Discipleship or Spiritual Formation? Time to Embrace One and Shelve the Other

Discipleship or Spiritual Formation? Time to Embrace One and Shelve the Other

You see the commercials; you read the ads. “New and improved!” are exciting words splashed onto all kinds of things. From tires on the car to cookies on the grocery store shelf, many products and services we buy are periodically updated in order to capture our interest (and sometimes our wallets!) with the hope that we will give them another try. Sometimes these changes are important, good, and welcomed. New tires that offer better safety features are a good thing. More cookies in the box (even when they look suspiciously smaller) makes us feel like we’re getting more for our cookie dollar.

If instances like this feel common to us, then it shouldn’t surprise us to find similar movement in the way we talk about aspects of our faith. Take, for instance, how our nomenclature changes over time. The “auditorium” has become the “worship center.” Or more recently, in some protestant circles, the “sermon” is referred to as “the teaching” (sounds odd for the task, doesn’t it?). Perhaps some of this may just be a passing thing, like all-too-familiar new worship songs we shelve due to overuse, or the now archaic “involvement” minister. On the other hand, often a change in word choice has a familiar ring because we’ve heard it before. Like the resurgence of classic hymns set to more contemporary music, there is a circular dynamic to the way we talk about these things, so that previously outdated preferences can become new again. I think this condition is particularly true of the way we talk about spiritual formation, or discipleship.

Without question the use of the term spiritual formation to describe faith development has its merits and has been the subject of numerous books and papers all describing, in one form or another, the intentional communal process of growing in our relationship with God and conforming our lives to the image of the crucified Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. [1] And yet, when I talk with Christian friends about formation, the conversation often turns to practices, with responses like “I wish I read my Bible more often” and “my prayer life could use a boost.” Somewhere along the way, over the last two or so decades, the term spiritual formation seems to have more to do with improving some aspect of our faith journey rather than the larger and more important appeal to the whole person. To me, this is why church leaders should welcome and embrace a new way of growing in our relationship with God. When we talk about discipleship, we afford ourselves an opportunity to do this very thing.

There are two reasons why using the term discipleship is better than spiritual formation.

The first reason is that discipleship invites us to think about what it means to follow Jesus in a more holistic way. Rather than articulating, or carving out, a spiritual life by increasing our prayer or study time, discipleship naturally removes the notion that our growth in faith is limited to the life of the mind. [2] The shift changes the natural connection between what we call the spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation. [3]

The second reason has to do with the way we measure growth in faith. Embracing the more holistic (and, frankly, more biblical) term can help us and our churches by providing a framework for Christians to discern the state of their own relationship with God, identify this state, and imagine what progress in that relationship might look like. Whether we use the classical stages of faith development, [4] or other sources in Christian literature, discipleship invites us to understand our growth in relationship with God in terms of our attitudes and postures toward God rather than limiting ourselves to a perception of greater use of the spiritual disciplines.

For example, Bernard of Clairvaux, in his book On Loving God, offers four degrees of love, each requiring a shift in the way disciples understands themselves in relation to God. Each degree, or stage, demands an increasingly self-less, God-centered love. [5] Or consider Ronald Rolheiser’s more contemporary perspective on the stages of Christian discipleship, in which the believer understands their faith journey in terms of the “struggle to get our lives together” toward the deeper “struggle to give our lives away.” [6] In both of these instances, discipleship embraces ways of understanding spiritual growth that transcend the practice of the spiritual disciplines and, instead, challenge our hearts, minds, and attitudes to conform more wholly to the one who has called us to a life of self-less, joyous love.

Spiritual formation is a good and helpful way of describing our faith development. Discipleship calls us deeper.

[1] My definition.

[2] Luke 9:23 reads, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” It bears noting that disciple and discipleship are preferable given the numerous uses of the term disciple throughout Scripture.

[3] Consider Bonhoeffer’s classical definition of discipleship (nachefolge), which means “after follower.” Discipleship is understood in terms of the way the Christian follows Christ. Also see Francis of Assisi and his definition of a disciple as one who “follows in the footsteps of Christ.”

[4] This is a reference to the classical stages first presented by Dionysius in the seventh century: purgation, illumination, and union.

[5] Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 192-197. Most notably degrees two (“when man loves God for his own sake”) and three (“when man loves God for God’s sake”) should sound familiar to us.

[6] Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (New York: Image, 2014).

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