The First Thing John Ortberg Hates About Spiritual Formation

Leadership Journal recently published an article by John Ortberg called, "Seven Things I Hate About Spiritual Formation." It's fantastic. I count Ortberg among my heroes, and largely because of people like him, I too fit his self-description as someone who now spends a lot of time writing and thinking about spiritual formation. It is the field that I studied for a master's degree, and even if I only count the books that specifically claim to be about spiritual formation–if I were to put the ones I've hung on to over the years because they're the best next to each other on a shelf–I've got at least three feet of them. And my number one frustration with Spiritual Formation would be the same thing Ortberg lists first:

1. I hate how spiritual formation gets positioned as an optional pursuit for a small special interest group within the church. People think of it as an esoteric activity reserved for introverted Thomas-Merton-reading contemplatives. I hate that. Spiritual formation is for everyone. Just as there is an "outer you" that is being formed and shaped all the time, like it or not, by accident or on purpose, so there is an "inner you." You have a spirit. And it's constantly being shaped and tugged at: by what you hear and watch and say and read and think and experience. Everyone is being spiritually formed all the time. Whether they want to or not. Whether they're Christian or not. The question isn't if someone will sign up for spiritual formation; it's just who and what our spirits will be formed by.

In other words, spiritual formation isn't a series of retreats for those who are "into that sort of thing." It isn't one elective, among many, that a church can offer. (If your church has a spiritual formation pastor...what in the world are the other people on staff doing?) Ortberg's simple description nailed it: everyone has an "inner you," and it is being shaped into some kind of thing or another all of the time. By virtue of being humans, this is unavoidable, so we'll be wise if we pay attention to that process.

The questions of spiritual formation, then, are about what kinds of things help that process to go well and what kinds of things impede it. The issue is never if we "like" spiritual formation, because everyone–whether or not they ever read anything by John Ortberg, Dallas Willard, or any of the other authors in those three feet of books on my shelf–is inevitably getting a spiritual formation just from the experiences that come with being alive. The only issue that matters is whether that formation is a good one or a bad one. What kind of character do you and I have now because of our spiritual formation to this point? And considering the trajectory of our spiritual formation up until today, what can we realistically expect that our character be like when it's all said and done?

A few of the books in those three feet of the best of the best on my shelf are by Robert Mulholland, and he addresses the same issue:

Spiritual formation is not an option. Spiritual formation is not a discipline just for 'dedicated disciples.' It is not a pursuit only for the pious. Spiritual formation is not an activity for the deeply committed alone. It is not a spiritual frill for those with the time and inclination. Spiritual formation is the primal reality of human existence. Every event of life is an experience of spiritual formation. Every action taken, every response made, every dynamic of relationship, every thought held, every emotion allowed: These are the miniscule arenas where, bit by bit, infinitesimal piece by infinitesimal piece, we are shaped into some kind of being. We are being shaped either toward the wholeness of the image of Christ or toward a horribly destructive caricature of that image. This is why Paul urges Christians, 'Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him' (Col. 3:17, NRSV; italics added). The Christian spiritual journey is a life lived in, through, and for God.

Human life is, by its very nature, spiritual formation. The question is not whether to undertake spiritual formation. The question is what kind of spiritual formation are we already engaged in? Are we being increasingly conformed to the brokenness and disintegration of the world, or are we being increasingly conformed to the wholeness and integration of the image of Christ? (From Shaped by the Word)

In my own biased opinion, I think that all seems obvious enough. But if it's true, why does church after church after church tend to view spiritual formation exactly the way Ortberg described: "an optional pursuit for a small special interest group within the church"? Even for churches that pay attention to spiritual formation, why do they look at it as if it is one thing among many that they might choose to do, rather than acknowledging that everything they do forms people's spirits in some direction–and therefore paying more attention to the destination (kind of character) to which that direction predictably points?

Spiritual formation should be to churches what science is to research universities. It is what we do, and we do it in a wide variety of contexts. Churches should be the leading centers of the world for this field, where people would naturally turn when considering questions like, "How do I become a truly good person? How do I live a truly good life?"

It's easy to go on a rant like this and ask why other people get it wrong so often. But then the answer to the questions in the above two paragraphs is significantly more difficult to swallow than those ranting sentences were to type. The answer (similar to #7 in Ortberg's list) always hits way too close to home. If what we're saying about spiritual formation is true, and those around us aren't valuing spiritual formation highly enough, a primary factor has to be that it hasn't been lived and taught well enough by those of us who do.