Monday with Michael Spencer: Evangelicals and Spiritual Formation

Sun Setting on Gethsemani (2017)

Note from CM: Michael Spencer asked the following questions ten years ago. Has anything changed? I no longer live as a participant in the evangelical world. At times I have heard rumblings of evangelicals talking about “spiritual practices” and so on, but it’s pretty obvious to me that if I want to go somewhere for a silent retreat or meet with a spiritual director or read material with true spiritual depth on the subject of contemplation or personal formation, I must find it in a historic tradition such as Roman Catholicism. I’d love to hear from people in evangelical churches about this one.

• • •

So….imagine that a Baptist (or other evangelical) — like my dear wife used to be, for example — were to decide that she wanted to deepen her 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.

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 for His Highest 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.

47 thoughts on “Monday with Michael Spencer: Evangelicals and Spiritual Formation

  1. I’ve never been to an RCC retreat center that would not have opened its doors to a person of another denomination and would have done this with respect for them and their beliefs.

    Those retreat centers offer quiet repose, a chance to visit with the monks, an opportunity to observe liturgical worship ONLY if one cared to do so, some good solid plain food, and if privacy is desired it will be respected

    an RCC retreat is a good place to go to help with the grief process

    an RCC retreat is a good place to go to think things through in a quiet setting where, if you want to talk it out, there are those who will sit and listen, really listen

    BTW there are plenty of Protestant retreat centers that are top notch for the very same needs . . . Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran . . . . . they are out there and they offer a chance to ‘come away and rest for a while’


  2. The abuses don’t change the fact that it’s true. The politics of the kingdom are found in the practices of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and new life; mercy; self-giving; loving neighbor and enemy as self.


  3. I have many beefs and sorrows with my home denomination, the United Methodist Church. Nearly all of them accrue to the church administrative hierarchy and its governance, from the top leaders through the local church.

    What I do NOT have issue with is the spiritual formation offerings the denomination has produced in the last 30 years or so. I’ll highlight two of them. First, the Disciple Bible Study series (small group reads scripture in 10 months together, with decent teachings and guidance). There are about five sets: whole scripture, gospels, prophets, letters to the churches, and psalms/wisdom book. Pretty healthy, transforming stuff. I myself have led seven different groups over the years.

    Sometimes finding enough folks willing to spend that amount of time and effort is tough, but the materials, fellowship, and growth in people is outstanding.

    Second, the UMC through its Upper Room ministry offers a two-year (quarterly retreats) Academy for Spiritual Formation, as well as shorter 5-day versions around the country. It’s a bit pricey, since you are in residence somewhere for a total of eight weeks, but it pretty much saved my spiritual life after a rough 25 years of lay and ordained ministry through several church failures. There’s a balance of good worship, teaching about the breadth of the whole Christian Church, and plenty of time for contemplation and personal healing. Usually they are held at RC retreat centers of one kind or another, which points to a real strength of the RCC

    I can’t say enough about both of these. They have been lifelines for me and many others. Sometimes, the UMC actually does get a few things right.


  4. “…And both were elected to “clean things up” at a very messy low point in time.”

    HUG – you’re going to get in trouble with that statement on this site….


  5. God BLESS Jimmy Carter!!!

    finally, a real evangelical stands up and tells it like it is, FINALLY !


  6. Jimmy Carter’s been described as “not that hot a President, but the best Ex-President in history”.

    And I see ONE point of commonality as President between him and Donald Trump:

    Both were (and are) in over their heads at the national level. Carter was a decent Governor of Georgia (state level) but you could tell he was in over his head at Federal level. Trump is forcing Trump Tower Corporate Culture onto the Federal Government with no real clue as to its existing traditions and systems. Both have micromanaging management styles (Trump much more so than Carter). And both were elected to “clean things up” at a very messy low point in time.


  7. Unfortunately, two generations of Culture War corruption have redefined “kingdom of God is political to its very core” into “Trump Is LOOOOOORD!”

    i.e. Anything for that Delicious Taste of POWER.
    (To Remake the Land into a Christian Nation — by Any Means Necessary, of course.)


  8. I try to go on retreat once a year. It’s not about dynamic preaching or songs… for me it is the contemplation, strengthening my bond with God through less distraction. Every so often I go on a silent retreat where the only time I utter a word is during the Liturgy of the hours with others in Church. For those who know me, they would believe it would be a challenge for me, (I am not an introvert), but I find it refreshing. I usually bring along scripture, and something from one of the Christian Mystics (Cloud of Unknowing, John Cassion, etc) to help guide my thoughts.

