Especially in Baptist circles, the question frequently arises, "What ever happened to Christian education?" No doubt this question is often raised in response to the significant amount of spiritual formation language that is now being used among people who have historically placed a high priority on Christian education. It is important then to note the relationship between Christian education and Christian spiritual formation.
The term "Christian spiritual formation" speaks to the holistic formation of a Christian person into the character of Jesus. This holistic formation includes an experience of God in Jesus that transcends knowledge and, at times, language. Its goal is Christ-likeness.
Christian education on the other hand, refers to a body of knowledge thought essential to the development of a well-rounded Christian. Both of these terms have in common the development of a person; one term uses the word formation rather than development and the other the word education.
By virtue of our being spiritual beings, everything that happens to us has potential for spiritual formation. Christian spiritual formation declares an intent to become like Jesus. In short, what happened to Christian education was post-modernism and with it a move from an emphasis on knowledge to experience.
For more information about the difference between Christian Spiritual Formation and Christian Religious Education, see Timothy Brock's presentation given at the Spiritual Formation Network luncheon in Memphis, TN on June 12, 2008: Being Transformed and Transformative: An Approach to Personal Spiritual Formation for Christian Educators.
Where is spiritual formation in the Scriptures? The short answer is "everywhere."
In Genesis chapters one and two we see God's breathing "spirit" into the creature "formed" from the clay of the Earth. From this powerful initial image of spiritual (and physical) formation it is helpful to journey next to the Potter's House in the book of Jeremiah and watch the Potter form and re-form the clay on the Potter's wheel. Isaiah too reminds us that God is the Potter and we are the clay.
With this spiritual formation lens, its now easy to read the Gospels and see how God's Holy Spirit formed Jesus Himself through experiences of Scripture, community, friendship, synogogue (and Temple), and simple encounters with persons of every circumstance.
The Apostle Paul spends much time in Romans and other letters teaching about the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to the spirit of individuals. Paul tells the Romans that it is God's will that we be conformed to the image of Jesus - that Jesus is the firstborn among many siblings or children of God. This spiritual formation is all about taking on the image and likeness (character) of Jesus. Further, Paul connects the very transformation of the world to the transformation of its highest creation - humans. From these passages one gets the sense that spiritual formation is an important focus.
For Paul, much of spiritual formation begins with the "testimony" that occurs between God's Spirit and our spirit. "The Spirit of God testifies with our spirit that we are children of God!" (see Romans 8). Paul reminds the Corinthians that we "are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." And to the Galatians Paul transparently expresses "I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!"
Other New Testament references remind us to "strive toward the prize" and that "when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." To experience this Christian spiritual formation spoken of in the Scriptures is to ultimately take on the character of Jesus expressed in Galatians 5:22-23, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control."
For more information about spiritual formation in the Scriptures, read "Biblical Descriptors of Spiritual Formation," an article by Richard E. Averbeck, Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.