Rainer, Thom and Eric Geiger. Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples. (2008). Nashville, TN: B&H Academic

Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger researched more than four hundred evangelical churches to see some differences between growing, vibrant churches and nongrowing, struggling churches (p. 13). The message of the book is found in what the authors call the “elevator conversation: The vibrant churches were much more simple than the comparison churches” (p. 13-14). They call this a “simple” revolution (p. 8), and concluded that “church leaders need to simplify” (p. 4).

After sharing a few examples from everyday life of how the simple revolution has begun in other areas, outside the church, they weave in a comparison of “First Church” and “Cross Church” throughout the book as they describe the process of simplifying church. This process includes four elements: “Clarity, Movement, Alignment, Focus” (p. 68).

Throughout this process, they include results from a “Process Design Survey” that they developed to see if there was “a relationship between being simple and being effective” (p. 63). In Chapter four, they included three stories of real churches that are both simple and effective. Chapters five through eight further developed the four elements of the process.

The final chapter was an encouragement to become simple – “to change or die” (p. 229). They did indicate that the change would be complicated (p. 229, 236). They introduced four steps to make a church more simple, each step associated with one of the four elements. In a postscript, they shared some further lessons learned since the publishing of the first edition of Simple Church, and finally, in two appendices, shared “frequently asked questions” and the research methodology.

Evaluation of the Book

The book is simple. It better be! It reads easily, and there is a consistent use of the First Church and Cross Church examples, to help describe what Rainer and Geiger were seeing in their research. They also focus much more on lessons and solutions seen from the research than on the research itself. Interestingly, they evaluate the book themselves in the postscript, and they call it a “nerdy research project.” (p. 243) I would definitely disagree.  They criticize their own book for being full of “insider language,” and say that they wrote it for pastors and church leaders. (p. 243). That may be true, although I didn’t think that when I read it. I think they adequately explain their terminology throughout the book.

Personal Interaction

My buddy, another pastor, recommended this book years ago. I’ve talked with other friends about this book so much, that I thought I had already read it! I’m pretty sure I even lied somewhere along the way when someone asked if I had read it. I really thought I had. I hadn’t though, and I’m very glad I finally did. It really should be required reading for pastors.

Again, probably because of the second- and third-hand influence of this book already on my ministry, I have attempted to implement a number of things that Rainer and Geiger talk about. So, I was able to read the book and say: “oh, yeah, I do that, or we do that.” But, when I think through why we do that – it’s because of hearing the premises of Simple Church preached by others. To be honest, this caused something of a feeling of déjà vu. Now, I know I hadn’t read the book – I didn’t remember any of the stories – but I was very familiar with the concepts.

We have greatly simplified church in Poland. This is probably easier to do anyway here than in the States. However, although it’s good we have simplified, I saw a number of ways that we haven’t followed through on a couple of key elements in the process. Namely, although we have clarity and focus, we don’t really have alignment and movement. In other words, we know what we are to do – make disciples and engage them in “near” communities (sounds better in Polish), and we aren’t distracted any more by doing things that don’t fit. However, we have a disconnect between the evangelism/discipleship portion, and the involvement in communities. We are missing a vital link. We have attempted to make the communities the means of evangelism, discipleship, encouragement and service – but that hasn’t worked as well, either.

Thankfully, we are in better shape than we were. At least we are simple, and don’t have to eliminate programs. It was encouraging to read this book, and realize that we are actually faced with the much different, and easier, challenge of tweaking or even adding a little to make sure we are achieving our goal.

This is really where Simple Church will help us. We didn’t start by eliminating; that really was as a result of trying to determine what we wanted to accomplish, and what wasn’t helping us accomplish that. However, I think we missed a couple of middle steps along the way, and this book will help us think through and plan those steps.

On a more personal note, often it is tempting to envy ministry in the U.S. There are resources and a worldview that are completely different from what we experience here in Poland. And yet, I am familiar enough with American ministry to know that my likelihood of being in a simple, growing, effective church are not guaranteed, and I have a hard time imagining the life that Geiger and Rainer describe for the employees of “First Church.” When would I have time to grab a coffee with someone who is asking about Christ? How could we ever just go hang out with our seeking friends? There wouldn’t be time to help the foreigner, oppressed, or poor person. And – I think it’s bad now, having to preach three times Christmas week. What would I do with the kind of Christmas program that Rainer and Geiger refer to, requiring planning and practices starting in September, causing total burnout among church staff until March?

James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ Through Community, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, 240 pages.

