppose that’s where we seem to be moving.)  Before this question can really be answered well, it needs to be understood well.  If spiritual formation can be understood as something that merges these concepts or stands between them, the church may find it of greatest use.  If a church and its people are desirous of growing and developing people’s relationship with the Father, then the tools such as those groups and books already mentioned as well as other resources such as The Evangelical Center for Spiritual Wisdom and the books mentioned on this blog, then spiritual formation may be a means of fostering increasing maturity.

That increasing maturity could have multiple effects, depending on what the Spirit is doing in the church.  It may result in greater depth and wisdom for the people.  It may result in numerical growth.  It may result in a movement into the community for work of compassion, justice, or evangelization.  It may result in revival for individuals, the congregation as a whole, or the community.  But it does depend on what the Spirit has in mind for the particular church and congregation as well as the people’s willingness to be changed, which is not always an easy or painless process, and it may go very different than what one intends or expects.  God often works in ways that aren’t what we’re looking for and produces results that aren’t what we are specifically looking for.

And given that God sometimes works in ways that we don’t expect or even want, perhaps the question of what use spiritual formation is in the church is one that needs some tweaking.  Perhaps a better way of considering it is: what formation does God desire for the contemporary church, and is the church willing to walk with Him through it?  Some spiritual formation organizations, books, tools, and resources may be helpful in even answering that question, helping people to see what God is wanting and already doing.  Entering into true spiritual formation is a process of walking as Jesus did (and does) – participating in what He sees the Father doing.

… which strikes me as good for any contemporary church.

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