April 4, 2018 / MaryKate Morse

Evangelism, Discipleship, and Spiritual Formation: Which is What?

When I began researching “spiritual formation” in the early 90s, most Evangelicals considered it heretical and New Age. Even in 2018, on the 40th anniversary of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, some Evangelicals consider Foster a heretic who is misleading the church.

However, for most of us, spiritual formation is broadly accepted today in churches, in Evangelical universities, and theological schools. Even so, people are still confused by “what it is.” I am often asked about the difference between discipleship and spiritual formation. In honor of Richard Foster, I would like to suggest a response and an approach which places “spiritual formation” in the context of evangelism and discipleship.

Though 'spiritual formation' has gone from heretical to accepted in most evangelical contexts, it is still often misunderstood. Here's how spiritual formation relates to evangelism and discipleship. Share on X

Defining Our Terms


Though evangelism is not a popular topic today, it is always a necessary one. Without a “good news” story, without a relational God, an incarnational Christ, and a guiding Spirit, there is no Christian formation.

Evangelism is the process of sharing the Good News story of a risen and living Christ. The core call to evangelism is found in Matthew 28:19

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The focus of evangelism is faith in God.

The response is a decision to follow Jesus, which is usually marked by baptism and by joining a faith community (or in the case of infant baptism, becoming part of a faith family).

Evangelism almost always takes place through particular relationships and in particular environments such as campus ministries or churches. Your Baptist friend invites you to her Baptist church. Your Vineyard co-worker intrigues you, and you attend his Vineyard church. Your college roommate invites you to an InterVarsity Bible study.

When a person decides to follow Jesus and then affiliates with a particular faith environment, discipleship begins.  


Discipleship is the process of learning Jesus’ teaching and following Jesus’ example. The call of Matthew 28:19 is not just to go and baptize, but also to make disciples. Jesus calls us to be his disciples and to be disciple-makers.

The focus of discipleship is Jesus Christ.

The response is an active movement towards Jesus. Our new life is visible to all.

Discipleship involves learning concrete behaviors and ideas. Character and ethics matter. New believers regularly attend church or a campus Bible study. They “turn over a new leaf.” Often they take a new believers or new member’s class, and are taught the historical and theological foundations of that church. They learn spiritual practices such as Bible study, the sacraments, prayer, worship, and social engagement in justice concerns. All of this happens in a container. Discipleship is always contextualized in a particular place with particular people who hold particular ideas and value particular practices.

Yet we all agree that God is more than any single church container. Sometimes the container can even “bind” the Holy Spirit. When the sufferings of life happen, the believer might find he or she has reached the limits of the container. They might be told, “This is just how it is,” or “If you have faith, you won’t have questions,” or “If you prayed more, you wouldn’t be tempted.” Sometimes the busy Christian life itself becomes a burden and doing things for Jesus doesn’t result in a deeper connection to him.

Spiritual Formation

The human yearning for something more is the desire for “spiritual formation.” From the earliest disciples—faithful Jewish men and women—who saw something more in Jesus’ life, to present day persons, spiritual formation is the desire for a deeper more authentic life in Christ.  

Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the glory of God and for the sake of others (II Corinthians 3:17-18). The conforming is beyond the container because it is to a person, Jesus Christ.

The focus of spiritual formation is the Holy Spirit, who guides the ongoing journey.

The response is submission. Formation is an organic, life-long, and holistic process involving right (ortho) thinking, right behaviors, and right feelings of individuals and communities.

How Does Spiritual Formation Happen?

Often a faith community will emphasize one or more of the three spheres; such as thoughts and behaviors to the exclusion of feelings, or feelings and behaviors to the exclusion of thoughts. As finite human beings, the containers we construct to understand life and our responsibilities to God are good and wonderful and necessary. But, in the end, they are only containers. The Spirit and the written Word, and the in-dwelling Christ help us to experience ‘living water’ which flows out of our innermost being (John 7:37-38), coming from the deepest depths of our identities and our communities.

Then to be clear, spiritual disciplines are the tools of spiritual formation. They are not the guarantors. Only the Spirit is the guarantor. Tilden Edwards referred to spiritual disciplines as concrete habits which help us be attentive to grace.  Spiritual formation is not adding cool things to do such as labyrinth walking or contemplative prayer or lectio divina. Such practices are good, but they do not necessarily result in formation. Formation requires submission to the Spirit, humility of the mind and heart, and space for solitude, reflection, and accountability. Formation happens best in diverse communities.

Disciplines are tools to help us get there.

In the same way, spiritual directors, mentors, pastors, and spiritual friends are important relationships for reflection, companionship, and sometimes guidance. The best gift from these special relationships is the act of their listening deeply to us and on our behalf with the Spirit.  

Spiritual formation requires submission to the Spirit, humility of the mind and heart, and space for solitude, reflection, and accountability. Formation happens best in diverse communities. Share on X

The Order Is Changing

What is interesting today is that, for many, the door to Christ begins with a relationship. The journey process is reversed. Instead of evangelism to discipleship to formation, the seeker begins with a relationship, might experiment with disciplines, and formation often begins. Then follows discipleship and evangelism, baptism and confession that Christ is Lord.  

Therefore, the spiritual formation responsibility for ministry practitioners is to create environments and cultures where formation is possible. The discipleship responsibility for ministry practitioners is to give Jesus’ followers a stable platform of theology, ethics, and faith and relationship practices. The evangelism responsibility is to share Jesus’ story and be the person who engages in the world’s concerns as Christ did.  

Here's @MaryKateMorse on the unique responsibilities of ministry practitioners and church leaders when it comes to spiritual formation, discipleship, and evangelism. Share on X

Thank you, Richard Foster, for 40+ years of faithfulness to the Spirit’s movement in your life and writing.