Wheaton professor Dr. James Wilhoit focuses on how the church can and should encourage spiritual growth, in community. He points to 4 areas of spiritual growth: receiving, remembering, responding and relating, and address how churches can foster growth in each of these areas. Page numbers refer to pages from 2008 (first) edition

Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: a review (part 1)

Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: a review (part 2)

In the final four chapters, Dr. Wilhoit focused on the last 2 “R”s, Responding and Relating

Chapters 7-8:  Responding – Foundations & Fostering

Responding refers to loving and serving others as a reaction to what we receive from God. Corporately, it seems easiest to focus on the “one another” passages as examples of how we can respond, within community. However, our response needs to be beyond the community of faith, into the whole world. One difficulty will always be our struggles with hospitality, in the sense of welcoming and serving those who are different from us. At one time, this was most evident with racial differences. Today, I think it is evident with political or lifestyle differences. Corporately, many American evangelicals struggle to welcome Democrats, Muslims, gays and others. We aren’t hospitable, and sometimes it seems we wouldn’t dream of serving such people – although now almost no white Christian (hopefully) would dream of refusing to serve a black person. Our Polish churches would be similar, with some lingering racial prejudice, not so much toward Africans, but certainly toward Jews.

I was never a particularly compassionate person, and really struggled with how to respond to poor people, especially those that I thought were poor as a result of their own bad choices. I still don’t know what to do many times. However, in the past 2 years, we have been closely involved in the life of a Liberian woman who was regularly beaten and abused by her Polish husband. As we have helped her leave her husband, find freedom, and begin to live on her own, I have sometimes been amazed at the huge mountain she must climb in order to live normally. Of course, much of this relates to her emotional and psychological reactions to a life of freedom, but a lot relates to the almost insurmountable difficulties for an immigrant, with few language and job skills, and no experience with banks, paying bills, insurance, etc. This experience has certainly helped me grow in the area of “responding”, loving and serving others as a reaction to what we receive from God.

Chapters 9-10:  Relating – Foundations & Fostering

Relating refers to forming community. I think, in the way church usually looks, truly biblical fellowship is rare – and perhaps even impossible. If church means going to a service on Sunday, and nothing more – that isn’t community. If it is a smaller congregation, and they spend some time engaging one another in conversation, it’s a little closer, but still far from the ideal. If they spend a fair amount of time together during the week, know one another’s struggles and victories, pray for one another, then maybe we can start talking about community. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum are Christian “kibbutzes,” which are outstanding ideas – as long as service for others (Responding) remains a very high priority. Those little Christian fortresses can frequently become hostile to the world around them, instead of seeking to serve it.

Nearly all of my experiences in community, where we have helped one another, have been in small groups. We have been involved in many different kinds of groups, and I’m not really sure if the format or type matters. I think what matters more than anything is the size. More than 12 or so, and I’m not capable of really being involved in their lives. Of course, we can and should remember to focus on the Word, be involved in service, and minister to one another. I’m glad for the recent rise in the “missional community” terminology, although I know that the concept and practice has been around for centuries. Still, though, I think size matters – and smaller is better.


James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ Through Community, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, 240 pages.

Wheaton professor Dr. James Wilhoit focuses on how the church can and should encourage spiritual growth, in community. He points to 4 areas of spiritual growth: receiving, remembering, responding and relating, and address how churches can foster growth in each of these areas. Page numbers refer to pages from 2008 (first) edition

Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: a review (part 1)

Chapters 3-4:  Receiving – Foundations & Fostering   

Receiving refers to a longing for God, and developing such a longing. I couldn’t find a place where Wilhoit states it quite that simply, however. The closest I think he comes is on page 77: “Christian spiritual formation requires that we actively and continually receive from God.” I think the biggest challenge is to foster the humility and brokenness that he refers to on page 81, without becoming maudlin, complaining, and hopeless. To be honest, in the American setting, the difficulty probably lies in fostering humility, whereas in my Polish setting, the difficulty lies in fostering brokenness. In this, I think the American church struggles with real worship – in spite of all the songs written every year by American authors. Meanwhile, the Polish evangelical church reacts allergically to “confession.”

Before our move to Poland, I had mostly relied on church to fulfill a large portion of my need for companionship with Jesus. This included daily companionship as a church staff member, as well as several times a week in small groups or church services. The first year in Poland, then, was a desert time. I didn’t understand enough Polish, and no one spoke English with me, for church to in any way meet those needs. I didn’t understand the songs, the testimonies, the prayers, or the sermon. Small group was an exercise in picking out 20-30 words that I knew in the course of a couple of hours of people talking amongst themselves. I was forced to meet Jesus alone. And I usually chose not to. Of course, we were far busier in our daily lives than we ever had been in America, but it was evident that I had not adequately built habits of discipline. After a while, I discovered a great book, Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas, that started me rebuilding some healthy spiritual disciplines. Now, although I love our church, and I enjoy worshipping there, I don’t rely on it to meet those needs. And I think people can tell, actually, that I am better prepared now to help them grow.

