Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community By James C. Wilhoit (Baker, 2008)

Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community (Paperback)
by James C. Wilhoit

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James Wilhoit, Scripture Press Professor of Christian Formation and Ministry at WheatonCollege, where he has taught for over two decades, notes that his book developed from conversations with students on their spiritually formative influences. Listening to their stories, he gleaned the presence of “formational principles” based upon which he conducted what appears to have been a phenomenological study of spiritual formation in a number of churches—primarily, interviews with church leaders (13). His goal, in this book, was less to reverse trends than to summon his readers to an intentional approach to spiritual formation. In the preface, Wilhoit is concerned that “patterns of nurture that served us well for several generations have quickly been set aside” (13–14). These neglected practices include, according to the author, observance of the Sabbath, pastoral visitation, intergenerational socializing, systematic Bible teaching, church services with emphases on testimonies and missions, and Bible memorization and reading. It might be too broad an accusation that American evangelicalism du jour has been remiss in all of these transactions. Nonetheless, Wilhoit’s warm conservative thrust is evident and his passion for biblical spirituality welcome; equally appealing, as the subtitle indicates, is his emphasis on the role of community in the endeavor of spiritual formation. “Christian spiritual formation refers to the intentional communal process of growing in our relationship with God and becoming conformed to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit” (23; emphasis mine).

Early on, the author declares: “The heart of spiritual formation is to teach and train people to follow the wisdom and instructions of Christ through the enabling power of his grace”—the imitation of Christ (39). To this end a “curriculum for Christlikeness” is proposed, grounded in the “great invitations” (dominical commandments) of Christ (45–49): the call to love and obey God, to love one another, to steward the gospel (making disciples, employing discernment, living with integrity, using money wisely, practicing detachment), to extend Christ’s compassion (engaging in prayer for others, keeping relational commitments, demonstrating compassion for the less fortunate, extending hospitality), and to worship (celebrating the sacraments, practicing spiritual disciplines, studying Scripture, drawing close to God). Lining up these mandates from Gospel verses is, no doubt, convenient, but it seemed to indicate that the scaffolding of biblical spiritual formation was constituted primarily by the “red-letters” of Scripture.

Wilhoit’s “curriculum for Christlikeness” is given four dimensions: receiving the grace of God by cultivating spiritual openness and repentance in confession, worship, and prayer; remembering who we are and how we are to live by transformational teaching in preaching, evangelism, meditation, spiritual guidance, and small group participation; responding to God’s love by serving others in relational commitment, discernment, abandonment of prejudices, and ministries of compassion; and relating, i.e., growing in a relationship with God by immersion in community, through hospitality, reconciliation, Sabbath observance, and the wise utilization of time. “These four basic commitments or dispositions summarize the dimensions I found at work in churches and communities of faith where true spiritual formation has taken place” (50). Again, this revealed the phenomenological bases of Wilhoit’s work; I would have liked to have known more about the discovery of these four “dimensions.” How did he abstract these four—what churches were scrutinized and what were the criteria for their evaluation? Why only four dimensions, and why these four? And how do they cohere with the previously encapsulated “great invitations”? Making these connections would have helped the reader ride the trajectory of the book more smoothly.

In the same preliminary chapter, Wilhoit also summarizes “six myths or false models of spiritual formation”: the quick-fix model that believes one can be “zapped” into spirituality; the facts-only model that gravitates towards information as the incentive for growth; the emotional model that overbalances into the deep zone of spiritual experiences; the conference model that seeks to attain “mountaintop experiences” in large ad hoc assemblies; the insight model that inclines towards introspection and self-motivated behavior choices; and the faith model that emphasizes, simply, surrender and submission to God. Insightfully, Wilhoit diagnoses the shared etiology of these maladies—consumerism: they “are very appealing to those who think their growth is dependent simply on consuming the ‘right thing’” (51–55). Having broached the pertinent issue of misconceptions in the process of spiritual formation, it would have served readers well if they could have been shown how Wilhoit’s “curriculum” corrected these aberrant foci. But, alas, these “myths” don’t reappear in the book.

The bulk of the book—its last eight chapters (out of a total of ten)—focuses upon the four dimensions of the “curriculum for Christlikeness”: two chapters are devoted to each dimension, one describing its foundations, and its pair suggesting how those foundations may be fostered in community.

The concepts in the four “foundation” chapters, while not lacking in biblical epigrams and citations, are not particularly driven by exposition of Scripture. Indeed, Wilhoit’s work would have been considerably stronger had he engaged, more consciously and deliberately, a biblical theology of spiritual formation. While his initial findings may, as he confesses, have been grounded in what he observed in churches and what he drew from his interviews, placing these discoveries upon a theological substratum of what Scripture views as the modus vivendi of spirituality would have lent this tome substantial authority. The chapter “Foundations of Receiving,” for example, touches upon the “Depth of Our Sin,” but lacks a compelling interaction with some of the sedes doctrinae of sin and the flesh: Romans 6, for one, is not mentioned, except for a citation of Rom 6:4 elsewhere, in connection with the “central image of resurrection in the New Testament” (22). And Romans 7, unfortunately, does not show up in the book at all. Wilhoit does, however, expend considerable space and energy developing a four-quadrant matrix that categorizes human responses to “sin and yearnings”: sin management, thoughtful self-discipline, realistically trying, and optimistic brokenness—this last state being, according to the author, the optimal one for spirituality (62). I struggled to grasp the nuanced distinctions between these four, wondering at the same time whether aspects of every quadrant ought not to be an integral part of discipleship, not just the particular sector of “optimistic brokenness” that was appraised as being “most open to true spiritual formation” (63). At the end of this chapter, I also found myself wishing again that Wilhoit had led me back to the “myths” and corrected their falsities rather than point me to yet another taxonomy of attitudes/responses conducive (or not) to attaining Christlikeness.

