Everyday Discipleship Every Day: The Difference Between Spiritual Formation and Discipleship

Recently I wrote a blog post about the difference between mentoring and discipleship. These are both good activities, but discipleship focuses on growing closer to Christ and knowing how to follow Him while mentoring may or may not be Christ focused. Both should be a part of life in the Church according to Titus 2.

Two other confusing terms are discipleship and spiritual formation. In the tradition where I grew up, spiritual formation was usually treated the same as discipleship, at least in the early days of these terms being used. It was about learning to read the Bible, becoming involved in church, and learning to pray. However, spiritual formation and discipleship are not the same thing and haven’t been the same thing for quite a few years in many Christian circles.

Spiritual formation has taken on a New Age understanding mixing in mysticism to discipleship. It involves contemplative prayer and lectio divina (“Divine Reading”). Even these terms can be confusing. I mean, who doesn’t want to spend some time in prayer contemplating and praying about God’s Word and worshiping God for Who He is.

On the surface, by definition, these things don’t seem so bad. They seem to be talking about taking us into a deeper relationship with Christ and focusing on making us more Christlike. However, by their own definitions and descriptions, those who teach spiritual formation talk about “the inner life” and “reflective reading” in which the focus is on our own hearts and minds. Contemplative prayer takes on a New Age notion of looking inside oneself and going deeper inside oneself to understand God more. Instead of learning what Scripture says and following it, we are encouraged to see what sticks out to us and what it is saying to our heart beyond what it actually says. Once we figure that out, we are to meditate on that and see if the Lord will give us a deeper gift of contemplation with Him.

These practices are used with children encouraging them to make up Christ the way they want to. It bleeds over into panentheism in some cases. And the serious danger is churches raising up a generation of believers who think they are dedicated to Christ and following Him, but they’ve actually created a god in their own image and imagination that may have nothing or very little to do with the biblical, One True God.

If we only look at the definitions of spiritual formation and discipleship, many would choose spiritual formation. Discipleship sounds boring and dry compared to these mystical experiences and deeper encounters with God, supposedly. I cannot express this strongly enough here. Spiritual formation, in practice, is not going deeper with God as much as it is going deeper into oneself. It is focusing on our hearts and minds and making us more like Christ by some sort of magic contemplative meditation. It’s New Age with a Christian label.

Discipleship may sound dry and boring compared to the descriptions of spiritual formation; however, in practice, discipleship should be the most exciting adventure one takes as a believer. Discipleship is true Christianity, where we go from a commitment to Christ to building a lifelong relationship with Him and understanding all He has for us to do. Ephesians 2:10 teaches us that God has many things planned for us to do in our lives for His kingdom. We don’t have to go into mystical experiences to muster up a self-focused feeling. We are communing with the Living God, the Most High God, the all-powerful God of Heaven. We are learning to walk with others as they follow Him, and the fellowship is so sweet and such a blessing. We don’t create God in our image or try to make Scripture say something new to us. We are learning the very heart of God as we understand the Scriptures and learn of His ways.

This is why we’re so passionate about calling the Church back to discipleship and not making it something it is not. It is not a humanistic self-help venture. It is not a New Age mystical experience. It is following Christ with our whole hearts, minds, and souls and learning to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *