Richard Foster’s Renovare President Admits They Have Taught Spiritual Formation to “Hundreds of Thousands of People”

Renovare, as many of you know, is Richard Foster’s organization and his mainstay platform for promoting contemplative spirituality. In a November 2011 letter to supporters, Renovare president Christopher Webb states the following:

At this writing I am attending a gathering of national ministries that promote Bible reading and engagement; spiritual formation is at the very top of the agenda. Last week I spoke at a conference for three hundred pastors; spiritual formation was the number one concern. In the few weeks before that I led a retreat for spiritual directors, spoke at a congregational conference, and addressed a denominational gathering; in each case, spiritual formation was at the heart of the conversation.
Webb admits that “Renovare has played a crucial role in focusing the attention of pastors, churches, seminaries, and denominations on spiritual formation,” saying that they have taught the “basic principles of [spiritual formation] to hundreds of thousands of people.” Webb adds “But more than this, we’ve advocated for the central importance of formation in Christlikeness to the wider Church.”
For those who have read A Time of Departing, you know that Richard Foster is indeed the major figure in bringing contemplative spirituality into the evangelical/Protestant church. Ray Yungen has often said that he believes that most Christian pastors in North America have a copy of Foster’s 1978 book Celebration of Discipline on their office bookshelves. Today, 33 years after that book first came out, we believe it is accurate to say that contemplative spirituality has infiltrated the majority of evangelical churches to one degree or another. In view of this November Renovare letter, we thought it fitting to post something from A Time of Departing regarding Richard Foster and how Ray Yungen first came to realize the role that Foster would play in this mystical spirituality that has affected so many people.

By Ray Yungen, from Chapter 4, A Time of Departing:

One afternoon in February of 1994, I visited the youth pastorof a large evangelical church in my community. I shared with him my discoveries about the New Age effect on our society—especially regarding the practical mystic element. He then confided in me that a notable Christian author and speaker would be conducting a seminar at his church the following November. He had read the man’s first book, and he disclosed to me how an uneasy feeling about this author still lingered. The author’s name was Richard Foster. The youth pastor asked me to check out Foster to see what I could learn about him. I agreed to do so.

Although I knew the name Richard Foster, I knew little else about him. But when I examined a copy of his popular book, Celebration of Discipline and discovered eleven references to Thomas Merton throughout the book, I immediately suspected a connection. This would not have surprised me if I had read Foster’s own words in the book beforehand:

[W]e should all without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer.1

After reading his book, I suspected Foster would promote contemplative prayer during his talk at the upcoming conference, resulting in numerous attendees seeking out a local contemplative prayer center. Alarmed, the youth pastor and I made an appointment with the senior pastor and two other staff members to express our concerns and show them some examples of what the contemplative prayer movement taught. They listened readily, and the senior pastor said he planned to discuss these issues personally with Foster in a phone conversation.

Later, after that conversation took place, the senior pastor came away from it feeling fully satisfied nothing was erroneous about Foster’s agenda. Foster told him Christian mystics who were not schooled in the East developed the contemplative tradition. Foster also acknowledged some individuals in this movement had crossed over into Eastern thought, and Thomas Merton had been shaped by these ideas. Foster admitted he did not know exactly where Merton stood theologically when he died but believed we could still learn from him without going in all the directions he went. After this exchange, the senior pastor ended all discussion with us on the matter—Foster was coming!

Once I recognized Foster had passed the test before a sharp senior pastor, I began to study his teachings. I discovered he was the founder and head of an organization called Renovare, from the Latin word meaning renewal. The goal of this group, as stated in their material, is to provide the evangelical church with a “practical strategy” for growing spiritually. “An army without a plan will be defeated,”2 states one of Renovare’s promotional materials. Renovare provides that plan or as they refer to it: “practical training for transformed living.”3

For the next eight months, I studied Foster’s work, focusing on his promotion of contemplative prayer. Foster became a riddle; his statement of faith and other writings seem clearly evangelical in nature, making it understandable why he has struck a chord with so many learned Christian readers. On the other hand, he also avidly endorses a practice that leads to a mystical panentheistic understanding of God.

