Spiritual Formation at Worship

October/November 2012 – Volume 18, Issue 5

Within spiritual formation and similar circles, there has been much criticism of worship as found in evangelical Protestantism. Much of this criticism is aimed at the seeker-sensitive churches with their push for polished performances, entertainment, and the desire to keep the seeker (i.e. unsaved people who are attending the services) as comfortable as possible by offering them an environment and experience similar to what they would encounter at a secular gathering or concert. The idea is that people unfamiliar with church life feel more at home and will be more likely to return if they do not encounter something foreign or “weird” in the form of worship. This approach is obviously working, if one evaluates a church on the basis of nickels and noses, as the largest churches in the world have adopted this philosophy. But there has been a considerable push back against this viewpoint within not only more conservative evangelical churches but also from the emergent and spiritual formation camps. Mike King believes the church should offer an alternative experience and states, “It should be a bit odd and peculiar for visitors to enter our sanctuaries and engage in worship. This isn’t bad. It’s good. It shows that we are a subculture that’s distinct.”[1] And Dan Kimball observes that “many of these very things [methods promoted by the seeker-sensitive movement] are contrary to what emerging generations value and are seeking in their spiritual experience…The things that seeker-sensitive churches removed from their churches are the very things nonbelievers want to experience if they attend a worship service. So I don’t think there will be much controversy about bringing back all the spiritual elements and going deeper with our teaching!”[2]

It would be hoped that many who have grown tired of the splash and show of consumer-oriented, market-driven strategy would seek out biblically-based churches that major on Christ, the gospel and Scripture. There are many churches throughout the world that are seeking to please the Lord, not the consumer, and that draw their marching orders from Scripture and not from the culture. Some reacting to the seeker-model will head for these churches and be discipled according to biblical principles. Others, such as some of the very people that King and Kimball represent, will be attracted to elements of spiritual formation. Much of what has been discussed so far in previous papers concerning spiritual formation has to do with private or personal practices. While contemplative prayer and lectio divina can be elements of public worship, they are best experienced in solitude and silence. But for the movement to be valid it also needs a public dimension and presence. For those imbibing in spiritual formation concepts and techniques, public worship is most likely to be an adoption of liturgical practices found within Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. This is only logical given that spiritual formation is rooted in those traditions and being guided by them to this day. As a result, worshippers at evangelical churches are increasingly discovering icons, Stations of the Cross, incense, rosaries, prayer ropes and candles, more prevalent liturgy, and the liturgical year.

Many Protestants are unfamiliar with these methods and formats and simply believe their church leadership has come up with creative new ideas to augment worship. But the fact is these are not new ideas at all but ancient ones that go back to the early days of the church. In fact, it is the historic roots of these practices that are touted as reasons the church should embrace these methods today. The idea is that since these procedures and forms have deep roots in church history and because they were supposedly invented by “spiritual masters,” we would be wise to incorporate them into our public and private worship today. It should be observed, as we examine some of these liturgies and methods, that most of them have no basis in Scripture. They have been invented by men and accepted by certain church hierarchies but they are not biblically-based. As a result, at the very least none of these practices should be seen as mandatory for spiritual growth or church life. Let’s overview some of the things spiritual formation is incorporating into its system for worship.

The Liturgical Year

Phyllis Tickle, general editor of the “Ancient Practices Series” for publisher Thomas Nelson believes it is the liturgy and the liturgical cycle that bindsthe faith community together and “deepens our understandings of what it means to live more fully, more deeply, more spiritually from year to year.”[3] Joan Chittister, the author of The Liturgical Year, one of eight books in “The Ancient Practices Series,” states, “The liturgical year is the arena where our life and the life of Jesus intersect.”[4] When our lives intersect with that of Jesus great things are promised.