    It helps if there is good food but not a necessity.


  9. Disenchantment and disengagement with institutions is a totally rational reaction to our situation, and our institutions. But chastened, sober and careful re-engagement with institutionalism, in one form or another, is our only hope for survival as churches, and society.


  10. What does St. Vincent de Paul have to say to you if you are one of the poor? What word does he have to say to the poor to help them with their spiritual formation, which after all must be at least as important as the daily bread they may receive at the hand of their wealthier servants?


  11. True.

    But monastics are a dying breed here in the U.S. (I don’t know about how things go worldwide), monastic houses are a quickly vanishing resource (once again, I don’t know how that goes worldwide), and for most laity the possibility of having a spiritual director are slim, since there are few directors to go around. The vast majority of Catholics actually receive no formation from direct contact with the living monastic resources in their church tradition, because of lack of interest, and also because there just isn’t much of that resource to avail oneself of. The wells are running dry.


  12. If you want a good retreat try St Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. You don’t have to be Catholic and though it has a Catholic tenor, it is a Catholic monastery after all, it is not preachy. They are not interested in converts at all! You make a donation of your choosing the last I heard. Truly refreshing.


  13. I can see where you’ve drawn that conclusion and read so much more into it – I left out an important part – it’s my age you know – please forgive my forgetfulness. I thought the post was already long enough. Where I live, we have a campus of believers, receiving various levels of care, who meet together regularly according to a monthly recreation and pastoral care calendar – interdenominational – no membership. I’m on the ministry team coordinating all kinds of Christian community clergy/lay people involvement. I’ll never be a Lone Ranger Christian – I love my brothers and sisters too much! On a volunteer basis I visit, play the piano to events, preach if needed, and even feed those who can no longer do it themselves – and all that right where I live. Blessings on you all!


  14. Wow, that quote from St. Vincent de Paul reminds me of this one from Dorothy Day:

    “Do not give to the poor expecting to get their gratitude”


  15. But the RCC never had a Reformation that threw out all of that, declared a Priesthood of Believers, insisted upon sola fide, sola scriptura, rejected anything papist.

    Now some of the evangelical honchos are beginning to imitate the Roman Catholic Church and aren’t even aware of it. And we still have no mysticism, no monasticism, nothing contemplative. But we do have the scandals.


  16. “Every year I go to it “needing it,” and every year come home a bit “recharged.””

    then may you be able to go for many years to come 🙂


  17. I don’t understand how evangelicals picture ‘spiritual formation’, but I do know that when their neighbors are in trouble, they do reach out to help.

    Maybe the Psalms are a resource? Or the beautiful gospel of the Beatitudes in the Bible?

    somehow, something is helping them . . . . they are not left abandoned spiritually, no

    But when over 80% of evangelical Americans can stand up and openly support the inhumane disaster that is Trump, I had little hope left UNTIL today, the good Jimmy Carter stood up and spoke against Trump.

    He has cred with me because of his work on helping the poor with housing . . . he has inspired many to volunteer their talents and time, and money and labor personally to help this cause. So when such a man stands up and speaks, he has gravitas in the Christian world for many of us who are Catholic or Orthodox or evangelical (or even Jewish people and Muslim people find in him hope).
    He is a person who images the renewal promised in the Resurrection because he has not turned his back in contempt on the poor, nor has he become deaf to the cries of the border babies, no.

    We need more Christians to stand up. For what is right. Whatever ‘spirituality’ there is, let it be awakened by the sobs of a little boy crying in a cage for his ‘Pa pa, papa!’ . . . . there are no words for the pain that awakened in me


  18. Just got back from my family’s annual trip to the Cannon Beach Christian Conference Center. I can attest to it being one way Protestants – maybe more specifically Evangelicals – can achieve peaceful contemplation and spiritual formation. Here is the typical day:

    -Breakfast with friendly believers
    -Optional prayer time
    -Worship singing
    -Spiritual message
    -The afternoon to yourself, aka walk the beach or the small town, fly a kite…whatever you need for yourself or your family.
    -Dinner with friendly believers
    -Worship singing
    -Spiritual message
    -Evening to yourself aka fellowship and board games

    In our nine years, we’ve only heard a couple of speakers who were “weak.” Almost all of them share great messages on God’s love and forgiveness, mixing in some great (pertinent) stories, often humorous and self-deprecating. Likewise, the worship music tends to be spot-on, filled with great melodies and lyrics attesting to who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. Every year I go to it “needing it,” and every year come home a bit “recharged.”