For example, Foster openly quotes Merton on the virtues and benefits of contemplative prayer putting forth the view that through it God “offers you an understanding and light, which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons.”4 But when one digs deeper and finds what exactly this “understanding” is, it casts a very dubious light on Foster’s judgment. Listen to a few statements from some of the mystics whom Foster sees as examples of contemplative spirituality:

• [T]he soul of the human family is the Holy Spirit.5—Basil Pennington
• I saw that God is in all things.6—Julian of Norwich
• My beloved [God] is the high mountains, and the lovely valley forests, unexplored islands, rushing rivers.7—John of the Cross
• Here [the contemplative state] everything is God. God is everywhere and in all things.8—Madam Guyon

The point is this—their silence and Foster’s silence are identical, as he makes notably clear. By using them as models, Foster tells us to follow them because they have experienced deep union with God—and if you also want this, you must go into their silence.

But if this is the case, then Foster’s promotion of these mystics brings into play a difficult problem for him. Panentheism was the fruit of their mysticism. This mysticism led them to believe as they did, and Foster cannot distance himself from this fact. Consequently, to promote them as the champions of contemplative prayer, he is also, wittingly or not, endorsing their panentheism. What he endorses is a bundled package. You can accept both or reject both, but you cannot have one without the other.

To absolve these mystics of fundamental theological error, Foster has to also defend panentheism. Therefore, the evangelical church must come to a firm consensus on panentheistic mysticism. Contemplative prayer and panentheism go together like a hand in a glove—to promote one is to promote both. They are inseparable! Further, when one looks at Foster’s method of entering this silence, it casts his teachings in a very questionable light.

When Foster speaks of the silence, he does not mean external silence. In his book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Foster recommends the practice of breath prayer9—picking a single word or short phrase and repeating it in conjunction with the breath. This is classic contemplative mysticism. In the original 1978 edition of Celebration of Discipline, he makes his objective clear when he states, “Christian meditation is an attempt to empty the mind in order to fill it.”10
In Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, he ties in a quote by one mystic who advised, “You must bind the mind with one thought.”11

The advice recounts Anthony de Mello’s remarks in his contemplative prayer classic, Sadhana: A Way to God. His approach was virtually identical to Foster’s:

To silence the mind is an extremely difficult task. How hard it is to keep the mind from thinking, thinking, thinking, forever thinking, forever producing thoughts in a never ending stream. Our Hindu masters in India have a saying: one thorn is removed by another. By this they mean that you will be wise to use one thought to rid yourself of all the other thoughts that crowd into your mind. One thought, one image, one phrase or sentence or word that your mind can be made to fasten on.12

I once related Foster’s breath prayer method to a former New Age devotee who is now a Christian. She affirmed this connection when she remarked with astonishment, “That’s what I did when I was into ashtanga yoga!”

The goal of prayer should not be to bind the mind with a word or phrase in order to induce a mystical trance but rather to use the mind to glory in the grace of God. This was the apostle Paul’s counsel to the various churches: “Study to shew thyself approved” (II Tim. 2:15) and “we pray always” (II Thessalonians 1:11) as in talking to God with both heart and mind.

What Foster presents, focuses not on one subject but on one thought. Prayer is a sequence of thoughts on a spiritual subject. Keeping the mind riveted on only one thought is unnatural and adverse to true reflection and prayer. Simple logic tells us the repeating of words has no rational value. For instance, if someone called you on the phone and just said your name or one phrase over and over, would that be something you found edifying? Of course not; you would hang up on him or her. Why would God feel otherwise? And if God’s presence is lacking, what is this presence that appears as light during meditation and infuses a counterfeit sense of divinity within?

