Leadership Journal interviewed Dr. Willard and Dieter Zander about the growing interest in spiritual formation and the attempts to practice it in the local congregation.
What is spiritual formation? And how does a church do it? A professor and pastor discuss the new language of making disciples.
Above the entrance to the philosophy department at the University of Southern California, where Dallas Willard has taught for forty years, is a figure of Diogenes. The fourth century B.C. philosopher was known to carry a lamp through the streets of Athens in the daylight in search of one honest man. To some Diogenes was a madman; to others he was a provocative revealer of truth.
Willard’s ideas elicit similar reactions today. His books on spiritual formation have served as beacons to Christians seeking a fuller understanding of the kingdom of God. To those who believe the church’s message requires no adjustment, Willard seems foolish, carrying a light where none is needed.
Willard appeals to those haunted by the question: Why don’t Christians look more like Christ? To those bothered by the statistics indicating in the areas of divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, and physical abuse, that American Christians behave no differently than the culture around them.
When did you recognize ministry, as you’d known it, wasn’t working?
Willard: In my tradition conversion was very important, but because lives were rarely transformed, we also had revivals where people could rededicate themselves to Christ—and they did frequently. But as a pastor watching this, it became clear that I really didn’t have anything to help these folks. All I could say was “mean it this time” or something silly like that.
Revivals didn’t solve the problem, just as conferences don’t solve the problem today. If you study the lives of anyone commonly recognized as a great saint, you see that the transformation they experienced almost never happened to them in a meeting.
During my few years as a pastor, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to get people to come to church. Then I looked at Jesus, and he was trying to get away from people. The people Jesus taught were experiencing real transformation. As I spent more time studying the Gospels, I saw that Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of the heavens is at hand. I realized I was simply not preaching what he was preaching. I had the gospel wrong.
Zander: In the early ’90s I was committed to the seeker-targeted idea. I was motivated by attendance—breaking the 200-, 400-, and 800-barriers. And by God’s grace I was breaking them. Along the way I felt like I was promoting a brochure to a place I had never really been. Then I read Dallas’s book The Divine Conspiracy. It dawned on me—Jesus said the kingdom of God is at hand. It’s now. It’s here. God’s presence is among us, and we can experience the reality of his kingdom before we die. It wasn’t just a brochure anymore. It was an epiphany for me.
So, a key part of spiritual formation is understanding the gospel. Can you define how you understand the gospel now?
Willard: Two words, trust Jesus. Trust him for everything, not just what happens when I die. Trusting Jesus and becoming his disciple is the same thing. I like the word apprentice because it means I’m with Jesus learning to do what he did. When you look at the first disciples, that’s what they were doing. They watched Jesus and listened to him, and then he said, “Now you do it.”
Zander: We started a house church in San Francisco, and we began by just asking, What is the gospel? We spent months simply trying to understand it and live it. I remember the night when the light went on for one young lady. She said, “It means God is in my whole life. He wants to be in all of my living. And he wants to transform every aspect of my life.” She got the gospel!
What impact does this perspective have on how pastors lead?
Zander: I have to ask myself, Do I trust Jesus? Do I trust Jesus with this church? As pastors we’ve been trained to trust experts to help us build the church. If we truly trust Jesus, maybe we should begin by seeking his ways before we buy the latest church growth book. Jesus said, “I will build my church.” Maybe we need to go away for five days and say, “Jesus, what do you want me to do?” And then learn to listen and obey.
Willard: Pastors need to redefine success. The popular model of success involves the ABCs—attendance, buildings, and cash. Instead of counting Christians, we need to weigh them. We weigh them by focusing on the most important kind of growth—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, kindness, and so on—fruit in keeping with the gospel and the kingdom.
What blocks church leaders from moving in this direction?
Zander: We’ve accepted a narrow gospel for so long that people don’t believe real life transformation is possible anymore. The whole concept of spiritual formation begins with the question What’s possible? People will live up to or down to their beliefs.
Current church life is just a reflection of what we believe is possible.
We need to ask, what is possible when a human life enters the kingdom of God with Jesus as their teacher? Can we experience what his apprentices experienced 2,000 years ago? Nothing in the Scriptures says we can’t. We need to overcome our unbelief.
