What is the Spiritual Formation Movement and Why is it Unbiblical?

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by Roger Oakland

Spiritual Formation: A movement that has provided a platform and a channel through which contemplative prayer is entering the church. Find spiritual formation being used, and in nearly every case you will find contemplative spirituality. In fact, contemplative spirituality is the heartbeat of the spiritual formation movement.

When I first began writing in the field in the late 70s and early 80s the term “Spiritual Formation” was hardly known, except for highly specialized references in relation to the Catholic orders. Today it is a rare person who has not heard the term. Seminary courses in Spiritual Formation proliferate like baby rabbits. Huge numbers are seeking to become certified as Spiritual Directors to answer the cry of multiplied thousands for spiritual direction.1–Richard Foster

A move away from the truth of God’s Word to a mystical form of Christianity has infiltrated, to some degree, nearly all evangelical denominations. Few Bible teachers saw this avalanche coming. Now that it is underway, most do not realize it has even happened.

The best way to understand this process is to recall what happened during the Dark Ages when the Bible became the forbidden book. Until the reformers translated the Bible into the language of the common people, the great masses were in darkness. When the light of God’s Word became available, the Gospel was once again understood.

I believe history is repeating itself. As the Word of God becomes less and less important, the rise in mystical experiences escalates, and these experiences are presented to convince the unsuspecting that Christianity is about feeling, touching, smelling, and seeing God. The postmodern mindset is the perfect environment for fostering spiritual formation. This term suggests there are various ways and means to get closer to God and to emulate Him. Thus the idea that if you do certain practices, you can be more like Jesus. Proponents of spiritual formation erroneously teach that anyone can practice these mystical rituals and find God within. Having a relationship with Jesus Christ is not a prerequisite. In a DVD called Be Still, which promotes contemplative prayer, Richard Foster says that contemplative prayer is for anyone and that by practicing it, one becomes “a portable sanctuary” for “the presence of God.”2

Rather than having the indwelling of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, spiritual formation through the spiritual disciplines supposedly transforms the seeker by his or her entering an altered realm of consciousness.

The spiritual formation movement is widely promoted at colleges and seminaries as the latest and the greatest way to become a spiritual leader. It teaches people that this is how they can become more intimate with God and truly hear His voice. Even Christian leaders with long-standing reputations of teaching God’s Word seem to be succumbing. In so doing, many Christian leaders are frivolously playing with fire, and the result will be thousands, probably millions, getting burned.

It isn’t going into the silence that transforms a person’s life. It is in accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and allowing Him to change us that transformation occurs.

And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel. (Colossians 1:21-23)

We are reconciled to God only through Christ’s death (the atonement for sin), and we are presented “holy and unblamable and unreproveable” when we belong to Him through rebirth. It has nothing to do with works, rituals, or mystical experiences. It is Christ’s life in the converted believer that transforms him. (For more information on this topic and emerging spirituality, read Faith Undone.)

Notes:
1. Richard Foster, “Spiritual Formation: A Pastoral Letter” (January 18, 2004, http://www.theooze.com/articles/article.cfm?id=744).
2. Richard Foster, Be Still DVD (Fox Home Entertainment, 2006), section titled “Contemplative Prayer.”

Related Information:

Assemblies of God: Committed to Spiritual Formation, Contemplative and Emerging

Which organizations are involved with spiritual formation?

More research on spiritual formation.