November 26, 2020

What Could Southern Baptists (and other evangelicals) do to promote Spiritual Formation?

I mean, besides read their Bibles.

Southern Baptists can’t really do anything about this kind of thing because, as any real Southern Baptist knows, the denomination isn’t a church and actually the “Southern Baptist Convention” only exists a few hours a year. When it gets together to elect officers, debate a few non-binding resolutions and approve the work of its various entities and agencies for the coming year, there’s little on the agenda beyond missions and evangelism. Say what you want about the SBC- and I have- its largest meeting of the year rarely gets very distracted.

(Now the meetings of the trustees of its various agencies….that’s a different story. Keep praying about that. They keep finding ways to box out Charismatics, fire female Hebrew professors and make the news with ideas never before occurring to the mind of man or angel.)

But I do have some suggests for Southern Baptists and Spiritual Formation. None of them will be as significant as what can happen in one church that decides to care about how people come to resemble actual disciples of Jesus. Still, these ideas can raise some visibility, create conversations and networks, agitate and stimulate more ideas and, most importantly, turn minds and hearts to the process of discipleship.

Here’s my list of ideas for How Southern Baptists (and other Evangelicals) Can Promote Spiritual Formation.

1. Lifeway can ask Don Whitney, Avery Willis, and Dallas Willard- all Southern Baptists with credibiity in this area- to develop resources for Lifeway to promote, along with an annual conference on the subject.

2. The seminaries can pay more attention to spiritual formation in the Baptist, evangelical and Protestant tradition. (I’m happy for the Puritans to get in on the game as long as the game is in progress somewhere.)

3. Churches can begin looking for pastors who take personal and corporate spiritual formation seriously, and ask that spiritual formation be reflected as a legitimate concern in preaching, Christian education, women’s and men’s ministry, student ministry and retreat topics.

4. Baptists interested in spiritual formation can form small groups within churches to train, mentor and encourage each other.

5. Baptists can resurrect the concept of discipleship training, but examine how spiritual formation relates to the entirety of life in a vocation of discipleship, and not just to involvement in Church programs and evangelism.

6. Preachers and teachers within churches can raise questions related to sanctification and Christian growth, and suggest sound principles of spiritual formation as the answer to those questions. (Most Baptists are interested in the subject of post-conversion assurance.)

7. Advocates of spiritual formation can look for places in existing church ministries and program where spiritual formation resources and teaching can be introduced. Examples would be accountability groups, leadership teams, worship teams, DiscipleNow weekends and Promise Keepers groups.

8. Youth and student ministers can introduce the concept of spiritual formation, both individually and in community, to youth ministry and student events. Many youth ministry resource sources are already exploring spiritual formation in this settings and have developed resources.

9. At every opportunity, bring together the idea of discipleship with the processes that form a person into a follower of Christ. Seek to bring the subject of “encouraging the basics of discipleship through spiritual disciplines and community into any discussion of discipleship.

10. Take a group to a church, retreat or event where spiritual formation is being discussed in another tradition, then discuss how the same concepts can be practiced in a Southern Baptist/evangelical context.


  1. Numbers 1,2, and 10 seem the most practical to me.

    I would like to talk about #6 — According to my wife (who was raised Baptist but not SBC)this touches on one of the core problems in our denom. — It’s the “Are you really, really, saved and do you know it without any doubt ever?” mentality. In her analysis, this mentality (along with the “come forward if you love your mother” rededication syndrome) actually blocks healthy spiritual formation. Instead, it leads to spiritual neurotics who are either repeatedly driving home the assurance stake or are rededicating until they burn out and become numb.

    In seems to me that until some prominent theologians or pastors begin to challenge this practice\mentality – which is virtual dogma in most SBC churches — spiritual formation will be stunted within our churches. Whitney has done a nice job with the theology of assurance, but others need to step up.

  2. How about this? It could never happen, but one may dream…

    Evangelical groups and denominations make a commitment to plant neighborhood churches, which are not allowed to grow larger than 200-250 members, except perhaps for a “regional” church that has as its ministry to be a center of resources for the smaller neighborhood congregations. Churches would be in neighborhoods and each neighborhood would be the main focus of that congregation’s life and ministry—a “parish” system if you like. If a neighborhood church grows larger than 200-250, the fellowship will look for a way to plant another church in another area.

    Spiritual formation would be encouraged by the congregation intentionally adopting a pattern of church life that is characterized by both gathering and scattering. Full attention would be given to both—each church will be fully taught not only the basic content of the faith, but also what it means to follow Christ within the faith community and “outside” in the world among our neighbors.

    The “curriculum” for discipleship and formation would be developed by local leaders to help their own congregations reflect on their experiences in fellowship and mission in the light of Scripture and church history.