The second chapters in each pair—those on fostering the particular dimension of spiritual formation in community—are the strength of the book, addressing the corporate facet of spiritual formation. For instance, the chapter, “To Foster Receiving in Community,” helpfully deals with the creation of a culture of spiritual openness and humility, the role of worship and confession, and the practice of spiritual disciplines. Practical suggestions abound, though somewhat unevenly. Prayer, for instance, is well represented: advice on prayer meetings, retreats, seasons of prayer, prayer chains, “prayer immersions,” benedictions, etc. However, ordinances, incontrovertibly essential community endeavors, seem to have gotten short shrift—two pages (98–99 and 196–7). Neither were small groups popular; that topic was allotted just a single page (124). And, while solitude, fasting, and prayer as disciplines that marked Jesus’ life show up in the chapters on fostering receiving and fostering remembering in community (92–94; 139), I would have liked to have seen, as a single person myself, how Wilhoit saw these disciplines that are practiced in solitude integrating with those conducted corporately, in community.

“Foundations of Remembering” focused on acknowledging one’s need of grace always. The subtitle of the chapter, “Letting the Cross Grow Larger,” created a particularly poignant metaphor. Wilhoit rightly avers that our blindness to our need for grace, as well as our futile attempts at self-justification (and self-sanctification, I might add), are nothing but a diminution of the cross. It also struck this reviewer, somewhat tangentially, how powerfully the reality of our self-centered attenuation of cross-size was brought home through the case histories of Sam, Maria, and Simon (108–112). That, in itself, spoke volumes about spiritual formation in community: identification with others—models and mentors, patterns and prototypes, not to mention case studies of our fellow-pilgrims—is critical for the believer’s learning and growing. In fact, Wilhoit himself declares: “An important moment in spiritual formation comes when we link ‘my story’ with the ‘our story’ of the church universal …” (117). Disappointingly, there were no more case histories in any of the subsequent chapters.

“Foundations of Responding” and its corresponding partner “To Foster Responding in Community” provided a timely nudge: looking outwards and seeking to serve is an integral part of spiritual formation. “Christian spiritual formation ultimately is about enabling people to love others more and to help create a just and well-ordered community” (148). While one might carp at the use of the adverb “ultimately” here, one cannot but agree with Wilhoit’s sentiments—a needed, urgent corrective for a sensate and self-centered culture and civilization. Responding in community includes keeping one’s relational commitments, forgiveness, engaging in a life of compassion for the poor and marginalized, eliminating prejudice, weeping with the mourning, using one’s resources wisely, etc.

The section entitled “Time: A Necessity for Community” (in the chapter, “To Foster Relating in Community”) was also worthy of attention. While, time, Wilhoit warns, is not a guarantee for solid relationships, it is, at least, essential for that purpose. He expounds on the categories of community time spent together: large gathering time, large social time, midsize congregational time, small formational study-group time, spiritual friendship time, etc. (187–191). “The purpose of the above list is to remind us that the effects of the time together are going to be different depending on how it is spent” (190). Indeed! In our fragmented and time-pressured society, this was an appropriate and judicious reminder. A deliberate, intentional sacrifice of time for joint endeavors amongst believers in the body of Christ is essential if spiritual growth is sought.

Overall, the book is well written, and I was able to remain solidly on track in the main; however, at times, one felt a bit adrift. There was a tendency for subsections in each chapter to be less than cohesive with the larger themes therein. Perhaps that reflected the nature of the work as a phenomenological exercise, rather than a discourse on a propounded thesis. Also somewhat distracting (at least to this reviewer) was Wilhoit’s inclusion of large amounts of material culled from other works, set in the main text, but on a shaded background. A little more than 10% of the book (by rough page count) was these gray-shaded pages; on more than one occasion I had to strain to find the relevance of those addenda to the thrust of the chapter. Nevertheless, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered is worth a read, at least for the chance to look at this age-old subject from a fresh angle. For those interested in pursuing these matters further, I must also mention the utility of the “For Further Reading” sections at the end of each chapter; a very balanced collection of material from a variety of sources is presented. Throughout the book, Wilhoit’s vibrant devotion and his keen pastoral instincts, patent in his writing, make for a good read. Those active in, or planning to enter into, pastoral ministry, as well as those involved in the pedagogy thereof, will find this book a useful addition to the expanding inventory of works on spiritual formation.

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52 (2009): 644–647

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