  19. Well the evangelical tradition favors “saving lost souls” when they’re not busy electing Republicans. Outreach. The notion of an internal solitary spiritual life always seemed a bit alien and self-indulgent when it was considered at all in the church I was raised in. In my college days I was in the absurd position of knowing more about Buddhist and Hindu contemplative traditions than I did about the western Christian spiritual tradition (never mind. the rich Orthodox tradition), and this from secular sources!

    I was very fortunate at my all too brief time at Southern Seminary (in the early 80s before the fundamentalist purge) to be guided through the western contemplative tradition by a truly spiritual teacher named Glenn Hinson. Prof Hinson taught church history and on Thurs evenings he would invite interested students over to his house for readings and discussions (with coffee and cake) about Western spirituality. Prof Hinson, a friend of Thomas Merton, taught me most through his own example, but it was wonderful to be guided through these texts by an authentic practitioner of the spiritual arts. (And it enrages me still to think that a few years later he would be driven from his job by a bunch of gangling hicks who had the gall to lecture him about “real” Christianity!)


  20. senecagriggs, , good one, even John Barry gets it, I myself have to go and restock up at the local food for thought pantry.


  21. “Where are the Protestant and Evangelical places — retreat centers and houses, for example — dedicated to prayer, withdrawal from the world and focus on God?”

    Taking “Protestant and Evangelical” to be inclusive, Episcopalians have a decent share of such institutions:

    Lutherans less so, but they exist:

    If you expand from religious communities to the vaguer “retreat center” then the country is simply lousy with them. What they are in practice can vary wildly.


  22. > another artifact of a Gospel of Personal Salvation

    Maybe. It is also a factor of having miserable institutions, which is likely the result of late century anti-institutionalism, which probably has the many of the same “personal” roots.

    I do not blame people for being Jesus-and-Me when everything they’ve met has been theater. We are in a very said place currently; clerical courage is in desperately – emphasis: desperately – short supply.


  23. > If “Acquire the Fire” doesn’t say. . .

    It certainly represented a flawed way of understanding people|youth|society|church. Relating to the topic of “Spiritual Formation” it provided no take-aways beyond yet another cheesy workbook [goodness, there were so very many workbooks…]

    In terms of “What are you asking me to do?” it offered nothing aside from “when you grow up remember to vote for fear mongers; until then hide”.


  24. …and now have no more membership anywhere – I am a child of God, a follower of Jesus Christ.

    As in “Us Four (minus you three Apostates), No More, AAAAA-MENNNN!!!”?

    I saw a lot of that type of “Jesus & Me” Lone Ranger Christian during my time in-country — another artifact of a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation — and the results ain’t pretty. Too often it ends up drifting off into Cult territory.


  25. In his mind (and the feeling seemed mostly mutual among his hearers), hoopla was the path to experiencing God; God and his Spirit was absent if the hoopla wasn’t happening; hoopla was/is Thee way to spiritual formation.


    1) In the words of the prophets Emerson Lake & Palmer:

    2) Isn’t this another example of “the Dopamine Pump” giving you hit after hit of dopamine like crack, Meth, and social media? i.e. ADDICTION? And in the “post-hoopla withdrawal”, the addict seeks out another, bigger dose of hoopla Dopamine? Coming back to the YWAM/Acquire the Fire high again and again?

    3) With addiction, there’s something called “tolerance”, where you need bigger and bigger hits of the substance to get the same high (i.e. Dopamine release). More and more hoopla, until you’re cutting yourself with knives in frenzy like the prophets of Baal. (Or going for Greater and Greater “Sensation” like the Cenobites of Hellraiser.)

    4) And recruiters for Islam’s lunatic fringe (i.e. al-Qaeda & al-Daesh/ISIS) use this exact same dynamic to turn young disaffected Muslims into young on-fire Jihadis. Their”hoopla is the Acquired Fire of a “Pure Year One Islam”, with a cultic coming out from the Lukewarm Apostate Islam of the recruit’s parents.

    5) And as I’ve said several times about the Young, Restless, and Really Truly Reformed, 60-80 years ago they would be on-fire for Communism instead of Calvinism. Acquiring the Fire of being THE Mass Movement that will change the world forever!


