Is your church involved in a Spiritual Formation program? If so, you might want to ask the question, what does Spiritual Formation look like? It’s a fair question, and one, that if not asked, could end up surprising you when your church changes in ways you never imagined.
In a 2002 Christianity Today article, it stated: “Spiritual Formation is in.” The article reveals who is largely responsible for starting the movement:
Now many evangelical seminaries offer programs in spiritual formation. Renovare, which Richard Foster and others founded in 1989 to cultivate spiritual formation (especially among evangelicals), today offers retreats and resources worldwide.
Foster began his organization Renovare in 1989, but 11 years earlier (1978) his book Celebration of Discipline first came out, and that has been a Spiritual Formation primer ever since.
The Christianity Today article defines Spiritual Formation as:
Formation, like the forming of a pot from clay, brings to mind shaping and molding, helping something potential become something actual. Spiritual formation speaks of a shaping process with reference to the spiritual dimension of a person’s life. Christian spiritual formation thus refers to the process by which believers become more fully conformed and united to Christ.
Such a definition would hardly send up red flags. But what this definition excludes is how this “process” of conforming and uniting to Christ takes place, and who is eligible to participate in such a process.
The “how” is done through spiritual disciplines, mainly through the discipline of the silence. The silence is an altered state that is reached through mantra meditation, breath prayers, or some other meditative practice. The idea behind it is that if you go into this silent state, you will hear from God, and He will transform you to be like Christ. The “who” (who can practice these disciplines and become like Christ) is anyone (according to Foster and other proponents of Spiritual Formation). A Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, even an atheist — anyone at all can benefit from the spiritual disciplines and become like Christ (the question is which Christ).
According to Rick Warren, the Spiritual Formation movement is a “wake up call” and a “valid message” to the body of Christ. 1He acknowledges that Richard Foster is a key player in the movement. Brian McLaren, a leader in the emerging church movement, names Richard Foster as one of the “key mentors for the emerging church.”2It is noteworthy that McLaren and Warren (two of the most influential figures today3) each recognize Foster’s role and contribution. Two and two do add up here. McLaren sees Foster’s mystical affinities, and that’s why he says Foster is a key mentor – mysticism is the energy behind the emerging church movement. Without it, there would be no emerging church. Rick Warren considers Foster’s spirituality important because Warren too adheres to the mystical. Thus, these two heavy-weight “evangelicals” see mysticism as crucial for their agendas.
So just what does Spiritual Formation look like? That’s easy. Richard Foster has the answer to that. When he told Ray Yungen several years ago that Thomas Merton tried to awaken God’s people, what he meant was that Thomas Merton saw one element missing within Christianity – the mystical element. Merton had learned from a Hindu swami named Dr. Bramachari that Merton could obtain mystical properties from Christians like the Desert Fathers – he didn’t need to leave his own tradition.
But Merton realized that most Christians didn’t know about this. So, he set out to bring mysticism (i.e., contemplative prayer) to the Christian world. However, Merton died an early death in 1968 and was unable to accomplish his goal. But somewhere between 1968 and 1978, Richard Foster picked up the mantle of Thomas Merton and carried it forward. Now today, tens of thousands of churches, maybe even yours, are going forth with Thomas Merton’s message of Spiritual Formation. But in essence they are going forth with the Hindu message of: God is in all things (panentheism), and God is all things (pantheism). Such a message contradicts the Gospel message of Jesus Christ – that man is sinful, he is heading for eternal destruction because of sin, and he needs a Savior, and that Savior is God (i.e., Jesus Christ) who paid the price for us with His shed blood.
Just remember, when you find out that your church is going to do a Spiritual Formation program, think about these words by Thomas Merton:
The most important need in the Christian world today is this inner truth nourished by this Spirit of contemplation . . . Without contemplation and interior prayer the Church cannot fulfill her mission to transform and save mankind. (cited in A Time of Departing, 2nd ed., p. 129)
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, . . . now I realize what we all are. . . . If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are . . . I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. . . . At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth. . . . This little point . . . is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody. (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Publishers, 1989), pp. 157-158).
This “Spirit of contemplation” is what fuels the Spiritual Formation movement. Merton believed that God dwelled in all people – Richard Foster believes this too. The question you must ask yourself is, do you believe that also? If not, then Spiritual Formation does not belong in your church or in your family’s spiritual structure.
For more information on Spiritual Formation:
For documentation of the quotes in this article and for further information on contemplative spirituality, read A Time of Departing