Christianity Today, June (Web-Only), 2008
Back to Sunday School
The author of Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered says the church must reclaim its disciple-making infrastructure.
Interview by Susan Wunderink posted 6/26/2008 08:55AM
"Spiritual formation is the task of the church. Period." That's how James C. Wilhoit opens his new book, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered. Wilhoit, professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College, has been teaching about spiritual formation since 1981. He says he owes a great debt in his own spiritual formation to Dallas Willard, whose foreword to Wilhoit's book reiterates the theme: spiritual formation, he says, is the "central problem facing the contemporary church."
Wilhoit spoke about the book and how churches often misunderstand the task of formation.
Your title suggests that most people do not have the church in mind when they talk about spiritual formation.
A lot of the patterns of spiritual formation give a sense that the church doesn't matter. These are things that you could largely do on your own. I came to write this book after people would sometimes call me and say, "We're interested in doing spiritual formation in the church."
And I asked, "What are you doing?"
"Oh, we're using Richard Foster in this class on spiritual disciplines."
But teaching a couple of classes on Celebration of Discipline is not what it would mean for the church to be about its business of formation.
So when you talk about spiritual disciplines, you're not just talking about the 13 that Richard Foster outlined in that book?
Certainly you have those classic disciplines that Foster talks about. But the trouble with those disciplines is they can become kind of "quiet time only" activities. So I want to put emphasis those disciplines that are distinctively relational. We all are in the midst of being formed and challenged in relationships, and we just have to be intentional about that — about engaging people in the margin, about offering forgiveness to people that have hurt us. And so that has to be there.
Foster's introduction is so helpful in emphasizing this, and a lot of people's lives, like mine, were changed by it. But a lot of people read the book and practiced these activities in a way that never touches their life.
I want to emphasize the context as well as the practices. What I have seen with my students is if you take a legalist and teach them Richard Foster, they simply become a far more adroit legalist. We constantly need to go back to this theme that it is all about seeking to live out the gospel and live out of our brokenness.
How do you define spiritual formation?
I want to have a definition of spiritual formation that has a strong community focus to it, that is not just aimed at one's self. So Christian spiritual formation refers to the intentional communal process of growing in our relationship with God, in being conformed to Christ and the power of the Spirit.
How does that relate to church activities like worship?
Not all of what the church does is spiritual formation, but if one is thoughtful, one recognizes that all components of the church have a formational dimension.
There are ways that you can ask how to structure worship in service of spiritual formation without so privileging spiritual formation that everything is meant to serve that. Worship has the goal of taking us into God's presence. That's a sufficient telos [end purpose].
In the book, I talk about the four Rs of spiritual formation: receiving, remembering, responding, and relating. Worship is one of the ways that orients us to receiving from God's grace, and it makes us aware of our creatureliness and our dependence on him. Worship is one of those things that should set us up for spiritual formation and is an important vehicle in that formation.
In February, we polled our online readers about the church's most important responsibility, and almost a quarter selected "helping non-Christians find Christ."
On one level, they're right. I have many students that come to my course as Christians, and the gospel is introduced to them as if they did not know it. They had perceived the gospel as a kind of front door for the church, not as a road map.
One of the ways the church could do spiritual formation much better is to conceive many of its ministries as gospel-oriented. They need going to remind people that the way one becomes a Christian and the way one grows as a Christian are essentially the same thing. We come to believe the gospel more fully, to understand the depth of our sin, to understand the beauty and attractiveness of Jesus Christ, and to learn to trust his words more fully.
Over time we can begin to lose the reality of sin, the Cross, and redemption. I continually need to come back. The gospel is a daily reminding myself of the Cross, a daily reminding myself that I'm loved and accepted in God through the Cross.
In evangelical churches today, what do you think is the main enemy of spiritual formation?
There are a variety of things. I'd like to do a top-ten list. But for one, out of a short-term pragmatism, we are disassembling structures that have served the church well in terms of formation.
Sunday morning adult education courses. Evening worship services that have an emphasis on testimony, accounts of world Christianity through missions, and more informal, life-related messages. This kind of formational infrastructure is being taken apart.
You also have other factors, like the rising emphasis on the sermon. It is being asked to do things that the sermon alone cannot do.
What are evangelicals doing well in regard to spiritual formation?
Varieties of things. Certainly if you look to compare the broadest religious groups, people are being exposed to the Scriptures. People are also particularly involved in missions. Short-term missions programs have a remarkable effect upon formation. The use of small groups is certainly something that is very positive.
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