    The goal would not be to “produce” disciples or put people through a “program” of discipleship. The goal would be to teach people to live and love together as a community that is a family with a mission.

  3. Is Dallas Willard a Southern Baptist? I thought that he was a Quaker and was a part of Richard Foster’s church years ago.

    This is a great post. I am doing a lot of study and prayer trying to develop a ministry/focus that adequately deals with spiritual formation in the local church setting. Do you know of any Southern Baptist churches that are doing this well? I don’t care about it coming from Lifeway or anything – I’m just looking for some ideas.

  4. As long as I’ve heard of Willard, he’s been a Southern Baptist. Maybe that changed.

  5. Steve:

    I’d have to disagree with you on Whotney’s theology of assurance. Seems to me that he’s bought deeply into the Calvinistic/Puritan idea that the Christian is supposed to find out if the are one of the elect. I respect Whitney a lot, but I think the Puritans are a disaster on assurance.

  6. Though I understand your point, #7-8 betray a fact most Southern Baptists don’t want to admit:

    We use Lifeway because it’s the SBC standard. It isn’t that great, and we know that, but it’s “the quarterly”, so we use it (okay, so we also use anything every produced by Beth Moore, but that’s another story). When we REALLY need spiritual formation, we got to ministries such as Promise Keepers, Young Life, Women of Faith, Passion, etc.

    My point is that we fail to produce spiritual formation resources, but we are also unwilling to learn from any other denomination outright. Thus, we join with ministries that are “safe”. Churches that seek guidance from “unsafe” sources are ostricized. Examples of this include any church associated with Acts 29, Founders, Southern Seminary, or anyone else for whom T4G was more important than the last Convention, the aforementioned Charismatic hunts, and emerging churches.

    Thus, in the spirit of #10, all of these could be assisted by adding “…from another tradition”.

  7. Concerning #6 above, in my experience “Most Baptists are interested in the subject of post-conversion assurance” is quite an understatement. I come from a (SBC) church that was quite fond of asking, “Do you know that you know that you know that you’re saved?” As a result, I’ve got friends who have been saved, then really saved, then really really saved, then finally actually saved, then seriously saved this time. Who knows where they currently stand.

    The question is a valid one, I think, meant to hammer home the point that just reciting some prayer and maybe shedding a tear or two isn’t a guarantee of a real conversion, or of real repentence, or of real trust in Christ. But when that question isn’t coupled with any kind of “Here’s how you can know,” it seems to lead to “I’m pretty sure, or at least I hope so.” As evangelicals we’ve been so anxious to make clear that no one can save himself–focusing so intently on salvation by faith alone–that we’ve lost sight of the fact that how we live our lives as Christians truly does matter, ending up not unlike the recipients of James’ epistle who were prone to think that belief in Christ alone was enough, not realizing that real faith was much more than mere belief.

  8. I’m sitting here on an off day from my secular job (college is being used as an evacuation center for Gustave refugees) and preparing to write a sermon manuscript on Philippians 2, the Kenosis passage. Since I’ve had the unspeakable luxury of study time this week – a bivocational pastor’s most desired and least granted wish – I’ve read almost everything on the Kenosis from Anselm of Canterbury to C.S. Lewis to N.T. Wright.

    However, while I had planned to dwell on the “why God became man” aspect of the passage, another thought keeps tugging at me: “why did St. Paul write this passage to the Philippians?”

    Perhaps this post provides an answer. St. Paul wanted the Philippians to grow together in humility and love, and he used Jesus’ example of humility to show them how. Perhaps the point isn’t how or why Jesus emptied Himself, but that He did so as an example for us. When we empty ourselves of ourselves, we’ll find space for the Spirit to fill us and work within us.

    I’m sensing a hunger for spiritual formation in my congregation, but it’s exhibiting itself in the usual SBC speak about the “basics” of our faith and “Bible study.” We don’t know the language of spiritual formation.

    We’re studying the Psalms on Wednesday night, and this week we studied Psalm 1. I spent a great deal of time on meditation. I’m trying to use the Psalms as a springboard into deeper spiritual formation resources. At this point, I’ll probably develop my own material from the treasury of monastic tradition rather than waiting for Lifeway to compose something more than an inch deep and focused only on assurance of salvation.

  9. Nicholas Anton says

    I hedge at the concept of and seeking after “spiritual formation” (which I suppose is spiritual experience and an aura of spiritual well being), in that, in the pursuit of it, many get side tracked on all kinds of fantastic and bizzare “rabbit trails” of spiritual folklore, rites, remedies and urban myths, while others are left totally emotionally drained, empty, frustrated and dry.

    I would rather recommend seeking Jesus Christ through His Word, follow Him in what I have learned, and simply permitting the side effects to fall where they may.

  10. I guess this means that a Beth Moore study doesn’t qualify as spiritual formation, although I must add that a woman in our congregation did have a significant spiritual experience/calling during one session, thus proving to me that God really does act in mysterious ways.