What is the pastor’s function in spiritual formation?
Willard: The pastor is the teacher. If you’re going to pursue spiritual formation, the preacher must be committed to it—you cannot plow around the pulpit. Time after time you’ll see one or two members of a church get very involved in spiritual formation, but if the guy who does the preaching isn’t sold on it, it doesn’t take root in the congregation.
I can tell you that spiritual formation will flourish in any congregation where the pastor takes the lead, understands the gospel of the kingdom of the heavens, preaches it, and then coaches people in their spiritual lives.
Zander: This poses a huge landmine for pastors. If they do what Dallas suggests, some in the congregation will think they’ve become heretical. There will be an emotional reaction because we are turning what we’ve always preached upside down.
The gospel isn’t just about forgiveness so we can go to heaven. And that needs to be done very wisely.
So, how does a pastor introduce these ideas without being tagged as a heretic?
Zander: I would start with your staff and elders first. The gospel is like a seed. It gets planted and it grows slowly. We need to take our time and be patient.
Willard: A pastor needs to find other pastors to talk to honestly about this work. And he should focus his preaching on the Gospels. One should begin preaching what Jesus preached. I would plan to spend two years just preaching from the Gospels.
Remember, the gospel as Jesus brought it to earth is the most powerful thing that has ever hit the world. If you preach what he preached, you will see it beginning to pop around you. And you’ll find your people asking the right questions: How about this blessing those who curse you? How about loving your enemies? Can we really do that?
In doing this, what are the landmines you’ve encountered?
Zander: As I’ve tried to help people think about apprenticeship to Jesus and the spiritual disciplines, they sometimes accuse me of promoting a works salvation.
Willard: In most churches we’re not only saved by grace, we’re paralyzed by it. We’re afraid to do anything that might be a “work.” The funny thing is we will preach to people for an hour that they can’t do anything to be saved, and then sing to them for a half an hour trying to get them to do something. This is confusing. People need to see that action is a receptacle for grace, not a substitute for it. Grace is God acting in our lives to do things we can’t do on our own. Grace is not opposed to effort; it’s opposed to earning.
If we are saved by grace, what function do spiritual disciplines have in the Christian’s life?
Willard: As an apprentice of Christ, I may be saved by grace, but I still have years of habitual anger, materialism, lust, and many other things to be dealt with. They’re not just going to go away. Like someone who has a bad golf swing and always slices off to the right, I’m going to have to practice hitting the ball in a different way to make it go straight. The slice is in my body; it’s how I have been formed. The disciplines help transform my habitual actions. The disciplines are not a substitute for grace, but receptacles for it.
When people learn simple disciplines like fasting and Scripture memorization—I’m not big on verses, they don’t do much, but larger passages—it’s amazing how it transforms them. Solitude is also primary. If you can just get people to practice these, then they will have the tools to experience what you’ve been preaching about from the Gospels. And they won’t need you around anymore.
That’s what we ought to be doing as pastors. Instead of making people dependent on us to keep them coming back for more, we ought to set their tails on fire and let them go.
Zander: A lot of people live unintentionally. They get pushed around by circumstances and culture. The spiritual disciplines serve as anchor points, or a rule of life—the practices you do daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly, that keep you from drifting all over.
We have our congregation think through What kinds of things can you do to connect with Jesus and follow him? Would you read a chapter from a Gospel every day? Would you consider afterward praying, “Jesus, help me to do the kinds of things you did?” When people do something intentionally, something that has meaning and value for a period of time, their lives change.
How can a pastor lead in formation when not everyone is at the same place of spiritual maturity?
Willard: That’s going to be the case no matter what we do. If you ask any pastor who knows his congregation, he will tell you that two groups already exist—those who are serious learners of Jesus and those who are not. This is not a bad thing. It’s an opportunity for pastors to learn how to love people who aren’t students of Jesus.
Zander: But you need to present apprenticeship as normative. It can’t be seen as something only for super-Christians.
Willard: Right, and to have healthy spiritual formation you must have ways of recognizing people who are ready to go deeper, and then provide a place for them to do it—like a special group or retreat.
