In this article, I will endeavor to establish a theological foundation for spiritual formation that transforms the character, and results in greater influence.
To change the church culture for such results, leaders must seek personal as well as corporate spiritual growth that goes deep. The early American pilgrims knew that God needs our affections in order to be our strongest influence amidst the temptations of life. Just like the pilgrims of old, we need help from on high to be faithful Jesus followers — daily grace that keeps us on the path that leads to vibrant life, freely flowing living water, and spiritual fruit!
Spiritual formation that results in greater spiritual health (i.e. greater intimacy with God), and resulting spiritual fruitfulness is a key feature in the Lord’s Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). This passage clearly shows that evangelism is merely an early step in the development of obedient disciples of Jesus Christ. However, the more comprehensive objective has been devastatingly neglected in most churches in developed countries especially, and is reflected in decreasing societal influence and a corresponding declining “spiritual birthrate.”
Effective spiritual formation must include both leaders and followers, and affect the heart and hands as well as the head. Leaders must be appropriately committed to their own ongoing growth as they seek to disciple others.
This will take more than lectures. So many jokes have been made about pastors’ lectures putting listeners to sleep; it is not necessary here to repeat them to make the point. Church systems that effectively develop the emotional health and ethical character of disciples are needed. Relational networks must develop organically to supplement doctrinal teaching that most often seeks to affect the cognition of learners exclusively.
Like any good communicator, the Apostle Paul thought about the underlying assumptions, values, and knowledge base of his hearer when he wrote to his protégé Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 NKJV). This verse emphasizes the priority to develop the comprehensive spiritual discernment necessary to determine what is the source of demonstrated power and how to deal with it/respond to it.
A younger leader in the Early Church, Timothy, whose mother was Jewish, had considerable exposure to the Hebrew Scriptures from his mother and grandmother. From a formative age he was very familiar with the Jewish worldview, largely shaped by his forefathers’ time in the wilderness, with God leading the way with a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. Early in his life, Timothy also learned how the Israelites had crossed the Jordan River at flood stage into the Promised Land on dry ground as God showed them his miraculous providence. Timothy could be exhorted to “fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Tim.1:6 NIV). He was familiar with spiritual power. What he most needed was safe boundaries for that power. Hence, Paul’s exhortation to him to develop ability in the comprehensive discernment that comes from a thorough knowledge of God’s written Word.
As any missionary who has worked in an animistic culture can tell you, there are sources of spiritual power other than the Spirit of God. For example, on the eastern side of the main island in Okinawa, there is a “college” for “yutas,” the shamans of the Okinawa islands, who are known for levitating objects and other “counterfeit miracles” (2 Thess. 2:9). People in many such cultures expect manifestations of spiritual power on a daily basis. Almighty God often seems to like to show up in such contexts, and show Himself supreme. Timothy needed the knowledge of God to touch his head as well as his heart and hands — so that he might stand against the deception of darkness, and cooperate with the Light in his historical cultural context. When Paul exhorted Timothy to “imitate me,” he included Timothy’s — and our — “hands” (actions) in the realm of areas needing attention in spiritual formation (1 Cor. 4:16). Paul’s rejoinders to diligent study of the Word, and life on life imitation are good words of reminder to some who might be so enamored with signs from God that they are tempted to neglect these important areas of discipleship.
In contrast, when Luke wrote about Paul’s encounter at the Areopagus, he states, “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21 NIV).
Today, there are many seminaries that devote themselves exclusively to the discussion of theological ideas. While this is important to refine future ministers’ theology, Paul’s admonishment to the believers in close proximity to the Greek theological debaters are important to note, and included these: “And my speech and preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5 NKJV), and “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20 NIV).
American Evangelicals, perhaps more than any other segment of Protestant Christianity have subscribed to Enlightenment thought in their understanding of faith and the Church. The result is a lot of talking about God, but increasing biblical illiteracy and a Church that has diminishing influence in an increasingly post-Christian culture. Scholar Charles Kraft notes that the signs of “Enlightenment Christianity” are:
- A pervasive rationalism devoid of spiritual power
- Doing things “decently and in order” (to an extreme)
- Centering our church meetings on a lecture (with little or no exhortation)
- Downplaying the value of experience
- A tendency to think of God’s Word only as something written
- The approach to evangelism and missions is primarily a matter of knowledge and technique
- A tendency to think of medicine and doctors before we think of God (as Healer)
- Secular social programs devoid of a connection to references to God’s grace
When leaders lean too heavily on the power of our intellects — or ability to shape the intellects of our followers — believers often lose the faith to believe God for miraculous healing, or other signs of his awesome power and grace. Many churches use a stopwatch to keep everything “on time” and “in order,” and in so doing leave very little opportunity for God’s Spirit to intervene and provide “demonstrations of the Spirit’s power” that strengthen the faith of believers.
