I've been thinking a bit about spiritual formation lately, and this lengthy quote from Reggie McNeal has been helpful. I am almost done with this book and I've really enjoyed it.
In the modern world spiritual formation was thought to be accomplished by taking a student through a prescribed group of texts that addressed topic in a curricular approach. This is so deeply ingrained in us that we approach almost any learning experience in the church this way. Only in the modern world would you find people huddled together reading literature produced by mission agencies as a primary approach to mission "education" or would you convene a conference for people to spend all day taking notes in a notebook on fasting and prayer. This feels "normal" to us. In the world that is dawning, the curriculum approach to growing people is increasingly view as a supplemental strategy to the primary approach: learning agendas driven by life issues and informed by life experiences.
Jesus facilitated spiritual formation in his disciples by introducing them to life situation and then helping them debrief their experiences. He taught them to pray. He did not lead them in a study course on prayer. He took them on mission trips (Samaria, for example); he didn't read books to them on the subject of missions. He sent them on learning junkets and exposed them to situations. He asked their opinion on what they were hearing and observing ("Who do you say that I am?"). He asked for radical obedience from them. He asked them to take up a cross and follow him. He did not send them to school and wait for them to graduate before giving them a significant assignment. He sent them out before they were ready to go and then helped them to learn from their experiences. He talked about the kingdom of God, but mostly he lived the kingdom of God, practicing a life in front of his followers that modeled very different core values than those given to them by the Pharisees in the synagogues.
Helping people grow, particularly in the arena of spiritual formation, is about unpacking life: challenging our emotional responses that are destructive (envy, hatred, bitterness); challenging our biases (racial prejudice, social and economic elitism, intellectual snobbery); challenging our assumptions ("my needs are the most important"); challenging our responses; unpacking our frustrations, our hopes, our dreams, and our disappointments; bringing life to God rather than teaching about God, somehow hoping to get him into our life.
Reggie McNeal in The Present Future, pgs 85-86, emphasis his.