The Making of the Christian
Prayer. The Word of God. Spiritual gifts. The sacraments. Social justice. Pursuit of holiness. Christian disciplines. These are the rivers of Christian tradition that flow into the interdenominational sea of small groups called Renovaré. It's impossible to say how many of these spiritual formation groups function worldwide, because the group's leaders say that "it would be a failure" if they counted them. They're not into numbers and organizational growth charts.
But it's likely you've heard of them anyway.
The founder of Renovaré is Richard J. Foster, Quaker author of Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, a classic named by CT as one of the top ten books of the 20th century. Another luminary at Renovaré is Dallas Willard, a Southern Baptist, professor of philosophy at the University of South California in Los Angeles, and author of The Divine Conspiracy: Recovering Our Hidden Life in God, which was CT's Book of the Year in 1999.
The two men recently collaborated on The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible (HarperSanFrancisco), which they edited with The Message's Eugene Peterson and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.
Foster and Willard sat down with CT associate editor Agnieszka Tennant for a rare interview at a Renovaré conference in Denver to explain the difference between spiritual formation and its imitations.
What do you mean when you use the phrase spiritual formation?
Willard: Spiritual formation is character formation. Everyone gets a spiritual formation. It's like education. Everyone gets an education; it's just a matter of which one you get.
Spiritual formation in a Christian tradition answers a specific human question: What kind of person am I going to be? It is the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person. That's all it is. You are taking on the character of Christ in a process of discipleship to him under the direction of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. It isn't anything new, because Christians have been in this business forever. They haven't always called it spiritual formation, but the term itself goes way back.
Is spiritual formation the same as discipleship?
Willard:Discipleship as a term has lost its content, and this is one reason why it has been moved aside. I've tried to redeem the idea of discipleship, and I think it can be done; you have to get it out of the contemporary mode.
There are really three gospels that are heard in our society. One is forgiveness of sins. Another is being faithful to your church: If you take care of your church, it will take care of you. Sometimes it's called discipleship, but it's really churchmanship. And another gospel is the social oneJesus is in favor of liberation, and we should be devoted to that. All of those contain important elements of truth. You can't dismiss any of them. But to make them central and say that's what discipleship is just robs discipleship of its connection with transformation of character.
What does this misunderstanding of discipleship look like?
Willard: In our country, on the theological right, discipleship came to mean training people to win souls. And on the left, it came to mean social actionprotesting, serving soup lines, doing social deeds. Both of them left out character formation.
Isn't character formation very much a part of many Christian schools and institutions?
Willard: What sometimes goes on in all sorts of Christian institutions is not formation of people in the character of Christ; it's teaching of outward conformity. You don't get in trouble for not having the character of Christ, but you do if you don't obey the laws.