20 Centuries of Christian Spirituality in 20 Minutes [blog]

Podcast Seminary BannerA Short History of Christian Spirituality

by Chase Webster and Freddy Cardoza

Want to learn about 20 Centuries of Christian Spirituality in 20 Minutes?

Spiritual maturity is important to Christians, so they have always sought to understand spirituality.
Christian formation has to do with how we cooperate with God in our own personal transformation and quest for spiritual maturity. Christians have always, since the days Jesus walked with His disciples, engaged in spiritual formation.
Later, after Jesus ascended into heaven, and as the Church matured in the following centuries, there was also a maturing of devotional practice. What was done individually and privately by believers, was more fully understood and communicated to other believers in future centuries. Spirituality began to be practiced systematically in Christian communities. And over time, a greater understanding and development of spiritual disciplines was identified, written about, and practiced.
The history of that development happened in a series of important events over the last 2000 years—events which inform us even today, and that helps our ability to grow spiritually mature.
One wonders, what were the major developments in how Christians and the church thought about spiritual formation? That’s a long and interesting story that began with Jesus, then began to change in the centuries that followed.

The Desert Fathers (250 AD) –

Before Christianity became the state religion under Constantine, believers were being persecuted and even martyred for their faith.
Christians would pray more, met together more, and meditated more because the physical and spiritual needs were great during the time of persecution.
Once Christianity became the state religion, there was changes that came to the faith. A person was no longer in danger if they believed in Jesus as their Savior. This led to a more relaxed approach to maturity and spiritual disciplines among many.
Also, the state religion started to blend Christianity with their old pagan practices. So there were some men who decided to remove themselves from society and practice spiritual disciplines out in the desert, hence the name Desert Fathers (and Mothers). These men would meet in caves to pray and meditate. Eventually they would form communities in the caves. These people are believed to be the first model of monks and the monastic movement.
Following the Desert Fathers and monastic periods, the next major era of Christian Formation took place during the Protestant Reformation.

Protestant Reformation (1500s) –

One of the monks started to observe how the Church lacked an emphasis of a personal relationship with God in the faith. This monk’s name was Martin Luther. Luther raised issues that he thought the Church had like a distant relationship with the Father, very little guidance from the Spirit, faith by grace, and how an individual is justified. Luther was eventually excommunicated from the Church because of his differences with Catholic Church. He never intended on starting the Lutheran Church, but he stuck to his beliefs and there were those agreed and followed him.
The Reformation continued and matured, ultimately leading to the modern age. The largest movement of the 20th Century was Evangelicalism, birthed from Christian Fundamentalism.

Evangelicalism – (1950s-1960s)

The Evangelical movement was a break off from the fundamentalism in 1950s and 1960s. Evangelicals believed that fundamentalism was becoming legalistic and hard towards the movement of the Spirit. At the core of the Evangelical movement is that the person who believes is born again. Typically, evangelical spirituality has focused on the Word of God and personal discipleship, where people model spiritual maturity and teach people in discipleship settings, with a focus on biblical instruction, content, and application. So the focus in evangelical spiritual formation has especially been centered on the Word of God and on Truth.
A sister movement, within Evangelicalism– but that also became very large in the coming decades, until now, sprang up in the 1960s and beyond.

Charismatic Movement (1960s)-

Charismatic Christians thought spirituality and Christian maturity should be more focused on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, including supernatural actions of the Spirit and certain manifestations they believed to be an ongoing part of the ministry of God’s Spirit. Though this is debated within Evangelicalism, the Charismatic movement is a massive movement in the world and within Christianity, and faith and spirituality among Charismatics ‘looks differently’ than it does in other Evangelical churches and among other evangelical Christians. Charismatic believers emphasize spiritual experiences related to the baptism of the Spirit and what is commonly called “speaking in tongues.” These are, again, understood differently in non-Charismatic evangelical churches, but a great number of Charismatic believers emphasize these experiences. Charismatics focus more on experience and experiential Christianity—than only or primarily on teaching the Word of God and personal discipleship in ways more traditional to other evangelicals.
One of the most recent movements in history concerning spiritual formation focused its efforts towards reforming the heart, with a greater interest in more ancient understandings of Christian spirituality and a variety of devotional exercises called ‘spiritual disciples.’

Spiritual Formation Movement (1970s-1980s)-

In 1970s-80s, there were men like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and many others who wanted to refocus the discipleship experience of many Christians. The movement was taking place amongst evangelicals so the issue was not about salvation, but the issue was concerning more internally in regards to the heart and the nature of discipleship. This movement focused on what happens internally, in the heart, in the process of spiritual growth. Spiritual formation sought to combat moralism and the tendency toward legalism that some evangelicals had. It also sought to expand the Charismatic understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in the process of discipleship, by integrating sometimes ancient devotional practices to help people understand God’s work in their hearts, in hopes of transforming how believers understand and experience personal discipleship and life change.


That is a basic introduction to the history of Spiritual Formation. These forces did and still do impact Christians and how they think about their faith. At least gaining a basic understanding of these movements will help Christians understand other believers and how they experience God and seek to grow spiritually. Be encouraged to learn more– to expand your understanding of other believers, and also to think about how your relationship with God can become stronger through a stronger appreciation of how fellow believers seek to know God.

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