SPIRITUAL FORMATION AS IF THE CHURCH MATTERED

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Wilhoit, James, C. Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through
Community. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. 233pp. $12.23.
Introduction
James C. Wilhoit serves on the faculty of Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL as the
Scripture Press Chair of Christian Formation and Ministry. 1 He has served on Wheaton’s faculty
since 1981. Wilhoit holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University (Religion), an M.Div. from
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, M.R.E. from Covenant Theological Seminary and a B.A.
from the University of Washington (History).
Wilhoit writes that it was during his late high school and college years that he grew in
his faith thanks to the ministers of his home church, and the InterVarsity program and Christian
friends while at the University of Washington. He especially makes note of a non-Christian
professor who taught him “to read texts well and held out the possibility that we could actually
come to deeply understand ancient leaders and writers.” This approach prompted Wilhoit to read
the Gospels “with greater care.”
Among Wilhoit’s many books and articles, he has written, edited or co-authored the
following major publications: Nelson’s Personal Handbook of Prayer (2002), Dictionary of
Biblical Imagery (1998), The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Family Life Ministry (1996),
and The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Spiritual Formation (1994).
1
All biographical information taken from Wheaton College, (Wheaton, IL), “Christian Formation and
Ministry Faculty;” [on-line]; accessed 5 December 2008; available at
http://www.wheaton.edu/ce/faculty/wilhoit.html.
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Summary
What is the cultural atmosphere of your local church? Identifying that culture will
provide insight into the effectiveness of forming the believer’s the spiritual life. Wilhoit initially
began teaching courses in the Bible and the history and philosophy of Christian education. Over
time his teaching assignments shifted toward the area of Christian formation and spirituality.2
During conversations with students about how they experienced spiritual formation in
their home church, Wilhoit became concerned about the erosion of “intentional [evangelical]
practices of spiritual formation” (13). Concerned that many evangelicals have set aside accepted
practices for generations, Wilhoit writes this book as a “call to intentionality about our formation
and to repentance about how we have tried to engineer formation more than we have prayerfully
opened our lives and our churches to God’s grace” (14).
Being formed as an “educator,” Wilhoit’s view of spiritual formation is outlined in a
curriculum that he calls the four “R’s:” Receiving, Remembering, Responding and Relating. As
the title of the book puts plain, spiritual formation takes place in the context of a community of
believers. In order to emphasize this teaching, each chapter deals with one of the “R’s.” He
follows an “A-B” pattern when doing this. The “A” part of the pattern explains the foundation
for the “R;” the “B” part of the pattern explains how to foster the quality in the life of the church.
For example, chapter three explains “The Foundations of Receiving” and chapter four explains
how “To Foster Receiving in Community.”
Two themes pulse through his book: intentionality and community. Perhaps they are
really one theme, namely intentional community. Wilhoit’s message and method are
interdependent: the church community should be intentionally structured for the spiritual change
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of the believers who are its members (39).
Wilhoit’s work in this area is set apart by the choices he has made that govern his
community-creating curriculum. As one delves into the books available on the topic of spiritual
formation (spiritual transformation or discipleship),3 the array of offerings may include the
works of Foster or Willard, who seem like oft-quoted “contemporary” pioneers in the arena, and
Wilhoit does quote them. However, his entry of the “Four Dimensions of Community
Formation” (50) into the discussion acts more like an invitation to a way of life lived out in
Christian community than a “curriculum” in the academic sense. For the author, spiritual
formation is the intentional process of change grounded in the work of the Spirit for God’s glory
and service to others. This is reflected in Wilhoit’s definition of spiritual formation as “. . . the
intentional communal process of growing in our relationship with God and becoming conformed
to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit” (23). In other words, it is the messy yet deliberate
business of redeemed sinners becoming like Christ.
Wilhoit’s curriculum contains four spiritual commitments, “four pillars” as he calls
them, serving as a “necessary framework for cultivating the practice of Jesus’ great invitations”
(5). First, Jesus’ great invitations to live the life of a disciple are 1) to love and obey God and to
love one another (46), 2) to practice the implications of love and obedience to God and others
(46-47), 3) to extend compassion (47-48), 4) to worship (48) and 5) to think rightly about God
(49).
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3
“Christian Formation and Ministry Faculty,” Wheaton College.
Wilhoit consistently uses the phrase “spiritual formation,” while the authors of Paul Pettit’s book,
Foundations of Spiritual Formation: A Community Approach to Becoming Like Christ, seem to think of the phrases
as representing different things. So far in my reading, I have not been convinced that the three phrases should be
taken in any way other than synonyms. Therefore, for the purposes of this paper I take the phrase “spiritual
formation” to signify the same thing as discipleship.
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These invitations are then presented in the four dimensions of community formation
(50):
1. Receiving: cultivating spiritual openness and continual repentance. This curriculum
involves confession, worship, sacraments and prayer.
2. Remembering: transformation teaching leading to a deep awareness of being part of
God’s community and his beloved children. This curriculum involves teaching,
preaching, evangelism, meditation, guidance and small groups.
3. Responding: our formation occurring for and through service. This curriculum involves
discernment, honoring relational commitments, setting aside prejudices, and ministries of
compassion.
