August 5, 2020

Open Thread: So Where Does A Baptist Go For Spiritual Formation?

UPDATE: My apologies for tolerating the troll.

So….imagine that a Baptist (or other evangelical)- like my dear wife used to be, for example- were to decide that he or she wanted to deepen their spiritual life; to grow spiritually and in spiritual disciplines; to seek out spiritual direction and pursue spiritual formation.

Where would they go within their own evangelical, Protestant tradition to find resources, guidance or direction?

OK. I can hear the Catholics and Orthodox giggling already. Cut it out.

Before I leave the open thread to you readers, let me say that this is a REAL PROBLEM.

No one knows how many Protestants and Evangelicals develop a hunger for holiness and spiritual growth, then discover that what awaits them in their own tradition is paltry, often shallow and frequently almost completely unaware of what that hunger needs to be satisfied.

Is it any wonder that it is at the point of seeking out spiritual growth and formation that so many evangelicals are first introduced to the riches of the Catholic tradition, and soon conclude that the greatest resources for the spiritual journey are on the other side of great denominational divide?

Why is it that entire segments of Protestantism have such a comparatively thin understanding of the spiritual disciplines, find contemplation to be suspiciously new age and have almost nothing to say to the spiritually hungry person other than “Get more involved at church?”

Why does evangelicalism produce so few spiritual directors? Why is a pastor like Eugene Peterson- attuned to the importance of the life of reading and prayer- such an anomaly in evangelicalism?

Where are the Protestant and Evangelical places- retreat centers and houses, for example- dedicated to prayer, withdrawal from the world and focus on God?

Why are evangelicals so surprised when they discover that so many of their leaders and celebrities are spiritual empty, stunted or phony?

Once you’ve read “My Utmost” during your quiet time, what then? Where is spiritual growth as a priority in churches and pastoral ministry? Is it inevitable, because of the Protestant spirit, that the person interested in spiritual growth must look to Catholicism for help?

Is this the fruit of the Reformation gospel’s emphasis on forensic justification and imputed righteousness? Is it Protestant to be “weak on sanctification?” Can the wholesale emphasis on evangelism have made us so spiritually shallow that the only thing we know to do is tell someone to “pray more and read the Bible?”

It’s a very important topic, and one I look forward to discussing with you.


  1. Googling “GregMcR” shows that this guy has a history of being obnoxious on Christian blogs over the years, over at JesusCreed and Jimmy Akin’s blog for instance.

    What is it about Christianity that empowers some folks to morph into big wet d-bags and ruin other peoples’ nice conversations with pointless, bloviating arguments?

    I’m totally convinced there’s an answer to that question.

  2. This link may be closed, and I don’t want to do the wrong thing, but if you want a very basic and lived answer to your question, I have been very helped by the ministry, writing and teaching of Ruth Haley Barton. She leads an organization called The Transforming Center. You can find out things about them here.

    I am not trying to promote “my thing” as perfect, but if someone came to me and asked the questions you asked and expressed a real interest in a spiritual director or a communal experience that would give them guidance in spiritual formation I would high recommend Ruth. I serve in a spiritual formation role in a very large church and we brought Ruth out for a three day retreat for our staff because we all felt a deep hunger for this kind of direction. We were all falling victim to Wretched urgency, and none of us (including me- despite my fancy title) had the wisdom to lead us out.

    There was not a lack of Bible knowledge. There was an absence of someone who had stepped off the treadmill long enough to grow still. I want to say more on this topic, but am right now in the middle of this journey. Someone earlier mentioned how afraid we often are of any human authority for fear that this will undermine scriptural authority. I struggle with this, but then I am reminded that Paul called people to imitate him.(1 Cor. 4) At some of the most important place of my spiritual growth I have needed to find someone who could say that to me.

    Thanks for this question.

  3. Post was great, and so were the comments. I know this is rehashing what’s already been said, but the lack of an emphasis on spiritual formation is tied to the other problems we see in evangelicalism today:

    If you are focused on the “wrenched urgency” (to quote imonk), then spiritual formation just gets in the way of winning souls.