Chapters 5-6:  Remembering – Foundations & Fostering

Remembering refers to reminding ourselves of the good things God has done (105). Wilhoit later describes it as “letting the cross grow larger” (106), as we grow in our understanding of it. I think this was the best chapter of the book, by far. Our perception of the cross and need for it should not lessen as we continue in Christ. It should increase. Wilhoit had several good practices, of which I think the best would be his brief explanation of the “spiral curriculum” on pages 119-120, as a means of continually returning to the gospel and the cross to promote saturation of those concepts. As an aside, I didn’t really understand his treatment of “anointed teaching” (124-130) in this chapter. I couldn’t see the connection with the rest of this chapter. After I wrote a review of this part, my professor told me that the section on anointed teaching had actually been a separate article. Looks as if Wilhoit cut and pasted it in. Too bad – because the rest of the chapter really is outstanding.

As far as hindrances, I see the following: 1. The false idea that the Christian life and doctrine are so much more than the cross and that we don’t need to spend that much time focusing on grace. It isn’t, and we do. 2. The great “invitations” of Jesus (131-145) simply get drowned out by much noisier and flashier invitations – and sometimes the church is just as guilty as the world at creating competing invitations. 3. The idea that grace and Jesus’ acceptance of us means that we don’t really need to actively be engaged in the rest of Jesus’ invitations.

In my own personal growth in “remembering,” a key moment was understanding my utter need for God’s grace. This actually occurred many years after I “accepted Christ.” So, I can identify with Paul’s audience in Romans 1. For quite a while, even while I was struggling to have daily quiet time with God, I was studying for sermons, preparing for small groups, teaching Bible lessons, etc. Although I would certainly admit that I was not being honest with my own walk, I saw the power of the Word changing lives, including my own. In other words, I treated it as a “professional tool,” rather than the living water – but it still transformed me and others with whom I shared the Word. I’ve seen the same thing happen in the lives of Catholic friends, who hear the Word for just a few minutes on Sunday, in a few short readings – with no commentary, and yet their lives can be changed.


James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ Through Community, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, 240 pages.

Wheaton professor Dr. James Wilhoit focuses on how the church can and should encourage spiritual growth, in community. He points to 4 areas of spiritual growth: receiving, remembering, responding and relating, and address how churches can foster growth in each of these areas. Page numbers refer to pages from 2008 (first) edition

The book begins with a short foreword by the late (and already missed) Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy at THE USC, and Christian formation guru. Dr. Willard makes this key statement in the foreword: “Becoming the kind of person who routinely and easily does what Jesus told us to do has generally been considered out of reach and therefore not really necessary for what we, Christians, are about.” (9) In a similar tone, Dr. Willard refers on the next page to the “now standard form in North America of ‘nominal’ Christianity.” As I read those parts, I thought of Dr. McQuilkin’s “normal” Christianity, and how Dr. Willard would agree with his picture of the Christian who “authentically reflects the attitude and behavior of Christ,” (Victorious Christian Living, 5 – reviewed here). Hopefully, in our churches, we can fight back against this strong impulse toward mediocrity.

Chapter 1:  Formation through the Ordinary

In this chapter, Dr. Wilhoit briefly describes spiritual formation, but primarily argues that the role of the gospel in spiritual formation has frequently been misunderstood. We have built a dichotomy between “gospel” and “discipleship,” (26) making the gospel the entry-point to Christianity, but separate from discipleship and spiritual growth. However, he says, “the gospel is not simply the door of faith: it must also be a compass I daily use to orient my life and a salve I apply for the healing of my soul.” (29)

I completely agree with him. First, because I agree with his statements on the dichotomy of “gospel” and “discipleship.”  The gospel permeates discipleship – it is not separate from it. Second, I found Dr. Wilhoit’s explanation of Romans 1 (that the gospel continued to be preached to those who were already believers) (31) to be consistent with other such Pauline statements. Finally, in my own ministry, I have seen the necessity for complete dependence on Christ, grace and the cross. Theologically speaking, anything less is no longer sola gratia, solus Christus. However, more importantly for me as a pastor, anything less than utter dependence on grace keeps people in bondage – to themselves, their sin, the law, and their works. 

Also in this chapter, the three ideas of Christian life as “nurture . . . journey . . . and resurrection” (19), were great pictures. It really is all of those things. Some of us will be more attracted by or identify better with one picture over the other. However, that does not make the other metaphors any less true.

However, the idea that everyone undergoes spiritual formation, (35) is a sobering thought. I have been guilty of thinking that if someone (like myself) doesn’t engage in spiritual formation, they stay in one place. That isn’t true, though. They (I) go in a different direction. Backslide might be an appropriate, although obsolete, word. More appropriate would be to say that they are formed, by other impulses, into something different and not Christ-like.

