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 one—Jesus 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 action—protesting, 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.
It is so important to understand that character formation is not behavior modification. Lots of people misunderstand it and put it in the category of Alcoholics Anonymous. But in spiritual formation, we're not talking about behavior modification.
Foster: I think what Dallas is referring to is that many Christian institutions have a system by which you find out whether you're in or out. Sometimes it's rules; sometimes it's a certain belief system.
You just look sometimes at what they produce in terms of solid families and marriages. Do they really love their enemies? If that's the case, great. If it's about the number of verses you can memorize or the answers you give to a certain set of questions, while you're full of bitterness or pride—that's not spiritual formation.
Pride is one of the socially acceptable sins in some corners of the evangelical culture. It's just straight-out ego gratification—how important I am; whether my name gets on the building or on the tv program or in the magazine article.
So how do we cultivate humility?
Foster: We can't get humility by trying to get humility. But we can't assume there's nothing to do and just wait for God to pour humility on our heads. No, no! Take disciplines, like service, like Benedict's rule. His 12 steps into humility almost all deal with service to God and to others. That produces a perspective in life that works a grace of humility in us.
How does Jesus address spiritual formation?
Willard: Jesus teaches it, but often his teaching gets identified with general moralisms, like turning the other cheek and so on. You don't actually find much instruction on how to do that. So we've come to a place where we just assume we're not actually going to do it. Some time ago, I was in Belfast, a place where your enemy may have lived across the street and may have killed your child. I was talking to ministers and church leaders about Jesus' teachings on loving our enemies. A gracious man stood up and said, "When we talk about loving your enemy here, it means something. And we're not sure that you can do that."
I asked, "Are any of your churches teaching people how to love your enemy?" There was a moment of silence. No one was.
That's a question we all should ask ourselves: Do you know of a church where they actually teach you how to love your enemies, how to bless those who curse you? This is extremely radical material because it goes to the sources of behavior.
At this conference, I heard some panelists criticize megachurches. I wonder what your take is on seeker-oriented congregations.
Willard: What they do well is establish a public presence that draws many people under the sound of the gospel. They are led by wonderful people who are under the call of God to do the work they're doing.
In many seeker-sensitive churches, the focus is on getting people to confess Christ as a basis for going to heaven when they die. I don't want to diminish the importance of that, because you're going to be dead a lot longer than you're alive, so you ought to be ready for that.
But it is possible to lose sight of character transformation as a serious element for the people you're bringing in. We need to do both of those things.
Foster: The problem today is that evangelism has reached the point of diminishing returns. I talk with people and they say, "What am I to be converted to? I look at Christians and statistically they aren't any different." You want to be able to point to people who are really different.
Willard: … and people who are running a bank or a school, or functioning in government, maybe even in the military. What we need is more examples of people who actually have character that is Christlike. Isaiah brought up this problem of people whose lips are "near me" but their heart is "hard toward me"; Jesus also talked about it. Spiritual formation is for developing a heart that is one with God—whether you're in a lush hotel suite or down on the street. The business of the church is to bring that about.
A heart that is one with God— sounds like a tall order.
Willard: We're not talking about perfection; we're talking about doing a lot better. Forget about perfection. We're just talking about learning to do the things that Jesus is favorable toward and doing it out of a heart that has been changed into his.
You two have been friends for a long time. Tell me how you glimpsed the character of Christ being formed in each other.
Foster: In the early '70s, Dallas and I were members of a small group of men who met every week. We became aware that Dallas, who was driving this old beat-up Volkswagen, needed tires. So we decided to buy a set of tires for him without telling him.
We went up to his home with these four tires. We're feeling very righteous about this. I'm thinking, Oh, isn't this wonderful. He'll gush over this. What was I doing? I was thinking of how I'm going to put him into my debt. When we presented these four tires, he said, "Oh, thank you very much. I needed those." That was it. He hadn't said anything else. Not any sense of, "Oh, I'll pay you back." That reaction set me free from this game of tit-for-tat, "I scratch your back; you scratch my back."
Willard: For his part, Richard has a discipline of simplicity. It comes out of his tradition as a Quaker. It is so deeply rooted and so pervasive. It's one reason things go so well in conferences: He does not put on. The Quaker writer George Fox—a mentor for both of us—talked about taking people off of men and putting them onto Christ. That's what you see in Richard. He doesn't care to be noticed, and, despite his notoriety, he can actually pay attention to people.
In what context do Renovaré spiritual formation groups usually function?
Foster: They're sometimes organized by churches. Sometimes there will be people at our conferences who will find each other and begin to meet together. Sometimes they go to the same church; sometimes they don't. Some group members don't go to any church. It doesn't matter.
So you don't stress the importance of being connected to the local church?
Foster: We bless the organized church structures and their meetings. But if there are 10,000 others that meet outside of these ecclesiastical structures, that's wonderful too. The kingdom of God moves forward in lots and lots of ways.
Willard: One of the limitations of the megachurch is that it cannot be mega enough. You cannot take all the people to church.
But if we're really concerned about reaching the world for Christ, we have to bring the church—which is the people of God—to permeate society. You can't tie it to a building. That's where we started. We went to buildings, but it was about community. It was Christ coming upon preexisting community and redeeming it where it was.
The current interest in spiritual formation is part fad and part timeless. How much staying power do you think it has?
Foster: We don't know yet whether people are going to take this seriously enough to where it really sinks down into the deep habit structures of life. You can't hope to accomplish in 40 days what it takes 40 years to do. There has to be a willingness for barren day after barren day after barren day, a willingness for new forms of worship, new forms of living.
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Foster and Willard on the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible
More information about Renovare, including an invitation to sign its covenant, as well as further readings, is available from their website.
The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
CT reviews of Willard's and Foster's books include:
In His Steps | How to Become an Apprentice of Jesus. A review of The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. (1999)
Celebration of Traditions | Richard Foster wants Christians to be renewed by encountering the church's "living streams." A review of Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster. (May 24, 1999)
More on spiritual formation includes:
Christian History Corner
Got Your 'Spiritual Director' Yet? | The roots of a resurgent practice, plus 14 books for further study. (May 20, 2003)
Three Temptations of Spiritual Formation | When seeking to be shaped by Christ, It is all too easy to veer from a fully Christian approach. (Dec. 13, 2002)
Making Space for God | What spiritual direction is, and why evangelicals are increasingly attracted to it. An interview with Holy Invitations author Jeannette Bakke. (April 25, 2001)
Dallas Willard is author of a: Gray Matter and the Soul | What is the difference between the brain and the soul? (Nov. 15, 2002)
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