Spiritual Formation and Contemplative Prayer

Over the last couple of years people have become aware of controversy over things like “spiritual formation,” “contemplative prayer” and “the emerging church.” Voices such as that of the General Conference President (Ted Wilson) have been raised in caution regarding the dangers to be found in these domains. What Wilson probably did not know, at the time he gave this sermon in July of 2010, is how frequently these terms were used at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, though not, I suspect, in the ways that he meant by these terms. As one who taught at the Seminary from 1982-2007, I am quite familiar with what was going on there during that time and I found it to be a place that was deeply grounded in Scripture and loyal to the church almost to a fault. So my initial reaction was like that of others. What is so bad about Spiritual Formation? What can be so bad about thoughtful prayer? What other kind of prayer is there? And while the authors promoting the Emerging Church were certainly offering challenging ideas, they had always struck me as rather prophetic in the Old Testament sense, challenging the comfortable ways in which many Christians have adopted western culture and practices without serious biblical critique. So what was going on here? Shouldn’t everyone spend “a thoughtful hour each day contemplating the life of Christ?” (Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, page 83)

Did the Seminary teach Spiritual Formation while I was there? Yes, depending on what you mean by that term. I remember how in the mid-1980s our practics professors introduced us to the concept and asked all Seminary faculty to team up with local pastors to create “spiritual formation groups” of 10-12 seminary students each who would engage with local churches on weekends and then reflect on their experiences on Monday mornings. I have to confess I was never a huge enthusiast about this development. It sounded like a lot of work outside the areas of my interest and expertise. But I kept my lack of enthusiasm to myself. After all, what could be bad about helping young pastors find a closer walk with God? I certainly didn’t want to speak out against that!

And that is exactly what spiritual formation, in the forms that I encountered it at the Seminary, was all about. It was the process of encouraging young pastors at the Seminary to not simply exercise their minds, but also their hearts, while in school. It was seeking a balance between the intellectual and the spiritual. It was all about teaching young pastors to have a closer walk with God on a day to day basis. This has to be a good thing in principle. If there would be any dangers in such as process, it could be dealt with in the “multitude of counselors” that the group process required. On the whole I thought the process of thinking and worshiping together each week had a positive impact on me and the students I served, as well as a number of different pastors through the years.

The high point of such spiritual training, in my experience, occurred in the 1990s. I taught a first-quarter class called Salvation in which I plumbed the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, discovering the various ways people got right with God and how they also stayed right with God. As students confronted the claims of the biblical text there were many conversions (I would estimate 15-20) each year among pastors! This is not to imply that most pastors are not converted, but that the clarity of the Bible led these students into an entirely new walk with God, one that they themselves experienced as true conversion. I still have pastors contact me about their experience as students in that class and the profound effect it had on them.

What was especially exciting was that the first-quarter’s students were also taking a class in Spiritual Formation at the same time. In this class they explored how study, prayer and witness combines to develop a deeper and deeper relationship with God. Being deeply exposed to the biblical material (in my class) at the same time they were learning how to talk and listen to God at a deeper level provided both a stimulus and a safeguard to their walk with God. So when more recently people started talking negatively about Spiritual Formation and by implication the Seminary, I was puzzled and quite defensive for my former colleagues. Over 25 years I had not detected one trace of spiritualism or demonic danger at the Seminary. Surely people were confused in their use of these terms.

So I was deeply interested when a book arrived on my desk entitled The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer, by Howard Peth. The book was published by Pacific Press and Hart Research Center, both entities that I trusted. It came to me without charge and a letter of endorsement from the president of Adventist-Laymen’s Services and Industries, an entity that encourages Seventh-day Adventist lay people to integrate their faith and their professions, something that I could certainly endorse. The letter suggested that spiritual formation, contemplative prayer and the emerging church could be tools to bring satanic spiritualistic ideas into the church (quoting the prediction of Ellen White, The Great Controversy, page 588). So I took it the book projected these three elements as steps to the great end-time deception I had often written about in my books. So I determined to read the book at my first convenience. What I found there will be reviewed in future blogs.