Chapter 2:  Curriculum for Christlikeness

In this chapter, Dr. Wilhoit emphasizes not divorced the commands of Jesus from the spiritual growth process. He says that when we do, we turn the “commands of Christ and the enabling practices into soul-killing laws.” (39) In an effort to avoid this, he calls the command of Christ “invitations.” (45). I certainly agree with Wilhoit’s emphasis on not pulling the commands of Jesus away from the “enabling patterns” (39) of the spiritual disciplines, and that when we do so, we turn them into “soul-killing laws.” (39) I have also experienced that in my spiritual formation. However, I have a hard time simply calling them “invitations.” That doesn’t fit with the grammar of the statements. ALL of them, every single one, are in the imperative. And Christ calls them commandments. “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15, NIV). Wilhoit says on page 44 that he doesn’t “intend to soften the language of command” by calling them invitations, but in the end, he does. I understand, especially in the American context, the temptation to avoid telling someone what to do, or be told what to do, but I’m not sure we adequately emphasize Jesus’ and the Bible’s authority when we turn those commands into invitations.

On pages 51-55, Dr. Wilhoit describes six false models of spiritual formation:

The Quick-Fix model – if people are in “the place of growth, God will simply ‘zap them.'” (51)

The Facts-Only model – the most important element of spiritual growth is the “intake of spiritual truth” (51-52)

The Emotional model – we are most changed when we have “deep emotional or spiritual experiences.” (52)

The Conference model – conferences change us the most (54)

The Insight model – introspection is key to spiritual growth (54)

The Faith model – “all spiritual growth stems from surrender to God” (54)

I have experienced all of them at one time or another. I have certainly been guilty of teaching the faith model and the emotional model. However, most of my teenage and college years, I experienced something that is an expansion of what he calls the “insight model” (34). In his last sentence from that model he says, “a person becomes focused on behavior choices and the law rather than on God’s grace and his provision.” I actually don’t think this sentence belongs in this paragraph. I think he is describing an entirely different model that I would call the “law model.” Far more than simple introspection, the idea is that external behaviors are the mark of Christlikeness, especially in church. In fact, in this model, I think introspection is usually avoided, lest a close look at the heart reveal that in reality our behaviors do not agree with our attitudes.

Next up: Wilhoit’s four “R”s, receiving, remembering, responding, relating – and how the church can help


Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Move:  What 1000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011, 288 pages.

In 2004, Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago undertook a three-year study to measure spiritual growth called the REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey. Over the next six years, additional data was collected from over a quarter million people in well over a thousand churches of every size, denomination, and geographic area. Move presents verifiable, fact-based, and somewhat startling findings from the latest REVEAL research, drawing on compelling stories from actual people—congregation members of varying spiritual maturity, as well as pastors who are equally candid as they share their disappointments and their successes. It provides a new lens through which church leaders can see and measure the evidence of spiritual growth. (Amazon description)

Page numbers refer to pages from the Nook e-pub edition.

Move Learning Journal

Foreword (9-11) & Chapter 1:  The Truth about Church (15-27)

I grew up about an hour from Willow Creek, and our home church has closely followed Willow Creek’s strategies. It was neat to see my college church, Fox River Christian in Waukesha, WI, mentioned in the book. I’ve met Bill Hybels, (in Poland) but in all honesty, for much of my ministry career, I have had mixed emotions about Willow Creek and Hybels. It was impressive to see his pastor’s heart, both in the foreword and elsewhere in the book. He really does care about the spiritual growth of the thousands of people touched by Willow Creek, and is not just interested in getting more numbers in the door. His statement “facts are our friends” from the foreword title and page 8 is a good one to remember when we begin to take hard, honest looks at our strategies.


In Chapters 2-5, the authors present the following continuum that arose from their research:

Exploring Christ    (People searching for God)

Growing in Christ  (People open to God)

Close to Christ        (People on personal terms with God)

Christ-Centered     (People fully surrendered to God)

My primary reaction to the continuum is that is an excellent way to describe different groups of people in the Kingdom of God. I was not particularly surprised that the Christ-centred group was less interested in church than we might expect. As a missionary, I see this type of attitude among my friends and coworkers. We all want to encourage the church and serve the church, but after a couple of years, in the best cases, we realize that the struggling churches we serve will never really serve us as we might hope. The struggle of course is to learn to change expectations, find the community we need, and not get overly frustrated. Some of my colleagues struggle to do this, and become very dissatisfied with church, although I would say they are strongly Christ-centred, and serving God with their whole heart. Some are able to find community elsewhere, and serve the church anyway, with changed expectations.


Chapter 6:  The Catalysts of Spiritual Growth

In their research, the authors noticed four sets of beliefs and practices most often cited as catalysts for spiritual growth by people wherever they were in the spiritual growth continuum:

Spiritual Beliefs and Attitudes

Organized Church Activities

Personal Spiritual Practices

Spiritual Activities with Others

I was quite surprised by the statement on page 91 that belief in the authority of Scripture was less of a catalyst than the four statements preceding it. I’m not at all doubting the validity of the study, but I would be very curious to do a similar study in Poland and see if the same statements are ranked in the same order. The authors claim the study is universal in the North American context (p. 16), but I would expect the authority of Scripture to rank higher as a catalyst for growth here in Poland. If it didn’t, I would need to re-assess my tactics.