    If you are focused on getting “your best life now,” then spiritual formation might interfere with your plans for wealth and prosperity.

    If you are convinced that the height of your spiritual life was when you walked the isle at age 6 and accepted Jesus through a single prayer, then you think spiritual formation will do nothing for you.

    If you are obsessed with keeping a bright line between faith and works, then you fear spiritual formation could lead to legalism, or worse, Catholicism.

    If you think a preacher’s role is to fill seats, or build a bigger building with more seats, then you think spiritual formation might scare people away.

    I could keep going, but its all been said before. The problem is that we let certain denominations “own” spiritual formation, instead of seeing it as something to be held by the church as a whole. Instead of seeing these things as “Catholic” or “Orthodox” why not see them as things that the church practiced for the 1400 years before Protestantism came around? Why not see spiritual formation as a part of the tradition we all share? These questions are rectorial of course, because if you read this blog (or write it) you’re most likely thinking the same thing.

  4. iMonk, et al.

    I’ve appreciated the conversation on this thread, though at this point it’s reached the length where it is impossible to respond to every point that has been raised.

    As someone raised in the Southern Baptist Church, my experience (and I am speaking for myself and no one else) was that the thoughtfulness, prayerfulness and holiness that I experienced from the older Baptist Pastors I knew (men who, if they have not yet fallen asleep in the Lord, are in at least their 70’s, and one particular in his 80’s) seemed to give way to men who had a much more combative character, were more doctrinaire and, because of changing circumstances on a variety of fronts, were less well educated–even in the corpus of scripture–than might have been expected.

    This experience, limited though it may have been, always led me to say no when I was asked (frequently from the time I was fairly young) if I was going to be a preacher when I grew up. The image of preachers I had in my head did not fit with where God was calling me, so, when I got older I convinced myself that my future must have been in academics. It was only after finding the Anglican tradition and the Book of Common Prayer, and having an Episcopal priest ask me the same question (whether I had ever considered ordination) that I could say yes–I could see myself as a priest in a way I was never able to see myself as a preacher in the mode I was exposed to.

    For me, there were several things that led me to the place where I am today. (Before writing this, I once again want to say that I don’t want to make gross generalizations, as I have friends who moved in the opposite direction, from liturgical churches to more evangelical/contemporary style worship.)

    The things that effected my move from the SBC were as follows:

    * that the Baptist Churches I worshiped in had a very low view of the work of the Holy Spirit and consequently

    * a low view of the Lord’s supper (not really even Zwinglian in practice). I remember one Easter service in particular when, by the time the pastor was done explaining everything that this was *not* I no longer saw the point of participating. He had effectively killed the mystery.

    * The sense that worship was sort of a stripped-down Sunday school with a few hymns thrown in. I always left feeling as though there should have been more. I was also irritated by the widespread practice of people attending Sunday School and skipping out on worship (which I think was a result of the aforementioned similarity).

    * Either a lack of knowledge and/or appreciation of Church history, or a twisted and paranoid view of it. (I didn’t know it then, but some of the congregations I was involved with were almost restorationist in their teachings… they would’ve been hard-pressed to disagree with the Church of Christ’s view of Church history, with the exception of the fact that one or two of the Baptist churches would say that John the Baptist was the first Baptist.)

    * A sort of doomsaying mentality and obsession with the culture wars that infected most aspects of Church life.

    Of course, all of these issues were not present in every congregation I was part of, and the congregation I visited several times that is now a mega-church shared only a few, but had many of it’s own as well.

    The reasons I became an Episcopalian are related to my reasons for leaving the SBC, but are not exactly the same. The following is a list in more or less chronological order, not necessarily order of importance. In the Episcopal Church/Anglican tradition:

    * I found a tradition that embraces the whole of Church history, while not always uncritically. Anglicanism (as was mentioned earlier, and despite some protests) is clearly a Reformed tradition, so it is possible to be an Evangelical Anglican. At the same time, it is possible to read the Church Fathers, and hear some of their prayers in the ordinary course of worship.

