Defining Spiritual Formation

How would you define spiritual formation or describe spiritual formation to another person?

I have come to realize that trying to define spiritual formation is very much like trying to define the word leadership.  If you ask 10 people to define leadership, you’ll likely get 10 different definitions.  It appears spiritual formation is the same way.

The focus of this blog is to look at a few descriptions of spiritual formation with the intent of landing on a “working definition” to help guide our upcoming conversations as we seek to explore the foundations and principles of spiritual formation.

Let’s look at how few other organizations and people define and describe spiritual formation:

The shortest definition or description I found was from Tyndale University in Toronto Canada.  They explain that spiritual formation is simply the “process of becoming more Christ-like.   That’s rather appealing. I think every believer wants to be more like our Lord and Savior.

The Dallas Willard website provides a more comprehensive discussion about spiritual formation. They explain,

Spiritual formation in the tradition of Jesus Christ is the process of transformation of the inmost dimensions of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ.

The Renovare Institute suggests that spiritual formation is both a journey and a process. Additionally, they point out that, 

“We are not bystanders in our spiritual lives, we are active participants with God, who is ever inviting us into relationship with him.”

While reviewing the content of the Dallas Theological Seminar student portal I found this description of spiritual formation. 

“The process by which God forms Christ’s character in believers by the ministry of the Spirit, in the context of community and in accordance with the biblical standards. This process involves the transformation of the whole person in desires, thoughts, behaviors, and styles of relating with God and others.

“Foundations of Spiritual Formation” suggest spiritual formation is an “ongoing process of the triune God transforming the believer’s life and character toward the life and character of Jesus Christ—accomplished by the ministry of the Spirit in the context of biblical community.” –  Foundations of Spiritual Formation. A Community Approach to Becoming Like Christ, Paul Pettit (Ed.) (2008).

As you can see just from these few references above there is not one universally agreed upon definition of spiritual formation.  Just like with the word leadership, there are many ways to describe it.

However, there are some very clear components, elements, or thematic parts in these explanations.


As M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. points out in his book, “Invitation to a Journey, A Road Map for Spiritual Formation”, spiritual formation is comprised of multiple parts, all working together in unison. Specifically, Mulholland explains that spiritual formation is essential (1) a process, (2) of being formed, (3) in the image of Christ, (4) for the sake of others. This is exceptionally important to understand.  – Mulholland, R. M, (2016). Invitation to a Journey; A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Green Press.

Spiritual formation is about the process not a timeline. Spiritual formation is not about training or gaining informational knowledge. Rather it is transformational in nature, with the goal or objective of transforming, conforming, forming, changing or whatever word you would like to use, our character, our identities, and our inner spiritual life to be more aligned with and more like Christ in every way possible. Furthermore, this change is not just about benefit, but it is also for the benefit of others we are in community with.

At Genesis Institute we want to propose a working definition of spiritual formation, which will serve to guide our progress as we explore the many elements, topics, and principles of spiritual formation. Our working definition of spiritual formation is:

“Spiritual formation is the journey of developing intimacy of relationship with God and transforming our character to become more like Christ for the good of others and our world.”

We have landed on this working definition because at the core of who Genesis Institute is, is the focus on helping people on their journey of developing the life transformational relationship with God that we all seek. Our approach, what makes us unique both in our counseling services and our training programs, is seeking to help satisfy the deep longings and spiritual hunger of our hearts. Spiritual formation can lead us to that reality.

Now that we have a working definition of spiritual formation, we will start looking at specific elements and principles that are important for us to understand. Stay tuned!


    Wil Wilhelm









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