Like the voices of loved ones gone before us, the liturgical year is the voice of Jesus calling to us every day of our lives to wake our sleeping selves from the drowsing effects of purposelessness and meaninglessness, materialism and hedonism, rationalism and indifference, to attend to the life of Jesus who cries within us for fulfillment. Then the world will change. Then the people will be saved. Then the reign of God promised by Jesus, preached by theapostles, and proclaimed by the lives of the saints will have come. Then life will be what is meant to be: the love of God fully alive in us. [5]

This a tall order. Can adherence to the liturgical calendar really deliver on all these promises? If so then the very fact that much of Protestantism has neglected the liturgical year may be the reason that the world has not changed, salvation is not more prevalent, the kingdom of God has not fully come and life is not all it was meant to be. If all of this is true, we certainly want to be on board. But before we jump on, let’s take a brief look at the specifics of the liturgical year. Robert Weber informs us,

The Christian year, which developed in the first few centuries of the church, marked yearly time by Advent (waiting for the Messiah), Christmas (the Messiah has come), Epiphany (the Messiah is manifested to be for the whole world), Lent (preparing for the death of Jesus), Holy Week (reenacting the final week and saving events), Easter (celebrating the resurrection), Ascension (Jesus ascends in glory to intercede for us at the right hand of the Father), andPentecost (the coming of the Holy Spirit in a new way). [6]

As can readily be seen, the liturgical calendar celebrates or commemorates the most important events in the Christian faith; there is no argument with this. But within the liturgical system very precise liturgies and structures have been developed by which these events are to be remembered. According to Chittister there are four major kinds of celebration: Sundays; seasons of the year such as Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter; the sanctoral cycle commemorating the lives of certain saints; and Ordinary Time – the two periods of time between Eastertide and Advent, and then again between Christmastide and Lent.[7] Within these four major kinds of celebrations are numerous minor celebrations. For example there are four feasts of Ordinary time: Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, the feast of the Sacred Heart, and Christ the King.[8] There are also 16 events dedicated to Mary each year.[9] Add to these all the many other celebrations, solemnities, feasts and memorials and the church calendar gets pretty full. Let’s take a closer look at just two of these celebrations:


Lent is the word used to denote the forty-day fast preceding Easter. In modern times it is usually observed from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday (approximately six weeks). Its traditional purpose is to prepare believers for Easter through various forms of prayer and sacrifice. During Lent many will participate in selective fasts or abstinence from luxuries or some types of food. Chittister covers Lent in her chapter entitled “Asceticism” and says,“Lent revolves around sacrifice…We must be prepared to give up some things if we intend to get things that even are more important.” [10] Lent draws from the asceticism of early monasticism,

Ardent Christians, monastics, left the cities where narcissism held full sway to live as solitaries in the desert in order to do battle with the enemies of the soul. They practiced harsh penances and purged themselves completely of all worldly pleasures in order to witness to a life beyond this life, a lifebeyond the gratification of the body to the single-minded development of the soul. [11]

Chittister is happy that the extremes of asceticism are a thing of the past; nevertheless, she applauds the goal of the ascetics which “is to conquer themselves and develop their souls.”[12] Asceticism is the idea that by putting our physical bodies through deliberate suffering and hardship we will master our inward passions. It is “through acts of asceticism, we learn the most difficult thing in life: we master the gift of self-conquest. We are no longer prey to our own excesses. Now we arein control of the most difficult material we’ll ever confront—ourselves.” [13] The problem with asceticism is that it doesn’t work and it is unbiblical. Paul clearly torpedoed the whole ascetic movement when he wrote in Colossians 2:20-23,

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachingsof men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

Deliberate asceticism, harsh treatment of the body and abstinence from acceptable activities, actions and food, may have the appearance of spiritual activity but have no effect on our souls, nor do they enhance our spiritual development. Lent is a hold-over from ascetic practices of the past that have no direct spiritual value.

Marian Piety

While not everyone involved in spiritual formation will be devoted to Mary, it cannot be ignored that Mary is front and center in the liturgical year. Chittister affirms that Marian theology is “the DNA of religion in our bones…Marian piety is part of the roots of the church. It is not only part of themost ancient devotions in the church; it has a continuing and present power…The Marian liturgical tradition is one of the pillars of the church.” [14] With this backdrop it is no wonder, as previously noted, there are fully 16 events on the liturgical calendar dedicated to Mary. Those who want to follow the liturgical calendar, and yet filter out Mary, are going to have a difficult task. She is at the very heart of ancient liturgy.