    * The language of the BCP reached out and grabbed me in a way that the other liturgies I’d experienced had not (Russian Orthodox and ELCA Lutheran at that point)

    * Open to the work of the Spirit in the Church today (i.e. not cessationist or dispensationalist)

    * The centrality of the Eucharist

    * In some ways it actually maintained some of the positive things from my early childhood in the Baptist church, in that the cadence of the NRSV was closer to the KJV than the NIV was. In addition, the continued use of hymns–and more of them on a given Sunday–was appreciated.

    * A broader acceptance of modern critical study

    * A world-wide fellowship that seemed to take more seriously the corporate unity of the Church (somewhat ironic given our conflicts these days, but I still appreciate the Anglican Communion itself, and it’s a big part of why I am where I am).

    * The embrace of the Catholic tradition, without embracing what I saw (and in many cases still see) as the errors of Roman Catholicism.

    So that’s a quick sketch of how I ended up where I am. Over the past several years, I’ve also developed a deep appreciation for the Lutheran tradition, as well as some particular movements within the more Calvinist elements of protestantism (such as the Mercersburg theology etc..).

    In my daily prayer life, where the rubber meats the road, I have been most effected by the Daily Office and the resources the BCP provides. In addition, there are more resources available from the pre-reformation era. Someone has already mentioned William Law and John Donne, and there are others that could be mentioned, such as George Herbert.

    I give all that detail to provide context for my remarks. I am not sure that a convinced evangelical must “leave” their tradition to find these resources. I don’t believe these resources are necessarily “owned” by any body of the Church–some are just making better use of the vast resources of the Christian past than others are. To the extent that those resources are not rejected by a denomination (and some certainly do reject them) they are available to all.

    I also wonder about whether you might be tracing the negatives you cite (a shallow spirituality etc…) to the wrong source. I’m not convinced that this is the fault of evangelicalism, protestantism, forensic justification etc… so much as it is a problem of America in our time and place. To the extent that evangelical churches are perhaps more prone to it, perhaps they’re just displaying one aspect of their cultural captivity. It’s not as if there aren’t (well publicized) places where the Episcopal Church (among others) exhibits its own captivity to culture.

    Thanks for a very interesting conversation. I look forward to following it more…

  5. Memphis Aggie says


    I think it’s worth pointing out that spiritual development in the Catholic Church is not always straightforward despite the wealth of traditional materials and much of it is left to the seeker. Much depends on how many priests there are available on what are their particular talent. So I’m not giggling spiritual development can be hard work in any Church.

    Some of the written materials from the Saints might cross over to the Protestant world, depending on who you’re reading and your tolerance of the Catholic perspective. I’d recommend De Sales “Introduction to the Devout Life” or “Finding Gods Will for You” as good for everybody.

    I’d add that another traditional route is “Spiritual Direction” by regular one on one sessions with a mentor. For Catholics this usually means a Priest but for Protestants I imagine the Pastor could do this if not too busy. Alternatively, and in keeping with the Jesus Shaped concept, I’d seek mentoring from the most active Christian witness you know. Make friends with the guy who runs the soup kitchen for example and ask him. There’s my two cents.

    He did say “seek and you shall find”

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    What is it about Christianity that empowers some folks to morph into big wet d-bags and ruin other peoples’ nice conversations with pointless, bloviating arguments? — Patrick Lynch

    It’s called “Net Drunk”. Ever heard of “Instant Jerk: Just Add Alcohol”? Well, this is “Instant Troll: Just Log On”.

    Amazing how agressive and obnoxious you can get when you’re anonymous on the Net, safely out of fist range. (ROFLMAO ROFLMAO ROFLMAO ROFLMAO ROFLMAO…)

  7. I can honestly say that some of the nicest and some of the meanest people I’ve ever met have been street preachers.

    My favorite ever remains the hardcore Calvinist couple in Indianapolis who preached on weekend nights around all the bars. They proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that even the most austere-seeming theologies, ensouled with prayerful love and the incurable innocence that comes with really trying to follow Christ, can be shockingly hopeful and give light.

