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.
âThere 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,â Davis said.
Itâs why Davis is spearheading a dedicated spiritual formation page at hopefulimagination.com, a ministry designed to offer services and encouragement to struggling congregations. Davisâ 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 Davisâ blog. More components will be added in what Davis said is an attempt to create âa virtual community of spiritual formation ministry.â
There is still a place for in-person retreats and training, Davis added, but accommodation must be made for those who canât attend.
âWe fall into the trap of thinking if people donât show up, they arenât interested,â she said. âBut the reality is they are busy and they are mobile.â
Discipline is misunderstood
Spiritual formationâs 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 theyâre producing, vague definitions and an association with Catholicism make it an uphill sell in many congregations.
âI think many churches donât understand it, but ministers of spiritual formation are replacing Christian education ministers,â said Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, where she also serves as professor of theology and spiritual formation.
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.
âChristian education is usually thought of as what one does in Sunday school âŠ and (spiritual) formation speaks about being conformed to the image of Christ,â she said.
The Protestant spiritual formation movement emerged after Vatican II, which âsparked a sort of liturgical renewal that took place in Protestant, Baptist and Anabaptist contexts,â said Sarah Erickson, a Presbyterian minister and director of lifelong learning at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.
âWe could point back there to how non-Roman Catholics started to reclaim the spiritual, pietistic practices âŠ and how they could reclaim and rename them,â 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.
âWithin 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,â Swindoll said in an e-mail to ABPnews.
So the centerâs website offers stories from individuals whose lives have been changed through spiritual formation. It also offers a Bible-based spiritual formation curriculum called âLife with Godâ 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 âspiritualâ quotes, poems and sayings abounding on Facebook, Twitter and e-mail.
âThatâs what we consume and ... thatâs become our whole (spiritual) diet,â Davis said. âSo how do we find some things that are nutritious and readily available?â
The answer depends on spiritual formation ministers becoming more tech savvy.
âWe have to be where they are, and right now," Davis said. "They are in cyberspace, and they are ... on their iPhones and their iPads.â
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