Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation

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Although the terms spiritual formation and spiritual direction initially came from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic contemplative traditions, these concepts are clearly taught in the Scriptures. Christians are to have the mind of Jesus who was in the form (morphe) of God, but also took on the form of a servant in our behalf (Philippians 2:6-7). Paul was in travail "until Christ be formed in you!" (Galatians 4:19). Christians are to be transformed (metamorphe) by the renewal of their minds (Romans 12:2), and "changed (metamorphometha) into [God's] likeness from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18). The biblical pattern is for Jesus to be formed in believers, as he was in the form of God.

Spiritual direction is a means to enhance spiritual formation in the life of the believer. In the classic sense a spiritual director is one who, as a representative of the church, walks with another as a mentor or guide to facilitate that person's relationship (formation) with God; it is a voluntary relationship between an individual wanting to enhance his or her spiritual growth and a more mature Christian who is able and willing to serve as mentor. Spiritual friendship involves a relationship between two friends for the purpose of enhancing each other's spiritual growth. Certainly Jesus sought to facilitate and give direction to the lives of his disciples, calling them to "follow me and I will make you become fishers of men." Paul said "be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." Throughout the New Testament, Christians are called to admonish and exhort one another to a life of faithfulness in Jesus Christ.

Although, until recently, Mennonites did not use the terms "spiritual formation" and "spiritual direction" to describe their religious experience, concern for formation and direction have been inherent in Mennonite emphasis upon discipleship. Anabaptist and Mennonite discipleship has been a spirituality shaped by the ethical imperative to follow Jesus at all costs. The Anabaptist understanding of following was characterized by repentance (turning to Jesus) and baptism as a covenant with God and the church. Their covenant was to be obedient disciples, to be yielded to God in daily life (Gelassenheit), to live by the "rule of Christ" in mutual accountability and discipline, to share possessions with any as there was need, to practice love and nonresistance with all, to accept "crossbearing" for Christ's sake, and boldly to call others to follow Jesus. This discipleship may be thought of as a covenantal spirituality in which each one is called to personal faith, to accountability in Christian community, and to suffering love in relationship to the world.

Persecution strengthened Anabaptist resolve to trust and obey God even as Jesus did. Discipleship, crossbearing or martyrdom, love and nonresistance, and Gelassenheit became prominent themes of Anabaptist spirituality to which Mennonites in Europe, Russia, and North America later turned as they sought the renewal of the church. However, in a world without intense persecution the dynamics of crossbearing changed. Already in the 16th century the spirituality of some in The Netherlands and Germany was influenced by Pietism and rationalism. Formation for Dutch Mennonites was largely pursued through education. As Mennonites in North America sought to follow Jesus in their time, the emphasis changed from martyrdom to humility and, in the early 20th century, to nonconformity and mission.

Several additional themes have also been important in Mennonite history. The sharing of material goods in mutual aid and service to others have always been significant expressions of Mennonite spiritual life. Mennonites have historically lived close to nature which often resulted in a sense of being and working with God in vocation, community, and worship.

Certainly Mennonite spirituality has been embedded in an ethical and communal way of life more than in self-conscious practices of piety such as meditation, fasting, contemplation, rituals, or keeping of holy days (Christian calendar). However, throughout their history, Mennonites have also repeatedly experienced a quest for heartfelt devotion to God. Almost from the beginning some were attracted to the piety of religious groups with more emotional expression. Many Mennonites were drawn to Pietism in Europe, North America (17th and 18th centuries), and Russia (19th century); to revivalism in 19th- and 20th-century North America, and to charismatic renewal in mid 20th-century North America. American Mennonite spirituality has also been influenced in this century by Fundamentalist and Evangelical emphases. These various expressions have sometimes been an extension of and sometimes in tension with the emphasis in Mennonite discipleship upon an ethical way of life concerned more with doing the will of God than with religious experience as such.

Various expressions of worship and witness have also emerged in the mix of historic Mennonite doctrine with indigenous Mennonite churches throughout the world. To date there has not been enough study to describe accurately the variety of expressions of spirituality among non-Western Mennonites or even the variety that exists among Mennonites in Europe and North America. However, it is apparent that the worship and prayers of non-Western Mennonites has often been more emotionally expressive and fervent than that of many of their brothers and sisters of Germanic descent in the Western world. Certainly these expressions of spirituality are unique, and not simply extensions of Mennonite experience in the Western world.

Since the mid 20th century, the life of North American Mennonites has become more diffuse and diversified. Missions and modernity have significantly influenced Mennonite religious experience. During World War II and following, Mennonite missions and service throughout the world greatly increased. At the same time there was also a growing receptivity to modernity. With this involvement in "the world" came increased assimilation, acculturation, and adaptation, resulting in more diversity of experience and greater individuality in conviction concerning the nature and meaning of following Jesus in contemporary life.

The experience of Christian community, in which Mennonite discipleship has historically been embedded, has been diminishing among Western Mennonites. Therefore, continued attention is being given to means that will help strengthen and sustain personal and corporate spirituality. This includes awareness of expressions of spirituality from other Christian traditions in their use of symbols, rituals, and liturgy; Scriptures; meditation; contemplation; spiritual direction; journaling and other reflective experiences for personal spiritual growth. These may well serve to facilitate spiritual growth among contemporary Mennonites concerned with following Jesus in daily life.

Spiritual direction in the classic sense has not been practiced among Mennonites until recently. However, the Anabaptists experienced a significant form of corporate spiritual direction through the exercise of the "rule of Christ" in their communal life (discipline). The baptismal covenant resulting in mutual accountability, mutual discipline, and mutual support was intended to promote faithfulness, devotion, and personal transformation in the individual and the congregation.

Later in Mennonite history, responsibility for spiritual growth and discipline was primarily delegated to a few key leaders in the congregation, to representatives of the church who were to provide direction by safeguarding the spiritual well-being of each one. Contemporary Mennonites in North America are also pursuing the use of certain forms of spiritual direction, along with other practices of pastoral care, to enhance faithfulness to God through personal spiritual growth, corporate worship, mutual accountability, and mutual support. The practice of spiritual direction can help Mennonites pursue the biblical concern for mutual exhortation and the Anabaptist concern for mutual accountability and discipline.

See also Christian EducationPastoral Counseling


Barry, William A. and William J. Connolly. The Practice of Spiritual Direction. New York: Seabury, 1982.

Edwards, Tilden. Spiritual Friend. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.

MacMaster, Richard K. Land, Piety, Peoplehood: the Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790, The Mennonite Experience in America (MEA), vol. 1. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985.

Dyck, C. J. Introduction to Mennonite History. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1967, 1981.

Schlabach, Theron F. Gospel Versus Gospel: Mission and the Mennonite Church, 1863-1944. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980.

Smucker, Marcus G. "Self-sacrifice and Self-realization in Mennonite Spirituality." PhD diss., Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities, 1987.

Author(s) Marcus G Smucker
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Smucker, Marcus G. "Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 Jun 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Spiritual_Direction_and_Spiritual_Formation&oldid=110211.

APA style

Smucker, Marcus G. (1989). Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 June 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Spiritual_Direction_and_Spiritual_Formation&oldid=110211.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 850-851. All rights reserved.

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