Defining Spiritual Formation
"So what is it that you do?"
I get this question on a regular basis. When I introduce myself and tell people my title at Parkview, they often follow up with a look of relative confusion or relate my title to a field they are familiar with ("Oh, so discipleship..." or "You do Christian education then?").
Either response is fine, and I've grown to enjoy the curiosity.
I wanted to lay out, considering that this blog is devoted to thoughts and writing about spiritual formation, my current definition of Christian spiritual formation (often pronounced "spiritchafomation" when said quickly) and I say "current" because I am always thinking and rethinking on the topic. Here goes:
Spiritual formation is the process by which God, through the Holy Spirit and our participation, transforms us into the character and activity of Jesus Christ.
For the sake of this post, I highlighted four terms that are of deep value and importance to me because they distinguish and drive the definition from the inside.
Process - spiritual formation does not "happen." It is not a moment of epiphany where suddenly we are sanctified completely and enter some higher state of consciousness. It is a process because at times we will take two steps forward only to fall flat on our back the next moment. It is a journey, highlighted by practices and relationships that keep us moving along.
Participation - to me this is a key piece of theology. When Jesus called people to follow Him, they had to choose to follow Him. They weren't sold or badgered or coerced into doing it. They had to intentionally leave some things behind to embrace the giving-life of following Jesus. We, in the words of Dallas Willard, must let the vision of becoming like Jesus form the intention within us to be like Him.
We are a key part in our own restoration, partnering with God through the Holy Spirit.
Character - the most dangerous teaching in Christianity is that some how being "moral" or "law abiding" is the highest virtue in the life of following Jesus. I have become convinced after 15+ years of ministry and nearly 25 years of following Jesus myself that the greatest lie in spiritual growth is the "do-more principle." Granted, the more we align our actions with God the better off we are but frankly we can't sustain that life. We must become the kind of people - that's character language - that can do what Jesus said.
We must become the kind of people who know how good it can be to love our enemies, not just people who outwardly love our enemies.
Activity - character leads to action. Period. If what is within us never gets out of us into our areas of influence then we're a divided person and destruction is waiting on our porch. When our character changes it leads us into this "formissional" life where we are both formed in our hearts (character) and also energized to mission & ministry (activity).
Without inward transformation, we will lose our direction in outward activity in the long run.
So there's my definition. What's missing? What's helpful? What's confusing?