Foreword: Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered

 Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered by James C. Wilhoit. Baker Academic, 2008; 2nd edition, March 29, 2022. 

James Wilhoit has written a book of special urgency for our times. In it he addresses the central problem facing the contemporary church in the Western world and world-wide, the problem of how routinely to lead its members through a path of spiritual, moral and personal transformation that brings them into authentic Christlikeness in every aspect of their lives. In the language of the Apostle Paul, enabling them “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1 NASB).

For most of the Twentieth Century, we have been in a period of time when, in all segments, Christian churches have been distracted from the central task of teaching their people how to live the spiritual life in a way that would bring them progressively to enjoy the character of Christ as their own. But in the last few decades, a sense of spiritual shallowness and emptiness, in individual lives as well as in church groups and activities, has led to a renewed use of the ancient language of “spiritual formation.” Spiritual formation (really, transformation) is the process, in Paul’s language, of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, and not organizing our lives around the satisfaction of our natural desires.” (Rom. 13:14 author’s trans.) In that process, we “put off the old self, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and are renewed in the spirit of our mind; and…put on the new self, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24 author’s trans.).

In the period we have recently come through, our church activities have simply had no serious intention of fostering the individual transformation of members of the group. 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, as Christians, are about. Paul, in conformity with the central teachings of the whole Bible, is referring to the type of life transformation from inside to outside—“first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may also become clean,” as Jesus said (Matt. 23:26 NASB)—that won the ancient world to Christ. If what we have more recently seen of Christianity in the Western world had been all there was to it in earlier centuries, there would be no such thing as Christianity today, or at best it would exist as a museum piece. How the church fell onto such thin times is, no doubt, a subject worth of thorough examination. But the practical problem is: How do we move back into the powerful form of life which won the worlds of the past and alone can meet the crying needs of our world today? Here is where this book comes in.

The answer to the question is that the local congregations, the places where Christians gather on a regular basis, must resume the practice of making the spiritual formation of their members in Christlikeness their primary goal, the aim which every one of their activities serves. Another way of putting the same point is to say that they must take it as their unswerving objective to be a body of apprentices to Jesus who are devoted to learning and teaching one another how to do, through transformation of the “inner man” (Eph. 3:16 NASB), everything Jesus said for us to do. That is what it means to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14)

Unless this course of action is adopted in the local or neighborhood congregations, the now widespread talk about “spiritual formation,” and the renewed interest in practices of the spiritual life in Christ, will soon pass like other superficial fads that offer momentary diversion to a bored and ineffectual church primarily interested only in its own success or survival. This is because it is the local group of apprentices that God has chosen as his primary instrument in his redemptive work on earth. No doubt wisely, for only the personal and corporate dynamics of such a group are suited to be the place where humans learn to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35 author’s trans.). And as long as the local assemblies do not do this transforming work as their central business, everyone, church and world alike, will assume—as in fact they do now—that there is an acceptable alternative form of Christianity other than spiritual transformation into Christlikeness. Indeed, that is the assumption that produces the now standard form, in North America, of “nominal” Christianity: the curse of the valid aspirations of humanity and the perennial Golgotha of Jesus’ trajectory across human history.

Currently, pastors and leaders of congregations do not seem to understand this. Their education, their models of success, and their understanding of what salvation or life in Christ is supposed to be like point them in other directions. The result is the absence of any overriding intention to devote their central effort toward constant transformation of all members of the group. Indeed, radical transformation is not what our folks are prepared for in “going to church.” It is not what is in their “contract” with the preacher or the leadership. Thus you will find here and there congregations that spend months or years trying to develop a “mission” statement. Almost never—never, to my knowledge—do they come out at the point Jesus left with us: To be disciples (apprentices of Jesus in Kingdom living) who make disciples and form them in inner Christlikeness in such a way that they easily and routinely do the things Jesus told us to do. (Matt. 28:18-20)

In order to respond faithfully to Jesus’ instructions, pastors, teachers and leaders must form the intention and make the decision to live out the New Testament vision of apprenticeship to Jesus in the local congregation, as Jesus articulated it in his life on earth and as Paul articulates it in Ephesians 4:1-16: the vision of a body of disciples (not just Christians as now understood) building itself up in love and mutual ministry and life together. Then they can begin to think about what they do “in church” and in life that can effectively carry forward on a regular basis spiritual formation in Christlikeness in all the attendees. They will learn how to deal with the fine texture of relationships and events, within the redemptive body and beyond, in such a way that all might “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18 NASB)—no hype!

It is very hard today for pastors and leaders to form this intention and begin to put it into practice. Generally speaking, this is because they do not know how to make the group a context of honest spiritual formation, and they fear that, if they try to, they will fail by the current standards of “success” as leaders. But there is a way forward, and it is the details that matter. That is where this book, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered, is uniquely helpful. Dr. Wilhoit, with a warm heart and a gentle and intelligent manner, helps us see, in great detail, what we can do to relocate spiritual transformation to the center of what we do in gathering as disciples of Jesus. He helps any serious person engage the project from where they are, discover what really works for Christlikeness and what doesn’t, and assess outcomes realistically to make needed adjustments as you go. No special equipment, ability or training—not even a budget—is required. As disciples, we learn what we need to know as we go. Remember, the churches have always been at their best when they had the least but were simply obedient to Christ.

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