Moving Online for Formation

“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.”



The Need for Quality Formation Materials Online

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

“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 Internet site, Hopeful Imagination, a ministry designed to offer services and encouragement to struggling congregations. 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.”

Does Formation Replace Christian Education?
Spiritual formation’s increasing move into cyberspace comes at a challenging time for the discipline as a whole. While the discipline of formation is growing in acceptance in American seminaries and in the ministers they’re producing, vague definitions of the term and formation’s 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.

Formation’s Heritage
Christian education increasingly is 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 its origin may give pause to some churches’ acceptance of spiritual formation.

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

“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.

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.

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.”

Jeff Brumley reports for The Associated Baptist Press. This article first appeared in The Baptist Standard.

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One Response to “Moving Online for Formation”

  1. […] are now over 200 congregations who have built their own “school” using this resource. Moving Online for Formation featured how one church developed a new model called, Hopeful […]

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