I've been thinking about words lately. Words that we use in the visible no longer mean what they used to mean. Terms like Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and especially Evangelical have changed. Today, words like Missional, Transformational or Spiritual Formation are now the new cool trending words in the majority of churches these days. I’m not going to tell you what those words mean in this article. Our website along with many others can help you do your own research.) I want to take a moment and speak to those who are discouraged, and not wanting to cave in to those whom you believe have hijacked these words.
What I've learned in my marketing career is that there is a great battle going on for definitions of words, because those definitions greatly affect "brand." Brand is simply a concept that lives in the hearts and the minds of people and the ideas they form when interacting with products and services. So when you a name like Twinkie or Diet Coke, there is either trust or mistrust; safe or unsafe. When a word like Christian pops up in conversation, no two people have the same impression.
The same is true for Spiritual Formation. When people see that word in a textbook or hear it in a speech, a growing number will become uncomfortable because of where that word comes from (monasteries) and who brought it in to mainstream religiosity (Richard Foster, Dallas Willard). They may also understand that Spiritual Formation was latched onto by Rick Warren and has become an integral part of the Purpose Driven model used by Saddleback, Willow Creek, and many other Peter Drucker-influenced churches following the Seeker/business model.
It is too late to make Spiritual Formation mean anything innocent or Godly and pure. Yes, the Holy Spirit does transform believers when we abide in Christ and His Word. I don’t use the word Spiritual Formation because I know what it really means - and what it always has meant. When I shape the words I use it is certainly not to "appease critics" who might jump to wrong conclusions; it is because words mean things to brothers and sisters in Christ who are looking for a safe refuge from danger.
I think about people who have had to leave churches that have gone Emergent, New Age or (name your movement). I think of parents who love their children and want to protect them from the great falling away that is happening in the Church today. I would say that even if you mean it for good, the word Spiritual Formation is now a red flag. Even if you are aware of these Willard/Foster influences and have taken a “not in my church” stand, if your people see the words Spiritual Formation in your church, on your website or in curriculum, they will assume that you have bought into the deception that has infected many churches. Trust at that point goes out the window.
Yes, I am sorry that so many innocent, biblically-sound words are damaging your brand. I'm not sorry that more people feel uncomfortable with those words. This is just my opinion as a someone who has a brand marketing background and who researches this stuff-- I’d avoid using words like Spiritual Formation. Not to get on anyone's good side or approved list, but because it is a term that is instantly associated with worldly, man-made poison.