As a young man, I was privileged to be an eyewitness to the rise of the Christian spiritual formation movement.
It began, in its modern form, in 1978, when Richard Foster wrote what has become the perennially standard text on the spiritual disciplines, Celebration of Discipline. Within a few years of its publication, Christians who had never heard of solitude, silence, or meditation were now practicing these disciplines.
A lot of good was happening, but Richard saw that many Christians were practicing the disciplines in isolation and needed more guidance. So in 1988, he asked Dallas Willard, me, and a few others to join him in forming a spiritual formation ministry called Renovaré (Latin for “to renew”).
Dallas, who served as a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California for 40 years, was one of the most important pioneers in the spiritual formation movement among evangelicals and mainline Protestants. He was close friends with Richard; in fact, Dallas first taught Richard about the spiritual disciplines, which of course were nothing new but were rooted in the ancient church.
In the early days, we experienced a great deal of resistance. Some evangelicals were sure our teachings on spiritual formation were dangerous and the work of the Devil. People would gather outside of our small conferences holding picket signs with messages like “New Age Heresy: Beware.” But the movement was building.
Over their long years of friendship, Richard encouraged Dallas to write about Christian formation, and Dallas eventually penned many influential books, namely The Spirit of the Disciplines; Renovation of the Heart; and his magnum opus, The Divine Conspiracy.
Many others joined in similar efforts. Eugene Peterson’s writings became bestsellers. Books by Catholic contemplatives Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen were being carried around by Presbyterians and Methodists—and even some Baptists. James Houston provided academic grounding from his base at Regent College. In 1992, Dallas began teaching the most popular course in Fuller Theological Seminary’s doctor of ministry program, called Spirituality and Ministry. It grew so popular, in fact, that Fuller hired me to serve as Dallas’s teaching assistant—which I did for almost a decade.
In 2005, we held a Renovaré International Conference in Denver, and over 2,500 people attended. When I walked into the auditorium, I was overwhelmed. I turned to Richard and said, “Something has changed. We have gone from picketed to popular in less than 20 years.”
It was true. Something had changed. Soon more and more pastors and parishioners were reading books on formation. Other formation ministries were being established. Christian publishers created book series and imprints branded for their formation focus. Colleges and seminaries began offering graduate programs on formation.
I noticed that even pastoral titles began to change; instead of “pastor of Christian education” or even “pastor of discipleship,” there were more and more “pastor of spiritual formation” roles on church staffs.
But privately, I noticed something else during those decades: Dallas was voicing serious concerns about the movement’s future.
Over the years until Dallas passed away in 2013, I had several conversations with him about the rise of the spiritual formation movement. Dallas told me he was glad people were interested in spiritual formation and that it was a sign of a deep hunger and deep need in the church.
But he worried that the focus would be on the practice of the spiritual disciplines themselves rather than on what they were intended to do. Dallas felt this would naturally degenerate into a focus on technique—on the how and not the why of the spiritual exercises.
Dallas also feared that churches would co-opt interest in spiritual formation as a tool for church growth—and that, because it likely would not lead to numerical growth, leaders would then relegate formation to one of many departments in a church rather than viewing it as central to their mission.
Finally, he was concerned that the growing number of formation ministries would compete with each other—rather than cooperate—in order to validate their work and ensure their survival.
I’ve reflected on these concerns for nearly a decade now, and I’ve come to believe that Dallas was prophetic. Today, there is a strong emphasis on practicing the disciplines almost in isolation. Nearly every week I receive a copy of a new book on Christian formation, and almost all of them are about a particular practice, such as slowing down, solitude, fasting from technology, using the Enneagram, gratitude journaling, or creating a rule of life. They give great attention to the how of a certain method while championing its apparent benefits, but they often neglect to help readers truly understand or cultivate the deeper why.
I do frequently see churches struggle to integrate spiritual formation into congregational life. While many churches have a department of formation and discipleship, they tend to focus on isolated programs, events, or groups within their church, rather than viewing spiritual formation as an expected aspect of being a Christian for all people.
And I have seen—and directly experienced—the kind of competitive spirit among formation leaders and organizations that Dallas warned about. Only rarely have I seen the kind of cooperation Dallas felt was necessary.
In one of our last conversations together, I asked Dallas what would be at stake if his fears became reality. His answer: “A lack of transformation into Christlikeness.”