Organized church activities seemed to be more important earlier in the continuum, among those “exploring Christ” and “growing in Christ.”

On page 97, the authors state that “personal spiritual practices are the secret to a fully engaged Christ-centered identity.” They continue: “If we could recommend only one spiritual growth pathway for people to follow, personal spiritual practices would be it.” Categorical statement, but it serves as an excellent reminder of our task as spiritual mentors and leaders. We need to get people feeding themselves. This is far more important than us feeding them. This is a tough one for those of us who work hard to feed people through sermons and studies, but we must remember that we are only one. People themselves are many, and the Word and the Spirit are infinite. Helping people learn to feed themselves allows for true growth and multiplication.

Chapters 7-9:  Three Movements


Movement 1: Helping people strengthen their personal relationship with Jesus Christ by helping them increasingly trust in the central teachings and values of the Christian faith (125, 128).

I liked the statement on page 103, in answer to the question, “how do I help my people grow in Christ?” that “it depends.” It depends on where people are already. This kind of personalized development is key – and I think necessitates structures that have pretty small components in order to discover that beginning place.

Within movement 1, it was good to read that the church is vital (“indispensable”, p. 105). I also appreciated the authors doing a “shout-out” for the Purpose-Driven model on pages 110-112. Rather than promote a Willow Creek program, they pointed the way to one of the better-known “best practices.” A simple buy-in and implementation of a purpose-driven type plan can be one of the best moves a church makes to help people strengthen their personal relationship with Christ.


Movement 2:  Helping people move from an intellectual acceptance of Christ to a relationship characterized by interaction and intimacy. (138)

Personally, the best part of this chapter was the focus on Fox River Christian Church and my old friend Guy Conn (and other good friends, like my old roommate, assistant pastor Rob Warnell). I was part of Pilgrim Baptist Church and watched my friends make a successful transition from an independent fundamental Baptist church into a vibrant, relevant church community. In the midst my excitement, though, I noticed that this where “reflecting on Scripture frequently” began to make an appearance as a primary catalyst (p. 120). The authors returned to this catalyst later, but I would agree that it begins to be increasingly important as people continue in their growth.


Movement 3:  Helping people grow to the point that the ultimate goal of their heart is to willingly sacrifice everything for Christ.  (154)

On page 126, when the authors said that “love has everything to do with it” in this movement, I immediately thought of what we read in Critical Journey about stages 5 and 6. Most of the attitudes and practices in this movement seemed to resonate with those two final stages. The attitudes of the heart become key (p. 128). However, in this movement, the authors didn’t have much help for how the church can help people along this movement. I think this is because they don’t know. And – I don’t really know either. Of course, this is why the movement primarily occurs outside of church, but it would be nice to see church as a better help for people in these stages. Maybe that is what is at the heart of some “missional communities” – which then begs the question how those “missional communities” do with assisting people in the first two movements. My guess would be – not so well, but they succeed at assisting with the final movement.

Chapter 10:  Barriers to Spiritual Growth:  The Stalled and Dissatisfied

I see several people in our church who are probably stalled – and definitely dissatisfied. All three of the characteristics on page 143 probably apply to them, as well. Once again, with the most effective method for “un-stalling” being “connecting to God through spiritual practices” (page 148), I would think that one of the best ways we can help people “un-stall” is by reconnecting them with the Bible. If they can’t or won’t yet do that on their own (the end goal), we can do it for them for a while, until God moves their heart.

Chapter 11:  The Spiritual Vitality Index

Chapter 12:  Get People Moving  

Chapter 13:  Embed the Bible in Everything

My comment relates more to small group/house church/cell church type situations. I certainly would agree that the Bible should be embedded in preaching and teaching, but I think more movement happens in smaller forums, and this is where the Bible can be quickly forgotten.

Frequently, in a small group study, even when the reading material is the Bible itself, people who think they know the Bible interject proofs and allusions that they say come from the Bible. It is amazing how often we misquote the Bible, however – and I completely include myself, and most of us trained Christian leaders. I think we constantly need to fight against this, in our own lives, but also in groups that we are part of.

A best practice here, borrowed from David Garrison, is this: you can’t say “the Bible says:” if you can’t find and read the verse. We don’t allow people – including myself (pastor) – to say “the Bible says somewhere . . .” Of course, we live in a country (Poland) where the Bible is known and sometimes read, but where it is not the final authority in the dominant church. So, by constantly making the written and read Word of God the authority in our groups, we reinforce the authority of Scripture for all questions.

