By Richard Foster
The task of maturing the modern spiritual formation movement is complicated and will require our finest thinking and most creative energies. There are two reasons, at least, for the complication. To begin with, the continuing popularity of spiritual formation today has meant that all kinds of writing and speaking have now gone forth on the subject. Frankly -- and I hate to say it in such a blunt matter -- much that has gone out under the name of spiritual formation has come from people who simply have not thought substantively on the subject, and (dare I mention it) we have to wonder if they themselves have been spiritually formed to any substantial degree. Hence, a great deal of "Holy Baloney" is out there now, and the average person will quickly despair at distinguishing the good from the bad.
Then, secondly, people in general and Americans in particular are a fickle lot, and they tire quickly. Many are already moving on to the next fad. And let's be honest: how many of us can truly wrap our minds around the notion of a forty-year journey into the subterranean chambers of the soul? That was, as you will recall, Moses' experience of character formation in the Egyptian desert. Forty years! Are we not tempted to opt instead for a short cut or two? Impatience is a primary spiritual problem in our day.
These things, however, need not discourage us. The human need -- and longing -- for substantive formation of heart and soul and mind and body into Christlikeness is always before us. It is not going to go away. No doubt our work will now be more difficult with those who feel they have tried spiritual formation, and it failed them, when all they really tried was some little "five steps to blessedness." Remember, we are not presenting people with any "program," but with a life. We simply and powerfully introduce them into an ongoing, interactive relationship with Jesus, their ever-living Savior, Teacher, Lord, and Friend. Apprenticed to Jesus, they will be able to go forward from faith to faith and from strength to strength.
Here now are a few things to bear in mind as we continue our efforts at maturing the modern spiritual formation movement.
1) We take the long view . . . always. We think in terms of lifetimes and centuries. The soul lives forever. It is precious beyond imagining. Investing deeply in even a few people will count for all eternity. Sure, many in today's religious climate will go on to other "more interesting" topics. We bless these folk and pray for their well-being and growth in grace. But there are plenty (vast numbers, in fact) who are committed to the long haul. They really want to be like Jesus with all their heart and soul and mind and strength. These are the ones we invest in. And, believe me, investing in these precious lives will take all the energy and all the time and all the prayer and all the weeping and laughing and singing and hoping we can possibly muster.
2) We refuse to think of spiritual formation in terms of various practices . . . ever. In another era, those practices were things such as a "quiet time" and Bible study of one sort or another. Today it is Lectio Divina and "journaling." May I say as clearly as possible: Christian spiritual formation has nothing essentially to do with such practices. Many practices can be genuinely helpful in their place, but they are not "it." What is "it" is LIFE -- life with Jesus, interactive relationship with the great God of the universe, inner transformation into Christlikeness. Now, this reality can take shape with Lectio and with "journaling," and it can happen without them. It can, and it does! The tendency today, unfortunately widespread, is to think of spiritual formation exclusively in terms of practices of one kind or another. Please, dear friend, do not fall into this trap. It will only produce legalism and bondage, and it utterly defeats spiritual formation. Many of the familiar practices are useful, to be sure, and some more than others. But none is essential. We all are to walk with the living Christ and then "in humility regard others as better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3).
3) We engage in spiritual formation for the sake of the Church universal . . . always. Sectarian reform movements that cement an eternal split only become ends in themselves. We work instead for the transformation of the whole Church. We love the Church, the people of God, in all her multi-faceted expressions. Traditional. Contemporary. Liturgical. Charismatic. Emergent. Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant. Big church and little church, house church and crystal cathedral. We attempt no end run around the Church. God is with his people in all their waywardness and silliness, and so are we.