Above the entrance to the philosophy department at the University of Southern California, where Dallas Willard has taught for forty years, is a figure of Diogenes. The fourth century B.C. philosopher was known to carry a lamp through the streets of Athens in the daylight in search of one honest man. To some Diogenes was a madman; to others he was a provocative revealer of truth.
Willard's ideas elicit similar reactions today. His books on spiritual formation have served as beacons to Christians seeking a fuller understanding of the kingdom of God. To those who believe the church's message requires no adjustment, Willard seems foolish, carrying a light where none is needed.
Willard appeals to those haunted by the question: Why don't Christians look more like Christ? To those bothered by the statistics indicating in the areas of divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, and physical abuse, that American Christians behave no differently than the culture around them.
The problem, Willard says, is that we do not practice spiritual formation. Churches have not designed their ministries to help people believe and behave differently, because many church leaders have simply gotten the message of Jesus wrong.
After reading Willard's book, The Divine Conspiracy (Harper, 1998), Dieter Zander came to recognize Willard's light. Zander reevaluated his understanding of the gospel and his role at a large, seeker-targeted church. Today he is implementing many of Willard's ideas in a smaller church near San Francisco, Bay Marin Community Church in Novato, California, where he serves as pastor of arts and spiritual formation. He is also co-founder of the church planting ministry, ReImagine.
In Willard's offices at USC, we talked with the two men, now good friends, about the growing interest in spiritual formation and the attempts to practice it in the local congregation.
What's driving the current interest in spiritual formation?
Willard: Spiritual formation isn't new; it's only been lost for a while. It was lost because of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy. The liberal end of the church focused on social action. The conservative church became fixated on correct belief as the key to heaven when you diethat became their gospel. Both sides lost the notion of life transformation.
Those of us who inherited the conservative church's gospel were taught that if we just preach correct doctrine that we've done our job. Now, decades later, we're seeing that there is more to the gospel than just getting people ready to die. Basically the interest in spiritual formation has come from a lot of hungry people, and a lot of hungry pastors.
Zander: As pastors we're doing what we've been told, but we're preaching a very narrow gospel. We've been throwing a lot of seed, but it's not taking root, it's not producing fruit. We are not seeing people's lives transformed. There is a growing sense of failure among the church leaders I talk with, and we are looking for something more meaningful.
When did you recognize ministry, as you'd known it, wasn't working?
Willard: In my tradition conversion was very important, but because lives were rarely transformed, we also had revivals where people could rededicate themselves to Christand they did frequently. But as a pastor watching this, it became clear that I really didn't have anything to help these folks. All I could say was "mean it this time" or something silly like that.