Archive for the ‘Discipleship’ Category

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.

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 2 of reflections from a class on “Missional Leadership,” taught by Dr. Reggie McNeal at Columbia International University. In part one, I shared Dr. McNeal’s description of the “missional” church, and some thoughts in relating that to our Polish context.

Thinking and behaving missionally requires a series of paradigm shifts:

1. From internal to external

The people of God need to refocus their hearts and resources on the world. We have focused mostly on ourselves, but we need to remind ourselves just how much God loves the world. It really isn’t enough to pay lip service to this, but we must also demonstrate this shift through our use of resources, and through the behaviors we reward. One very practical idea that Dr. McNeal mentioned was to get involved in a nearby public school. There we can see and begin to meet nearly all of the needs around us.

Polish evangelical churches are usually strongly evangelistic. Their methods are frequently outdated, but the desire is strong to win their country for Christ. And with 0.15% evangelicals, there’s a lot of people to win! Most evangelical leaders are much more focused on building their church than they are on building the Kingdom, but there is very little of the apathy that sometimes characterizes churches in North America. However, their small size and position as a cult makes it difficult for the churches, as organizations working independently of one another, to get involved in community services – whether schools, community centers, or compassion organizations. So, a better way may be to lessen the organizational involvement, and encourage individual believers, or small groups, to get involved as volunteers in community organizations. In the end, it isn’t about increasing the visibility of our church in the community – a common error that churches in both Poland and America make. What matters is blessing the community where we live. I’m convinced that doing that actually does increase our positive reputation, but when we make blessing the goal, rather than popularity, we contribute more to advancing God’s Kingdom, rather than our own.

2. From program driven to people development

“We have to get this shift – this is the real crux of it.” “Goal of the program model – how many people came Sunday, how long did it go, did we have enough workers, etc.  DID WE MEET BUDGET?” “You can go weeks in some program models and the topic of people never comes up. The goal is participation.” (Reggie McNeal, in class)

A short look at the life of Jesus, or even more, the life of Paul shows us the importance that both placed on developing people. It’s an incredibly sad state of affairs if the question “did we meet budget” has become more important than “are people growing in Christ.”

Unfortunately, most Polish churches have understood a successful church to be one with multiple programs. In fact, Polish evangelical leaders have usually used American megachurches as models for ministry, resulting in a large degree of frustration when the Polish spiritual reality does not bring the same results they read and hear about in America. There definitely are different areas to address in people development in Poland than there are in America, but I have to think that a focus on growing people and not programs will probably be much less frustrating and more rewarding in the Polish church. Granted, mentoring and discipling can also be frustrating at times – but the Polish church sometimes has such wildly unrealistic expectations toward programs that a people focus might actually turn out to be a huge relief!

In addition, programs are resource hogs – and the Polish evangelical church is pretty poor, both in money and number of personnel. Of course, as Dr. McNeal also mentioned, a focus on people development does not mean an elimination of all programs – rather it means a restructuring of priorities. If we can recapture the people focus, we can be more intentional about letting people try and fail – in order to learn and grow – even as they lead or participate in a “program.” The “success” of the program becomes subordinated to the “process” or growth of both the volunteers and the recipients.

As a small personal aside – I get very frustrated by teachers from the West who come and tell the Polish church how it should be done. Their ideas are sometimes so wildly inappropriate in the Polish context that it’s as if a bunch of Martians came to tell us how to plant crops. And yes – I’m an American, attempting to influence my Polish brothers and sisters. And I’ve probably made just as stupid statements over the years as some of these big church teachers make here. God forgive me and us. However, 14 years of toiling alongside my brothers and sisters here, of wrestling with similar cultural issues and slow growth has helped me understand this context better, and helped them consider me one of them. We won’t change Poland by implementing an American church growth program. We might change Poland by focusing on people instead of programs, though.

Again, much of what Dr. McNeal said in class can be found in his book Missional Renaissance.

Missional Leadership I


A Polish worldview is also strongly reliant on manipulation. The animistic elements we saw in our study contribute to this, as does as the common understanding of Roman Catholicism. The idea that we must be good enough to get to Heaven creates guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and a loss of hope. However, if we aren’t good enough, we can always rely on going to church, buying masses or indulgences, or – and here is the only hope for the mortal sinner who lacks in material wealth – suffer through purgatory long enough to make it to heaven. In any case, the system – even God’s system – can be manipulated. In fact, many Poles highly value something they call “kombinowanie”, which is loosely translated as “working the system.”

