Jayne Davis leads a workshop on spiritual formation. (hopefulimagination.com photo)
Jayne Davis leads a workshop on spiritual formation. (hopefulimagination.com photo)

Spiritual formation growing online

 A Baptist minister says churches must be ready to counter social media 'spirituality' with accessible discipleship tools and information.

By Jeff Brumley

Ministers of spiritual formation are turning to the World Wide Web to counter the interference that hectic schedules, frequent traveling, social media and all the other demands of modern life can have on healthy discipleship.

Jayne Davis, the minister of spiritual formation at First Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C., said pastors and congregations must be creative on the Internet, where people are increasingly finding much of their spiritual sustenance from questionable sources.

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“There seems to be a growing hunger for Christian education and discipleship in an age where people are on the go and where the old models are just not working for us,” Davis said.

It’s why Davis is spearheading a dedicated spiritual formation page at hopefulimagination.com, a ministry designed to offer services and encouragement to struggling congregations. Davis’ section was added in April to offer ideas and resources for spiritual formation ministers and others interested in the discipline.

The page currently offers information about workshops, coaching opportunities, retreats, e-conferences and Davis’ blog. More components will be added in what Davis said is an attempt to create “a virtual community of spiritual formation ministry.”

There is still a place for in-person retreats and training, Davis added, but accommodation must be made for those who can’t attend.

“We fall into the trap of thinking if people don’t show up, they aren’t interested,” she said. “But the reality is they are busy and they are mobile.”

Discipline is misunderstood

Spiritual formation’s increasing move into cyberspace comes at a challenging time for the discipline as a whole. While growing in acceptance in American seminaries, who see its benefits for the ministers they’re producing, vague definitions and an association with Catholicism make it an uphill sell in many congregations.

“I think many churches don’t understand it, but ministers of spiritual formation are replacing Christian education ministers,” said Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, where she also serves as professor of theology and spiritual formation.

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Christian education is increasingly seen as a part of spiritual formation, which also includes a more holistic approach to helping Christians grow in spiritual maturity, Marshall said.

“Christian education is usually thought of as what one does in Sunday school … and (spiritual) formation speaks about being conformed to the image of Christ,” she said.

The Protestant spiritual formation movement emerged after Vatican II, which “sparked a sort of liturgical renewal that took place in Protestant, Baptist and Anabaptist contexts,” said Sarah Erickson, a Presbyterian minister and director of lifelong learning at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.

“We could point back there to how non-Roman Catholics started to reclaim the spiritual, pietistic practices … and how they could reclaim and rename them,” said Erickson, whose program offers the certificate in spiritual formation at Columbia Theological.

'But is it biblical?'

But its origin may give pause to some churches' acceptance of spiritual formation.

Debbie Swindoll, executive director of the Evangelical Center for Spiritual Wisdom, said questions also arise over whether the practice is scriptural.

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“Within many evangelical churches there are pockets of people resistant to the term itself as it is often misunderstood as promoting new age meditative practices or encouraging Christians to rely on works for spiritual growth,” Swindoll said in an e-mail to ABPnews.

So the center’s website offers stories from individuals whose lives have been changed through spiritual formation. It also offers a Bible-based spiritual formation curriculum called “Life with God” and a link to books, blogs and other online resources.

Examine 'spiritual diets'

A strong presence online is a must for spiritual formation advocates because it can help overcome another challenge to healthy discipleship, Davis said: the growth of easy-to-digest “spiritual” quotes, poems and sayings abounding on Facebook, Twitter and e-mail.

“That’s what we consume and ... that’s become our whole (spiritual) diet,” Davis said. “So how do we find some things that are nutritious and readily available?”

The answer depends on spiritual formation ministers becoming more tech savvy.

“We have to be where they are, and right now," Davis said. "They are in cyberspace, and they are ... on their iPhones and their iPads.”