Why Spiritual Formation is not the same as Religious Formation and why this distinction matters!
Spiritual Formation vs. Religious Formation
One of the most important lessons I learned during 10 years of ministering within the Catholic Church is the distinction between Spiritual Formation and Faith Formation. My mentor and friend, Sr. Judy Miller was the first one to articulate what I had already observed in my own ministry formation and in the work I performed as a minister in the Church:
“Religious formation is coming to know about God. Spiritual formation is coming to know God.”
In other words, Religious formation is learning somebody else’s ideas about God. Spiritual Formation is coming to know God within your own heart. Religious formation is limited by the specific tenents of denomination. Spiritual Formation is universal and limitless. The United States Catholic Bishops have also come to this understanding. In the Bishop’s document on Stewardship, they say (I’m paraphrasing here) that discipleship only comes about through mature disciples and that mature disciples are formed through sound spiritual formation which seeks to answer three questions:
Who am I?
Whose am I? (what is my relationship with the God of my understanding)
What are my gifts and how am I being called to use them?
The Bishops seem to know this, but in my experience, Spiritual Formation is rarely accomplished. Most people in the Catholic Church (and most churches for that matter) receive a ton of religious formation – doctrine, beliefs, practices, rules, regulations, moral guidelines, etc. etc. etc. but rarely are they given the tools through which they can come to know God personally and intimately. Also rarely given are tools for sound discernment, instructions on how to develop a personal and intimate relationship with God and how to determine our gifts and how we are called to use them in the world.
The Seventy Percent
For eight years while ministering at the Newman Center Catholic Campus Ministry in Oshkosh, I facilitated the RCIA process. The RCIA is a formal program through which adults come into the Catholic faith. In most cases, the RCIA is a nine month process of inquiry, catechesis (learning) and mystagogia (asking how we are to live our faith out in the world). The culmination of the RCIA is in the reception of the sacraments – baptism, confirmation and eucharist. I recently learned an interesting statistic regarding the RCIA. Nationally, only 30% of RCIA participants are still active in the Church 1 year after the reception of the sacrament. That is an abysmal figure and I was shocked to hear that figure because at the Newman Center, our retention rate was at least 70%. What was the difference? I did not even have to ask that question, however, because I already knew the answer: SPIRITUAL FORMATION In the eight years that I facilitated the RCIA, Spiritual Formation was the foundation (cultivating the participant’s personal relationship with God through contemplative prayer practices ), doctrine a subtext. My experience with the RCIA proved to me that Spiritual Formation is really what people are looking for AND IT WORKS! The people that went through our RCIA program developed a deep and passionate love of God, came to know Jesus as a compassionate and loving teacher and sought to share that love through participation in the community and in service to the world.
Spiritual Formation is Universal
While that model worked for me within the context of church ministry, I have also found that my theories work in the secular world as well – perhaps even more so. As people grow more and more disenchanted with organized religion, or at the very least are searching for more, the universal questions of Who am I? Whose am I? What are my gifts? prove to be even more pressing. EVERYONE longs to know themselves, to understand the mystery of our origin, and seeks to have a fulfilling life through their own unique gifts. Spiritual Formation is the vehicle through which these questions are answered.
The Authentic Freedom Curriculum
The way that I have responded to these questions, the deepest longing of the human heart is to develop a curriculum for Adult Spiritual Formation. The Authentic Freedom Curriculum consists of three (and sometimes four or five) 9-12 week classes of sound spiritual formation. Using scripture, contemplative prayer practices, learning and discussion within the format of group-spiritual direction, participants are empowered to find the answer to those questions: Who am I? Whose am I? etc. In the eight years that I have shared this curriculum with a mostly secular audience in the Oshkosh area, I have seen astonishing results. People are transformed, enthused, empowered and even more importantly, they come to know the God within their own heart and go on to share this God with others (in a non-dogmatic way). (Read my testimonial’s page for participants’ comments) I am humbled and grateful for all those who have participated in these classes and who continue to share love and joy in the world because of what they discovered about themselves in these courses.
Authentic Freedom Going Global
And now I find that it is time to bring the Authentic Freedom curriculum to a global market. Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, I will be offering these courses on-line via Skype conferencing. (an intimidating task for a techno-illiterate person such as myself!) Watch this site for details, dates, times, etc. and if you think you might be interested, email me at email@example.com
Authentic Freedom Ministries