Before moving on, it is important to address the issue of authority. By what authority have the liturgical year and liturgical practices been established? It is one thing to develop and keep an optional tradition that is neither obligatory nor universally spiritually beneficial; it is another to make certain practices and traditions both mandatory and necessary for spiritual growth. For example, I like the tradition of Thanksgiving. I observe it and enjoy it, but it is not mandated by the church nor is there any particular spiritual enhancement I receive from gathering with family and friends and overeating. But the liturgical year with its celebrations, feasts and traditions are all backed by the authority of the Catholic Church and seen as absolutely essential for spiritual formation (see Chittister’s remarks above). But wait a minute: we have at least two problems. Not all who promote liturgical living agree. Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, has a very different liturgy that some believe is far superior to the Catholic one. For example Robert Webber, founder of the Ancient-Future Movement and a strong proponent of liturgical living, claims that “the style of Roman worship is much more legalistic and rigid” than in Orthodoxy.[15] Further, “Eastern and Western worship differed in content, structure, and style. The content of Eastern worship maintained a strong resemblance to the narrative of ancient worship, emphasizing creation, incarnation, and re-creation in the pattern of Word and sacrament. Western worship, on the other hand, reduced the full content ofGod’s story to a focus on the sacrifice of Christ for sin.” [16]

So which liturgy is the right one? By what authority do we make such decisions? This brings us to the second and real issue. No one who champions spiritual formation and/or the liturgical year makes any claims that these practices, traditions and liturgies are found in Scripture. Chittister, for example, is clear that every aspect of the liturgy and the liturgical year is rooted in extrabiblical sources and developed years after the close of the New Testament, often centuries later.[17] This is not a problem to one steeped in Catholic theology (since final authority rests in the Church’s magisterium), but it is a problem when those in Orthodoxy have their magisterium and even a bigger problem for those who confess sola Scriptura. For the latter the final authority is found in the revelation of God as found in Scripture. The Bible does not tell us to follow a liturgical year or perform certain liturgies in order to be growing followers of Christ. Therefore, the teachings of Scripture on the subject of discipleship are being pushed aside and replaced by the teachings of men, something Jesus condemned in no uncertain terms (Matt 15:1-9).

Sabbath Keeping

Another book written in the Ancient Practices Series is Sabbath. It was written by Dan Allender, founder of Mars Hill Graduate School (recently changed to The Seattle School of Theology to avoid confusion with Mars Hill Church), to promote Sabbath keeping as a spiritual discipline. Allender develops three core premises in this book:

  • The Sabbath is not merely a good idea; it is one of the Ten Commandments. Jesus did not abrogate, cancel, or annul the idea of the Sabbath.
  • The Sabbath is a day of delight for humankind, animals, and the earth; it is not merely a pious day and it is not fundamentally a break, a day off, or a twenty-four-hour vacation.
  • The Sabbath is a feast day that remembers our leisure in Eden and anticipates our play in the new heavens and earth with family, friends, and strangers for the sake of the glory of God.[18]

It is important to note that Allender does not draw any of his premises from Scripture but rather from Jewish tradition, ancient and modern practices, andrituals created and imagined by Allender and those in his mystically-oriented camp. [19]

For example, Allender claims that since Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments Christians are to keep it. Not only does this ignore the frequent New Testament statements proclaiming us free from the Mosaic Law and the fact that Sabbath-keeping is never commanded in the New Testament for the church, but Allender also has no intention of actually following the prescribed Old Testament manner in which Sabbath was kept. Working from Deuteronomy 5:12-15, whichstates Sabbath as a day of rest, Allender immediately twists the passage to teach Sabbath as a day of play and celebration of creation. [20] At no point does the author mention, nor does he intend to apply, the many and stringent Old Covenant regulations regarding Sabbath. Instead, Allender makes an inexplicable leap from the pages of Scripture to an imaginary understanding of Sabbath as a day of pretense and delight.

