Book Review: Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered by James Wilhoit
There comes a point in the Christian’s life where we recognize the need to grow into spiritual maturity, to be nourished in the life of Jesus, to be effective in His kingdom. We often speak of this in individualistic terms, (e.g., “quiet times with God”) or as a one-on-one environment (e.g., “discipleship”). Both of these are equally necessary, yet still incomplete. The Christian needs the Christian(s). We also need spiritual formation that is energized and provided by a community of like-minded believers. We need the whole family. So, I introduce to you James Wilhoit’s, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community, as a worthy choice.
There are some great books on spiritual growth, but Wilhoit’s emphasizes a heavy communal approach. Spiritual formation is described in Wilhoit’s own words 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), and presents the local church as an irreplaceable necessity. Wilhoit asserts that spiritual formation is the central task of the church, and not a supplement. Instead of placing the loci of formation on a few specialized people or programs, he suggests that the local congregation “must resume the practice of making spiritual formation of their members into Christlikeness their primary goal” (10). This topic of spiritual maturity seems one of the more evasive practices of the church, because it is so easy to lob abstract theoretical grenades into the congregation that make little sense or are difficult to apply to the tangible sphere of recreation, family, and work. There are plenty of books on spiritual formation and discipleship that start with the imperatives of Scripture, but leave you to guess the implementation of those Scriptural truths. Granted, while no one wants to be mechanical or formulaic with spiritual maturity, it would still be nice to have a tangible push in the right direction, even if only to polish the rust from our orthopraxy. What I appreciated most about this book is Wilhoit’s practical insight into the disciplines of spiritual formation in community. Here’s a glance…
A brief outline.
In the first chapter, Wilhoit quickly sets the groundwork for spiritual growth in the Gospel. A lot of groundwork!—seven pages are devoted to unpacking the meaning and implications of the Gospel for the Christian’s identity, so as to prevent moralistic therapy from pervading the process that he outlines in the book. This chapter is excellent, and can stand on it’s own, with anthems such as, “All our spiritual problems come from a failure to apply the gospel,” (32) and “the gospel is the power of God for the beginning, middle, and end of salvation” (27). These indicative truths serve as a divine railway to guide the reader into a practical set of imperatives designed for measured growth. What follows chapter one is a curriculum (ch. 2) made up of four responses to the gospel that are designed by Scripture to take a church through a holistic engagement of spiritual nourishment, discipleship, and formation. These four are receiving, remembering, responding, and relating. Each subsequent chapter is a lens for viewing the practices in terms of community and the local church. Spread throughout the remaining 8 chapters is the following narrative…
- Chapter 3 ~ How the Gospel shapes us to receive. This chapter is centered on cultivating openness and repentance through confession, worship, sacraments, and prayer.
- Chapter 4 ~ Receiving in community. How to cultivate the last chapter in the local church.
- Chapter 5 ~ Why the Gospel must be remembered. This chapter emphasizes the need for “transformational teaching leading to a deep awareness” (50). This covers everything from preaching to small groups.
- Chapter 6 ~ Remembering in community. How to cultivate the last chapter in the local church.
- Chapter 7 ~ How the Gospel moves us to respond to others. This chapter seeks to focus our growth and formation in the act and attitudes of service. Topics include discernment, commitment, and ministries of compassion.=
- Chapter 8 ~ How to respond in community. How to cultivate the last chapter in the local church.
- Chapter 9 ~ Why we can’t enjoy the Gospel alone. Our formation takes place in community. This chapter stresses the absolute need for others in your life for Christlike growth to thrive. Elements of practice include hospitality, conflict management, honor, Sabbath observance, and keeping up with the pace of life.
- Chapter 10 ~ How to relate in community. How to cultivate the last chapter in the local church.
My favorite things…
Wilhoit’s does not settle for anything less than seeking to become fully mature in Christ. He writes with a “already-but-not-yet” balance, while also seeking every facet of church life that can be useful for growth, and squeezing it until it bleeds.
He takes his cues from the early church, rather than pop-psychology, and the Scriptures, rather than pragmatic advice. The drive of this book is to experience Jesus Christ, rather than nurse a self-esteem, and the path Wilhoit sometimes take involves repentance and self-denial.
He establishes an in-depth curriculum for spiritual formation, and makes specific recommendations for how to carry out each of the goals presented. After describing these practices on a personal level, he shows what it might look like on a communal level, yet, without ever faulting to the formulaic.
The footnotes alone are worth the price of the book! At every chapter, he lists recommended readings that cover a variety of different approaches and backgrounds useful for the topic at hand. Even better, he includes a short excerpt on each book!
While I have not yet attempted to put this book into practice, and cannot vouch for its veracity, quite yet, it is to date one of the best attempts at formulating a “plan” for spiritual growth in the church I’ve ever read. My main complaint is that I have not been able to see it proven by experience, since this book is intended to cover a Christians’s lifespan, rather than a three-month programatic “discipleship” class. In a comical twist, it is an unverifiable hypothesis that can only be proven on the deathbed. For this reason, it is both a blessing and a curse. All considered, I must highly recommend this book for looking so far down the road.