Animism covered with a 1000-year old veneer of Catholicism has also produced a strong legalism. On the one hand, this has probably been the most significant reason why divorce, homosexuality and abortion are still rare. The shame connected to all of the above practices keeps them in check. On the other hand, Poles don’t usually consider God or Church as contributing to their happiness.[1]

Manipulation and legalism remain prevalent in the evangelical church, as well. We who proclaim a Christ who died once and for all, who proclaim a salvation sola gratia still think we can work the system, and add our own rules to God’s unmerited favor. In addition, working the system is still praised by many evangelical leaders – even now that the political system is no longer blatantly anti-God. We wallow in a slough of legalism, but continue to use the only methods we know – working the system – to try to clamber out. And we can’t make it.


Galatians 5:1-15; with a glance toward the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32

Paul addresses our problem in Galatians 5, and points us toward freedom in Christ. Manipulative false teachers had preached the necessity of following the law, in addition to belief in the Christ. The practice of circumcision is used by Paul as an example, “but for a Gentile Christian to accept circumcision by choice, as a matter of religious duty, implied the acceptance of the whole way of life to which circumcision was the initiatory rite.”[2] And Paul says that “for the Galatians to submit to circumcision as a legal obligation would be an acknowledgement that law-keeping (in this particular form) was necessary for the achievement of a righteous status in God’s sight. Such an acknowledgement would be to nullify the grace of God”.[3]

Instead of a voluntary return to the slavery of the law, Paul points us toward freedom in Christ. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”[4] “The juxtaposition of an indicative followed by an imperative is a common grammatical feature in Paul’s writings . . .The imperative, ‘Stand firm,’ not only does not contradict the indicative, ‘Christ has set us free,’ but in fact results from it. Because of who God is and what he has done for believers in Jesus Christ, Christians are commanded to ‘become what they are.’”.[5]

We are free – at the moment of salvation, Christ set us free. Free from the bondage of sin, but also free from the bondage of law. However, by returning to the slough of Law, we deny the power of grace. Chrystostom put it this way: “He that is circumcised is circumcised for fear of the Law, and he who fears the Law, distrusts the power of grace, and he who distrusts can receive no benefit from that which is distrusted. Or again thus, he that is circumcised makes the Law of force; but thus considering it to be of force and yet transgressing it in the greater part while keeping it in the lesser, he puts himself again under the curse. But how can he be saved who submits himself to the curse, and repels the liberty which is of Faith?”[6]

Our identity, according to Paul, is that of sinners set free. In verses 2-4 Paul describes the potential results when we voluntarily choose a different identity. We are in danger of “falling from grace” and being “severed from Christ.” Why? Because when we choose law and legalism, a manipulation of the system, we choose our own ability to keep the rules (or at least work the system) instead of a total reliance on the Christ who died for us. Christ is really of “no advantage to us,” because we don’t need Him!

In the story of the unProdigal Son, shown in Luke 15:11-32, Jesus describes a similar attitude in the elder son. Tim Keller, in his book The Prodigal God, describes the attitude in this way: “You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have ‘rights.’ God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior.”[7]

Paul says that only faith working through love really matters (v. 6). Of course, he reminds us that freedom is not to be used as “an opportunity for the flesh” but is to be used to serve one another (v. 13). In fact, he summarizes the law – and our responsibility to it – with Jesus summation of the law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (v. 14, cf. Lev. 19:18 and Mark 12:31). Paul seems so frustrated by the manipulative false teachers that he wishes they would take their circumcision knives to themselves – and slip – cutting off not just the foreskin, but the entire organ. (v. 12)

The key issue is an issue of identity. And this is where we can address the issue of legalism and manipulation for Polish believers. We are sinners, saved by grace, through faith – not through our own works (Ef. 2:8,9). We start from faith – we don’t work toward it. “Using the devices of condition-result and contrast, Paul succeeds in asking and answering a key question: What could circumcision, and the opposing identity it represents, possibly add to the freedom already possessed by the Galatian believers? Paul’s answer: Absolutely Nothing!”[8]

So, instead of a Christ-denying legalism, whether based on our evangelical rules or Catholic sacraments, we proclaim a freedom in Christ, based on His death and God’s grace. It’s not a cheap grace – it cost Him everything – nor is it an excuse for unholy living. Actually, it’s the foundation for love and good works. But, in proclaiming our true identity in Christ, we emasculate legalism and remove the need to manipulate God with our rituals, rules and relics.