In order to delight in Sabbath, Allender recommends many options from lighting candles, smoking pipes, drinking good wine, finger painting, taking a hike,reading a novel, fly fishing (even if it is an imaginary adventure on the lawn), and eating the best of food. [21] The only stipulation is that Sabbath must be pursued with delight: “What intrigues, amazes, tickles your fancy, delights your senses, and casts you into an entirely new and unlimited world is the raw material of Sabbath.”[22]

Not only is Sabbath a day of play, it is also a day of pretense. “It is a day we pretend that all is well, our enemies are not at war with us, and thepeace we will one day enjoy for eternity, is an eternity that utters this day on our behalf.”[23] Sabbath then “is a fiction,” [24] a day lived as if there was no sin, a day of “curiosity, coziness, and care.”[25] It is a party.[26] We are to pretend and play on Sabbath as if the new heavens and earth were here.[27]Such pretense will require props which could include candles, using our finest china, or rituals such as Sabbath sex or a walk in the woods. [28]

In other words, Allender has created a totally unbiblical view of the Sabbath, one that would be completely unrecognizable by Old Testament Jews as well as church age Christians. He has not drawn his concepts from Scripture, nor has he made any serious attempt to do so. He is content with the opinions of hispeers, his own imagination and the direct communication that he receives supposedly from the Lord. [29] In short Sabbath is a work of fiction, not exactly the kind of fiction Allender recommends but fiction nevertheless.

I have based my impression of spiritual formation leader’s view on the Sabbath keeping on Allender’s book because I think it is fairly representative of others who want to incorporate the Sabbath into spiritual formation. Allender is admittedly more extreme than many others, but of those pushing for some form of Sabbath keeping, virtually no one is recommending keeping it as it was prescribed under the Old Covenant. When Christian leaders latch onto an idea or concept and then depart from biblical teachings to promote their own imagination they have become their own authority. This will always lead to errant living.

Icons, Rosaries, and Stations

One of the criticisms of the worship services of many Protestant/evangelical churches is that they are too cerebral. “Talking heads” (preachers) are attempting to reach their audience almost exclusively through the ear-gate, and musicians take a similar approach. In contrast, Dan Kimball believes,“Emerging generations desire a multisensory worship experience” in which all the senses are addressed. [30] He writes, “God created us as multisensorycreatures and chose to reveal himself to us through all of our senses.” [31] For those like Kimball who accept this presupposition, the best place to turn for multisensory experiences is the ancient practices and traditions created by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Mike King states, for example, “Over two thousand years of church history, believers have developed practices, disciplines and ways to be conformed into the likeness of Christ.”[32] Some worship practices gleaned from past tradition (but notably not from Scripture) and increasingly found in Protestant churches today are the use of icons, praying the rosary or prayer ropes, Stations of the Cross, making the sign of the cross and the daily office. We will briefly look at three of these.


The use of icons in the worship of God has long been a lightning rod and a source of much controversy and division within historic Christianity. Images of God are strictly forbidden in the Ten Commandments, but Catholicism and especially Eastern Orthodoxy came to see icons as windows between earthly and spiritual worlds. Richard Foster tells us that John of Damascus (d. 749) provided a clear theology for the use of icons in Christian devotions.

He taught, in summary, that before God took human form in Christ, no material depiction was possible and therefore blasphemous even to contemplate. Once God became incarnate, however, depiction became possible. Since Christ is God and part of the triune Community, it is justified to hold in our mind the image of God incarnate. Hence, because of the incarnation of Christ, using physical images of Jesus becomes part of a full incarnational, or enfleshment, theology.[33]

Foster believes “the seventh ecumenical council of 787 settled the matter for the Christian community by affirming the use of icons and other symbols as a valid aspect of Christian worship. In expressing this conclusion, the council was careful to make a clear distinction between the veneration of icons and the worship of icons.”[34] Mike King wants to make it evident that he does not pray to icons, but he prays with icons and says he has “experienced some profound encounters with God while praying with icons.”[35] Regardless of what was decided at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, or what is being experienced by King, there is not a hint of the use of icons to worship the Lord in either Testament. The Old Testament clearly condemns the use of icons and the New Testament does not change the command of God; the early, New Testament churches do not make any use of them. Someone might counter that the New Testament does not mention pews or church buildings either, but we use them today. However, the Bible does not condemn pews or church buildings and neither is directly used in worship as icons are.

