What is Spiritual or Christian Formation?

Christian or spiritual formation is a comprehensive term, not restricted to one’s church life or ‘spiritual life,' but to life in all its dimensions.  It is a life-long process of being conformed to the image of Christ ‘who is before all things and in whom all things hold together’ (Col 1.17), and bringing this experience to our own personal identity, and to all of life's relationships and responsibilities, sufferings and joys.Perhaps the apostle Paul defines Christian or spiritual formation best when he writes, ‘I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you’ (Galatians 4.19.)  So spiritual formation is like giving birth - long, messy and mysterious!  Thus Christian growth or discipleship, is not seeking certain spiritual experiences or complying with defined religious expectations, but being personally and relationally formed through the Word of God, the Spirit of God and the friends of God, those "communion of saints", living and dead known as 'the Church' and reflected in local congregations. 

I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

BASILEIA'S Assumptions and Approach 

The basis of Christian or spiritual formation is a story, not a system; not a set of propositions but a portrait of the personal, creating, redeeming and life-giving God unfolded in the Old and New Testament Scriptures as Father, Son and Spirit.   

The Bible is not primarily a collection of timeless truths (although it is entirely true), about how to live a ‘spiritual life.' It is a long narrative, a unique Story revealed in history and in Christ which claims to hold within it the fulfillment and purpose of our own individual stories, and indeed that of the world’s. Our lives find our meaning and end here.  The Bible is a text meant certainly to be read, studied and applied, but is also a story which we are called to inhabit, a 'home' as it were, in which we are to find our identity, loyalties and security.  We are not only called to live up to the gospel but to live into it. The Holy Spirit inspires the form in which our Bibles come to us as much as the content, and this form is firstly a narrative, a story. The four gospel writers give us the Jesus story through four pairs of eyes so that through them, as through all the God-breathed Scriptures, they become "useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way." (2Ti 3.16.)

Christian formation takes place in a community of genuine friendships. 

Community is essential to Christian formation, and the portrait of the twelve disciples should forever keep us from idealizing Christian community.  Yet Jesus called these first followers friends:  “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15.15).  So it is within friendship with Christ and his followers that God the Father becomes known to us. Friends are neither competitors nor experts, but form the relationships of grace in which we learn, as well as fail, to follow Christ. Christian transformation takes place and is transmitted best through honest human relationships initiated and nurtured by God’s Word and Holy Spirit, eating, working, praying and sometimes arguing together.

Christian formation is nurtured by the historic ‘habits of the heart’—prayer and worship in its diverse expressions, both ancient and new.

We not only are nurtured by a community of ‘friends,’ we are shaped deeply by what our hearts desire. In other words, not only by what we know, but mostly by what we love. And Christian love requires a double-knowledge—a knowledge of ourselves and God. To know God truly is to know ourselves truly.  So we seek to intentionally nurture the interior life through the historic ‘habits of the heart,” and to combine the love of learning with a desire for God.  Some of the simple practices the Church has employed over the centures include learning to pray the Psalms, the prayer book of Israel and the Church, the Lord’s Prayer, “lectio divina” (a practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer), silence and solitude, keeping a journal, hospitality as expressed through common meals and the Lord's Supper, and other practices.  

For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination, that you may see My face and live.

C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress

Christian formation both expresses the artistic and imaginative life, and is sustained by it. 

 C.S. Lewis understood that while our reason is the means of understanding truth, our imaginations are the means by which we grasp truth’s meaning and reality. We need both reason and imagination to live life.  "The Christian is the really free person--he or she is free to have imagination" (Francis Schaeffer). Thus, the truth of the Bible is communicated and understood not just through the mind or reason (propositions, facts and arguments), but also through the eyes of the imaginative life, including art, dance, film, poetry and literature. It is notable that the prophets and the psalmists of the Bible were also poets, and the best poets use concrete images—the 'stuff' we know in our lives—to capture our hearts, our imaginations; notice too, that the Lord's Supper (the bread and the cup) is the central image of the gospel for the Church. So the imagination in this sense is anything but imaginary, but the door to reality itself. For Jesus Christ is the 'image of of the invisible God' and so we require a physical 'image' to see the invisible God in all that He has made and all that we are made for.