Along with an overemphasis on cognitive disciple development, many churches exhibit a culture of distrust regarding spiritual experience. Jesus’ own ministry often focused on rewriting the spiritual assumptions and scriptural interpretations of God’s people (John 5:39-47). We must stand ready to be corrected in our theology as we encounter the living God through His Spirit. Of course, the Spirit will never contradict the written Word of God, but He may contradict our interpretation of a particular portion of the written Word.
Exercises such as “lectio divina,” listening with the ears of the heart, Bible study that incorporates silence, meditation, listening, and recitation of Scripture in addition to just reading and analyzing helps “reprogram” believers who have unconsciously come to believe that spiritual growth occurs through the gnostic hearing of some special knowledge.
The prayer journaling method outlined in scholar Sarah Young’s books is also helpful in enabling the unaccustomed to “hearing God’s voice” for many spiritual formation practices. Reflecting on the previous day, waiting on God to reveal burdens to release and sins to confess, and then journaling the result can deepen one’s fellowship with God and free him or her to follow Christ more closely. This is spiritual formation that affects the ethical, emotional, and relational development of disciples resulting in greater spiritual health — intimacy with God.
Henry Blackaby, a Southern Baptist minister, states that “when Christians begin to experience God and join Him in His work, outside observers no longer see what a group of dedicated people can do but they see what only Almighty God can do.” As long as a servant of the Most High God has a solid base of Scripture knowledge for an interpretive grid, spiritual experience is nothing to fear, but rather something to welcome and be alert to, when God graciously intervenes. This is an important principle in holistic spiritual formation.
Now I will address specific areas of spiritual formation that touch on emotional and relational formation, and Christian ethical formation. Spiritual formation is always the purview of Jesus Christ Himself. We get into trouble and make very little progress when we seek to grow in Christ’s image via techniques and methods devoid of submitted prayer that engages the active involvement of the Holy Spirit.
For the emotional formation to continue, closer day-to-day friendship with God is called for. A wonderful exercise is to seek to be mindful of God moment by moment. A friend or lover lives to be in the presence of the beloved. As Christ’s younger siblings, we can derive great joy and help in “sitting on Papa’s knee,” learning to walk step-by-step, hand in hand. As we draw closer to God, He will begin to show us some of His work in our immediate vicinity. This constitutes an invitation to join Him in His work, and as we do so, we come to know Him ever more intimately (Rom. 12:1-2).
Such experiences deepen our emotional bond with our Heavenly Father, and result in fruitful experiences that give us further assurance of our worth (Luke 14:34-35), and manifest the glory of God to a desperate world. As we grow closer and closer to our Lord, His love begins to “crowd out our emotional wounds.” Truly He can begin to make “the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.” God can rewrite “the hard drive of my heart” with His truth that sets me free (John 6:31-31, 36). It’s a wonderful thing to see the defeating attitudes and habitual responses go by the wayside as Christ sets His beloved free. This is a lifelong process that will be greatly facilitated by interactive prayer and intentional mindfulness of God’s presence as we go about our days.
Close community with appropriate transparency in a church can be a fertile ground for nurturing growth in spiritual health that results in synergistic power for the expansion of the Kingdom of God.
 Wilson, Michael L. Exponential Culture: Believer Transformation, Disciple Multiplication. P. 66. (2014)
 Kraft, Charles H. Christianity with Power. P. 41ff. (1989) (adapted)
 Peterson, Eugene H. Eat This Book: a conversation in the art of spiritual reading. (2006)
 Young, Sarah. Jesus Calling: Enjoying peace in his presence. (2011)
 Wilson, Michael L. Exponential Culture: Believer Transformation, Disciple Multiplication. (2014)
 Blackaby, Henry, Richard Blackaby, and Claude King. Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God. Pp. 163, 218. (2008)
 Wilson, Michael L. Exponential Culture: Believer Transformation, Disciple Multiplication (2014)