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28169
“Is Your Church Doing Spiritual Formation? (important Reasons Why They Should not)”
by Lighthouse Trails   
January 9th, 2016

Is your church involved in a Spiritual Formation program? If so, you might want to ask the question, what exactly is Spiritual Formation? It’s a fair question, and one that, if not asked, could end up surprising you when your church changes in ways you never imagined.

A Christianity Today article states: “Spiritual Formation is in.” The article defines Spiritual Formation in this way:

Formation, like the forming of a pot from clay, brings to mind shaping and molding, helping something potential become something actual. Spiritual formation speaks of a shaping process with reference to the spiritual dimension of a person’s life. Christian spiritual formation thus refers to the process by which believers become more fully conformed and united to Christ.1

Such a definition would hardly send up red flags. But what this definition excludes is how this “process” of conforming and uniting to Christ takes place and who is eligible to participate in such a process.

The “how” is done through spiritual disciplines, primarily through the discipline of the silence. The silence is an altered state that is reached through a mantra-like meditation, breath prayers, or some other meditative practice. The idea behind it is that if you go into this silent state, you will eliminate distractions (thoughts) and be able to hear God’s voice. He in turn will transform you to be like Christ. The “who” (who can practice these disciplines and become like Christ) is anyone (according to Spiritual Formation pioneer Richard Foster and other proponents of Spiritual Formation). A Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, even an atheist—anyone at all can benefit from the spiritual disciplines and become like Christ (the question is which Christ?).

Richard Foster, the “Father” of the Evangelical Spiritual Formation Movement

Now many evangelical seminaries offer programs in spiritual formation. Renovare, which Richard Foster and others founded in 1989 to cultivate spiritual formation (especially among evangelicals), today offers retreats and resources worldwide.2

In 1989, Richard Foster began an organization called Renovare, but eleven years earlier (1978) his book Celebration of Discipline first came out, and that has been a Spiritual Formation primer ever since. The following quote by Foster, written in a “pastoral letter” sheds light on the roots of Spiritual Formation (the Catholic Church) as well as how prolific it is today:

When I first began writing in the field in the late 70s and early 80s the term “Spiritual Formation” was hardly known, except for highly specialized references in relation to the Catholic orders. Today it is a rare person who has not heard the term. Seminary courses in Spiritual Formation proliferate like baby rabbits. Huge numbers are seeking to become certified as Spiritual Directors to answer the cry of multiplied thousands for spiritual direction.3

Countless evangelical leaders have gotten on Foster’s Spiritual Formation bandwagon. One example is Rick Warren who considers the Spiritual Formation movement to be a worthy wake-up call to the evangelical church:

From time to time God has raised up a parachurch movement to reemphasize a neglected purpose of the church. . . . [the] Spiritual Formation Movement. A reemphasis on developing believers to full maturity has been the focus . . . authors such as . . . Richard Foster and Dallas Willard have underscored the importance of building up Christians and establishing personal spiritual disciplines. . . . [this] movement has a valid message for the church . . . [it] has given the body a wake-up call.4

There are some who are deeply concerned about this movement. Author and missionary Roger Oakland expresses concern about this supposedly “valid message” and says Spiritual Formation came upon the church like an unsuspecting avalanche:

A move away from the truth of God’s Word to a mystical form of Christianity has infiltrated, to some degree, nearly all evangelical denominations. Few Bible teachers saw this avalanche coming. Now that it is underway, most do not realize it has even happened.5

Oakland explains how this paradigm shift has come about:

As the Word of God becomes less and less important, the rise in mystical experiences escalates, and these experiences are presented to convince the unsuspecting that Christianity is about feeling, touching, smelling, and seeing God. The postmodern mindset is the perfect environment for fostering Spiritual Formation. This term suggests there are various ways and means to get closer to God and to emulate him.6

So exactly what is Spiritual Formation, and what is its premise? In this booklet, we hope to answer these questions.

The Merton Effect
When Richard Foster told research analyst and author Ray Yungen that “Thomas Merton tried to awaken God’s people,”7 what he meant was that Thomas Merton saw one element missing within Christianity—the mystical element. Merton had learned from a Hindu swami named Dr. Bramachari that one could obtain mystical properties from Catholic mystics like the Desert Fathers and didn’t need to leave one’s own tradition to do it.8 But Merton realized that most Christians didn’t know about this. So, he set out to bring mysticism (i.e., contemplative prayer) to the Catholic and Christian world. However, Merton died a sudden early death in 1968 and was unable to accomplish his goal. But somewhere between 1968 and 1978, Richard Foster picked up the mantle of Thomas Merton and carried it forward.* Now today, untold numbers of churches (and millions of people) are going forth with Thomas Merton’s (and Richard Foster’s) message of Spiritual Formation. To understand the true nature of Spiritual Formation, consider the following quotes by Thomas Merton, Richard Foster’s mentor:

I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.9

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race . . . now I realize what we all are. . . . If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are . . . I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. . . . At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth. . . . This little point . . . is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody.10 (emphasis mine)

I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian [mystical] traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own Christian traditions.11

The most important need in the Christian world today is this inner truth nourished by this Spirit of contemplation . . . Without contemplation and interior prayer the Church cannot fulfill her mission to transform and save mankind.12

This “Spirit of contemplation” is what fuels the Spiritual Formation movement. Merton believed that God dwelled in all people and that we are, in fact, all a part of God. Richard Foster has done much to carry forward Merton’s message through the Spiritual Formation movement. The question you must ask yourself is, do you believe what Merton said? If not, then Spiritual Formation does not belong in your church or in your family’s spiritual structure.

In essence, Spiritual Formation is carrying on the Hindu message of: God is in all things (panentheism), and God is all things (pantheism). If such a message is true, then the Gospel message of Jesus Christ—that man is sinful, that he is heading for eternal destruction because of sin, and that he needs a Savior—would become null and void.

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