Saying Goodbye to Spiritual Formation

March 3, 2014 — 17 Comments
Fog lifting from a field on a December morning in Oregon. © R. Anderson Campbell, 2011.

Fog lifting from a field on a December morning in Oregon. © R. Anderson Campbell, 2011.

I’m done with “spiritual formation.”

I’m over it and you should be, too. Let me explain.

In much of the evangelicalism, “spiritual formation” is only an veiled way of referring to disciplines or practices intended to be undertaken by an individual for the sake of the individual. This compartmentalization of faith, this dualism, must stop

We are not fleshy creatures housing an eternal soul. We are not earthen vessels containing precious nard. We are not organic matter with a spirit center. We are much more. We are an unimaginable tapestry of body-soul-spirit. We are the result of God, Spirit, and Christ Play-Dohs all mixed together. We are human.

We need to stop deluding ourselves into thinking that we can somehow work on our “spiritual life” without it radically impacting every other facet how we live. Jesus didn’t walk around on this earth to show us how to be more spiritual. Jesus came to who us how to be more fully human.

I’m not averse to language which attempts to articulate the difference between our actions and the source of those actions. With my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, I affirm that we can speak of the “interior life,” but not without also speaking in the same breath of the exterior life. Any work we do on the inner person must also be evidenced in the outer person.

The examples of monastics, the desert fathers and mothers, the hermits, are not the norm. Nor are they some kind of superChristians to which we are all to aspire. Their lives are inspirational hyperbole; metaphors that vividly point out things we tend to overlook in our own lives.

With all that in mind:

I’m saying goodbye to prayer that seeks my wellbeing without also seeking the wellbeing of others.

I’m finished with silence that does not include deep listening to others.

I’m over solitude that doesn’t make me crave immersion back into my community.

I’m done with charity that keeps me at arm’s length from the charitable.

I’m dropping meditation that doesn’t make me one with my neighbor.

I’m through with simplicity that doesn’t lead to more complexity in my relationships.

I’m leaving behind any worship that encourages me to consume it rather than being consumed by it.

In addition:

I will pursue ordinary community, not sitcom fantasy.

I will observe ordinary time, not the consumer calendar.

I will commit myself to “monking in the real world,” not upward mobility.

I will orient all my liturgical practices toward transformation for the sake of others.

Won’t you join me? Together, let us pursue being more wholly formed, more fully human.

Anderson Campbell


  • Pastor Melissa

    As always, awesome

  • John Stauffer

    Andy, I wish you would just tell us how you feel! As I read your article I saw the links and did not go there (yet). First I would like to discuss with you and anyone else that will engage. As you know, I completed my DMin just in time to retire from weekly pastor duties. I still minister, I meet three times each week with a recovery group based upon CR. I spend much time in prayer each day ( I will be happy to discuss that with you if you choose) and I now have the time that I had asked Dr. Delamarter years ago, when will I get to read to learn and not to pass exams. What I really want to say to you today based purely upon your comments. I think you know now what “spiritual formation” should be. I have never been able to identify with guys who sat upon pinnacles, or would not speak, only fasted because they were commanded to do so and do acts that others could see and say something in awe about them doing it. I agree that our spiritual formation must not only change our spiritual state, but ask Christ has taught it must be as we are outwardly. I learned that when while working on my MDiv I pastored a church that almost met my travel expenses from Burns to Portland twice a week, which I did because it was less expensive to travel than to stay over. So I worked as a mental health therapst for the chronically and severly mentally ill, not folks who were just having trouble with the spouse. My first client assigned to me taught me how to love . Doug, a seventy two year old retired marine who was so severly destroyed by drug abuse and PTSD that reality was not. The first day that I saw him he came into my office just a little bigger than my desk. He wore three hats, several layers of other clothing and admittedly slept in them because it was easier. He also admitted to not having had a cleansing shower or bath for several weeks. I new that by the aroma. That day my spiritual formation was challenged. As Doug commenced to poop his pants I began to gag. I told him that I believed our session time had ended. As he stood, he stepped toward me, his breath was bad, his smell was worse, and he hugged me and thanked me for not telling him what he knew that I knew. I learned to love and begin to step outside my inner self. Two years later I officiated his funeral. I cried during the eulogy because I had lost a friend that had God not convicted me of my nominal spirituality, I would have missed out on the development. Now I will go back and read the links and look forward to the rest of the story.

