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Spiritual Formation as if the Church…
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Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through… (2008)

by Jim Wilhoit

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Wilhoit, James C. Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. 191 pp. $14.46

James Wilhoit is professor of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College where he has taught since 1981. He has edited and contributed to many books in the area of spiritual formation.
James Wilhoit’s teaching position at Wheaton has provided him the unique privilege of interacting with scores of students from across the varied landscape of Evangelicalism. This perspective, especially granted the subject matter of his professorship, has granted him the opportunity to interview, formally and informally, the students under his tutelage about the nature of the spiritual formation they received from their respective churches. Prompted by his initial findings, his quest became more intentional, and he sought to intentionally interview church leaders in order to identify the patterns and practices they were employing to nurture their people toward spiritual transformation. He concluded that the church in general is not as serious or intentional as it should be with regard to spiritual formation, the central task of the church. The aim of his book is to call the church to recover intentionality in leading people from non-belief to spiritual transformation and to repent of the grace-starved ways which we have adopted. His plea is for churches to implement a curriculum for transformation that is rooted in grace, empowered by prayer, oriented in community, and educationally based. He is convinced that spiritual formation is more than a task of the church, it is the task of the church (15).
Wilhoit begins the book by laying the groundwork for his suggested curriculum for Christlikeness. In the first chapter he establishes his foundational premise that all people are being spiritually formed either in a positive direction or a negative one. Due to the effects of the fall, all men apart from Christ are moving toward non-being in their pre-Christian state. Believers, having been born again, are to be being formed positively (sanctification). He also asserts in chapter one that much of the failure of the church to move people along in spiritual formation is a failure to understand our need for the gospel not merely as the door by which we enter, but the means by which we grow and develop all the way along. He helpfully but respectfully, critiques the popular bridge diagram to illustrate his point in a way that does not preclude us from employing that image, but he does show how we might use it more helpfully. He desires that we not see the cross as a bridge that we pass over and leave behind but one we remain traveling upon. Whereas many Christians, after walking with Christ for some time, see their bridge as shorter and shorter, Wilhoit contends that we ought to see our need for God’s grace growing larger and larger. Everyone is being spiritually formed and all true or positive transformation finds its origin in our gracious creator God.
The question of where formation takes place is the subject of chapter two. Where is the classroom where the curriculum is taught? Wilhoit’s short answer would be, everywhere. We have heard it said, all of life is a classroom. With this Wilhoit would agree. He establishes this by appealing to Christ’s incarnation and submission to human and spiritual development. He reasons that we can look to Jesus to see how he grew and developed as to his human nature, for he used means that are available to us. He then points us to the invitations of Christ from Scripture and asks that we see all of these sixteen invitations flowing out of the two great invitations to love God and to love neighbor, and the means by which we grow into increasing Christlikeness.
Whilhoit then identifies four dimensions or commitments of the church that serve as the framework for living out the curriculum he commends. The four dimensions are receiving, remembering, responding, and relating. By receiving, he intends us to understand that formation comes to us from God, and to receive we must come from a stance of brokenness. In remembering, we are ever looking back with gratitude and wonder at God’s grace and humbly testifying to one another and others to edify and evangelize. We respond to the gospel with love to God and service to our fellow man. By relating we come full circle in spiritually enriching relationships.
After identifying, Wilhoit comments upon six myths that distort the Christian’s understanding of spiritual formation. The remainder of the book is devoted tounpacking the rationale for the four dimensions he has proposed. At the head of the four corresponding chapters he asks of each of the four dimensions that he proceeds to answer in that chapter and follows each with a chapter to describe the community practices required to foster a culture and expectation of formation. He includes an appendix with questions suited for use in the evaluation and assessment.
I am so thankful for this book. There are many books available on being “gospel-centered,” but Wilhoit has done an excellent job of showing us what this might look like and suggests a structure that can help our churches cultivate an intentional environment where true spiritual formation can take place. He received my full attention and buy in when in chapter one he addressed the gospel and spiritual formation. I agree and I have heard it said before, but he explained and illustrated his points with gracious precision. I appreciated his manner of offering critique without being critical. He describes the root malady when he states that, “the gospel is the power of God for the beginning, middle, and end of salvation. The most encouraging fact is that not only does he state, it but his curriculum displays that he believes it. He demolishes the unhelpful gospel versus discipleship dichotomy by establishing that the gospel is God’s powerful plan for spiritual formation, not just the hook with which we are caught.