This is the heart of the issue: Christian spiritual formation must truly be about formation—about being formed into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19). In the end, the question isn’t about disciplines or programs or techniques. The question is: Are people becoming more like Christ? And that was Dallas’s deepest concern.
Fear #1: Techniques without transformation
Since Dallas is no longer with us, I recently took a “listening tour” and spoke with several of his closest colleagues and family members about what Dallas might say today regarding where the formation movement has come and where it is going. I spoke with Richard Foster; John Ortberg; Steve Porter; Keith Matthews; Dallas’s wife, Jane Willard; and his daughter, Becky Willard Heatley. The conversations were enlightening and encouraging, but not without a sense of caution and concern.
To understand Dallas’s fears, it’s helpful to understand Dallas’s model of formation, which aimed at what he called putting on “the mind of Christ.” In Dallas’s view, this meant adopting the narratives of Jesus on key issues like the character of God the Father, the nature of human person as an embodied soul, and the reality of the present kingdom of God.
Dallas taught that disciplines such as prayer, solitude, and Scripture memorization are only one part of the formation process. The second part is the work of the Holy Spirit, and the third is learning how to see life’s trials and events in light of God’s presence and power.
One of Dallas’s fears—something he essentially predicted—was that interest in the practice of the disciplines, while essential, would eclipse the other two parts. How did he know this? Because the practice of the disciplines, though challenging, naturally has an immediate sense of payoff. Measuring spiritual growth itself is difficult; knowing whether one has completed a devotional practice is not. If I spend five minutes in prayer or 15 minutes reading a devotional book, I will feel as if I have done something “spiritual.” And these actions may very well lead to a sense of connection with God.
But they may also be an act of legalism, which was the failure of the Pharisees who fasted, gave alms, and prayed in order “to be seen” (Matt. 6). Legalism is an act of earning—of thinking, for instance, I fasted this week, so I am expecting a blessing from God. And if I believe that God metes out punishment and blessings based on my religious practices, I will quickly turn the disciplines into legalism.
Years ago, a woman in my church felt she had to have a daily “quiet time” (which entailed reading a selection from her daily devotional book) to get God to bless her life. Soon she began to think that if she did a longer quiet time, she would get more blessings. At one point, she was reading seven devotional books during her prayer time. I explained to her that the disciplines only do one of two things: connect us to God or help break the power of sin. When she discovered this, her approach to the disciplines was substantially changed.
Becky Willard Heatley spoke with me about her father’s concern that the disciplines would be “elevated and separated” from the rest of transformation. “He believed this would be dangerous,” she said, because the disciplines then become a form of idolatry—the means become the ends. We become more focused on the disciplines than we are on God, breaking the grip of sin, or the care of our embodied souls.
Steve Porter, a professor at Biola University who edits the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care and was close with Dallas, believes Dallas’s concern about elevating and separating the disciplines was that it would leave out the historical, scriptural, theological, and anthropological why behind the disciplines.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. I’d been invited to speak at a large evangelical church about spiritual formation. My host was the pastor of spiritual formation, who was excited to show me what she had been doing in this role and to ask for advice on helping her congregation grow spiritually.
She was also eager to show me the result of a yearlong project: an outdoor labyrinth. I was surprised, even a bit shocked. This was an evangelical church, and labyrinths have often been the subject of scrutiny in many evangelical circles. And yet, here it was, large and beautifully landscaped. She told me it was very popular with many people in the church.
I asked a few questions. Why had she felt called to create this labyrinth? She said experiencing a labyrinth had led to a breakthrough in her own faith and she wanted others to experience it. She told me she felt a deep inner peace when she walked the labyrinth.
Had she taught participants about the Christian history of the labyrinth and what it is intended to do? She answered that she’d created a pamphlet that taught participants how to use the labyrinth.
What did she hope would come because of it? She explained that she was trying to show how important spiritual formation is in the local church. She felt that if the labyrinth became popular, it would “validate” her work in the church.
As I consider this example in light of Dallas’s concern, the deeper issue is not about whether a labyrinth is an orthodox practice, or if it cultivates feelings of inner peace, or about how to do it rightly, or about validating a pastor’s formation ministry.