  • A.J. Swoboda

    This was a delicious meal, Andy. Thanks for whipping up such an edifying message.

  • Nathan

    The ground of spiritual formation in the Desert Fathers IS NOT the solitary life for the individual. The ground of spiritual formation there is inescapably disciplined IN COMMUNITY that bears witness to the futility and self-worship of human society ordered and lived apart from the rule of Christ.

    • Anderson Campbell

      Well said, Nathan. With a few exceptions, the Desert Abbas and Ammas led communities and were not all ascetic hermits. That is an important correction and I thank you for it. It was their establishment of alternative societies that embodied their critique of the dominant society of their day.

      • brockcassian

        It is alway interesting to me to agree with the place a post ends up but not agree with the road to get there.

        As a student of the first monks, I have to say there is a lot of evangelical rhetoric about the isolation and inappropriateness of the ascetic project. Basically, if one reads the Sayings, or even Cassian and Benedict, the things you have accused them of are not really present. The irony in these texts is, that even for as much as they valued the solitary life, the very witness of these texts says they were never really alone or “withdrawn from the world.” In addition, I think a close reading reveals that they also rejected any dualism of body and spirit. I mean why else would they fast, work, pray, and even entertain guests so often. They had a much more integrated sense that what we do in our bodies in the world impacts our inner life, and what goes on in our inner life is lived out in our bodies in the world. Take Cassian for example. He basically says to his monks- if you are struggling with greed or pride you should fast more. The so-called spiritual vices such as anger, vainglory, and pride were built on the inability to truly overcome gluttony or lust- two very physical vices.

        The evangelical straw man of “ascetic dualisms” I think is a projection of the problems with the evangelical emphasis on individualism and “salvation as an inner/spiritual” reality. Those are decidedly modern dualisms and not things the desert monks would have even recognized.

        • Anderson Campbell

          As I mentioned to Rich above, this is not a critique of desert monasticism. Rather, it is a critique of the very dualistic Evangelical appropriation of monastic spirituality. I agree that a close reading of the source material confirms that monastic communities were steeped in a holistic approach to spirituality. However, more often than not in Evangelical circles “spiritual formation” has come to refer to individualized consumer-oriented spiritual practices. This post is offered as a mild corrective to bring Evangelical spirituality back into line with the great tradition that preceded it.

  • bryan

    so if I can’t (or shouldn’t) change the other but only change my reaction to them, isn’t it necessary to have a deep-self awareness so as to be able to radically engage in community? We are called to submit ourselves to each other with full abandon, shouldn’t that mean that we all need to first come to grips with ourselves? Just been trying to live this one out for awhile…I just don’t think that spiritual formation ever really had at it’s core an end-goal of fleeing the sinking ship of society…save for a few

    • Anderson Campbell

      I’m not sure what you’re getting at here, Bryan. Where in the post did you get the notion that I advocate formation having “at it’s core an end-goal of fleeing the sinking ship of society”? If anything, I’m calling for a formation that more fully engages us in society!

  • Rich Grassel

    “Saying Goodbye to [Christian?] Spiritual Formation.. I Am Over It AND You Should Too!” (Perfect Imperative)

    Wow! Ironically enough, this post displays an astounding amount of prejudicial intolerance and a bit of an incendiary stereotype. Given what I assume are his core values regarding people, I find this to be a bit of a surprise… well but maybe not really… since blog posts like this often (often arrogantly) communicate sentiment, that: “at long last, after 2,000 years, this generation of believers have finally gotten church and Christian faith right!” Why? Because they have finally figured out what it means to imitate Jesus… or so they think… But you wouldn’t know that in this post, because of the way Campbell disparages and entire tradition of the faith, that has made enormous contributions to the Christian faith over two millennia. Contributions, I suspect have shaped much of who he is and what he says he values…