The Seminar
With my new understanding of Foster, I attended the seminar in November to witness his public speaking on these issues. Foster seemed charming, winsome, and gifted in speech. His oratorical skills reminded me of a Shakespearean actor on stage. His program mixed serious oratory, music, and humor in just the right doses. However, his message conveyed that today’s Christians suffer from spiritual stagnation, and consequently need something more. The following are a few examples:

• There is a hunger . . .
• We have become barren within . . .
• We are floundering . . .
• People are trying rather than training.

Foster alluded to a remedy for this problem with such statements as:

• We need a way of moving forward . . .
• We need a plan to implement the Great Commission . . .
• We need a simple mechanism . . .
• This might be new or frightening, but you are being drawn.13

After the seminar ended, curious about what he meant by these statements, I approached Foster and politely asked him, “What do you think of the current Catholic contemplative prayer movement?” He appeared visibly uncomfortable with the question, and at first seemed evasive and vague.

He then replied, “Well, I don’t know, some good, some bad (mentioning Matthew Fox as an example of the bad).” In defense, he said, “My critics don’t understand there is this tradition within Christianity that goes back centuries.” He then said something that has echoed in my mind ever since that day. He emphatically stated, “Well, Thomas Merton tried to awaken God’s people!” I realized then Foster had waded deep into Merton’s belief system.

This statement regarding Merton seemed paradoxical because earlier that morning Foster made a concerted effort to convince the audience he himself most certainly had no New Age sympathies. He told the 650 people assembled that he taught people to “hear the voice of Jehovah” and not the “loose, nutty kind of a thing” of the New Age.14 But it is precisely this alignment with Merton that undermines Foster’s claim to being mystically attuned to the God of the Bible. Merton expressed views such as, “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity . . . I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”15

It is essential to really understand why Merton said things like this in order to understand why the contemplative prayer movement presents such a potential danger to evangelical Christian churches. Merton’s conversion was spiritual, not social or political, as clearly revealed in one of his biographies:

His [Merton’s] change of mind with regard to the higher religions was not the result of tedious comparison and contrast or even concerted analysis. It was an outgrowth of his experience with the Absolute [God].16

In other words, Merton found Buddhist enlightenment in contemplative prayer.

Richard Foster has written of Merton’s mystical prayer in sparkling terms, saying, “Thomas Merton has perhaps done more than any other twentieth-century figure to make the life of prayer widely known and understood.”17 Foster considers Merton’s book, Contemplative Prayer, “a must book”18 He also states, “Merton continues to inspire countless men and women,”19 and credits his books as being filled with “priceless wisdom for all Christians who long to go deeper in the spiritual life.”20

This is the same Merton who “quaffed [drank] eagerly from the Buddhist cup in his journey to the East.”21 Yet how could Merton be a co-mystic with Eastern religions, and Foster engage in the same method as Merton, and come out on the opposite end of the spectrum? The answer may lie in some of the places I have found Foster’s books being offered.

During a trip across the country, I stopped to research at the world headquarters for the Unity School of Christianity, a New Age metaphysical church located in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri. In their bookstore under authors A-Z (a who’s who of New Age writers), I found no less than five of Foster’s titles. A number of New Age bookstores also carry his books, under the headings of mysticism.

After seeing Celebration of Discipline at one New Age bookstore (a store operated by devotees of a famous Hindu swami), I asked the store’s book buyer what he thought of Foster. “He is wonderful,” the man enthusiastically replied. “His views on prayer are absolutely wonderful.” I then asked if he knew Foster was considered a conservative Christian in many circles. His reply was intriguing: “Well, if he was a fundamentalist he wouldn’t be sold at a bookstore like this one.” He ended the conversation with further praise of Foster.

Perhaps the most unsettling example of all is in a book titled The Miracle of Prayer. This book could not be any more blatantly New Age in viewpoint, filled with occult concepts and references. Yet under suggested reading, in the back of the book, Foster’s book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home is recommended.22
Why do these obvious New Agers sell and promote Foster’s books? The answer is unmistakable: the silence! New Agers recognize their form of prayer when they see it. They know where the silence leads. They know what Foster means when he advises:

Every distraction of the body, mind, and spirit must be put into a kind of suspended animation before this deep work of God upon the soul can occur.23

If Foster heard the “voice of Jehovah,” as he claims, wouldn’t God have placed a warning upon his heart and mind that Merton taught harmful theology and convicted Foster not to champion him?

