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Spiritual formation is not new but it has been rediscovered, and it is attracting Evangelicals.

After serving 32 years as a lay leader in an Evangelical Missionary church, Fred Clark began to feel a need to grow closer to God. Regular worship services were not enough. Although he appeared mature in the externals of faith, on the inside “I wanted and needed to grow,” he says.

At first he wasn’t sure what to do. “I had no real idea what that growth would look like or what was possible.”

So he went to his pastor who recommended the book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. This well-known book (more than one million copies sold since its debut in 1978 and named one of the top ten books of the century by Christianity Today) is by Richard Foster, a Quaker from Colorado.

The book includes chapters on meditation, prayer, fasting and study (“inward disciplines”); simplicity, solitude, submission and service (“outward disciplines”); and confession, worship, guidance and celebration (“corporate disciplines”).

Clark’s pastor also recommended Edmonton’s newly opened Centre for Evangelical Spiritual Formation (CESF, also known as Urban Sanctuary). Intrigued, Clark joined one of the centre’s spiritual formation groups in 2006.

At CESF Clark found a place to connect with other Christians concerned about maturing in faith. Clark had already accepted the lordship of Christ but at CESF he says he learned much better how to hear the voice and discern the leading of the One to whom he had pledged his life.

“I’m not who I was,” says Clark. “The process of spiritual formation is one of the most wonderful things that has happened to me since salvation itself.”

Some observers think Clark’s story has become a common one, part of a heart cry among Evangelicals today for a deeper experience of God.

An Evangelical rediscovery?

“Spiritual formation is certainly not new but it’s being newly discovered by some elements of Protestantism,” explains Victor Shepherd, professor of systematic and historical theology at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto.

Tyndale has offered a master’s level spiritual formation program for six years. Today it is the fastest growing program at the university college and seminary, and its second most popular.

David Sherbino chairs the program and also pastors a Presbyterian church. “We have a really significant program that seeks to embrace the whole person” rather than strictly the intellect, says Sherbino.

Shepherd echoes that point: “Doctrine is a matter of the head, and this is an attempt to balance the head with the heart.” Such balance, of course, never means engaging any teaching that detracts from the lordship of Jesus Christ or runs counter to the logic of Scripture, Shepherd is quick to add.

CESF founder Len Thompson agrees: “Bad theology should be rejected.” But not all theology outside our own denominational tradition is bad. As the Richard Foster book exemplifies, Evangelicals concerned about spiritual growth are “willing to consider any perspective supported by Scripture,” says Thompson.

In some cases that leads evangelical Protestants to reconsider elements of clerical and pastoral practice rejected as part of the 16th century Reformation that split Protestantism from Roman Catholicism.

But at its core the current movement toward spiritual formation is simply a way to go beyond a surface reading of the Word, beyond casual relationships with others – and beyond a passing knowledge of God. It is about intimacy and depth. Discipline is its method.

Changing spiritual practices?

As a result of more people turning to practices such as silence, self-examination, battling the flesh and walking in obedience, Sherbino predicts “a major shift in the practice of spirituality” among Evangelicals.

David Sherbino

For instance, while Evangelicals are strong on Bible study and personal devotions, a more transformative approach is an ancient Christian practice called lectio divina (Latin for “divine reading”). This involves an approach to Scripture that involves preparation, meditating on the passage and actively responding.

While Evangelicals often have mentors in the faith, the spiritual formation movement suggests a formal relationship with a spiritual director can be most productive.

While Evangelicals are well-read in culture-current material, the movement recommends a close study of the founders, mystics and early defenders of Christianity.

Ultimately, becoming intentional about spiritual growth leads to a surrendered life affirmed by a godly community. It demands authenticity. What it does not offer are shortcuts. It precludes, for instance, isolation and quick spiritual fixes.

The disciplined approach of spiritual formation appeals to those still hungry after a set of worship songs and a three-point sermon on Sunday morning – hungry for “something deeper” as Lawrence Jansen, another CESF participant, puts it.

“There are a lot of people who are [spiritually] hungry,” says CESF founder Len Thompson, a former pastor of congregational care and a former counsellor.

Today, Thompson provides spiritual direction for eight pastors in Edmonton, meeting one-on-one, asking good questions, pinpointing spiritually salient points for exploration, encouraging leaders “not [to] conform to the pattern of this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” (Romans 12:2).

It seems to be working. “We’ve seen transformation in people’s lives,” says Thompson.

A blessing not for everybody

One of the pastors meeting one-on-one with Thompson, Rick Heavenor with Millwoods Evangelical Missionary Church, thinks spiritual formation programs “could be of huge benefit to the Church as a whole.”