I don’t have a page number for Garrison’s statement. He may say it in “Church Planting Movements,” but I remember him saying it in a meeting we had with him several years ago, and his words have stuck with me. Of course – maybe I am misquoting him, too  🙂

Chapter 14:  Create Ownership

Chapter 15:  Pastor the Local Community

Chapter 16:  Lead from a Christ-Centered Heart

The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co. 2004. 268 pp.

Instead of a traditional book review of The Critical Journey, I wanted to share a personal life journey, structurally connected to this book. I would strongly encourage you to get and read the book, but perhaps sharing my own journey will resonate with you in your own growth. Drs. Hagberg and Guelich talk about 6 stages in the journey of spiritual development. My review went pretty long, so I divided it up into sections. Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers from the second edition.

Spiritual Formation II: The Critical Journey, part 1

Spiritual Formation II: The Critical Journey, part 2

Spiritual Formation III: The Wall

Stage 5 The Journey Outward

I think this is my home stage now. The characteristics of this stage on pages 133-141 seem to describe what I am experiencing now. “We are aware of our faults and have a fresh desire to be in God’s will rather than our own.” (133) “We sense a looser grip on ourselves and a willingness to be conduits for God’s work in our lives and others’ lives.” (133) I have a “renewed sense of God’s acceptance,” (134) and I think some of the people in our church see me as a “weaker” leader than before. However, I honestly don’t care. Not that I don’t care about them – I care more than before – but I don’t really mind if they think I am weaker. Hagberg refers to this on page 135, but expands on it in 138-140. I actually am surprised lately that, although I am still busy, I don’t feel frustrated when someone asks for help. Such requests used to anger me – I wasn’t being productive then. Now, I honestly don’t mind saying – sure, I’ll help. Even writing that sounds proud, though. Oh, well. It’s the way it is, now.

Stage 6 The Life of Love

Although stages five and six are very similar, I haven’t lost that sense of “self.” On page 152, that selflessness is mentioned as one of the primary characteristics of stage six. I’m not there, at least not yet. I also don’t think I have “God’s overflowing love,” (155) yet. I think maybe I’m beginning to understand what that might look like, but I’m not in a hurry to get there. I don’t think it’s because of fear of losing myself, or because of pride – although it might be. I think it is more because right now, at stage five, I am content, and patient with God leading me on.

Biblical Self-Image

My self-image has gone through a number of growth areas. Although at one time, it was based on unbiblical values, I think it is now more based on what I believe God sees. For some time, the fact that I finished school early, and was able to accomplish certain things, made me think I was better somehow than other people. However, I seldom was as diligent or committed, just naturally gifted. Now, though, although I think I am more committed and diligent than I used to be, it doesn’t necessarily equate with more activity and busyness. I’m more content to spend time with God, or just to sit and think. I do still need to work through the area of connecting my self-image with what others think of me. I have seen growth, but I still fall into the trap of feeling bad about myself when I get criticized.

Relationship with the Church

Although there have been disappointments over the years, I don’t think my relationship with the church is unhealthy, or discouraging. I didn’t really connect our crisis with my mentor with the church, nor did the way in which our local church was castigated by other local churches in America make me think less highly of the church in general. Local churches are people – beautiful, wart-filled images of God.

Personal Relationships

I can see a number of ways I have grown, but still many areas where I need to grow. In my marriage, I am definitely more selfless than I once was – but there is still a lot of room for growth! There was a time when I would avoid helping my wife with her tasks. My rationale was that I was busy, too, and that was her job. This year, though, I had an opportunity to serve her, when she couldn’t do most of those things. I was able to, willingly, but I couldn’t honestly say I long for the next chance! 🙂


The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co. 2004. 268 pp.

Instead of a traditional book review of The Critical Journey, I wanted to share a personal life journey, structurally connected to this book. I would strongly encourage you to get and read the book, but perhaps sharing my own journey will resonate with you in your own growth. Drs. Hagberg and Guelich talk about 6 stages in the journey of spiritual development. My review went pretty long, so I divided it up into sections. Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers from the second edition.

Spiritual Formation II: The Critical Journey, part 1

Spiritual Formation II: The Critical Journey, part 2

Between stage 4 (The Journey Inward) and stage 5 (The Journey Outward), Drs. Hagberg and Guelich describe a crisis time, that they call the wall. This “wall” frequently stops people from growing farther, but those who go through the wall come out completely changed.

The Wall

In 1999, we arrived in Poland. After a couple of years of language school, we partnered with the Baptist church, and a great Polish pastor, who became my close friend and mentor. In December 2006, he moved on to another church, and I “temporarily” became pastor of our church. While we worked together, we worked to plant other churches, usually with little success. The work was hard, with very little fruit.

September 2007, we discovered that for seven years he had been having an affair, and manipulating people and events to cover his sin. Although on the outside I think I succeeded in leading our church through a very difficult time, on the inside I was dying. I encouraged others to forgive, but I felt terribly betrayed, and couldn’t forgive him. I was very disappointed with God, for bringing us to Poland, and bringing us to work with this man. I blamed him for our lack of results, and felt even more betrayed, by him and by God.

