What is Spiritual Formation?

Spiritual formation is not a developmental or linear process. It is a movement of the Holy Spirit and is, therefore, free and mysterious. In the famous chapter of John's gospel, in which Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night (which is why I like to call it the "Nic and night" chapter), Jesus relates the human experience of God–the entering into the kingdom of God–to the experience of birth. Now, this is a strange metaphor to describe the spiritual journey if we are to think of it primarily as an act of human agency. Being born is a peculiar kind of verb, because while it is certainly something we "do," it can hardly be thought of something that we can will or cause. It is more accurate to say that it happens to us. How much say did you have in your birth? No one asked me if I even wanted to be born. The human act of being born is an act that is completely subject to the agency of someone else, a mother. Birth is not something we can conjure or cause, it is something we can only receive and in which we can only participate. In this way, birth is a mystery. So when Jesus says, "no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again," he is teaching us that seeing the kingdom of God is mysterious. It isn't something we control. It is, in fact, a gift. Spiritual formation is something God does and it is something we can only receive. Jesus says, "You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

So what does it mean for churches or individuals to engage in spiritual formation? Well, this too is a mystery, but it is one to which we can make ourselves either open or closed. We cannot "cause" spiritual formation to happen, but we can cultivate space wherein we can anticipate (and wait on) the coming of God. We can receive and participate in the mystery of God's encounter with us. 

A person or a community can anticipate spiritual formation through a variety of onramps and entryways. It cannot be defined, but it can be characterized. One way to characterize the human experience of spiritual formation is through Encounter, Confession, and Affirmation. 

ENCOUNTER WITH GOD - All spiritual formation is catalyzed by God’s coming to us and our encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Formation is not something we do, it is something God does, to which we can become open or closed. Spiritual practices are a human response to God’s action and a way of being open to God’s work of spiritual formation. 

  • Prayer

  • Worship

  • Service

  • Friendship

  • Ecumenism

CONFESSION - Our response to God must be an honest response. Confession is about removing our masks and being honest about who we are and how we experience God. Through confession, we cultivate non-judgmental space for spiritual reflection. 

  • Prayer

  • Testimony and storytelling

  • Deconstruction 

  • Doubt

AFFIRMATION - We affirm our faith by seeking understanding. We are part of a larger story of God’s relationship with the world and we respond to God by learning the faith and the beliefs to which we aspire. The theology of the church and the doctrines of Christianity are not a litmus test for entry into the community of faith, but they are a way of naming the mystery of God. In studying Scripture and learning the creeds of our tradition, we deepen our understanding and open ourselves to encountering God. 

  • Bible Study

  • Creeds

  • Construction and reconstruction 

  • Theology 

  • Fellowship 

  • Celebration 

  • Interfaith dialogue

  • evangelism