  26. “Acquire the Fire(TM)”.
    I remember the coverage of it and its demise on Wartburg Watch.
    My reaction now to the name is the same as it was then:
    If “Acquire the Fire” doesn’t say “More On-Fire Than Thou Lukewarms” one-upmanship, what does?


  27. Lutheran Heritage, raised Evangelical Free, became Baptist in Canada, visited and worshipped at Congregational, Church of Christ, Catholic, Church of God, during husband’s study years and ministry in the USA, became member at a Pentecostal for ten years, and now have no more membership anywhere – I am a child of God, a follower of Jesus Christ. Work in a setting where a handful of other denominations minister – great cooperation. Does that qualify me as ‘evangelical’? Widowed, now have as much time as one could want, to find credible websites, blogs, links, books, to discover more about the mystery of our Creator, about contemplation, and spiritual growth in blessed solitude – whether in nature or at home. I live in a modest seniors community, learning to let go, but still grow. I’ve taken all I’ve learned or been indoctrinated with, examined it, educated it, matured my opinion on it, or discarded it – never totally negating it because it all helped bring me to the place of faith I have now. I have no higher academic education; hubby did as minister and professor. I work and volunteer in the area of my gifts, help and even influence people on their faith journey with a huge compassion and grace in my heart, which HE has poured into me in a measure I cannot possibly comprehend. I finally understand that I am loved by His perfect LOVE and am incredibly blessed! This blog with it’s diverse community of commenters has been a blessing to me. Obviously, God’s NOT done yet with me either, and always sends people, friends, even strangers, from whom I can learn along life’s journey!


  28. One of the better days around here for the quality of the comments. A lot of good food for thought.


  29. Based on my experience as a Protestant the idea of a men’s or women’s retreat is not uncommon. One of the old hymns that is sung everywhere is “I Go to the Garden Alone”, there are many hymns that allude to the good that can come out of a solitary focused time with God.

    Do the majority of lay Catholics go on an annual retreat? Again it is urged that everyone set aside “quiet’ time of prayer and reflection daily for believers. There are many Protestant camps or retreats that are available if one so choses. Never been there but many people I know have gone to the Billy Graham Cove, which I think has a retreat like setting.

    This is also a question of time, economic concerns and the needs of the individual. Can you go spend a quiet, reflective day in a quiet beautiful state run natural forest park area and have your retreat. Does a retreat need to be organized, sanctioned or a dedicated retreat?

    Andrew Zook, I share your concern about the emotional outpouring that seems be “expected” to show faith in action. I do agree with you that many of the new non traditional services depend on emotional expression but this I think is a generational thing based on our entertainment driven culture.

    To me it is simple, , if you need or want to experience a retreat than go for it. Some might find great comfort and learning from it. Some might find it just restful , which is great if you can afford it and want to get away. To me you can always find “quiet” reflective time if you so desire. Certainly a retreat can do no harm.


  30. Brings to mind my favorite (and sobering) quote from St. Vincent de Paul…

    You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.


  31. In the only evangelical congregation with which I have any contact, the desire to do social justice work has for the most part replaced the desire for spiritual formation. Inasmuch as ‘spiritual formation’ has historically been ‘hoopla’, as Andrew puts it (it is an Assembly of God), this is very much a positive thing.

    However, inasmuch as once you get over a certain naivete about the virtues of the poor, and reality sets in, you will very much need the spiritual development to continue.


  32. Much of what you describe brings back memories of much the same thing . . . now almost two decades ago. And having to smile along with the nonsense. For us it was taking young people from a dying congregation with a median age of ~50+ to “Acquire The Fire” [spiritual white-noise seasoned with right-wing propaganda] and then bringing them back to tell the oldsters how excited they were. All energy will have dissipated within a fortnight, it would never again come up in conversation. Rinse, repeat.

    I do hope it is better now – and that would be a low bar, easy to exceed.

    I am very happy not to have that nonsense in my life anymore.

    Aside: “Acquire The Fire” has been shut down, due to “this wine skin is done being used” according to management . . . and that pesky ARREST WARRANT and breach of contract lawsuits. You really can Spiritualize anything.