On page 107, Dr. Hagberg describes how difficult the wall can be for ordained leaders of religious groups. My position as pastor and missionary made it very difficult for me to be honest – with God and myself – as I faced this crisis. I wanted to give up, to go “home,” – but I couldn’t. My pride, and my position, wouldn’t let me. Moving through the wall, though, happened in two steps.

The first step occurred in 2008 when we were preparing for a Luis Palau evangelistic campaign. We rented a couple of rooms in the center of town for a prayer vigil leading up to the campaign. I was frequently responsible for being on duty there, so I spent hours in prayer, but also worked through a book called Work of Heart, by Reggie McNeal. As I worked through the questions in the book, designed to help us understand God’s will in our life, God did a work in my heart. The second step came through a year-long home assignment – our first, after ten years in Poland – in 2009-10. And the most important element that year that let me go through the wall was rest. As someone who had been stuck at stage three, focused since age thirteen – nearly thirty years – on “doing for God,” taking a year with very few responsibilities forced me to re-evaluate God, and my self-worth. On page 123, Hagberg talks about the necessity of “solitude,” away from the work week. I wholeheartedly affirm her statement: “racing around defending our busy lifestyle is definitely not a way to solicit God’s help. It simply means that we are not ready yet.”

How about you? Have you hit the wall? Have you gone through it?

The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co. 2004. 268 pp.

Instead of a traditional book review of The Critical Journey, I wanted to share a personal life journey, structurally connected to this book. I would strongly encourage you to get and read the book, but perhaps sharing my own journey will resonate with you in your own growth. Drs. Hagberg and Guelich talk about 6 stages in the journey of spiritual development. My review went pretty long, so I divided it up into sections. Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers from the second edition.

Spiritual Formation II: The Critical Journey, part 1

Stage 3 The Productive Life

This stage is described as the “doing” stage (73). This stage began in my teenage years, still concurrent with the “life of discipleship.” At first, the doing was part of the apprenticeship, as I “did” alongside my mentors. This stage is described as “the height of the faith experience” (74), and involving more effort. “It seems to be an almost insatiable period because everything is going so well.” (74) At age thirteen, I started preaching in our church, at first irregularly on Sunday evenings, then more regularly, and eventually Sunday mornings, when my dad was gone. I went to Bible College at age sixteen, and was immediately involved in service in churches. By age nineteen, I was traveling around the U.S. as part of a drama team, but was also the designated “evangelist,” preaching every day in churches and schools. In college, I was involved in drama and music, church ministry, etc. I definitely had the strong sense of “doing what is right and being useful.” (76)

I don’t think I was necessarily stuck at this stage, like I was with stage two. Although, it could be that I still function at stage three. As a missionary pastor, much of my life is involved in this stage. On pages 8-9, Dr. Hagberg discusses how we sometimes return to particular stages. This is probably the stage that I return to – although in the past few years, I think it may be being replaced by stage 5. On pages 93-94, we see that most “priests, ministers, and other spiritual leaders . . . have not been led through [stage four] themselves.” I definitely see how easy that would be. There is a security in stage three. (107) However, I do see two elements that led me – at least in part – past this stage.

The first element, in 1990-95, was the influence of a mentor, my senior pastor in my first church after college. He challenged some of the fundamentalist rules, and encouraged us to fellowship with, pray with, and work with those outside our little camp. He also introduced me to a wider range of Christian experience. This led me on to stage four, where I began the journey inward.  The second occurred much later, in 2007-2008, when I went through the wall. Looking back, I was living in stage three and four, concurrently, but a crisis initiated the wall.

Stage 4 The Journey Inward

Stage four is a “deep and very personal inward journey” (93). I would agree, but I also think this journey frequently happens in fits and starts. This journey started a little for me in Bible college, when one of my professors directed us to a Greek study of Romans 14, and I began to think about the implications of freedom in grace upon our fundamentalist legalism. In addition, my travels as an evangelist took me to some really great churches that didn’t hold so tightly to the strict rules of our college.

However, the first major challenge to stage three came through the mentor I described earlier. He was very intentional about pursuing a “personal integrity in relation to God” and to “releasing God from the box.” These are both mentioned on pages 97-99. In addition to our building bridges to our Assembly of God, Bible church, and Methodist brothers and sisters, we began promoting a much more grace-based approach to our walk with Christ. This necessitated some deep questioning on my part. Eventually, although both he and I, and our church, were kicked out of fellowship with the fundamental Baptists, I felt I finally had a healthy understanding of God and my relationship with Him. However, I don’t think I quite moved through the wall. Although none of the “stuck” issues on 105-107 quite resonate with me either. Dr. Hagberg’s point on page 108 about “committing to whatever it takes” as part of moving from stage four to stage five does resonate, though. So, either I went through a fairly painless wall, or I don’t remember the crisis quite so vividly anymore, or I returned to a healthier version of stage three.

