Conversatio Divina

The Spiritual Formation Movement: What’s Next?

Steve Porter

01.  The Spiritual Formation Movement: What’s Next? Office Hours with Dallas

From 1997 to 2003, I was a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Southern California under Dallas Willard’s gracious and grace-filled supervision. Whenever I went to Dallas’s office with a philosophical question, I also made a point to ask him a question about the spiritual life. One time I told Dallas about my practice of asking both types of questions and he said, “Now, Steve, you don’t need to do that.” Ah, but I did.

On one occasion I was eager to tell Dallas of a book I had picked up in a used bookstore written in 1904 by J. R. Illingworth titled Christian Character: Being Some Lectures on the Elements of Christian Ethics.For more on Illingworth, see James A. Patrick, “John Richardson Illingworth and Reason’s Romance: The Idealist Apology in Late-Victorian England,” Anglican and Episcopal History 78:3 (2009), 249–278. Many of Illingworth’s central points bore a close resemblance to some of the main themes in Dallas’s writings on Christian spiritual formation. This led me to wonder whether Illingworth was one of Dallas’s influences. Although Dallas was intrigued by my description of the book, he had never heard of the author. He then asked me to repeat the publication date. “1904,” I said. He smiled, nodded, and said something to the effect of, “Things of this sort were much more commonly understood and discussed around that time.” I did not know as well then Dallas’s view that moral and spiritual knowledge disappeared as a publicly available resource in the Western, English-speaking world in the early decades of the 20th century.For more on the disappearance of moral and spiritual knowledge, see Dallas’s Knowing Christ Today (especially chapters 3, 6, and 8) and Disappearance of Moral Knowledge (especially chapters 1 and 8).

This led to a discussion of several other writings I was becoming familiar with from around that same time period that treated “things of this sort”: Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (1875), J. C. Ryle’s Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (1877), and Abraham Kuyper’s The Work of the Holy Spirit (1900). When I mentioned these writings, Dallas hummed affirmatively and rattled off five or six additional authors and books from that same period. We also discussed how many of the themes of those books showed up again in the middle of the 20th century in Frank Laubach’s Letters by a Modern Mystic (1937), Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion (1941), A. W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God (1948), and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (1952).

As we discussed these writings, many of which were quite influential at the time they were written, it was becoming clearer to me that the burgeoning Protestant spiritual formation movement of the 1980s and 90s—associated with the likes of James Houston, Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Roberta Hestenes, Eugene Peterson, and others—was the most recent iteration of a historical ebb and flow of in-depth understanding of Christian spiritual life. Dallas assured me that what was in his books was very old indeed and only very recently forgotten.See Willard’s statement to this effect in the introduction to The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life with God. This got me wondering what would prevent the then-current resurgence of interest in spiritual formation from fading from the scene as it had done in the not-so-distant past. So, I asked Dallas, “Why is it that spiritual formation seems to remain on the fringe of the Protestant church? What are the barriers to spiritual formation taking hold in American Protestantism?”

02.  Keasler’s Three Waves of the Spiritual Formation Movement

Before I mention Willard’s two-word answer to that question, a short digression into what Keas Keasler has referred to as the “three waves” of the “spiritual formation movement” will prove helpful.Keas Keasler, Becoming the Hermeneutic of the Gospel: Dallas Willard’s Formational Theology and the Missional Church (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 2023), 10–14. In his carefully researched and clearly written doctoral dissertation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Keasler defines the spiritual formation movement as “the reception of and emphasis upon spiritual formation within evangelical churches during the last four decades.”Keasler, 10. Starting with the publication of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline in 1978, Keasler helpfully identifies three waves of the movement.

The first wave (1978–1988) was “largely due to the pioneering work of individual trailblazers” such as Willard, Foster, Peterson, Hestenes, etc.Keasler, 11. The second wave (1989–2007) was “one of theological and institutional maturity.”Keasler, 12. In particular, Keasler emphasizes the conferences and resources provided by Renovaré that helped the movement develop a cohesive identity beyond a loose collection of individuals. The third wave (2008–present) “has been a diffusion of the movement’s ideas and values, especially in the academy and local church.”Keasler, 13. Here Keasler mentions the launch of the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care in 2008, the emergence of numerous academic degree programs in spiritual formation, and an “increase in the number of churches adding pastors of spiritual formation and even spiritual directors to their staff.”Keasler, 14. For more on this, see Steve L. Porter “Is the Spiritual Formation Movement Dead?,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 8:1 (2015): 2–7.

