Monday, July 19, 2010

How do Discipleship and Spiritual Formation Relate?

The field of spiritual formation and what we call discipleship overlap substantially. Both pursue spiritual growth in Christ, and both emphasize the dynamic process of that growth. They explore what it means to follow Christ and live as his disciple. In a sense, the terms are synonymous—both can refer to the whole of our Christian life. However, as they are commonly used today they have somewhat different connotations. There are recognizable differences in how each approach the arena of Christian growth.

1. Foundational
Discipleship focuses on laying a foundation in the Christian life. It introduces new believers to the basic truths of Scripture—the authority of the Word, assurance of salvation, content of the Gospel, and the call to a sanctified life. Discipleship aims at establishing the basic rhythms of the Christian walk, especially a daily devotional time that cultivates Bible reading and prayer. Likewise, it seeks to institute the rhythms of corporate faith, especially worship, small group fellowship and commitment to a local body of Christ. Discipleship begins the process of character development and holy living, in particular confronting more blatant sins of the flesh. It also challenges believers to direct their attention toward others through service, evangelism, outreach and ministry of various kinds.

Because these foundational elements are necessary to all new believers, discipleship lends itself to being packaged as a program. Whether through a class, small group, or one-on-one, discipleship often maintains a basic curriculum upon which to build one’s life of faith.

2. Focused on Activity
Second, the term discipleship focuses on activity. It calls believers to action both in terms of their own spiritual practices and their service to others. By doing so, discipleship views spiritual growth primarily as a result—sometimes even a predictable, measurable outcome—of the various activities it purports. Its orientation toward activity emphasizes the need for discipline and the training of our mind, body, will and emotions.

3. Narrow in Scope
Finally, discipleship tends to be fairly narrow in its scope. It usually centers about the basics of private prayer and Scripture reading and memorization. Even within Bible study and prayer, modern discipleship emphasizes the cognitive and rational dynamics of these disciplines.

Spiritual Formation
1. Whole of the Christian Life
Spiritual formation includes the basic elements of faith but goes on to incorporate the whole of the Christian life. Instead of focusing primarily on the foundation—as does discipleship—spiritual formation provides a map for growth the whole of one’s life.

Since Origen in the third century after Christ, spiritual growth has often been seen in terms of three overarching periods or eras of the believer. These have been given different names over the ages, but very much refer to the same basic stages of growth:

1. Purgation Beginner Discipleship
2. Illumination Progressing Service/Ministry
3. Union Mature Christ-Life

Just as 1 John 2:12-14 refers to three stages in life—children, youth, fathers/mothers—to describe various believers, this threefold schema recognizes that there is going to be growth in Christ. If there is growth, then newcomers are beginners, by definition. Classically this stage was called purgation because one main focus of this season in life is being set free and cleansed—purged—of worldly ways and worldly thinking. Our contemporary concept of discipleship corresponds almost exactly with this traditional first season of Christian growth.

Unfortunately, many Christians in our day never move beyond the basics of discipleship. In fact, far too many never see their foundation laid well at all. However, there are those who press on in the Lord and move into a second season of life. These are the progressing, ones who are experiencing a victorious Christian life. They have general triumph over besetting sins in their lives. They have learned to persevere with Jesus day in and day out. They maintain a vital walk with him and make time to cultivate that personal relationship. They know God’s Word and share it with others. In fact, it is because the Scripture is bright and clear for believers in this stage that it was originally referred to as illumination.

Finally, we have those who are mature in the Lord. They share an intimate relationship with God that has been tested through the ups and downs of life. A. B. Simpson referred to this as the Christ Life. No longer seeking the blessings or even the power of God, these believers are simply in love with him. Christ has become their all-in-all. Repeatedly the New Testament calls us to move on to maturity.

These are three general eras of spiritual formation. Although this paradigm might not be perfect, it gives a nice overview of progress in the Christian life. That overview offers not only a map for our personal growth, it provides a challenge for many today who simply want to pray a little prayer and then hold on ‘til heaven. Such a concept of stagnant faith is found nowhere in the New Testament. Rather, we are called continually to press on, running the race “to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Cor 9:25) and growing up until we all “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

2. Beyond Activity
Spiritual formation moves beyond the activism of standard discipleship. While it recognizes the need for our engagement in the process of growth, it realizes that the deepest transformation that takes place in our lives comes about through hardship, trials and suffering. James 1:2-4 states, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials; knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be [perfect/mature], lacking in nothing” (NASB). Like our passive role in receiving radiation treatment, we embrace circumstances that God allows in order that he can burn out the cancer of self-focus that encircles the vital organs of our lives. Much maturity comes only through testing, trials and suffering.

Likewise, as we mature much more of our prayer becomes silence and surrender to the Lord. While we still bring big and little requests to our Heavenly Father, we learn to listen to him more and simply to rest in his presence. We cultivate stillness.

3. Broader in its Approach

Finally, spiritual formation has a broader approach than discipleship. It incorporates a much wider set of spiritual rhythms. In addition to Bible reading and memorization, it embraces the practice of lectio divina. It highlights the role of spiritual retreats and pilgrimages, as well as fasting and silence and solitude.

Spiritual formation is also broader is scope in the way that it appreciates a wider view of Christians found in other denominations and believers from the past 2000 years of the church. Discipleship is a popular evangelical term, and it often assumes one must become an evangelical in order to be saved. Spiritual formation recognizes believers in Roman Catholic settings, Orthodox churches and genuine Christians over the centuries. It has a great appreciation for the spiritual writings from the past 20 centuries of church history. One classic that beautifully describes the process of spiritual maturity is Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. Teresa describes the stages—and the struggles—of spiritual growth with insights I have never seen by other authors on the Christian life, past or present. Appreciating classics such as Teresa’s, the field of spiritual formation offers wonderful new horizons of the faith to contemporary Christians.

© 2010 Glenn E. Myers

Selected Bibliography
Andrews, Alan, ed. The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2010. ISBN: 978-16000-6280-3.
Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals about Personal Growth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001. 0-3102-2153-6.
Howard, Evan B. The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008. ISBN: 978-15874-30381.
Mulholland, M. Robert. Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993. ISBN: 0-8308-1386-1.
Smith, Gordon T. Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Teresa of Avila. Interior Castle. Translated by E. Allison Peers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961. ISBN: 0-385-03643-4.

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