In the final post, I’ll give a short conclusion to the ethnographic report, and include the questions we used.
Ethnographic Study of Poland IV: Postmodern Animism

[1] 15% of the respondents listed “God, Providence” as an important contributor to their happiness

[2] Bruce, F. F. (1982). The Epistle to the Galatians : A commentary on the Greek text (229). Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

[3] Bruce, F. F. (1982). The Epistle to the Galatians : A commentary on the Greek text (229). Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

[4] The Holy Bible: English standard version. 2001 (Ga 5:1). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[5] George, T. (2001). Vol. 30: Galatians (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (352–353). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[6] Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. XIII (36). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

[7] Keller, Timothy. (2008) The Prodigal God (37-38). New York: Penguin Books Ltd.

[8] Duvall, J Scott. “Identity-Performance-Result” : Tracing Paul’s Argument In Galatians 5 And 6.” Southwestern Journal Of Theology 37.1 (1994): 32. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.

Most of my book reviews are pretty short. This one is almost as long as the book was . . .

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001. 224pp.

Clive Stapleton Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1898. As a teenager, he left the faith of his parents, and became an avowed skeptic. However, in his early thirties, influenced by his friends, T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien, he returned to Christianity. In between his departure from and return to Christianity, he served in the British army in World War I, and was wounded in the Battle of Arras. He subsequently achieved Firsts in Honour Moderations (Greek and Latin Literature), Greats (Philosophy and Ancient History) and English from Oxford University. Lewis taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, and wrote over 20 works of nonfiction, and nearly as many fictional. Most of Lewis’s books and essays dealt with Christian themes, and he is known as one of the 20th century’s most effective Christian apologists, sometimes being called “The Apostle to the Skeptics.”

Although Lewis’s nonfictional works are highly regarded, especially Mere Christianity, his fictional Chronicles of Narnia have made him one of the most well-known authors of all time. The Screwtape Letters is another fictional work, originally written as a series of short articles in the Anglican newspaper The Guardian (which closed in 1951).

The Screwtape Letters are written as correspondence from one demon to another, as His Abysmal Sublimity Undersecretary Screwtape, T.E., B.S., etc. attempts to instruct his nephew, a lesser demon named Wormwood, in the temptation and retrieval of the soul of a new Christian. Through this method, Lewis attempts to describe the devil’s strategies for defeating followers of Christ (the Enemy – according to Screwtape). A number of different situations and stratagems are explored, but Wormwood eventually loses the battle, when the Christian dies. Each short chapter stands alone, although Screwtape sometimes refers to something he wrote earlier. He also obliquely refers to Wormwood’s correspondence, although only Screwtape’s letters are shown to the reader.

As the book progresses, the reader can catch a glimpse of the progress in Christian growth of Wormwood’s patient, as well as a few references to World War II, during which Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters. The focus, however, is really not on the Christian’s growth – which actually seems rather haphazard and inconsistent, but rather on the “wiles of the devil.” Lewis does not give clear instruction on how to combat these wiles, but attempts to present the devil’s tactics from the devil’s perspective.

One of the key points Lewis demonstrates the efficiency of the demonic strategy of deluding a man into thinking he has personal rights, especially the right to his time, and how defeating it is to have that personal “me” time taken away unexpectedly. In fact, Lewis, through Screwtape, says that this strategy is even more effective than sexual temptation (95-96). Although the nature of the book as a series of disconnected letters makes it a bit difficult to determine what Screwtape perceives to be the best strategy for retaking the Christian’s soul, the demon returns regularly to this theme of convincing the human that he has ownership, possession, rights, or a claim to something.

This selfish self-centeredness seems to be Screwtape’s goal for Wormwood’s patient, in order to draw him away from Christ. In fact, any possible small movement in the direction of self is to be encouraged, while sacrifice, for whatever reason, is to be discouraged. It was interesting to research a quote that Lewis references on page 109 from Reinhold Niebuhr, where Lewis basically says that Niebuhr is aiding the devil by giving some other reason for belief in Christianity than the fact that it is true. It was Niebuhr, however, who described the root of evil as the “prideful human pretension of being God”[1]. Lewis describes sin in a very similar manner.

Screwtape frequently encourages Wormwood to allow his target to engage in something good, including prayer and Christian fellowship, but to slightly corrupt the good activity. If the good thing could distract him from Christ, or eventually bore him, or best of all, lead him to pride – the battle was won. If the soul became proud of his prayers, or especially of his type of Christianity – the devil’s work was accomplished. We would rightly  include in our live several spiritual disciplines, especially prayer and fasting, but it must be remembered that such disciplines are means to an end. If they are seen as the goal, rather than that which leads us to Christ, then the amount of time and effort we expend can easily produce pride, or a greater sense of self, rather than the real goal of “more God, less me.”