    I understand what Campbell is TRYING to say, but perhaps it would have been better and more accurate if he had said: “for those who practice their (Christian) Spiritual Formation in this manner…” Every faith tradition in history, has it’s (supposedly!) undeniable strengths, as well as its weakness… If we want to critique a tradition’s weaknesses, that’s fine, but be sure not to include everyone… I don’t think Jesus would do that…

    While I am not one to typically wear my pedigree on my sleeve, I feel compelled to say that I do have a Doctoral Degree in Spiritual a Formation. I can tell you that from my years of study as well as rather extensive experience in my own personal life, as well as the lives of those who I have engaged, that what Campbell has described in his post is nothing less than a caricature, and representative of a relative minority… Are their people in the Christian Spiritual Formation like the one’s that Campbell describes above? Sure!? Are they always typical? Absolutely not… Are there examples of it through history? Sure? Does that mean the entire movement itself has not been (in)valuable… I dunno, ask the average Christian Church Historian and you might get a different perspective?

    Framing the Christian Spiritual Formation tradition as largely individualistic and retreatest, demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the discipline itself… For example: Just using Foster’s historical distillation and typology, Christian Spiritual Formation includes the following disciplines:

    Inward Disciplines:

    1. Meditation – Great for sermon prep!

    2. Prayer – I don’t think this needs any defense

    3. Fasting – Who needs to know?

    4. Study – Sometimes I just need a quiet place to concentrate

    The Outward Disciplines:

    1. Simplicity – a.k.a. Non-materialistic

    2. Solitude – I think this a bad word here (although you might want to consult Moses, Elijah, David, Paul and Jesus on this practice)

    3. Submission – How is this possible unless there are other people

    4. Service – Ah Hah! I bet this came as a surprise… Given the discussion this appears to be counter intuitive!

    The Corporate Disciplines:

    1. Confession – I think this involves others as well

    2. Worship – Okay, you can do this by yourself, but having others makes it fulfilling in a different and more full manner.

    3. Guidance – It implies homo sapiens, not just the Holy Spirit

    4. Celebration – See the above…

    In the Four Stages of Faith Theory – (first initiated by John of the Cross), I might note that while there is a macro OVERALL progression as listed above, it certainly is not exclusively that… there can be many micro forays, by the believer into all of the areas below per the Holy Spirit’s discretion… The mistake that many conclude from reading the list below is that it is all done within a vacuum… This however, is not the case, the growth outlined below takes place largely while living in the world, in part because the world functions as a protagonist on one hand, and providentially is an ethos within which to live out and practice our relationship with and like Christ on the other hand… The general list is:

    1. Awakening (To Faith in Christ)

    – Encounter with God

    – Encounter with Self

    – Comfort from God

    – Threat – Needing to change life

    2. Purgation of Sins – (This section is kinda out of style right now, since there has been a monumental shift from the Centrality of the Cross to the Sermon on the Mount (Primarily Beatitudes especially as expressed by Luke), as the primary understanding of the Christian faith. Younger believers are living almost exclusively in the Gospels (Perceptions of Grace) and not so much in the Epistles (Concerns about “Truth” statements! Tssssss!!!) It is in essence a new kind of emerging “Fundamentalism” that is almost the polar opposite of the 20th Century form of Fundamentalism.

    ” But here they are anyway!

    – Renunciation of Blatant Sins

    – Renunciation of Willful Disobedience

    – Unconscious Sins and Omissions (Solitude and Silence are great for this!)

