Spiritual Formation and How to Start

Spiritual Formation and How to Start

A plan for personal spiritual development is just that – personal.  There can be a common structure with individual practices or applications that are meaningful for each person.

When I think of personal spiritual formation, the writings of two authors come to mind – Henri Nouwen and Richard Foster.  Henri Nouwen has been a strong influence for me in the areas of both spiritual direction and community. Richard Foster was an early influence on the disciplines of my college spiritual formation.

Let’s start with Richard Foster.  In his foundational book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Harper and Row, 1978, he encouraged believers to realize that our growth as Christians was something more that attending a certain number of church gatherings or taking communion a certain number of times each year or reciting the Creeds once a week.  Spiritual growth involves practices or disciplines woven into our everyday lives. These disciplines help shape a certain spiritual trajectory throughout our lives – Inward, Outward and Corporate.  Many of his disciplines for these areas are ancient practices of Christians since the first Pentecost, and the children of Israel before that!

Now consider Henri Nouwen. His books have influenced my understanding of spiritual formation in a community setting, the role of a spiritual director and the necessity of small groups in the individual and corporate growth of a local church. I have read many of his books, but one of them, Spiritual Direction, was not compiled until after his death in the late 1990’s.  Two of his students took his notes from courses and their conversations with him and organized thoughts as best as they could in a way Nouwen may have done. One of my favorite quotes is related to the need for Christian community.

“Though it is not easy, Jesus calls us to live together as a family of faith and commitment.  In community we learn what it means to confess our weakness and to forgive each other.  In community we discover what it means to let go of our self-will and to really live for others.  In community we learn true humility.  People of faith need community, for without it we become individualistic and, at times, egocentric.   As difficult as it is, community is not really optional in the spiritual life.” Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Direction, Harper, 2006, pp.114-115.

With this as background, I would encourage followers of Christ at all developmental levels to follow this general plan.

Inward Disciplines

  • Daily reading (lectionary is a good choice)
  • Daily private prayer/listening
  • Weekly study
  • Meditation on Psalms
  • Personal retreats every three months (4 to 24 hours)

Outward Disciplines

  • Modest, moderate lifestyle
  • Selfless regard for the wellbeing of others
  • Weekly serving opportunity

Corporate Disciplines

  • Confessing to one another
  • Serving one another
  • Weekly worship together with other believers
  • Bi-weekly small group accountability for fellowship, sharing, group study and prayer


As with any plan, the particular way it gets played out will vary from person to person. Introverts will tend to enjoy the Inward Disciplines more than extraverts.  Extraverts may enjoy the Outward Disciplines more than introverts.  When it comes to Corporate Disciplines, they take different forms based on personal gifts and preferences (worship style, serving opportunities, local church fit, small group involvement).

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