Lewis, through Screwtape, shares a perspective on death and suffering that is in stark contrast to what modern Westerners practice. Screwtape encourages Wormwood to keep his patient alive, to let him avoid suffering and an early death. He says that suffering and death more frequently serve the cause of his Enemy (Christ), than they do the cause of Satan. Suffering opens the door for man to understand Christ, and death opens the gate to the next life (134). In fact, Screwtape claims that humans regard “death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good” precisely because the devils have taught humans to do so. (131)

The fact that the book is written during World War II serves as an interesting background, but little more than that. Screwtape is himself almost dismissive of the war, seeing it more as a tool of the Enemy (Christ) than of the devil. He claims that more people choose Christ because of war than because of peace. This is a very interesting perspective, and worthy of further thought. Of course, Screwtape sees the value of promoting hatred, and especially cowardice, against the backdrop of war, but the war in and of itself does not particularly help the devil’s cause.

Screwtape also claims that the devils, through Fashion, have succeeded in causing humanity to castigate that which it most needs in any given era. So, enthusiasm is exposed as dangerous when apathy holds sway, or Puritanism is decried during lecherous ages. “The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood.” (117-118).

The pursuit of pleasure, or hedonism, is the most significant area where some of us might disagree. We many times emphasize the need for holy living, while Lewis argued that pleasure is good, and meant to be pursued. Of course, Screwtape encourages Wormwood to use corrupted pleasures to entice his patient, but cautions that these strategies can backfire, as they lead the soul to guilt, which should be avoided because the soul may then be more cognizant of his spiritual state, and of the remedy. Many writers would list hedonism as one of the worldly values that draw us away from God, and encourage holy living that wouldn’t damage our testimony in front of others.

Although The Screwtape Letters is a work of fiction, and furthermore, written from the devil’s perspective, it has a strong biblical basis. There is a biblical understanding of grace, the gospel, forgiveness and sin that permeates the book. It doesn’t attempt to proclaim any new doctrinal insights, but rather basic foundational understandings of the nature of the battle. Of course, there are no biblical citations – that would be anathema for Screwtape. But his descriptions of Christ’s love and sacrifice for humans are in agreement with the Gospel, although he admits that he can’t understand Christ’s plan or goal.

The devil’s perspective, and the anecdotal portrayal of his strategy provide the real strength of Lewis’s book. The Screwtape Letters can let us see just how defeated the devil already is, but it also helps us see what the devil is attempting to do in the lives of ordinary people, as well as world structures. However, Christ has won the victory, and the devil is struggling just to play catch-up.

The length of the 31 chapters serves as a strength, as well. Each chapter is about 1200 words, probably to make the copy fit in the original Guardian periodical. The number fits perfectly with a daily reading over a month, although Lewis doesn’t indicate anywhere that this was his goal. The chapter size makes it possible to read in just a few minutes, but can then be dissected or discussed at length.

The book very well describes the insidious nature of the devil’s attacks. We so frequently think of spiritual warfare as a frontal attack, as demon possession or adversity. However, Screwtape shows us that the devil might actually prefer us in church – as long as that makes us apathetic, or proud, or anything else that removes our attention from Christ. Or he may encourage us to serve someone else – if we can take pride then in our service.

Chapter XXVI was one chapter that personally resonated with me. Screwtape describes the differences in the way men and women think about Unselfishness, but he also shows the slightly corrupted version of Unselfishness that allows us to take pride in being unselfish, and then umbrage at others for not following our “unselfish” wishes, and finally bitterness and quarrels when our “unselfish” wishes clash with others’ “unselfish” desires. Of course, in the end, it is all about self, and true love is forgotten. “Some degree of mutual falseness, some surprise that the girl does not always notice just how Unselfish he is being, can be smuggled in already” (124). How often I have acted and thought just like that! Not only in my own marriage, but in ministry as well! And how devilish, how self-promoting that kind of “unselfishness” really is.

Sometimes Lewis attempts such a convoluted argument that one wonders just what he is getting at. This was especially true in Letter XXX, when Screwtape talks about “reality.” Perhaps an understanding of the cultural milieu of the 1940’s would give a clearer picture of what Lewis is addressing. However, Lewis, who at times makes the perfect profound phrase, sometimes builds complex arguments that start to disintegrate after a few long sentences.             Once in a while, one almost gets the idea that Lewis himself started to lose track of his argument.

Another weakness in the book would be that there is no real plan or even suggestions for the Christian to combat the devil’s tactics. Of course, the book helps us understand his strategy better, but sometimes it would be helpful to have a clearer picture of how these tactics can be defeated. In fact, the conclusion of the book, where the man dies and enters into the presence of Christ, seems almost to indicate that the man is saved in spite of himself.

Or is that the whole point of grace??

[1] Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition, John Wiley and Sons, 2008, p. 248