    The meanest was an anti-homosexual preacher at NC State who would stand out in the Brickyard and quote Scripture and old sermons at everyone. He had a church consisting of only the members of his family, and would drive many miles to campus in the middle of the day to draw a crowd and heckle students changing classes, ranting about some gay apocalypse he imagined was about to jump off. I think he considered himself a Truth-teller in the style of an Old Testament prophet. He was a pretty young guy, as I recall.

    How does a person ensure that they look more like the former than the latter? I keep hoping that eventually I’ll learn enough about life and the Gospel that some of my flaws will start to fall away, but it never seems to happen.

  8. Nicholas Anton says

    If “becoming like Christ” is what “spiritual formation” is all about, then I am all for it. However, if the concept contains an aura of emotional qualities defined as “spirituality”, including physical rites and processes to attaining these qualities, than I must reject further endorsement. Jesus was not recognized for the “aura” of His presence, but for the words He spoke and the authority with which He spoke.

    We Evangelicals still claim that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and yet, frequently preach and practice quite the opposite. Most of contemporary “praise and worship” conforms to the contemporary charismatic view of “spirituality”. The quest for “salvation” has replaced the quest for “Jesus Christ”; The process of faith (method) has replaced the essence, faith in Jesus Christ. And thus, to acquire and make salvation sure, we invent and promote spiritual processes, rites, liturgies and cantations both for justification, and sanctification. Instead of being content with faith/trust in Jesus Christ alone, we encourage people to go forward at gospel meetings, to recite the four spiritual laws or to pray the sinners prayer to receive salvation. Instead of having faith in/trusting in Jesus Christ alone, we encourage people to trust in prescribed processes to salvation. Instead of “do you believe”, we ask “how”, “when”, “where” have you received”, or been saved. After all a well documented path to, and it’s data, take precedence to one’s current faith. And thus we have “atheist christians”, “agnostic” christians, “hindu” christians, “islamic” christians as well as “duuuh” christians who have no more concept as to who Jesus Christ is than your neighbor’s poodle, other than that they have repeated the sinners prayer or something. If all the paper work in the Evangelical’s roster of required ceremonial “rites” to salvation is O.K., all the t’s have been crossed and the i’s properly dotted, and one has signed on the dotted line, one need not worry about one’s eternal destiny, if there is one, even though one may be a practical unbeliever or worse. Instead of encouraging people to walk by faith, we invent and promote deeper life or revival meetings to get them fired up in the latest fads in evangelical entertainment called praise and worship, so they may have an aura or “after glow” experience of spirituality. We give more credence to the “aura” than to the faith; We have more faith in the processes than in the Savior. Remember, it is not the process that save, but the Savior. It is not any prescribed act that gives merit, but faith in Jesus Christ. It is not faith alone, but faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone that saves.
    In my experience, next to the rank liberal churches including the Unitarians, the Catholic church is the most agnostic church that I know. Most of it’s adherents are rank agnostics. They “know nothing”, “see nothing”, and “do nothing”, with the exception of some of the rites of the church, once or twice a year. Like the current priest of my Father’s home church in Europe stated within the last decade; he was a “geistlicher/spiritual one” on Sunday only, but a regular man (which included all the gross sins of un-Godly European society “eyes full of adultery” etc.). The majority of Catholics I know are content to believe that membership and the minimal ritual requirements of the church will get them to heaven. Within the sphere of the Catholic church and people that I know (and I know many), this is the rule. Would you like to know why the Catholic church is what it is today? Quite likely because many centuries ago it started it’s journey on a similar path to that which the Evangelicals are currently exploring. Not all roads lead to Rome, but, the path on which the contemporary Evangelical church has embarked, very likely will. May we follow Christ instead.

  9. This has been an interesting conversation.

    I do think a basic question has been left unanswered (at least no definition has been given explicitly), and that giving an answer might help guide the inquiry:

    What does ‘spiritual formation’ mean?

    I take it that we all think it means becoming more like Christ.

    But it seems to me the reasons there are disagreements on the appropriate practices is that there are competing visions of the ‘good’ Christian life.