Zander: But we need to avoid promoting things for people who are “really serious” about their spiritual growth. The danger is you’ll get a lot of folks who want to look like they’re serious, but in reality are not.
Willard: Yes, that’s really true.
Zander: We’ve got to avoid creating an elite level of disciples in the church.
Should pastors target the people they feel are ready to go deeper?
Willard: I would let them self-select to begin with. But, suppose you have a special group to focus on overcoming anger for six weeks. You’re going to teach and practice disciplines that will enable your members to bless those who curse them, but people will make progress at different rates. In the process you’ll discover some tough guy who hasn’t really decided to do this. That’s when you may need to take him aside and say, “Let’s have coffee and talk.”
Will this become just another discipleship program?
Willard: Spiritual formation doesn’t happen in a program at the church. It happens by living your life. We really need to stay away from creating programs as our goal. Programs have their place, but they must be subordinated to the spiritual life. You just start doing these simple practices and teaching the gospel of the kingdom. It doesn’t matter how big your church is, or what style worship you have. What matters is, are we disciples?
Zander: Spiritual formation needs to connect with what people are dealing with in their daily lives. For example, you tell the congregation, “We’re going to learn how to live without anxiety and fear; is anybody interested?” Most of the folks won’t believe it’s possible. You start by teaching what Jesus said about anxiety. Then begin practicing the simple disciplines that help reshape our minds. And share stories about how you’re doing through the process. We don’t start with the disciplines; we start with the real life issue.
What can we learn from other Christian traditions, like the monastics, about spiritual formation?
Willard: Before there were Protestants, there were no Catholics. Christianity in the West survived because of monasticism. The monks created enclaves of the kingdom of God where people were relatively safe and cared for. But they never lost the idea that spiritual formation is serious business.
Although you don’t find much discussion about spiritual formation among Catholics today, except for priests, they still have formative disciplines for people that are very simple.
Zander: Higher church expressions, like the Anglican tradition, put greater value upon the body in the spiritual life. They consider what I see, what I hear, what I taste, and what I smell in the worship experience. Posture is also important—whether I kneel or stand. That is something I’ve really benefited from in recent years. For me worship has always happened from the neck up, and then only with certain senses.
They also have a built-in sense of submission that we have lost in much of the evangelical church. We value individualism in our tradition, but individualistic Christianity is an oxymoron. The fact is we need other human beings and meaningful relationships to grow.
I see a spiritual director as a part of my spiritual growth. Once a month I sit down with Father Tom to pray and talk. Just the discipline of going to him and submitting to his insights has been a rich experience for me.
Spiritual formation is a major topic within the emerging church. Are they getting it right?
Zander: The emerging church is really saying that the kingdom of God is bigger than the evangelical Christian world. Sometimes that is communicated in constructive ways, sometimes not. But I believe they have a healthy desire to bring together what was separated during the Modernist-Fundamentalist split Dallas mentioned earlier. They want to reunite social justice and Scripture—the inner spiritual life and the outer social life. That is spiritual formation—allowing the gospel to transform us internally so we live differently externally.
Willard: They have a justifiable and healthy reaction against the model of programmatic church, and I think it’s good in many respects. I hope and pray that they find their way and bring us something really positive and good. That has yet to be seen. The great challenge for the emerging church is determining their message. Reacting against the modern church is not a gospel. But if their message becomes living in the kingdom at street level, then that’s going to be wonderful.
How are you applying the kingdom at street level?
Zander: When we moved to San Francisco, we lived on a street where our neighbors included an atheist Jewish family, a Buddhist family, an Irish Catholic family, a gay family, and a Hindu family. There was no sense of community, so we decided to become conduits of the kingdom by practicing the discipline of hospitality. We learned people’s names and used them. We introduced neighbors to each other. And something began to happen.
My atheist Jewish neighbor came into my kitchen once and said, “You know, something has happened since you all moved to this neighborhood. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like an enzyme has been added. Where once there was no life, now there’s life. What is that?” And I said, “That’s the gospel of Jesus being lived out in our lives.”