Despite the emphasis in many current books on spiritual disciplines, these practices are not meant for reducing stress, ordering one’s daily routine, understanding one’s personality better, having “spiritual experiences,” or gaining any number of other fringe benefits that do often result from the disciplines. All of these matters are secondary to the goal of becoming more like Christ.
Many of us have allowed the spiritual disciplines to become a form of idolatry, divorced from historical, biblical, theological, and anthropological understanding. Many of us have inadvertently assumed these practices will transform us. But the practices themselves are powerless without God.
We must take care not to let the disciplines eclipse the actual reason for practicing them: to deepen our relationship to God and to create space for God’s grace to work in our lives.
Fear #2: The ABC’s without the D
Another fear Dallas voiced concerned the church. He was a big proponent of the local church and believed one of its primary roles is to create disciples as Christ mandated in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16–20). The core premise of his book The Great Omission is that many of our churches omit the very heart of the commission: to “make disciples,” which in turn means “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Dallas believed the emphasis in many evangelical churches was on “making Christians,” instead of making disciples. These ideas should be synonymous, but they aren’t. Dallas often remarked that today one can be a Christian (by virtue of a confession of faith) without being—or even intending to be—a disciple. In other words, one can feel confident he or she is a Christian because of an assent to a doctrine (such as “Jesus rose from the dead”) without any intention of doing what Jesus said to do (like “Bless those who curse you,” “Love your enemy,” and so on).
This phenomenon, Dallas believed, was rooted in something deeper: the metrics by which we tend to measure church success. Dallas called these common measures “the ABCs”—attendance, buildings, and cash. For example, if we see a church of 75 people who meet in an old building and have little money to pay for staff or ministries, we may assume they are, as Richard Foster often puts it, “a marginal failure on the ecclesiastical scoreboard.” Conversely, if we see a church that has 5,000 weekly attenders, a campus so large that attendees must be shuttled in golf carts, and money to fund countless ministries, we may assume this church is a massive success.
But Dallas fervently believed church “success” (if you could call it that) should be measured not by the ABCs, but by the D—discipleship. Jesus, Dallas would point out, was not interested making bigger churches but in making “bigger Christians.” In this regard, a church of 75 who are growing in Christlikeness could be far more successful than a church of 5,000 that’s not engaged in making disciples of its members.
In Dallas’s view, spiritual formation should not be relegated to a program or retreat; rather, it is essential to the corporate life of our congregations.
In churches that shortchange discipleship, members who do move into a more mature faith life will often become isolated. This was essentially the finding of a much-discussed 2007 study by Willow Creek Community Church. The megachurch’s emphasis had been on converting seekers into members, and it worked. But when some of those people began experiencing meaningful growth in their spiritual lives, they felt there was no place for them.
Those who hungered for the deeper life found refuge in spiritual formation parachurch ministries: Ruth Haley Barton’s Transforming Center, the Renovaré Institute, the School of Kingdom Living, or the Apprentice Institute. Those kinds of ministries became the default communities for many who could not find meaningful engagement with formation in their local church.
Keith Matthews, a seminary professor at Azusa Pacific University who worked as closely with Dallas as anyone I know, told me, “Dallas foresaw that it would be a challenge to create communities of faith that can support real transformation. He saw how, for most people, it remained just an individual effort. Without communities, continued growth is very difficult.”
From the beginning of our work with Renovaré, we frequently saw people growing in their spiritual lives only to find their own churches unwelcome, even hostile, to their efforts. One couple who went through every ministry Renovaré had to offer and had experienced real personal transformation went to their local church in Texas hoping to share this method of discipleship with others. The senior pastor told them they could lead a small group, but he would not support it otherwise. This lasted for a decade. Then, when the senior pastor himself took part in a spiritual formation program, he came away convinced it was essential. He encouraged the entire church to get involved.
One obstacle to emphasizing church-wide spiritual formation is that it often does not lead to numerical growth. Dallas knew that if a pastor focused on this kind of discipleship in the life of a congregation, it might actually lead to a drop in attendance—what Dallas called “a holy reduction.” Discipleship and formation are slow and difficult—a challenge in a world that prefers the quick and easy.
“It is not fair to say that pastors reject spiritual formation efforts because they don’t directly grow attendance,” John Ortberg told me. “They simply neglect it because they believe it will take them away from the things that would grow their churches in attendance.”
