The journey into God that transforms us and leads us into deeper connection with God lies at the heart of spiritual formation. Formation creates a space for that encounter to occur, and it nurtures the practice and virtues that makes that journey possible.
But it is also widely misunderstood, even by churches.
In looking back over decades of attention to the task of formation, here is a brief outline of four models for spiritual formation that are important elements of the experience, but do not work in isolation from one another:
Spiritual formation as Inoculation
Take a class, get formed, get out, get on with life.
It's important to begin, but it is not enough.
Spiritual formation thought of as inoculation doesn't work because formation is ongoing and lifelong. The limited attention given to the task of formation by the inoculation model telegraphs the message, "This isn't important." And it doesn't work because the task of formation is less about getting a perspective and few techniques, and more about a lifelong process of conversion.
Do we need to begin somewhere? Yes. Is beginning enough? No.
Spiritual formation as Practice
Pray regularly or go to chapel or church and, presto, you're spiritually formed. In other words, "Try harder."
Spiritual practice certainly helps. Regularity in prayer, worship, fasting, pilgrimage, other spiritual disciplines, as well as the very effort to make a place for conversation with God creates a space where formation can happen.
The purpose of spiritual practice is to put us in a place where God can find us. It's not about finding God.
But practice can also degenerate into checklist spirituality and trying harder is not the point. The best of spiritual practice is not an end in itself and for that reason "trying harder," like all forms of asceticism is often counter-productive.
Spiritual formation as Bible study
The quintessential feature of Protestant spiritual formation is the study of Scripture. That has been the case from Luther on, and it can be traced to his Latin maxim, sola scriptura, "Scripture alone."
There is no argument here on one level: A knowledge of Scripture is essential to spiritual formation. Clearly the Bible provides us with the foundational vocabulary for the Christian faith.
That said, the writers of Scripture are also clear that a knowledge of biblical truths does not insure spiritual maturity. As such, the study of Scripture contributes to formation and it is necessary, but it is hardly adequate or an end in itself.
Spiritual formation as Rule of Life
Renewed interest in monastic rules surfaced sometime ago and "writing your own rule of life" has become an important part of spiritual formation in some circles.
Such rules have the advantage of embracing the whole of life, and as such, they are an advance over the haphazard "piling on" that is so much a part of the "Try harder" model described above.
But the word "rule" or regula has to be understood in all of its dimensions for it to have the desired effect.
A rule of life is about patterns, not prescriptions. It is not meant to be enforced, but to guide, and it needs to be applied "artistically" with a view to its goal, which is the cultivation of spiritual virtues and attention to the spiritual journey. It is not an end in itself and it is not meant to foster spiritualized stoicism.
So, how are these four understandings related or contribute to a larger vision of spiritual formation?
Spiritual formation has to start somewhere. So, beginning is important.
Spiritual formation does rely on practice, because it creates a space for God to find us.
Spiritual formation depends upon the study of Scripture, because it is the Bible that provides us with the basic vocabulary of faith.
And spiritual formation depends upon attention to the whole of life, as we seek God.
But the goal, which is a relationship with the living God, is like any other relationship. It requires love, time, and attention.