By Matt Sally

Q & A: What Is Spiritual Formation?

“Practicing spiritual disciplines is life altering,” said Stephen Smith, InterVarsity alumnus and InterVarsity Press author.

We’ve all heard the words spiritual formation. A term like that has good intentions, but how do we turn the rhetoric into action?

InterVarsity recently discussed this topic with Steve. As a former pastor and founder of Potter’s Inn spiritual formation center near Colorado Springs, Colorado, Steve’s ministry experiences and personal journey offer great wisdom for nurturing spiritual formation in our own lives.

A graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, Steve came to faith in Jesus through InterVarsity. He later served as chapter president and attended Urbana 1973. Steve credits InterVarsity with molding his faith and philosophy of ministry. “I believe I learned more through InterVarsity than I did in my three years of seminary and several years of post-graduate studies,” he said.

Here’s what Steve had to say about his spiritual formation experience and how important it is in our lives as we long to grow closer to Jesus.

How did you become interested in spiritual formation?

I am learning that all of life is about spiritual formation—how we are shaped into the image of Jesus throughout our life.

In my role as a pastor, I counseled hundreds of people, but never really connected the work of spiritual formation in their lives until I met my first huge crisis as a mega-church pastor in North Carolina. In the midst of that crisis, I embarked on a 30-day spiritual retreat led by Dallas Willard. It was a life changing experience.

At the retreat, I was introduced to the big story of spiritual formation. I had to confront my past—so I entered counseling and faced significant struggles in my life. I practiced, for the first time, some of the ancient spiritual disciplines which now so profoundly influence me and my entire ministry. The impact of my time focused on God at that retreat was profound; it was like a second conversion. I met Jesus face to face. I came to the life altering realization that I was the beloved of God and did not have to perform anymore to gain his favor. Everything changed for me in that “monk cell.” Wounds in my marriage healed, broken relationships with my four children restored, and I felt genuinely happy for the first time in my life.

What have you seen God do in you and in others through spiritual formation practices?

In our work of counseling, we are about helping people learn a new way of life which includes many of the spiritual habits and disciplines that they have perhaps read about, but have not owned in their daily walk with God. We are more than a counseling ministry. We teach, guide, mentor, and educate leaders today about the ancient practices of the men and women who met God through the use of spiritual disciplines.

What has spiritual formation ministry shown you about God?

I have learned that God indeed is the Potter, and we are merely the clay. God’s story is so vast and huge, and I am but among the most recent to appear on this stage and have my very small part in God’s immense Kingdom. It is not about me.

People often make New Year’s resolutions. What are your thoughts on resolutions focused on increasing personal spiritual formation?

I am all for resolutions that are realistic. I make resolutions every year and I encourage folks to do the same. They are new targets that we can try to hit. So what if we miss! A resolution gives us something to hope for and strive toward in life.

When missing the target with resolutions, what suggestions do you have for making these things stick for the long haul?

Be realistic.

Be accountable.

Be honest with yourself and with God.

Take the first step to try.

Allow the Spirit of God to continually work in and through you.

Are there particular practices that God has especially used to form you? What new practices have been blessings in your life in recent years?

I am a recovering extrovert. I used to think that experiencing people was where the action was in life and ministry. I say “recovering” because I have had to discover how I can best cultivate my relationship with God.

I enjoy silence and solitude so much that this past year, we moved from the city to our own retreat located in Divide, Colorado. I don’t think we will go back to the city. At this phase of my life it is about integrating what I know with how I live, and I enjoy waking up to beauty in nature, taking a walk, then starting my work in my office. I want our retreat to be a place where thousands of people will stop and receive refreshment and life on their way to heaven. That is our goal. I believe that as the world goes faster and faster and we get busier, people will need places to reassess the trajectory of their lives. I can see hundreds of places like Potter’s Inn springing up all over the world.

In addition to founding Potter’s Inn, Steve Smith is also the author of The Transformation of a Man’s Heart (IVP), Soul Shaping (David C Cook), Soul Custody (David C Cook), Embracing Soul Care (Kregel), The Lazarus Life: Spiritual Transformation for Ordinary People (David C Cook), and more.

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Enjoyed the perspective of a "recovering extrovert" as a person who is also energized being with people. I, too, finding myself longing for quiet time with God. I would like to know some of the Spiritual Disciplines he practiced.

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