Evaluating “Spiritual Formation”: Is it a better term than “Making Disciples”

Monday Discussion

Why Spiritual Formation is a Bad Substitute for Discipleship

Lament, tearsHere’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.

  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.[1]
  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 and for 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 “good soil people” found in hard places.
  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.

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”?


[1] For a lengthy and scholarly discussion of the problems associated with worldviews and belief systems of various populations and the impact on the task of making disciples in a pluralistic, secularized, and globally close century see Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2008).  [Revised and adapted from an earlier post.]

2 thoughts on “Evaluating “Spiritual Formation”: Is it a better term than “Making Disciples”

  1. I understand where this author is coming from. However, I have a very close friend who is evangelistic to the bone who has a spiritual director to work through some of the areas of her life that need transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit. “Spiritual formation” comes in all shapes and sizes and it is short-sighted to make broad-stroked assumptions about what “it” is. I went to a conference where Leighton Ford (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) was the main speaker on spiritual formation. Is that evangelistic enough? Some of what I have observed and taken part in through spiritual direction/formation could be categorized as discipleship. My understanding/definition of discipleship comes mainly through my years with Campus Crusade. Maybe that it isn’t a good enough understanding of discipleship. Anyway, I hate to think that someone would read this article and never give ‘spiritual formation/direction’ a second look. Be discerning, help each other. I think that’s the underlying spirit of this article (at least I hope it is).


    1. Pam,

      Titles of articles are meant to provoke thought and draw people in to the blog. I actually like the term spiritual formation and much of the discussion related to spiritual direction. Nevertheless, sometimes the body of Christ leaves too much behind when they “graduate” to new terms. We tend to swing pendulums (sp?) from one extreme to another. My overall view is that Western Christians tend to atomize everything into parts when sometimes they can’t be divided. Jesus said “make disciples”. We atomize that into Evangelism and Discipleship or Spiritual Formation. I don’t think they are divisible. Making disciples is always best when the mission to proclaim the gospel to the nations travels side by side with the transformative power of being formed in Christ.

      Here’s some other links that round out my perspective.

      Love that you interacted here.


      Also, see the comment by Myron Crocket on this link: https://chosenrebel.me/2011/01/08/word-association-discipleship-or-spiritual-formation/

      The following is an interview I did with Peter Nelson, the author of the book, Spiritual Formation: Always Forming, Never Formed: https://chosenrebel.me/2011/11/06/spiritual-formation-when-am-i-going-to-be-holy/

      See also: https://chosenrebel.me/2011/03/10/how-we-destroy-spiritual-formation-at-its-initiation/


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