American Mega-Churches and Spiritual Formation
Author: Professor Walter J. Veith, PhD
Publish date:
Summary: Spiritual formation is being encouraged in influential American evangelical churches.
 
 

Mystical spiritual formation practices are being taught not only in retreat centers and monasteries, but in evangelical Christian churches as well. Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and Saddleback Church in California are two of the forerunners in evangelical spiritual formation teaching.

What’s taught at Willow Creek?

Willow Creek Community Church, Bill Hybels' church of over 22,000, has six campuses in Illinois and is growing in influence across America and the world.

In her 2007 article "Rediscovering Spiritual Formation," Willow Creek member Keri Wyatt Kent writes positively about "monastic communities" and "the emergent church."i These two buzzwords refer to the renewed popularity of ancient mystic practices such as visualization, meditation, and the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.

In her article, Kent also states that while there are some "conservative" Christians who are suspect of spiritual formation, the term and the practices "have become much more mainstream."ii She also tells us that spiritual formation is a ministry at Willow Creek:

Much of that has happened even in the last five years, says Mindy Caliguire, who formerly led the spiritual formation ministry at Willow Creek Community Church. She’s the president and founder of Soul Care (www.soulcare.com), which consults with churches and individuals, and she serves as a regional director for the Spiritual Formation Alliance, a network of churches, educators, parachurch organizations and others who want to help local churches bring spiritual formation into every area of their influence.iii

Kent identifies Richard Foster as a leader in the shift towards acceptance of spiritual formation. Foster is the author of Celebration of Discipline and founder of Renovaré, an organization that “advocates, encourages, and resources intentional living and spiritual formation.”iv

Kent also praises Renovaré team member Dallas Willard for his work in the 1980s, in which he “re-introduced evangelicals to classic spiritual disciplines such as solitude, silence, and fasting, and offered a more contemplative approach to Scripture and prayer.”v

In Kent's article, she also promotes spiritual direction,vi which is not Scriptural guidance but rather blind submission to a director who may not even have the same values as the directee.

What's Taught at Saddleback Church?

Saddleback Church is the eighth-largest Christian church in the USA.vii How is this mega-church using its influence?

The Purpose Driven Life
In 2002, Saddleback Church's senior pastor and founder Rick Warren published his book The Purpose Driven Life. Since then, over 30 million copies of the books have sold in 56 languages.viii This book supports spiritual formation practices and attitudes, as the following quotes attest:

The Bible tells us to "pray all the time." How is it possible to do this? One way is to use "breath prayers" throughout the day, as many Christians have done for centuries. You choose a brief sentence or a simple phrase that can be repeated to Jesus in one breath...

The last thing many believers need today is to go to another Bible study. They already know far more than they are putting into practice...

If you want Jesus to come back sooner, focus on fulfilling your mission, not figuring out prophecy.ix

Read more about Rick Warren and his theology

Solitude
Saddleback pastor Lance Witt writes about visualization in his 2006 article "Enjoying God's Presence in Solitude." Read Lighthouse Trails' blog for more about Warren, Witt, contemplative prayer, and Thomas Merton

 


 

i. Keri Wyatt Kent, "Rediscovering Spiritual Formation," WILLOW Magazine 4 (2007).

ii. Ibid.

iii. Ibid.

iv. Renovare.us

v. Keri Wyatt Kent, "Rediscovering Spiritual Formation," WILLOW Magazine 4 (2007).

vi. Ibid.

vii. "Top 100 Largest Churches in America," SermonCentral.com.

viii. Martin Bashir and Deborah Apton, "Rick Warren and Purpose Driven Strife," ABC News (March 7, 2007).

ix. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on earth am I here for? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002): 89, 231, 286.

This article is adapted from Walter Veith’s Rekindling the Reformation DVD The Jesuits and The Counter Reformation Part 2

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