Stop trying to make Spiritual Formation happen

I’ve been thinking about words lately. Words that we use in the visible no longer mean what they used to mean. Terms like Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and especially Evangelical have changed. Today, words like Missional, Transformational or Spiritual Formation are now the new cool trending words in the majority of churches these days. I’m not going to tell you what those words mean in this article. Our website along with many others can help you do your own research.) I want to take a moment and speak to those who are discouraged, and not wanting to cave in to those whom you believe have hijacked these words.

What I’ve learned in my marketing career is that there is a great battle going on for definitions of words, because those definitions greatly affect “brand.” Brand is simply a concept that lives in the hearts and the minds of people and the ideas they form when interacting with products and services. So when you a name like Twinkie or Diet Coke, there is either trust or mistrust; safe or unsafe. When a word like Christian pops up in conversation, no two people have the same impression.

The same is true for Spiritual Formation. When people see that word in a textbook or hear it in a speech, a growing number will become uncomfortable because of where that word comes from (monasteries) and who brought it in to mainstream religiosity (Richard Foster, Dallas Willard). They may also understand that Spiritual Formation was latched onto by Rick Warren and has become an integral part of the Purpose Driven model used by Saddleback, Willow Creek, and many other Peter Drucker-influenced churches following the Seeker/business model.

It is too late to make Spiritual Formation mean anything innocent or Godly and pure. Yes, the Holy Spirit does transform believers when we abide in Christ and His Word. I don’t use the word Spiritual Formation because I know what it really means – and what it always has meant. When I shape the words I use it is certainly not to “appease critics” who might jump to wrong conclusions; it is because words mean things to brothers and sisters in Christ who are looking for a safe refuge from danger.

I think about people who have had to leave churches that have gone Emergent, New Age or (name your movement). I think of parents who love their children and want to protect them from the great falling away that is happening in the Church today. I would say that even if you mean it for good, the word Spiritual Formation is now a red flag. Even if you are aware of these Willard/Foster influences and have taken a “not in my church” stand, if your people see the words Spiritual Formation in your church, on your website or in curriculum, they will assume that you have bought into the deception that has infected many churches. Trust at that point goes out the window.

Yes, I am sorry that so many innocent, biblically-sound words are damaging your brand. I’m not sorry that more people feel uncomfortable with those words. This is just my opinion as a someone who has a brand marketing background and who researches this stuff– I’d avoid using words like Spiritual Formation. Not to get on anyone’s good side or approved list, but because it is a term that is instantly associated with worldly, man-made poison.

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8 Responses to Stop trying to make Spiritual Formation happen

  1. Jules says:

    Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, under the leadership of Dr. Albert Mohler, employs Dr. Donald Whitney as associate professor of "biblical spirituality" (another term for spiritual formation).

    Whitney came to Southern from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he was Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation for ten years.


  2. Denise says:

    Well, sadly, Donald Whitney's Spiritual Discipines are No different than what Richard Foster teachers. In fact he PRAISES Foster and Willard in his book.

    Christian Apologist; Bob Dewaay has written as excellent article regarding Whiney's "spiritual disciplines" here:

    Short example here re: Whitney from his book- He says, ''Other times silence is maintained not only outwardly but also inwardly so that God's voice might be heard more clearly'' (Whitney: 184) "so that God's voice might be heard more clearly?" Seriously.. this is NOT in scripture whatsoever.

    Also wasn't Whitney teaching at Mark Driscoll's "RE:TRAIN" for pastors? Seems there may be some questions here.

    Spiritual Formation is man-contrived with roots going back to The Desert Fathers. It is pagan methodology packaged with a Biblical bow.

    Here is another excellent article by Bob Dewaay regarding Spiritual Disciplines/Formation:


  3. Stephanie C says:

    Excellent!!! This is what my husband and I have been saying for several years now, and our friends have been trying to justify the use of these terms.


  4. Mike Ratliff says:

    Thanks for this post Denise. So many believers nowadays just look the other way when Spiritual Formation is mentioned in Church as something that is taught or is something that those who want to "go deeper" have to "take classes in" in order to considered for leadership positions, etc. It is far more prevalent in our churches than most people believe.


  5. Do you ever think in a way this is just a 21st century version of gnosticism trying to creep back into the church. Achiever "higher levels" of spirituality? Gaining a "deeper knowledge" of God? All through mystical practices? I think we need to go back and get a firm grasp on what Jude teaches in his short and powerful epistle. Just because it's popular doesn't mean it's scriptural or doctrinally correct.


    • Ernie says:

      Randy. It definitely has gnostic fruit. We left a church two years ago where I was an elder questioning the "spiritual formation" books of Foster and the like. I had other elders who were involved in these practices tell me, "I don't need to hear about my SIN". A bad fruit of this whole psychological/mystical "reach out with your feelings, Luke" inner healing stuff is this: The gospel changes in these churches from 'repentance and belief, sin and salvation' to – "I'm hurt and I need healing". It is a different gospel – one that portrays man as a victim instead of a perp. It is a false gospel, but a sly one, which needs careful discernment by elders who know the real gospel – "Jesus died for our SINS", and in love, we need to root out the heretical message of these false teachers like Foster, Nouwen, Merton, Keating, and those who expound their teachings to unsuspecting sheep.


  6. JohnH says:

    I can identify with you Ernie. Been there.

    What I see happening is that the spiritual formation proponents are trying to, by and large, systemitize the work of the Holy Spirit. Force it. Make it happen. In that sense I think they are closely related to the word faith proponents who think you can use words to order God around.


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