Professor Shepherd agrees: “The movement will be a blessing to the Church … [and] do much to soften denominational rigidities.”

However, the practice of meeting one-on-one for spiritual direction, which stems from the Jesuits, is “very new” to Evangelicals. “It’s not necessarily for everybody,” says Shepherd, noting the Puritans, Methodists and Lutherans have historically cultivated the “inner life” through various means but with an emphasis on the larger community.

To some Evangelicals, the term “spiritual direction” conjures up unpleasant images of putting oneself at the feet of a self-appointed spiritual expert – the kind of thing Protestants rejected in favour of everyone reading the Bible for themselves.

In all fairness, however, it should be noted that some practitioners prefer the term “spiritual companion” or “spiritual friend” and instead of “direction” offer simple accountability and a confidential, objective point of view on self-directed personal spiritual development.

Heather Hayashi is a spiritual director who works from a sunny second-storey office at CESF (in northeast Edmonton).

Besides touting the benefits of spiritual direction, she points out how great it is to have a retreat centre within city limits where you can find “solitude and silence within the busy pace of regular life.” She attends a Christian and Missionary Alliance church.

Visitors to CESF can experience that solitude and silence as part of attending a retreat on the four aspects of intimacy (with self, others, God and your calling in the world). Or visitors might find it in the CESF library stocked with classic Christian books or in one of the small rooms for prayer.

CESF also reaches out to the larger Christian community through lectures on giants of the faith as wide-ranging as Evelyn Underhill, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce and Augustine. And it has just started to publish a journal entitled Centered: Thoughts on Evangelical Spiritual Formation (details at or 780-477-5731).

Institutional development

Michelle Schurek, a spiritual director in training, says that at CESF, “Spiritually, I have a place to come and be known, to ask hard questions and to be taken seriously.”

Schurek, who attends an Anglican church, is also working on her master’s degree through Edmonton’s Taylor University College and Seminary, which plans to partner this year with CESF’s newly opened Urban Institute of Spiritual Formation.

Clockwise from top: Len Thompson, Fred Clark and Heather Hayashi. It’s great to have a retreat centre where you can find ”solitude and silence within the busy pace of regular life,” says Hayashi.

“We want to expose some of our students to the discipline and practice of spiritual formation,” says Allan L. Effa, professor of intercultural studies at Taylor.

According to the course outline for Taylor’s spiritual formation track, students at CESF will learn “concepts of repentance, surrender, soul rest and deep joy.”

Such ideals resonate in a culture overwhelmed by workplace stress. A spirituality rooted in Christian discipline may be a perfect antidote for what psychologist Shannon Wagner called “techno-stress and the 24/7 workday” – something that hits pastors particularly hard.

Besides Taylor, in recent years almost a dozen other Canadian evangelical seminaries have begun offering new courses in spiritual disciplines (with titles such as Christian spirituality or biblical spirituality) as well as electives on prayer and retreats.

The change is significant. A generation ago many pastors did not receive training at seminary in the area of nurturing the “inner life.” The common assumption seemed to be that right teaching leads to right thinking, which leads to right action – and that spiritual growth is a natural by-product of religious activity.

Proponents of spiritual formation argue this Enlightenment model places too much trust in human reason and leaves little room for mystery, and that God should not be reduced to one or the other. Many also see in spiritual formation an approach that is relevant to today’s culture, which in some ways values relationships and is suspicious of purely intellectual approaches to life.

Besides all those signing up for spirituality courses at evangelical seminaries, other Evangelicals are looking farther afield. Eric Jensen, a Jesuit brother with Guelph’s Loyola House, finds “more people from other [non-Catholic] Christian denominations” attending their retreats on silence, solitude and various forms of prayer.

“Traditional spirituality seems gradually to be attracting Evangelicals today,” says Jensen.

As if to prove his point, Women Alive, a national evangelical organization, recently sent out a survey with questions such as: Do you meet with a spiritual director? Do you go on monthly personal retreats? Would the topic of spiritual formation attract you to an event?

These are not questions that would have appeared a few years ago.

Thompson, the founder of CESF, brings it back to the simple fact that when you’re in relationship with someone you spend time together. If people can find quiet time and learn how to seek God during that time, they are transformed.

They begin to live countercultural lives that are both inwardly fulfilling and outwardly effective. It’s an idea that has taken hold – and has the potential of taking root.

Dayna E. Mazzuca is a freelance writer based in Edmonton, Alberta.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2008.




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