Since the time of the Enlightenment, the church in the West has become increasingly obsessed with doctrine while, at the same time, placing less emphasis on transformational discipleship. The result has unfortunately been an institution that is both superficial and increasingly impotent when it comes to fostering positive change in its members and its culture. As the emphasis on doctrine and “proper belief” has solidified and become the normative condition of the church in the West, it is not surprising that its influence and position in society has become more and more marginalized.
Christian philosopher and popular author Dallas Willard succinctly describes this process and the problems churning in its wake:
“The overshadowing event of the past two centuries of Christian life has been the struggle between orthodoxy and modernism. In this struggle the primary issue has, as a matter of fact, not been discipleship to Christ and a transformation of soul that expresses itself in pervasive, routine obedience to his ‘all that I have commanded you.’ Instead, both sides of the controversy have focused almost entirely on what is to be explicitly asserted or rejected as essential Christian doctrine. In the process of battles over views of Christ the Savior, Christ the Teacher was lost on all sides……Discipleship as an essential issue disappeared from the churches, and with it there also disappeared realistic plans and programs for the transformation of the inmost self into Christ-likeness. One could now be a Christian forever without actually changing in heart and life. Right profession, positive or negative, was all that was required. This has now produced generations of professing Christians who, as a whole, do not differ in character, but only in ritual, from their nonprofessing neighbors.”
It is my sincere hope that as the new century progresses, the church will increasingly stress the importance of deeper discipleship and provide venues for structured spiritual formation for those desirous of a more intimate walk with the Creator. However, I don’t think Christians have to wait for the church to do this. Increasingly, more and more Christ-followers are taking responsibility for their own spiritual deepening and seeking out alternative means where this can be fostered.
Increasing numbers of sincere Christians are opting out of church and forming small groups and/or house churches that focus on spiritual growth and community service. An equal number are leaving the pews and discovering independent ministries that are answering God’s call to provide services and programs that promote an ever-deepening walk of faith.
Personally, I find this period in the church’s history very challenging and equally exciting. As the Body of Christ gradually wakes up from its centuries of spiritual slumber, increasing numbers of congregants are taking personal responsibility for their own spiritual development. This is a positive trend, especially when one considers the fact that few clergy are adequately trained in the fundamentals of spiritual direction. Pastoral care is one thing, but spiritual direction is quite another.
In the final analysis, spiritual formation is a highly private matter, even if carried out in a group setting. Growth into increasing Christ-likeness is a divine-human partnership with both God and the individual playing distinct roles. Like all things in the Christian walk of faith, even spiritual formation is an act of grace, pure and simple. Dallas Willard explains:
“The instrumentalities of Christian spiritual formation…….involve much more than human effort. Well-informed human effort is necessary, for spiritual formation is not a passive process. But Christ-likeness of the inner being is not a merely human attainment. It is, finally, a gift of grace. The resources for it are not human, but come from the interactive presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who place their confidence in Christ, as well as from the spiritual treasures stored in the body of Christ’s people upon the earth. Therefore it is not only formation of the spirit or inner being of the individual that we have in mind, but also formation by the Spirit of God and by the spiritual riches of Christ’s continuing incarnation in his people, past and present – including, most prominently, the treasures of his written and spoken word.”
It is my sincere hope and most earnest prayer that as the near future unfolds under the wise and loving direction of the Holy Spirit that we see more and more Christ-followers coming together to mine the rich treasures that lie within Christ’s Kingdom. As this process takes shape, may each of us discover the precious gemstones that lie hidden within our own inner sanctuary – that blessed chamber where the One True Light resides and from which he issues his sacred call to each of us.
© L.D. Turner 2010/All Rights Reserved