  11. Everything we do to form ourselves as disciples is spiritual formation. Maybe not GOOD formation, but formation.

  12. As a former Southern Baptist pastor (20+ years) turned Anglican, I believe a good place to start preparation for spiritual formation is by celebrating the Lord’s Supper every Sunday as a congregation. Word and sacrament every Lord’s day will go a long way in changing the focus, or perhaps I should say, causing the whole congregation to think differntly about worship. Preaching God’s word and then feeding on Christ (however you want to interpret that) will, over time, begin to form God’s people in ways that may surprise you.

    I think this would go a long way in preparing the people to be more receptive to other methods of spiritual formation. It’s a big first step, but a significant one.

  13. I don’t know what churches Dallas Willard has belonged to all his life, but for a number of years he has been attending my old Vineyard church in the LA area. I’ve been able to shake his hand and tell him how much I appreciate “Divine Conspiracy” when we have stopped back to visit.


  14. Michael:

    I think I see what mean about Whitney. I find him to be much milder and more accessible than the Puritans on the subject of assurance, however, and more biblically-centered than the typical SBC counsel.

    Whitney aside, my original intent was to stress that until some of the leaders in the SBC step up to say that our practice (and theology) of assurance (and “rededication”) must be challenged, or at least discussed openly, we will have difficulty ever seriously approaching spir formation. Why? Because assur/red. become the automatic,two-headed answer to any and all barriers to growth: If spir. growth (“formation is not usually used)is not happening, then a person is either not saved or needs to rededicate. I know I am painting with a broad brush, but I do see this as a very pervasive culture in our SBC churches.

  15. Willard and Whitney’s books have really ministered to me personally. Having grown up a Baptist (not SBC) and being a Baptist missionary since 1980 I only began to hear about the spiritual disciplines about 15 years ago. I wonder where I was all this time, or why those who ministered to me didn’t know how to convey the ideas. There was a big emphasis on having a “quiet time” daily when I was a teenager. Now in our Brazilian church we seem to be constantly trying to get people to understand the importance of spiritual formation, and yes we too struggle to find good materials…

  16. To anyone studying the Psalms, may I recommend a book that I am currently reading. It’s the “Book of Psalms” by Robert Alter.

    He is a scholar in Biblical Hebrew, and is a good writer as well. I like the fact that his commentary is under his translation of the Psalm. Makes for fascinating reading and meditating.

  17. I’m sensing a hunger for spiritual formation in my congregation, but it’s exhibiting itself in the usual SBC speak about the “basics” of our faith and “Bible study.” We don’t know the language of spiritual formation.

    John’s comment is along the same lines that I was thinking. It seems to me that there has to be some ground work done so that people can understand what spiritual formation actually is. And that goes for me as well. I think I can tell you what it’s not. It’s not going through “Experiencing God” again. Or having early morning “quiet time”(the earlier the better). Or going to the next PK event. But can I cogently state what spiritual formation is? I’m not sure that I could. (My pastor seems to think that his preaching should be our primary source of spiritual formation but I have to respectfully disagree)

    Once the “language” is taught and maybe a few paradigms(I know, overused word) shifted then maybe some actual practice can take place.

    Maybe I’m making this harder than it is. If so, then help me out.

  18. Christopher Lake says

    Great list, Michael. They are all very good ideas, and 3, 4, 6, and 8, are pure gold, especially considering the weakness of so many SBC churches in these areas.

    One thing that greatly irks me about many Southern Baptists is their unwillingness to learn from *anything* other than the most recent, often shallow SBC materials and from “Christian psychology” (James Dobson and such). Forget anything that is Baptist from the 19th or early 20th centuries. The Abstract of Principles? The London or New Hampshire Confessions? What are those? (I know that these are systematic theology documents– I’m just making a point about the ignorance and apathy of many Southern Baptists about their own theological history.)

    *Definitely* don’t bring up anything from Lutherans, Anglicans (other than C.S. Lewis), Presbyterians, Methodists, charismatics of *any* stripe, and even the Catholics that some Protestants like (such as Augustine)! Anyway, I’m ranting now, so I’ll stop. I love my brothers and sisters in the Southern Baptist family. I’m one of them! Some of them frustrate me, but I do love them. I’m sure that I frustrate them too, being “Reformed” and all. 🙂 (What would Charles Spurgeon or William Carey say about that, hehe?)

  19. I humbly suggest that Southern Baptists could also be informed by some of the Formatio titles published by InterVarsity Press. Formatio is an imprint focused on spiritual formation, and some of the titles so far include The Attentive Life by Leighton Ford, Journaling as a Spiritual Practice, and Signature Sins by Michael Mangis. Granted I’m partial to the line, but they’re really solid books! End plug.