    – Deep-Seated Structures of Behavior

    – Coming to Trust

    3. Illumination – In this list

    – Total Concentration to God’s Love

    – God Experienced Within

    – Integration of Being

    – Unceasing Prayer

    – INCREASING SOCIAL CONCERN – Often very powerful

    4. Union With God:

    – Abandonment to Grace

    – Prayer of Quietness

    – Dark Night of the Senses

    – Full and Ecstatic Union

    – Dark Night of the Senses

    Having said what I did thus far, I should be clear and say that seasonal retreat isn’t a bad thing if it helps you to have more intimate conversation with the Father and hear the Holy Spirit better, but abandonment of and to the world is… ALL (wholistic) Christian Spiritual Formation is designed and purposed to incarnationally become like Jesus, so that we can do the things that Jesus would do, if He were us in the here and now… The more one becomes like Jesus, the more they ontologically can’t help do, what Jesus would do… To do otherwise, isnt’ really engaging in “Spiritual Formation.”

    In conclusion, let me say, that I rarely respond to posts like this, with this kind of assertiveness… I am actually pretty laid back… but I responded as I did because it is a gross injustice to conflate “Spiritual Formation” with a kind of hyper-pious, retreatest form of Christian individualism. I am afraid that his blog post will do far more to egregiously mislead, offend and divide the Body, for those who read it, rather than to inspire and challenge…

    Ironically enough, I feel compelled on behalf of those who have participated in the tradition of Christian Spiritual Formation, and those who are practicing it now, to include these verses… because for some believers they may feel that it might just apply… Note: these verses conclude the Beatitudes themselves…

    9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
    10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
    12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

    Mat 5:9-12

    • Anderson Campbell

      Thanks for your robust response to this post. I can see that it really triggered a passionate response from you. I like that.

      I agree with you that what I describe is not normative for all people of faith through all time. I open the piece stating that “In much of the evangelicalism, ‘spiritual formation’ is only an veiled way of referring to disciplines or practices intended to be undertaken by an individual for the sake of the individual.”

      I’ve written about my evangelical upbringing elsewhere on this blog, so I won’t rehash that whole history here. Suffice it to say, I was not exposed to the Great Tradition until very late in life and once I was, I felt like I found what I was missing. I have a great deal of reverence and respect for the 2,000 years of Christian formation that you claim I disparage in this post.

      What I am calling for is formation (primarily in evangelical circles–see again that first paragraph) that enlivens all of the Christian life… not just one’s “personal walk with Jesus.” I think you would agree with that.

      I absolutely agree with your assessment that there is a rich tradition of individual, interior practices that we would be loath to give up. If I make a caricature of anything, it is the ‘me-and-Jesus’ spirituality of evangelicalism, not the 2000 years that precede it.

      I’m well acquainted with Foster’s typology. My doctoral work was in spiritual formation as well, so we have that in common, friend. I’m interested in bringing that field more fully into my tradition and that necessitates breaking down the dualistic discipleship practices that are common in evangelical tradition, often masquerading as “spiritual formation.”

      Again, thanks for your pushback, but I think we agree on much more than we disagree.

      • Rich Grassel


        Thank you for your gracious response… First, a bit of an apology. I think I am guilty of a bit of transference here, since I discovered your post viz a vis another person’s Facebook post, who occupies an emerging theological position, with which I have significant concerns. In essence, your inclusion in their post, was transferred as their position being your position. So… please forgive me, for some of that frustration being vented on you… Thus, the personal quasi-attack… I should have based my response, only on what your post said expressly, and not on what I guessed/perceived your complete theological worldview to be…

        Second, you were kind to referred to my post as “robust.” Again, that was gracious and I thank you for that… It was, in fact, probably unnecessarily verbose, prompted by, not only my passion for the discipline, but what I believe to be a misunderstanding of it; as well as how I read your title line and its subscription…

        It is a fair point, to say: “In much of the evangelicalism, ‘spiritual formation is…” However, (if I may), 🙂 with such a super-charged title and subtitle, as well as the bulk of the rest of your conversation, I think this important nuance got rather lost… At least that is my take on it in terms of why (in part) I responded the way that I did… However, your response immediately above does help to bring some helpful clarity to where I think you are, especially the last full paragraph which I believe to be excellent and true.