  33. In the old days, mention of holiness and spiritual discipline were mixed up with words like obedience, submission and authority in the Roman Catholic Church, too. To this day, vows to monastic life include obedience to the authority of the abbot or abbess, insofar as they represent locally the universal authority of the Church. That includes the contemplative orders, which means that those most completely and comprehensively dedicated to a personal life of spiritual formation promise to obey the authority of the Church, as embodied in a hierarchical superior. That there is more to this in the traditions of Roman Catholic spirituality is without question; the mystics have had a tremendous impact on the spirituality of the Church, and passed on much good teaching. But they often had to struggle against the headwinds resisting them in the authoritative hierarchy, and they often did so by seeking to prove themselves the most obedient members of the Church of all. Yes, the spiritual riches are there, and the critical spirit of modernism has actually, and ironically, helped to free them up for availability to more laity than ever; for instance, religious pluralism, which became increasingly influential in the 1960s, by opening up the wisdom traditions of world religions for the average person’s use, prompted the RCC to point to its own often unused spiritual riches as an alternative to the alternatives. The riches are there, certainly, but so is the tradition of obedience and deference to authority, otherwise the RCC would not be having some of the problems it is having today.


  34. In my denomination/neck-of-the-woods, the path to spiritual formation I see most often recommended (or wished for) is through charismatic/pentecostal/revivalist hoopla….(I’ll be using that word as shorthand for this way of spiritual formation) Traditionally, we’re (my denomination) not a charismatic/pentecostal denomination, and our tendency is to be more reserved and we’ve had a history of leaders and particular congregations who kept that crazy path at bay… but it’s flirted with; it runs wild in other parts of the denomination and so it’s continously there, especially in the minds of the laity…

    I’ve been part of the denomination for about 15yrs now, and I’ve seen this attraction, this belief that our stodginess can be cured through loud, emotionally amped “worship” and the charismatic/pentecostal “gifts” and general craziness (“God told me to do that wacky/infantile thing – so I did it – wow I experienced God’s Spirit!). The young people go off to YWAM and other local venues and get wound up with it, come back and bring bits and pieces of it in. The older ones are wary, but neither do they say an absolute no… and so it hangs around, constantly beckoning (and condemning, because when it’s not happening, many think they’re further from God than they should be…) Because they’ve come to believe that the hoopla is a sign of a pouring out of the Spirit – they believe it is the path to spiritual formation.
    This breaks my heart to observe, especially the condemnation; the feeling of not measuring up because the hoopla isn’t happening right now (but does happen out there somewhere, particularly the “mission field”!) Ordinary, mundane faithful living/walking with God in daily life almost seems to be held in contempt…(imo).

    Just yesterday, a gentlemen in SS was bemoaning the fact that the youth group (he was leading or chaperoning) could get the hoopla on whilst on their out-of-state mission trip/retreat but then felt inhibited at home… and he described it like this (my wording) “how is that they can raise their hands in worship and get close to/experience God there, but feel like they can’t do that here and experience God here?” In his mind (and the feeling seemed mostly mutual among his hearers), hoopla was the path to experiencing God; God and his Spirit was absent if the hoopla wasn’t happening; hoopla was/is Thee way to spiritual formation. I was a visitor and misfit in regard to this thinking, so let this all go unchallenged, but I wanted to put my head in my hands and cry. How have we come to this place where we believe God’s Spirit only dwells with and draws nigh to the noisy, the loud, the emotionally exuberant, the sensational, or even silly acts of faux bravado? Almost none of it has precedence in Scripture…almost none of it has a self-sacrificial servant to others aspect…

    I suspect that a majority in american evangelicalism feel this way; their churches may not be charismatic/pentecostal/revivalistic but that path is the one most have been trained to think is the right path….


  35. From my window, when there is mention of holiness or spiritual discipline it seems to be included with similar words such as “obedience,” “submission,” “authority,” and “shepherding.”

    The word “discipline” will refer to the authority of “The Local Church.” The stated goal, of course, is to submit one’s self to what is “biblical,” but biblical is what’s interpreted by the leaders of aforementioned Local Church. There is no official recognition of authority from “Denomination” anymore, although there is a certain peer pressure from like-minded evangelicals elsewhere, as evidenced in books, videos, sermons and conferences.

    It’s a trend to watch among evangelicals, correcting (or “re-vitalizing”) deficient church governments by replacing them with all-male elder boards. That’s about as close to spiritual direction as one will find. There is no contemplative religion, nothing of mystery, in today’s evangelicalism. The divide between Certainty and Mystery is so great that we are not aware of the divide.

    This also speaks to the condition of music and art and literature within evangelicalism, to say nothing of science; but those are other matters.

    No, contemplation is hard to find in an evangelical church. It’s too distracting here. Go climb a hill instead.


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