    Specifically, some people in this thread seem to value being alone and still and experiencing the presence of God, and in fact find it necessary, whereas others do not. Is it fair to say that this distinction points to a difference in the level of desire to put on the mind of Christ, or to be inwardly transformed?

    Perhaps spiritual disciplines, as with other activities in the church, and excepting the basic practices of reading scripture, praying, sacraments and shared regular worship, are things for some to excel in, according to their gifts, and not for others. Could that be why some people are satisfied with certain practices while others still feel a need for something further?

    Let me give an example. I used to be mentored by a charismatic brother with an insatiable desire for God. At the time I faced a lot of large decisions. When he faced large decisions, he would spend hours each day praying alone. I tried that, because I accepted that this was something a Christlike person would do. But over time I came to believe (and the truth of this disagreement is not my point here) that decisions about careers/locations/relationships fall best into the domain of wisdom. I still prayed of course, but not the way I had before. The change occurred because I had a different understanding of how God wants me to spend my time.

    I hope this is helpful.

  10. Andrew,

    I suspect that part (or all) of the differences that you are considering are more personality based, rather than desire to be Christ-like.

    I’m an introvert, so spending long hours alone is pleasurable, and I have to make myself do social things at times, but others are just the opposite.

    Look at two extremes within the Catholic Church, the Trappists and Carthusians-very alone, very prayer orientated compare to Catholic worker and other groups more social work minded. Both work, and serve God, but very different.

  11. Spritiual Foramtion… basically to my understanding is growing within the santification process of the Spirit so that we are change being change into the likness of Chirst. Not to mention we are being transform as Paul says from glory to glory.

    We must remember that there are millions of believers that have come beofore us and have dealt with this issue as well, we must be dillegent in seeking out those and glean from them the tools and disciplines the practice to bring them closer to God. I am reminded of the passage in Hebrews 12, that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, not just a few but a multietude of witnesses that have walk through the valleys and the walk on the mountians. I know in our day and age we will never throw away denomationlism, but we can learn from one another, as the writer of Hebrews says… to spur one another on in love and in good deeds… (local gathering is it common use, but lets see the body for what it is).

    I agree with Michael that evangelicals need to develop retreat centers for the purpose of connecting with God, such things as slient retreats. Our Cathloic brothers and sisters have these, and I look forward to one day expericening one. Reading works of Thomas Merton, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and the Reformers not so much on what the did but how did they keep connected.

    I believe we need to be intentional in what we do, and a 7-15-7 min quiet time is not going to connect us to the heart of God. It helps, but is a means, not an end. Whatever happen to believers pray with out ceasing, or as we go we pray. We all have people that we think of or situations that are on our minds, seek God on those things.

    Spiritial discplines are not boring, they are not mundane, or even trivail, they are life changing. We have to deal with the fact that our flesh wants to feed the flesh. So are we going to beat our bodies into submission as Paul states or are we going to settle for a life of mondane living?

    If we want a model for transoformation, lets look first at our Lord and Savior, then go walk down roads that are connected to Him.

  12. It struck me today that the Willow Creek “Self Feeding” model is a lot like Pharaoh demanding bricks without providing straw. They want to plug people into ministry without equipping them with any spiritual formation or means of grace. It’s not enough to train laity to fill church jobs; they need the atmosphere and provisions to grow. It is a problem any honest evangelical church leadership should admit to. It just doesn’t fit the plug-them-in-and-burn-them-out mentality (oh, and blame the laity for their own burn-out for not doing enough self-study).

    It would seem like a long, up hill battle from here to correct the prevailing direction of evangelicalism. Personal prayer devotionals and breviaries are only going to go so far. How do we rediscover that fellowship is more than an occasional potluck or softball game?

    I can’t over-emphasize how important this site is for me as a source of encouragement and sharing. It’s not exactly “koinonia”, but it’s close in its own way.

  13. “Self-feeding”… is needed, but is not a end in itself. Paul does say in the letter to Philipi, to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, which shows that our walk has individual aspects to it. God molds everyone according to their desgin and make-up in personality, talents, and gifts. One aspect of my spiritual formation that has made it a fuller and complete one is that it is done within a small community of believers. Within this process of a small group of 3 to 7 people (of course gender speific), a share struggle in being transformed is being made. Though each individual is working out their own salvation it is down in a community. This apsect of our transformation the western Chruch of today, mostly, has forgotten, and made it a self-help regilion.