        Third, like you, I think dualisms are always bad and unproductive in this context. But they exist because we tend to be “defaultists” by nature, reducing everything to its lowest common denominator, often resulting with, profoundly failing in our ability to nuance our conversation (I am not saying this in reference to you, but to the dynamic of how we accommodate biblical truths into our lives), in regards to vital biblical and theological matters – part of which, ironically enough, is exactly what you are attempting to do with this post. But also, with what motivated me as well… because I have a great concern about how we are bifurcating the two essential natures of Christ – that He is Love/Grace and that He is Truth/Holy.

        From my vantage point much of the Social Justice movement (not all!) within the largely evangelical ethos is privileging Love and Grace over and even against the Truth and Holiness of God. Thus my comments related to the emphasis of the Gospels vs. the Epistles. In the 1980’s in particular, it was the exact opposite, just a different kind of dualism. The latter we know to be “Fundamentalism,” but the former is well on its way is emerging into a kind of Neo-Fundamentalism as well.

        So… when I read your post initially, based on how it came to me… I read it as you dualistic and privileging Grace and Love… Your response to me, gives me hope that this is not where you are coming from…

        I have written the following to convey my sentiments on the matter:

        HUMANLY speaking: If the severity of God’s “JUSTICE” (Truth) isn’t a true and ever present certainty, then the beauty of God’s “GRACE” (Love) can’t be an ever true and meaningful reality. DIVINELY speaking: JUSTICE and GRACE are eternal and irreducible divine attributes – THE celestial polestar points on an equally balanced axis. To marginalize the function of one is to compromise the nature of the other….

        Well enough! I am being verbose again, but I did want to make sure that I apologized for my “robust” response, to affirm your gracious and clarifying response and perhaps to give some insight about where I am at and why I feel so passionately about it!



        • Anderson Campbell

          Thanks for the response, Rich. 🙂 It is quite helpful.

  • Matt Cumings

    Moving beyond (or before) dualism requires a shift in our worldview. Luckily for Americans (North and South) there are many indigenous folks that have a nondualistic worldview. The NAIITS conference in Newberg, OR this June (5-7) seeks to explore what moving beyond postcolonial Christians dialogue and into reindigenizing it could look like:

  • Matt Cumings

    As a riposte I would point out times of solitude, especially in the wilderness, have been times of great spiritual growth and vision from Hagar to Jesus to African-American slaves. I know the post isn’t suggesting solitude is inherently wrong or aspiritual. Delores Williams proposes re-centering the focus of the gospel to Mt. 4.1-11 as the grounds for Jesus’s ministerial vision and work, certainly nondualistic in its manifestation. Here’s a quote from her book Sisters in the Wilderness about African-American slaves being unwelcome to “shouts” or African-American slave plantation churches until they find that “leetie ting:”

    “Evidently slaves thought an environment supporting solitude and reflection was conducive to gaining a true connection with Jesus and to strengthening the kind of God-consciousnes needed to support their journeys through life. Getting religion and getting one’s consciousness thoroughly saturated with God involved moving one’s self bodily into a private space where the God-human encounter could happen undisturbed by competing forces in the environment. Going into the wilderness assured slaves that they would meet Jesus if they persevered.”

    • Anderson Campbell

      Yes, absolutely. However, much of American evangelicalism has overemphasized the role of the individual in formation, as both the source and seat. I completely agree that solitude, silence, withdrawal, all of the classic ‘inner’ disciplines are useful. But they are largely misused, misunderstood, and misapplied within AE. To offer a corrective, I reach far across to the other side, (over)emphasizing the relationship between formation and the good of the beloved community.

  • Patrick

    Well said sir! The interior life and the exterior life, all in the same breath? Exhilirating!! Reminds me of a reaction I often have when people speak of being saved by the cross; I think that the work of the cross is incomplete without the resurection. I often think along the same lines when people speak of grace; that it is incomplete without truth. These things go hand in hand.
    My interior life cannot stand alone, and is reflected in my exterior life. Each affects the other, and compartmentalizing is self-defeating and nigh impossible.