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How We Lost Spiritual Direction In The Protestant Tradition

August 22, 2012

I have written a fair bit about the importance of spiritual direction in recent blogs.  It might be helpful to highlight an important issue in this journey: How did we lose the ministry of spiritual direction in the church?

In his book, Care Of Mind/Care of Spirit, Gerald May writes, “Protestants have almost no tested and accepted methods of individual spiritual direction.”

When we study church history, it becomes clear that seeking the wisdom of an spiritual overseer is lost in the early stages of the Protestant tradition. James Houston underscores that the fear of Catholicism and the tendency toward individualism, prevents Protestants from embracing spiritual direction:

Spiritual director, soul friend and spiritual friendship – these new buzz words in Protestant circles make us suspect someone has imported another fad from our society’s “culture of novelty.” Do they signal one more encroachment on evangelical faith and practice? Some who are aware of these phrases’ origins fear that “spiritual direction” is the Trojan horse of Catholicism.

A dangerous assumption is embedded within the Protestant mindset – spirituality is individualistic in nature. One author, referencing the Protestant Reformation, called this assumption “a struggle for the irreplaceable individuality of the believer.”

The loss of spiritual direction in Protestant circles and the resulting spiritual setback among leaders, would seem to be one of the major reasons why Christian leaders are now feeling the need to forge new pathways (or find lost ones) to enhance their own spiritual formation.

Leighton Ford, long time associate of Billy Graham, is one such evangelical who has felt a deep need for the recovery of spiritual direction and now gives most of his time to nurturing a few leaders. Thankfully, this hunger appears to be on the increase and gives us hope that spiritual direction is in the early stages of rediscovery.

Jeannette Bakke, a leading author in this field, was interviewed by Christianity Today and asked, “Why is there a growing interest among Protestants and evangelicals in spiritual direction?” She answered:

People are hungry for authentic spiritual companionship. Many are concerned about the crassness of the larger culture, and the fracturedness and pace of life – they desire to slow down and notice more about who they are and how to be connected to God.  They are dissatisfied with what feels like a lack of significance and are seeking something more.

Spiritual companionship… certainly most Christian leaders hunger for such friendship.  There is a deep thirst for renewal, with few places to turn.  What we now have is a shortage of spiritual guides when, at the same time, we are seeing more and more individuals looking for people who are trained in the art of spiritual direction.  If we hope to see this ministry take hold as a widespread practice, the need for more guides who can offer this type of care to others must be addressed.

In 1978, Richard Foster wrote Celebration of Discipline and opened a new way of understanding how we grow spiritually.  In this wonderful book he helped us see that ancient disciplines or rhythms were needed to secure an experiential and relational union with God.  Since Foster opened that door, scores of other books have been published on the topic of spiritual disciplines with an ever-expanding number of practices that deserve attention.  Yet, most of these books overlook spiritual direction.  That puzzles me!  We are unable to engage in one-to-one conversations that are transformational!  We have lost an ancient discipline – the art of spiritual direction.

In the earliest stages of Christian thought and practice we find St. Augustine writing, “No one can walk without a guide.” Twelve hundred years later St. Ignatius presses the value of soul friendship to the highest level and provides us with a guidebook, The Spiritual Exercises and then comes the grand disconnect.

Slowly but surely, Protestant individualism creates a type of spirituality that is void of soul companions. We journey alone. What’s worse, we don’t even know how to engage in truly deep conversations where we explore the depth of our hearts. The art of spiritual direction is like a lost language. Few people know how to speak it any more. Recovery will require considerable work.

Yet, it must be recovered for it is an original language, it is the language of the soul.

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  1. I remember taking my first class in spiritual formation in 1985…my two text books were Celebration of Discipline and Nouwen’s book The Way of the Heart. It’s definitely time to have a book on the subject of soul friends!

  2. Bob Mowdy permalink

    I had a mentor. He was Paul to my Timothy. We labored in similar jail ,inistries for 25 years.
    His death left a void Ihave oly filled by trying to mentor others. I still need a guide. Our article is spot on!

  3. I like and agree with your observation: “…scores of other books have been published on the topic of spiritual disciplines with an ever-expanding number of practices that deserve attention. Yet, most of these books overlook spiritual direction.” I wonder why this is?

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