Although Foster may be sincere and well meaning, he has unfortunately drawn on a tradition the Bible does not present or condone. When he made an appeal from Scripture to support the credence of the contemplative prayer practice all he could find was Psalm 62:1, a verse that refers to being still and attentive to God. But this passage is certainly not suggesting that one go beyond thought by a sacred word or focusing on the breath. If that were the case, it would be taught throughout Scripture.

A Christian supporter of Foster once defended him by claiming that Foster is teaching Christians nothing more than what the apostle Paul experienced on the road to Damascus—a direct experience of God’s presence. This may sound legitimate on the surface, but if you look at certain criteria, a far different picture emerges.
First of all, as I stated in chapter two, Paul did not use a method in this situation. There was no prayer word or breath prayer that propelled him into God’s presence; it was a spontaneous action of God. Paul did nothing to bring on his experience. If he had, it certainly would have been referenced in the text as an important catalyst.

Secondly (and most importantly), Paul never wrote of a method in his letters to the various churches. He spoke of various spiritual gifts, but these were not based on any sort of technique that was taught. These gifts were bestowed by God as He saw fit. On that account, Foster can certainly back up a mystical element in the Bible, but he cannot back up his mysticism from the Bible. Unfortunately, he has instructed multitudes that:

God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.24

I would like to impress on anyone going in this direction, the words of Solomon who gravely warned:

Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5-6)

The apostle Paul also wrote, “For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). In light of these statements, if you can find the silence (i.e., sacred words, going beyond thought) anywhere in Paul’s writings to the church, I will humbly apologize to Richard Foster. I would like to note at this point that in the first edition of A Time of Departing, I presented a similar challenge, and no one to date has sent me a response—no one has found any refutation, not from Paul’s writings nor from the entirety of the Word of God. Just how influential has Foster become in Christian circles? For certain, his effect on the evangelical church cannot be overestimated.

1. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1978 edition), p. 13.
2. Renovare Conference brochure, Oct. 15-16, 1999, Lynden, WA.
3. Renovare Conference brochure, Sept. 13-14, 1996, Fuller Theological Seminary.
4. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1992), p. 160.
5. M. Basil Pennington, Centered Living, The Way of Centering Prayer (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1986 and 1988 editions), p. 104.
6. Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 123.
7. Timothy Freke, The Spiritual Canticle, the Wisdom of the Christian Mystics (Godsfield Press, 1998), p. 60.
8. Willigis Jager, The Search for the Meaning of Life (Ligouri, MO, Liguori/Triumph, 1995), p. 125.
9. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home,  p. 122.
10. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 1978 Edition,  p. 15.
11. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, p. 124.
12. Anthony de Mello, Sadhana: A Way to God (St. Louis, the Institute of Jesuit Resources, 1978), p. 28.
13. Richard Foster, Renovare Conference, Salem, OR, Nov. 1994.
14. Ibid.
15. David Steindl-Rast, “Recollection of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West” (Monastic Studies, 7:10, 1969).
16. Raymond Bailey, Thomas Merton on Mysticism (Image Books, 1987), p. 191.
17. Richard Foster and Emilie Griffin, Spiritual Classics (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 2000), p. 17.
18. Richard Foster, Meditative Prayer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1983).
19. Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith, Devotional Classics (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1990, 1991, 1993), p. 61.
20. Ibid.
21. Brother Patrick Hart-Editor, The Message of Thomas Merton (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981), p. 63.
22. Rosemary Ellen Guiley, The Miracle of Prayer (Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, 1995), p. 227.
23. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, op., cit., Revised Edition 1988, p. 103.
24. Ibid., p. 7.

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