Why Spiritual Formation is a Bad Substitute for Discipleship

Thursday is for Discipleship

Here’s my take on why the substitution of the term “spiritual formation” for “discipleship” is not an improvement and actually exacerbates a problem the Church in America already had with the term discipleship.

If we were to survey most American Churches and ask what we mean by discipleship or spiritual formation, most would give some variation of the following: “Discipleship (or spiritual formation) is what we do in the body of Christ to deepen believers in the Christian faith.”

For some, the answer would be more or less articulate, more or less detailed, more or less eloquent, but at the end of the discussion, whatever anyone preferred to use would function pretty much as a synonym for that italicized sentence.

Here are my first five reasons why neither discipleship (as popularly understood) nor spiritual formation (as a more recent formulation of the task of discipleship) is not an improvement.

  1. The term ‘Spiritual Formation’ suggests that the main task of making disciples is “forming” them spiritually. The reality is people already have a spiritual formation that needs to be transformed by the renewing of their minds.
  2. The term ‘Spiritual Formation’ seems to have much less support in the biblical texts for the activities and habits of a disciple than even the word “discipleship’ has. In fact, if we really want to get at the activities and habits language of the Scripture, we might do better to substitute something like “Obedience Training from the Heart.” Any takers on that? Me neither.
  3. The term ‘Spiritual Formation’ seems to move the process of discipleship far down the path from where Jesus begins the process. More on this in a moment.
  4. ‘Spiritual formation’ has a slightly elitist ring to it. It sounds “upper crusty” rather than earthy. Jesus was not, and early disciples were not, and the majority of Christians down through the ages, have not been upper crusty soil. They have been simple.
  5. Discipleship, as popularly understood, already had a problem and ‘Spiritual Formation’ makes it worse. I have written about this in other places. But briefly, here’s the problem: Discipleship is first evangelistic before it is formative.  It is creative before it is formative. If we fail to understand how the process begins, we will truncate how the process moves forward.

I’ve opened up a hornet’s nest here, but it must be done. If we do “spiritual formation” divorced from equipping for, exhorting to, and holding one another accountable to be witnessing, testimony giving, heralds of the gospel, we will bastardize the process and develop warped, selfish, spiritual snobs. We will not develop the disciples that Jesus had in mind when he told disciples to go into all the world and make disciples who enter into a life long process of learning to obey everything that he commanded. We will instead develop sterile and silent admirers of Jesus with little impact for the advancement of the Kingdom of priests for whom our Lord died and rose to redeem.


13 thoughts on “Why Spiritual Formation is a Bad Substitute for Discipleship

  1. Another term to throw in the pot is “practicing the Kingship of Jesus” and appropriate variants. It not only emphasizes the process, i.e., practicing as an athlete to walk more fully in the image of Christ or as a doctor to spread healing and the Word but it gives us the sense of obedience to Kingdom living. It carries us through from the newest believer to the grizzled old prophet joining Simeon and ready to depart in peace.

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    1. I like this term, but while it might help us flesh out what discipleship is or what making disciples looks like, it still seems to miss at the level of including the heralding aspect or the verbal aspect of belonging to Christ.

      This is a missing ingredient in our popular understanding of what discipleship includes. There is something about how the church in America does “spiritual formation” from day one of conversion that seems to inhibit or let “believers” off the hook from any regular verbal expression of the supremacy of Christ in their lives, any proclamation of the gospel verities, any testimony of Jesus’s place in their lives.

      I remember hearing Richard Wurmbrand in response to a question about how Christians behind the Iron Curtain were persecuted for witnessing for Christ. Question: “Dr. Wurmbrand, with such persecution and high cost for witnessing, do many Christians witness in Romania?”

      In was around 1974-75, I was in the balcony as a young Christian, and I still remember Wurmbrand’s response when he related the story. “Do Christian’s witness?” with a rising voice, “I never heard of a Christian who didn’t witness!” He obviously hadn’t been in the the USA very long. We have millions of them and it is a huge problem in our understanding of discipleship.

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      1. Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (ESV)

        “You WILL be my witnesses” There is no choice involved–it is the only positive way to identify a Christian, “You WILL be my witnesses” We are not told to go witnessing, we are told that when we receive power, we WILL be witnesses. If we are not witnesses, we have not received the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore are not Christians!

        Wurmbrand was absolutely correct and we do not have millions of Christians in the US who do not witness; we have millions who claim the name without the power. They do not (cannot) practice the Kingship of Jesus.

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      2. Thank you brother. I agree. There is a big gap between those who profess and those who are. The one push back i would give is that, our assumption has to be that when true believers are made aware of their failure to obey, they will repent and obey.

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  2. It seems that we as Christians often want to separate evangelism and discipleship, which the Bible doesn’t do when you look at it as a whole. The way I think about and teach this is by saying that you cannot have evangelism without discipleship – meaning God is after disciples, not just converts who come to Christ just to get into heaven. On the flipside, you cannot have discipleship without evangelism – meaning how can anyone be a true disciple of Jesus without telling people and teaching people to live out the good news of the Jesus’ death for us and resurrection, which has to happen if anyone is to become a disciple of Christ.

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  3. Discipleship is broken down at the end of Matthew’s gospel by Jesus into baptizing and teaching to obey whatever He commanded. The first involves initial cleaning of the heart/soul, the second involves developing holiness. Expanded, we find five lectures on discipleship that are recorded by Matthew:

    1) Sermon on the Mount: how disciples should behave.
    2) Commissioning Sermon: how disciples will be treated when they evangelize–and how they should respond.
    3) the Sermon of Parables of the Kingdom: how discipleship will develop world wide, which will take some time and lots of witnesses.
    4) the Sermon on Relationships: how disciples should correct problems between themselves.
    5) the Olivet Discourse: how discipleship will come to an end–disciples should be ready for the final exam.

    One lesson we learn is that disciples should (begin to) get their act together before they take it on the road…or that some maturing is necessary before evangelism should begin. More about discipleship was taught by Jesus along the way…between “formal” lessons–the transitional narratives between Matthew’s sermons. Matthew is a discipleship manual and should be used that way. Enjoy and be about spreading the gospel of the Kingdom!

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    1. William,

      I’m tracking with you for the most part in your breakdown of Matthew. It seems a little forced but it is worth studying. I will give it some hard thought. On the other hand, I’m not sure about the “maturing is necessary before taking it on the road” piece. Woman at the well–immediately. Roman centurian–immediately. Demoniac—immediately. Lepers—immediately.

      I think our delays in encouraging people to witness earlier in their experience with Christ does more harm than their inexperience and lack of maturity does.

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  4. Interesting, this thread goes back 3 1/2 years. What progress have we made? Still boils down to “equipping for, exhorting to, and holding one another accountable to be witnessing, testimony giving, heralds of the gospel,” I’m still working my little corner of the Kingdom, some days I see some progress, some days I don’t but the Lord told me to keep sowing seeds.

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