And while many churches may now employ a “pastor of spiritual formation,” many of them have received little training in formation and its historical and theological grounding. At the church that built the labyrinth, for example, I asked the pastor of spiritual formation where she had done her training. She explained that she had no formal training, but that formation was her “passion” and thus the senior pastor appointed her to this role.
My aim is not to criticize this pastor or others for a lack of training. But well-intentioned pastors who do not have a wider theological, historical, and anthropological understanding of formation, as Steve Porter noted, may very well end up embodying Dallas’s first fear: a focus on spiritual disciplines to the exclusion of a more holistic approach to transformation.
In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas wrote, “I rarely ever meet anyone in a leadership position among Christ’s people who is not doing his or her very best to serve Christ in the best way he or she knows how—usually sacrificially, and frequently with much good effect. But we need to understand how we can do better.”
Fear #3: Competition over cooperation
Dallas’s final concern was regarding the many spiritual formation ministries that emerged as the movement grew. On one hand, he was truly glad to see more and more people establishing retreat centers, programs, institutes, and academic and nonacademic training programs. But on the other hand, Dallas was keenly aware of a potential problem: Ministry leaders would view others as competitors, he feared, and would not cooperate with one another.
I have walked through this myself. In 2009, I offered a new program I’d built to become a part of the overall ministry of Renovaré. But Richard and others felt it was time for me to leave the nest, so to speak, and build a separate program. So we established the Apprentice Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation at Friends University later that year.
Almost immediately, I felt that any program we developed and any resources we created were a threat to other formation ministries. I was tempted to view those organizations or their leaders as rivals. I shared my concern with Dallas, and he told me that this was a concern he had about the movement: “The need is so great that, even if we band together, we will have trouble making an impact.”
This phenomenon isn’t new. Competition has been common in the church since the time of the apostles—I am for Paul, I am for Peter, I am for Apollos (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4). And Dallas knew this was especially true not just within but between churches.
I once invited Dallas to speak to a group of pastors. He offered a complete-the-sentence prompt: “The most important work of a pastor is…” Then he paused and we all leaned in, eager to hear the answer. He continued: “The most important work of a pastor is to pray for the success of the churches in their area.”
This was not what we expected. I thought he’d say something like, “The most important work of a pastor is to memorize and meditate on Scripture,” or “to have a regular Sabbath.”
But Dallas explained that if ministers could genuinely pray for the success of the churches in their areas—churches that might naturally be seen as competitors—then those ministers’ hearts would truly be in sync with the kingdom of God. “After all,” he said, “we are all on the same team.”
A competitive mindset regarding one’s church or one’s spiritual formation ministry may be a very natural human instinct. But if we’re serious about putting on the mind of Christ, it’s clear that a competitive spirit is out of sync with the values of his kingdom. We are on the same team, and transformation into Christlikeness is evidenced by our desire to seek the good of the kingdom first.
My friend James Catford, a longtime leader at Renovaré, uses the analogy of the rescue at Dunkirk in World War II to explain the spirit Dallas was trying to point us toward.
At a pivotal point in the war, thousands of British and Allied troops were stranded in Dunkirk, France, just across the English Channel. As depicted in the popular eponymous movie, the troops were under constant threat from the Luftwaffe, and there were not enough British naval ships to rescue them all. So the government called on every British civilian with a boat to cross the channel and pick up soldiers.
Boats of all shapes and sizes cast off and brought home more than 338,000 British and Allied troops. Some believe that without this united effort, Germany would have won the war.
In the spiritual formation movement, if we are to heed Dallas’s concern, then everyone with a “boat”—a ministry, program, book, retreat center, formation podcast, and so on—needs to band together in this deeply needed work: the making of disciples, of genuinely transformed people.
May we be alert to the danger of giving in to a spirit of competition; may we continually and humbly invite Jesus to keep our hearts in sync with the values of the kingdom. We are truly all in this together.
Not long ago, I spent an hour on a Zoom call with the new president of Renovaré, Ted Harro, during which we discussed the work of our two spiritual formation ministries.
“I have only one thing in mind, Jim,” Ted said. “How can we be the best partner with you to help you do the work you are doing?”
I told him I had exactly the same interest in mind. In that moment, I felt as if somewhere in glory, Dallas was rejoicing.
James Bryan Smith is the Dallas Williard Chair of Christian Spiritual Formation at Friends University, executive director of the Apprentice Institute, and author of The Good and Beautiful God.
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