03.  What’s Next?

Keasler’s insightful description of these three waves can help us prayerfully ponder what might be next when it comes to the spiritual formation movement. Assuming a fourth wave will somehow build upon the third wave, here are a few brief reflections.

First, how deeply and widely diffused are the movement’s ideas and values in the academy and local church? As Keasler points out, there does appear to be more openness to spiritual formation in local churches. And yet, much of the particular emphases of Willard, Foster, and others are embodied more in an increasing number of parachurch than local church ministries (e.g., Dallas Willard School of Kingdom Living, Renovaré Institute, Leadership Transformations, Transforming Center, Vantagepoint3, Practicing the Way, etc.). And although there exist many degree programs in spiritual formation and increased scholarship in related fields, the academic teaching and research often take place somewhat outside of traditional theological disciplines and academic departments. So, one possibility for a fourth wave is to consider how the movement’s ideas and values will more thoroughly permeate the academy and local church.

Second, there is the question as to how the relevant academic work will influence the applied work in the church/parachurch and vice versa. There is a well-known divide between the academy and the church, and so it is a real question whether scholarly work in spiritual formation will be successfully translated and applied to practical Christian life. Moreover, Christian reflection on the need and nature of spiritual growth has been at its best when Christian experience and praxis are taken seriously as a reliable source of spiritual knowledge. So, an additional possibility for the fourth wave is that practitioners of formation and theoreticians of formation mutually inform one another. Perhaps this interaction is part of how the ideas and values of the spiritual formation movement will more deeply and widely permeate the academy and the church.

A final reflection on the third wave is to consider what is currently driving the diffusion of ideas and values in the academy and local church. For the diffusion of ideas and values to be sustainable, they must be driven by knowledge of the need and nature of Christian spiritual formation. Without knowledge of the process of formation in Christ by the Spirit, we are left with appeals to personal experience, to powerful testimonials, to this or that spiritual tradition, to passionate feeling, and ultimately presumed understanding. More than a new generation of Willards, Fosters, and Petersons, we need to reclaim the body of knowledge from which they drew and that was widely understood in previous periods of church history. This will undoubtedly require institutional structures to maintain, refine, and effectively communicate that body of knowledge.

04.  What Stands in the Way?

These reflections bring us back to Willard’s answer to my question about the sustainability of the Protestant spiritual formation movement. Again, my question was, “Why is it that spiritual formation seems to remain on the fringe of the Protestant church? What are the barriers to spiritual formation taking root in American Protestantism?” Dallas’s two-word response to that question was: “Our ecclesiology.” His basic point as I remember it was this: if adequate knowledge of Christian spiritual formation is not able to penetrate the structures of the way we do church—our ecclesiology—then spiritual formation will remain on the “outside” of our institutions and eventually fade away.

Thankfully, Willard articulated this diagnosis of the barrier more fully in various places. For instance, in his forward to James Wilhoit’s book Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered, Willard writes:

“In the period we have recently come through, our church activities have simply had no serious intention of fostering the individual transformation of members of the group. Becoming the kind of person who routinely and easily does what Jesus told us to do has generally been considered out of reach and therefore not really necessary for what we, as Christians, are about.…If what we have more recently seen of Christianity in the Western world had been all there was to it in earlier centuries, there would be no such thing as Christianity today, or at best it would exist as a museum piece. How the church fell onto such thin times is, no doubt, a subject worthy of thorough examination. But the practical problem is this: How do we move back into the powerful form of life that won the worlds of the past and alone can meet the crying needs of our world today?…The answer to the question is that the local congregations, the places where Christians gather on a regular basis, must resume the practice of making the spiritual formation of their members into Christlikeness their primary goal, the aim that every one of its activities serves. Unless this course of action is adopted in the local or neighborhood congregations, the now widespread talk about “spiritual formation” and the renewed interest in practices of the spiritual life in Christ will soon pass, like other superficial fads that offer momentary diversion to a bored and ineffectual church primarily interested only in its own success or survival….It is hard today for pastors and leaders to form this intention and begin to put it into practice. Generally speaking, this is because they do not know how to make the group a context of honest spiritual formation, and they fear that, if they try to, they will fail by the current standards of “success.” But there is a way forward, and it is the details that matter.”Dallas Willard, “Forward” in James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered (Baker, 2022). Willard’s forward can also be found here.