4. Relating: our formation takes place in and through community. This curriculum involves
hospitality, reconciliation, Sabbath observance and attending to the pace of life.
Critical Evaluation
Wilhoit’s community-creating curriculum starts from the two great invitations of
Jesus, as he calls them: love God and obey him, and love one another. He calls these the “North
Star” (45) of understanding Jesus’ teachings. From this center, flow sixteen applications that can
only be demonstrated in the context of a “safe place, as secure spiritual children” (45) who grow
into the likeness of Jesus, whom we “admire and want to be like” (45). That “safe place” is the
church, the community of the redeemed in a local place.
I especially appreciated Wilhoit’s doorway into the curriculum. The first door
opens on six contemporary myths about spiritual formation. He calls these “six myths or false
models of spiritual formation” because they derail even the most sincere attempts at discipleship.
Wilhoit’s critique is that these six false methods hold out promises to us the way a “new and
improved Mr. Clean!” holds out promises to consumers. Steeped as we are in consumerism, the
church has been too easily influenced by a “consumer view of religion” (53) that appeals to our
“plug and play” mentality applied to spiritual growth. He calls the six: “The Quick-fix Model,”
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“the Facts-only Model,” The Emotional Model,” “The Conference Model,” “The Insight Model
(of introspection,” and “The Faith Model” (51-54). A Christian’s deep thirst for Christlikeness
will not be satisfied at the wells of products for spiritual growth but with Christ, the Living
Water. To reduce spiritual growth to proper self-help techniques reduces the wonders of the
grace of sanctification to “sin management” (61). This view leads to human-centered activities
for growth in holiness that belies the idea that while one may need the gospel for salvation,
sanctification is by one’s own efforts.
Indeed, we need to be consumers, but consumers of grace rich in gospel promises. The
gospel then is ground zero for spiritual formation. This is Wilhoit’s second and most important
door. In chapter five, “Foundations of Remembering,” Wilhoit explains the fertile soil of grace
for the soul: the cross. “A major task in spiritual formation,” writes Wilhoit “involves increasing
our awareness of our need for grace. One way of doing this is by letting the cross grow larger”
(106). This chapter is, in my estimation, the most helpful one in the book. Here Wilhoit sounds
like Puritan John Owen who wrote that the believer is to expect the power of the cross to be
applied to our lives by the Holy Spirit in order to experience conformity to and imitation of
Christ.
Owen and Wilhoit agree that this transformation comes by faith. Owen wrote, “Let
faith look on Christ in the gospel as he is set forth dying and crucified for us. Look on him under
the weight of our sins, praying, bleeding, dying; bring him in that condition into your heart by
faith; apply his blood so shed to your corruptions. Do this daily.”4 Compare with Wilhoit who
wrote, “few formation programs are done in faith and by faith. We often do them in the flesh,
4
John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor, editors, (Wheaton:
Crossway Books, 2006), 138.
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thinking we can orchestrate spiritual growth through our own means. We are fundamentally
fearful of trusting God for spiritual growth” (76).
The growth of a Christian depends on actively and continually receiving God’s
grace to heal our brokenness due to sin and our waywardness due to idolatry. But this is where
things get messy because we’d rather not share in these messy qualities in others. Not only do we
need to foster openness to God for remedy of these pollutions, but we need to graciously receive
one another in the community of faith as the place for broken people to hit bottom safely, as
Larry Crabb put it.5
There is much in Wilhoit’s book to commend and to think about. As I read, I sensed
an increasing desire for the kind of community experience he portrays for the local church.
Without a doubt, Wilhoit’s “curriculum” is the work of the Holy Spirit in humble, willing, spiritfilled Christian’s longing and thirsting for righteousness. This book must be read slowly,
thoughtfully and with a pen and journal in hand because you will want to keep notes of the ideas
that come to mind about how to turn Wilhoit’s principles into practice.
And therein lays my only real criticism. I think Wilhoit could help his readers envision
what his curriculum would look like in our churches with “case studies” showing what happens
when God’s people relate to each other in the discipline of “spiritual friendships” (189).While I
found myself excited about the ideas of participating in a spiritually healthy church community, I
was also frustrated by the few points of practical application beyond the preaching and teaching
options. What do small groups look like in a church like this? How are traditional youth or
children’s ministries, or men’s and women’s ministries altered by the application of these
5
Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth: Where People Connect and Are Forever Changed,
(Nashville: Word, 1999).
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principles? How do elders contribute to fostering the four dimensions of community formation?
What have churches discovered in their attempts at application? Having asked these questions, I
would certainly commend Wilhoit as far more practical and less esoteric than Eugene Peterson.6
Wilhoit has thought deeply and biblically about the matter of spiritual formation in a
community. His insights, if employed humbly will certainly enrich relationships and change the
face of a church. Pastors who read this book will be challenged to think creatively for application
in their own settings. But I would recommend that pastors think in a community of others who
have read also this book; read it together, listen to it together, converse about it together and pray
together. Otherwise the practice of the principles will be missed right from the beginning.
Bob Buchanan
Faith Baptist Church
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Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, (Grand
Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005) or The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (Grand
Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007).
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