What is “Spiritual Formation”?

sfIt’s the gist of the question I was asked the other day over lunch, with a pastor friend: “how do you define spiritual formation?”

For some, the answer is as quick and easy as associating spiritual formation with “discipleship.”  And, yes, there is a connection — especially if one defines discipleship in its purest and fullest and most literal form: a student’s conforming to the example and essence of their master/teacher.

The problem, though, is the way that discipleship, in too many settings and circles, can be confused with – and too easily reduced to – any number of religious programs and activities: going to worship, studying the Bible or participating in small group, volunteering in a variety of ministry/service/outreach positions,…  Now, don’t get me wrong!  Each and all of these things have a part and place in spiritual formation.  But, to reduce the field to these activities is to overidentify with the means and to forget the end.

Against and in the face of the reductionisms of his day, Jesus affirmed the fuller scope of “spiritual formation” when he declared that “when a Master is finished with his/her students, those disciples would be just like the Master.” (Luke 6:40)  And, here, let us be clear: it’s an agenda – true to the essence of Jesus — that goes well beyond dressing up the surface of our lives… to the radical transformation of our deepest core.  It’s an agenda which is attested and affirmed and amplified elsewhere in the Scriptures:

  • God’s plan from the beginning was for us “to be conformed [metamorphisized] to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29)
  • Writing as a midwife or impatient father-to-be (pacing in a waiting room), Paul would declare his anguish “until Christ is fully formed in us” (Galatians 4:19)
  • Salvation is likened to our taking off an old set of worn-out clothes and putting on a new self – one “which is [continually] being renewed in the image of Jesus” Colossians 3:9,10

Given the breathtaking nature of our being radical transformed and renewed into the image of Christ… and given the ways that “discipleship” can so easily be reduced to surface activities, can you begin to understand my reluctance to immediately equate spiritual formation with discipleship?

No wonder I find myself citing (as I did the other day with my pastor friend) Robert Mulholland and the definition of spiritual formation which he sets forth in his Invitation to a Journey: “Spiritual Formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” (p. 15)  (Here, I highly recommend the balance of “Part 1” of his Invitation– in which Mulholland unpacks the meaning of 4 key components of that definition: “process,” “being conformed,” “the image of Christ,” and “for the sake of others.”)  My own definition (framed over the course of the last few years) is not too far from Mulholland’s: “Spiritual formation is our graceful pilgrimage to wholehearted life and living.”  But, that’s a post for another day.

I can’t help but recall an introductory message I delivered a few years ago in a series on “The Means of Grace,” entitled “It’s All About Transformation.”  In it, I found myself adapting some lines and thoughts from C.S. Lewis: “God,” I said, “is not interested in improving us as much as God is consumed with transforming us…  God doesn’t want better caterpillars.  God wants butterflies that soar!”

“God is not interested in improving us as much as God is consumed with transforming us…  God doesn’t want better caterpillars.  God wants butterflies that soar!”

To be sure, this journey, this transformation is not easy.  Epic as it is and always has been, it has more than its share of risk and resistance and trepidation.  Little wonder, then, that there have always been those, across the ages, who have sought to domesticate and control – reducing transformation to tips and techniques, confining discipleship as spiritual formation to safer, more manageable rules and rituals and rubrics.


More and more am I learning (or relearning)
the value of defining things…
and testing the definitions of others.
I’m seeing it as foundational to learning… and teaching.

You may not be ready to define
“spiritual formation” for yourself, right now.

Maybe, though, it’s time to start
with some surrounding, supporting terms.


How, then, would you define (for yourself) terms like

“spiritual,”
“salvation,”
“soul,” and/or
“transformation”?

Feel free to leave your comments/replies, below!


posted by Jim Reiter on August 3, 2018

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