According to Willard, if there is going to be a fourth wave of the spiritual formation movement, pastors and leaders will need to possess knowledge of formation in Christ and clearly present that knowledge within their local communities. Without this, we are doing something else in our churches and our ecclesiology stands in the way of spiritual formation in Christ taking root in American Protestantism.For a more complete development of what is needed to reclaim spiritual formation in Christ as knowledge, see Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today, chapter 8.

05.  A Fourth Wave of the Spiritual Formation Movement?

It would be a mistake to think there is only one thing needed in a fourth wave of the spiritual formation movement. Based on the considerations above, it appears that one of the things that is needed is for academic work in spiritual formation to inform and be informed by practical experience in spiritual formation within the church/parachurch. Practitioner-scholars and scholar-practitioners working together to develop institutionally-supported, publicly available knowledge of Christian spiritual formation. When knowledge is ‘publicly available,’ anyone interested in coming to know can find the means to do so. When knowledge is ‘institutionally-supported,’ spokespersons for the body of knowledge have the resources needed to maintain, refine, and pass on what is known.For more on public knowledge, see my “Christian Spiritual Formation as Public Knowledge.”

By analogy, knowledge of cancer is institutionally supported and publicly available in the developed world. Because of that, persons who have access to modern healthcare know what to do to find out if they have cancer and it is clear what happens if they do. On the basis of widespread oncological knowledge, the tumor is biopsied and experts in the field quickly determine the most accurate diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment options. There will be some debate at times on each of those things, but the debate will be well-defined and the most viable options clearly presented. This established body of public knowledge about cancer is not going to fade away and it will continue to be refined because it is institutionally supported by research universities, academic disciplines, research journals, medical schools, the FDA, the NIH, and related institutions.Interestingly, in what is called “precision oncology” there are “public knowledge bases” that gather “up-to-date, comprehensive, and accurate information about associations between genetic variants and therapeutic options” based on “expert curation of the scientific literature.” These public knowledge bases are then made available to oncologists to help make optimal treatment decisions. See Steffen Pallarz et al., “Comparative Analysis of Public Knowledge Bases for Precision Oncology,” JCO Precision Oncology vol. 3 (2019). doi:10.1200/PO.18.00371. What would it look like to have “precision sanctification”? When a society has an institutionally supported body of publicly available knowledge about some topic, knowledge of that topic can be handed on to each generation, refined, applied, and articulated afresh.

What would it take for knowledge of Christian spiritual formation to be publicly available and institutionally supported in a similar manner to that of oncology or numerous other vitally important topics about which there is widespread and in-depth understanding? As Dallas said, “there is a way forward, and it is the details that matter.” Persons need to know that becoming like Christ is a real and reliable opportunity. They need to know what to do when they find themselves struggling to make progress. Christian pastors and leaders need to know what they are doing when they implement spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is not a technique or a program or even a set of tried-and-true practices. It is a transformational way of life with Jesus. Understanding his way of life needs to be biblically grounded, theologically framed, and intelligently held forth as the center of Christian salvation and the primary purpose of Christian community. A fourth wave of the spiritual formation movement will need to press forward with the institutional organization to make this sort of knowledge publicly available.

I can imagine a scene about a hundred years from now when a young follower of Jesus stumbles across a dusty book written around the turn of the 21st century by some author named Dallas Willard or Richard Foster. Will that young Jesus-follower say to herself “Where have these ideas been all my life?” or will she say “This is a nice statement of what I’ve heard all my life”? The answer to how this imagined scenario will go is being decided right now.

06.  For more on this


Senior Research Fellow and Executive Director
Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture (Westmont College)