Why Spiritual Formation is a Bad Substitute for Discipleship
Here’s my take on why the substitution of the term “spiritual formation” for “discipleship.” It is not an improvement and actually exacerbates a problem the Church in America already has 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’s my first five reasons why neither discipleship (as popularly understood) nor spiritual formation (as a more recent formulation of the task of making disciples) is not an improvement.
- 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.
- 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 and for the Heart.” Any takers on that? Me neither.
- 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.
- ‘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 “good soil people” found in hard places.
- 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.
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 that our Lord died to redeem. In short, we will continue to create the kind of “Christians” who fill our churches now.
Is the term “spiritual formation” and improvement over “making disciples”?