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

Posted: May 21, 2013 in Discipleship, Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Growth
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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

  1. […] Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: a review (part 1) […]

  2. […] Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: a review (part 1) […]

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