At times I was uncertain of Wilhoit’s choice of terminology and that created caution in my reading and hesitancy in the reception of some of his ideas. For instance, when he spoke of the positive aspects of “centering prayer” I rebuffed but as I kept reading I had little problem with the practice he described. Nevertheless I would prefer he use terminology less likely to be associated with New Age practices. My fears were assuaged as I read Wilhoit’s chapter on the foundations of receiving. He did an excellent job of establishing the reason the gospel of grace must be our constant means of formation. He opines that, “for far too many people, grace is about how we are “saved,” and work is about how we “grow” (79). The only appropriate posture in which authentic spiritual transformation can take place is that of receiver. He suggests that we cultivate a “pervasive sense of optimistic brokenness” to foster receiving in community. Again, my problem is with Wilhoit’s use of words rather than his ideas. I would prefer he use the more biblical word “hope.” Hope-filled brokenness would better communicate the kind of brokenness the gospel engenders.
The foundation for remembering is letting the cross grow larger. His articulation of this pillar was rich and insightful. Why is it that it seems for many Christians their perception for their need of the cross diminishes? Wilhoit suggests it is because we do not know ourselves well enough, or we are deceived. Whatever the case may be, the church must be a place where means of grace are employed to confront sin and the idols we craft to replace God or create a god of our imagination. The remedy is Spirit anointed teaching and preaching.
Believers are to be pipes not buckets (147). This statement aptly summarizes Wilhoit’s contention that churches must realize our role in helping believers see that we are formed to serve, and we are formed by serving. We love and serve God by loving and serving others. “Christianity is not a spectator sport” and “it’s not about me” are quips we often hear but those well worn adages have done little to promote an atmosphere and expectation for responding to God in our churches. Wilhoit suggests responding is like a vital sign; it indicates how we view what we have received from God and what we are remembering over time. Our response in service to God and others will be commensurate with what we believe we have received. Wilhoit is right. Remember Jesus’ words, “he who has been forgiven little, loves little?”
I was impressed with the breadth of the supporting and illustrative quotes that were scattered throughout the book. The sections for suggested reading were helpful and inviting. I look forward to looking into many of the recommended works. Wilhoit varied his interaction with sources across every span of church history more naturally than few authors I have read, and I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of the book. I found myself agreeing with his general theological perspective and yet surprised at the scope of his reading. It was a refreshing and thought provoking book. I expect to read it again with a view of testing this material in my field of ministry. There is much here to consider. The categories he suggests are memorable and they represent the biblical pattern for congregational life together.
I would highly recommend this book. I think a staff or ministry team could benefit greatly from prayerfully reading this and using the structure to evaluate their structures for formation and further developing the areas that are lacking. One could profitably use the summary of biblical images and invitations to preach messages that cast a vision for increased intentionality in the church’s plan for the spiritual formation of its membership. ( )
  benniet | Jan 14, 2011 |
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.
added by Christa_Josh | editJournal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Abraham Kuruvilla (Sep 1, 2009)
 
Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered is another great contribution to both personal and corporate formation. It is an enjoyable and encouraging piece worthy of consideration in any Christian community's practical application.
added by Christa_Josh | editAmerican Theological Inquiry, Steve Clark (Jul 15, 2009)
 
This book belongs in every seminary, on every clergyperson's shelf, and in any library supporting a community of inquiring Christians.
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Eric Norton (Jun 15, 2008)
 
Clearly written from an evangelical perspective, this cogent and passionate book deserves to have wide appeal.
added by Christa_Josh | editPublishers Weekly (Nov 12, 2007)
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0801027764, Paperback)

The yearning and restlessness of our souls drive us toward God. This hunger and homesickness is the beginning of spiritual formation, according to James C. Wilhoit. In Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered, Wilhoit takes a unique approach to the topic. Whereas most books focus on the individual's spiritual transformation, this one intentionally concentrates on how the local church itself is the seedbed of spiritual growth and how the process is a community effort. This book's short chapters, sidebar material, and concluding prayers fit well with readers' busy lives without sacrificing quality and depth of content.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:29 -0400)

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