    The model that Jesus model for us a one that is a large small group of people we pour into, and in that large small group He took a select few (3) and showed more too. I think we ought to mimic the same. I think one on ones are good, but fail in comparison in a group of people struggling together in becoming more like Christ.

    I personal note of how community helps, I have experienced many heartaches within the Church and been hurt many of times. I have wanted to leave my calling and live a life of self indulgence. If it was not for a group of guys that we made a vow not to quit, never give up despite the treachous road ahead of us, I would have gave up. I believe God unites our hearts in communion with one another to sharpen, encourage, challenge and bare with each other in our process of transformation.

  14. Anna, I’m sorry it took me so long to respond to you. My children started back at school this week, so I’m just getting back to this thread. Thank you for pointing me toward Prayers of the Women Mystics. If you check back, is this the book to which you were referring? The title brought up a lot of hits in my Amazon search.

    Michael, my apologies to you, as well. This comment thread exploded so I am especially appreciative of your personal response. My church (congregational — pastored by a conservative Baptist is dually affiliated with UCC and the CCCC because…well…I guess we enjoy being just that conflicted) has a chapel that’s open daily for prayer and meditation. And? It’s typically empty and dark, which makes me sad.

    I’m the Sunday School Superintendent and am on the Christian Ed. Committee. I’ve flirted with the idea of starting an adult class on…something — the emerging church; the church fathers; praying the hours; the Didache; the Lord’s Supper…something that doesn’t involve any McChurchy ‘life application’ stuff, but I’m not sure how to proceed, so I keep putting it off (and off and off and off).

    Recently, other than saying Grace with my family at supper and saying the children’s bedtime prayers with them, I’ve found myself struggling to pray, so I often only say the Lord’s Prayer. When that happens, I try to meditate on the meaning of it, and have tried to reach out/open myself up to the Father and the Spirit through the Son, while doing so.

    I’m looking for the exact opposite of a quickly lube program and I know you are too, which is why I’m drawn here so often. I was active in my church’s women’s Bible Study, but dropped out a couple of years ago, so that I didn’t take out my dissatisfaction with our study selections and materials on my Pastor’s wife, who leads the study and is, along with my mum, *the* Christian woman in my life whose faith convicts, inspires and challenges me on a daily basis.

    I’m so tired of McChurch I could scream. I keep up with your blog (and Boar’s Head) when I can, because I’m looking for the exact opposite of a spiritual Happy Meal. You offer so much on a daily basis, that I can’t keep up, and don’t get over to Jesus Shaped Spirituality enough.

    I thank God for you, and I thank you for sharing your search, and for sharing your pain and darkness. Thank you for being so honest with us about yourself, and about the church.

  15. Oops. Going by the preview of my last comment, it seems I had some links that I must have mis-coded. The CCCC is the Conservative Christian Congregational Conference. And Anna, the version of the book I was asking about is from Ronda De Sola Chervin. Sorry for my errors, Michael.

  16. Cindy,

    Yes, the author is Ronda De Sola Chervin. If you like her writings, she also has a good one about women. It’s “Feminine, Free and Faithful”, but I don’t know where you can find it. Amazon doesn’t have it.

  17. Hello all,

    Loving the reading here. I have much of the same issues. However, I just stumbled upon the internetmonk last night and have been reading in bursts at work today.

    Can anyone or the imonk himself clarify something for me and I ask only for info and not to stir the pot, but if the imonk is no longer Calvinist what if any classification does he give himself?


    And in regards to the thread, I have met up with a very contemplative and conservative Anglican fellowship and have been worshiping with them when the church where I pastor is not meeting, and last week I attended a Celtic Liturgy at a more liberal “big” episcopal church downtown, but was struck by the beauty and richness of the service.

    I wish Anglicans did not hold on to infant baptism. If they didn’t I would be there probably next week. 🙂

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