Rosary and Prayer Ropes

The Rosary is a long standing Catholic tradition aimed primarily at the veneration of Mary. As an individual fingers the Rosary beads he prays certain prayers that make up the rosary including repeated sequences of the Lord’s Prayer and ten “Hail Mary(s)” and one praying of “Glory be to the Father.”

The prayer rope is a necklace-like loop often made of wool which serves a similar purpose as the rosary within the Orthodox tradition. It consists of fifty to a hundred complicated knots, the purpose of which is to count the number of times the Jesus Prayer is prayed.

Stations of the Cross

It is becoming popular for evangelical churches to use the Stations of the Cross in their worship services or for special events. The Stations of the Cross are a set of fourteen stations used to represent the final hours of Christ beginning when Jesus was condemned to death and culminating with His burial. The participant moves physically from station to station meditating on what Christ did at each point represented by that particular station. It is therefore a prayer pilgrimage based upon chief scenes of Christ’s sufferings and death. It has been popular within Catholic worship for centuries. Some believe the incorporation of the Stations into public worship began with Francis of Assisi and gained popularity throughout the Medieval period. At each Station there would be icons or pictures to aid in meditation. As with many of the other practices found in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and now being adopted by some within the Spiritual Formation Movement, there is neither biblical precedent nor instruction for the use of the Stations. Some are entirely imaginary, such as the station in which Veronica is giving Jesus water.


The “face” of the Spiritual Formation Movement, as well as contemplative spirituality and emergent Christianity, is often first noticed within evangelical churches by the incorporation of traditional Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practices and liturgies. Many of these practices are being introduced at special events and eventually find their way into the regular services of the church. Worshippers are often confused by what they are experiencing and do not understand what is taking place. It should be understood that when traditions borrowed from errant groups such as Catholics and Orthodoxy are taken into evangelical worship and life, and are done so without a careful examination of Scripture, what is being adopted is more than just methods. There is a comprehensive, and in many ways wrong, theology upon which these practices rest. Methods do matter, and we are naïve to think that we can take techniques from false religions and not eventually embrace their theology.

[1] Mike King, Presence-Centered Youth Ministry, Guiding Students into Spiritual Formation, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p. 39.

[2] Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church, Vintage Christianity for New Generations, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 103, 115).

[3] Quoted in Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year, the Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. xiv.

[4] Ibid., p. 16.

[5] Ibid., pp. 21-22.

[6] Robert Weber, Ancient-Future Worship, Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), pp. 54-55.

[7] Chittister, pp. 28-29.

[8] Ibid., pp. 186-188.

[9] Ibid., pp. 206-207.

[10] Ibid., p. 100.

[11] Ibid., p. 102.

[12] Ibid., p. 103.

[13] Ibid., pp. 105-106.

[14] Ibid., pp. 202-203.

[15] Robert Weber, Ancient-Future Worship, p. 74.

[16] Ibid., p. 76.

[17] Chittister, pp. 19, 64, 78, 102, 108-109, 135-136, 143-144, 159, 172, 186-188, 203-204.

[18] Dan B. Allender, Sabbath, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. 5.

[19] Ibid., pp. 27-28.

[20] Ibid., p. 83.

[21] Ibid., pp. 43, 61, 97, 120-130, 160-161.

[22] Ibid., p. 47.

[23] Ibid., p. 108 (see also pp. 110-111, 130-131).

[24] Ibid., p. 110

[25] Ibid., pp. 110-111.

[26] Ibid., p. 125.

[27] Ibid., p. 132.

[28] Ibid., p. 156.

[29] See Ibid., pp. 106, 112, 141, 146, 151-152,

[30] Dan Kimball, p. 127.

[31] Ibid., p. 128.

[32] Mike King, p. 38.

[33] Richard Foster , Sanctuary of the Soul, Journey into Meditative Prayer, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011) pp. 40-41.

[34] Ibid., p. 41.

[35] Mike King, p. 133.


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