Spiritual formation sounds like an innocuous expression. Don’t we all want God to transform us into the image of Christ (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18)?
However, spiritual formation is dangerous because it promotes contemplative spirituality, an unbiblical approach to Christian growth.
In an article (see here) entitled, “What Is the Spiritual Formation Movement?” Gotquestions.org says,
“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.”
Gary Gilley writes, “What distinguishes spiritual formation from discipleship is not its basically similar definition, but its source, its practices, and its philosophy” (see here).
Its source is found in the ancient practices of Catholic mystics. Its practices include emptying your mind, picking out a word or phrase from a Bible passage and asking God to give you special revelation based on that word or phrase, silent retreats, prayer labyrinths, liturgical calendars (Ash Wednesday, Lent, Advent), candles, incense, etc.
Gilley says, “the spiritual disciplines, as are being taught by the leaders of the Spiritual Formation Movement, are not actually found in Scripture.” In light of that, he wonders “how can Christian authors be so assertive in recommending them?”
“Many of the spiritual disciplines that are supposedly necessary for spiritual formation are either not found in the Bible, or have been redefined to mean something foreign to the scriptural meaning. We are being told that disciplines such as silence, journaling, or observing the liturgical calendar will transform our lives even though God’s Word does not advocate these things as means of spiritual growth.”
Its philosophy is that the Bible does not tell us how to mature spiritually; rather, God expects us to grow by hearing the stories of past and present believers and how they grew and matured. It also teaches that non-Christian religions can teach us principles that aid in spiritual maturity as long as we recognize that other religions are a mixture of truth and error.
When I went to seminary at DTS we had discipleship groups, but not spiritual formation. I’m not sure of when it started at DTS. I think it was around 1990. Today nearly all accredited Bible colleges and seminaries teach spiritual formation.
GES had an unaccredited online school in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We are restarting that school this fall. We will not teach spiritual formation. We will not seek accreditation because it requires the teaching of spiritual formation and because it requires you to hire faculty who graduate from prestigious liberal schools. The hiring of liberal faculty changes the doctrine being taught in the schools.
If you wonder whether the seminary or Christian college you are considering attending teaches spiritual formation, you can check Lighthouse Trails’ online list. See here.
Board Chairman Brad Doskocil’s review of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (see here) will give you insights into Foster and spiritual formation. That book put spiritual formation on the Evangelical map in 1978. It was hailed by Christianity Today as one of the top ten books of the twentieth century.