Next up: THE WALL (sounds scary, huh?)


The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co. 2004. 268 pp.

Instead of a traditional book review of The Critical Journey, I wanted to share a personal life journey, structurally connected to this book. I would strongly encourage you to get and read the book, but perhaps sharing my own journey will resonate with you in your own growth. Drs. Hagberg and Guelich talk about 6 stages in the journey of spiritual development. My review went pretty long, so I divided it up into sections. Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers from the second edition.

Stage 1: The Recognition of God

I began my spiritual journey as a very young child. My dad was still in seminary, preparing to be a pastor, and both my parents talked about God all the time. Dr. Hagberg, in pages 34-35, states that people “enter into a relationship with God in one of two very different ways.” Those ways are described as a sense of awe, and a sense of need. She says that the sense of need is usually what occurs for adults (35), but children “seem more likely to recognize God in their lives through awe than are adults.”(34)

Although awe may have been part of that early childhood recognition of God, I don’t remember that part. I do remember being very concerned about the fact that my parents would go to heaven, but I would go to hell, if I didn’t accept Christ. So, even as a four-year-old, I felt an overwhelming sense of need. I have experienced that sense of awe, and along with it a renewed recognition of God, at other times in my life. I resonated with what she said on pages 37-39 about a natural awareness awakening a sense of the “presence of God.” (37). Some of my “awe-experiences” took place when I was alone in the Alps, or out hunting in the Wisconsin woods, as well as at the births of my children.

I don’t recall being stuck at this stage, but I have definitely experienced the sense of worthlessness that she describes on pages 43-44. As a teenager – like most – I struggled with a sense of worthlessness, and guilt and shame every time I did something I knew I shouldn’t. Perhaps because of growing up in fundamental Baptist churches, I had – and still sometimes have – the idea of “God and others constantly having expectations of us that we cannot measure up to.” (43). That sense of “worthlessness,” and trying to overcome it, probably helped keep me stuck at stage 3, “The Productive Life,” later.

Stage 2 The Life of Discipleship

This stage was the primary stage for me from early childhood through Bible college. Although other stages began to weave in and out of this stage, it remained my “home” stage for most of those years. In this stage, “we are apprentices,” (53) and I was. My dad usually was my primary mentor, in addition to a couple of teachers in our Christian school, my youth pastor, and a couple of professors in Bible College. It was interesting to read Dr. Hagberg’s description of Israel on page 55, in the section on “meaning from belonging” and see how our fundamental Baptist church saw itself as the true people of God. And, at this stage, I definitely had the “sense of rightness” that she describes on page 57, probably in far greater degree than in most of the years since Bible College.

However, on page 62 Dr. Hagberg describes two ways of being stuck at this stage: “rigid in righteousness” and “we against them.” Eventually, both of those were true for me. Although stage three began to also be part of my journey, I would never have gone through the wall later if it wasn’t for the fact that I broke some of the “Commandments” of fundamentalism.

Part 1 of a series on Spiritual Formation, mostly reviews and personal responses to some of the literature that addresses spiritual growth. In this first post, I would like to respond to a short classic work, Victorious Christian Living, by Robertson McQuilkin. I would strongly encourage anyone to read this, download it, print it, etc. As far as I know, Dr. McQuilkin did not put any limitations on using this pamphlet. It can be found here:



The first sentence was probably the most meaningful. Not that the article went downhill from there, but the idea that “average is not normal” encouraged me to strive for something more, and not base my evaluation of spiritual growth on other people, whether evaluating myself, or someone else. The other key idea is really the essence of the article: that unbelief is the root cause of a less-than-victorious life, and therefore faith is the cure for spiritual failure. Since I grew up in a system that put more emphasis on good works, both as proofs of spiritual maturity, and as methods for spiritual growth, I appreciated the reminder that faith is the real key.

McQuilkin summarizes the article with the following sentence:

If my relationship to God is one of (a) unconditional surrender and (b) confident expectation that He will keep His word (c) I can experience a life of consistent victory over temptation and growth toward His own likeness, (d) I can see His purpose for my ministry supernaturally fulfilled, and above all, (e) I can daily experience loving companionship with my Savior. (p. 34)

So, the prerequisites for spiritual transformation are “unconditional surrender” and “confident expectation that He will keep His word.” If that is so, any striving on our part should be toward these two goals. Of course, the idea of striving toward unconditional surrender is paradoxical, but intentionally so. In the end, it is not our strength that brings victory, either in our own life, or in the lives of those we lead. The Word is elevated to its rightful place as the authority, but also the source of our confidence. If God wrote it, He’ll do it. If He will do it, we will experience it and see it. In other words, if God said He will bring victory, we can surrender to Him and rely on Him to transform us into His image, give us a purpose, and lovingly walk beside us.