Book Critique: Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered


“Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered” by James Wilhoit reflects the notion of the spiritual formation. The book examines such a fundamental issue as the role of the local church in the development of spirituality. The first chapter of the book dedicates the meaning of Gospel. Precisely speaking, Wilhoit clearly explains that the task of the church is the pursuit of community spiritual formation. The author emphasizes that “All our spiritual problems come from a failure to apply the gospel”1. In the framework of ten precisely elaborated chapters, Wilhoit represents a visual set of guidelines illustrating how to implement the Christlike maturity in the community life.

There is a dichotomy between “gospel” and “discipleship” terms. According to Wilhoit, the discipleship is a series of lessons conducted on the basis of tenets with new Christians. However, according to the Gospel, this approach is not correct. Discipleship begins with the unbeliever, continues until the recognition, and further, following the suffering, proceeds to the risen Christ. As it becomes apparent from the description of Gospel, discipleship can be represented by the following scheme:

The first stage: From disbelief to the confession of Christ as a Savior.

  1. attracting and awakening the interest in the teacher’s personality;
  2. confession of Christ as God.

The second stage: From confessing to following Christ.

  1. understanding the price of true discipleship;
  2. movement to strengthening faith in God.

Furthermore, Wilhoit introduces the reader the term of “Christlikeness” that might be referred to as the recovering of Christian tradition and personality formation according to covenants of Christ. The author’s investment into the topic appears in two ways: first, he points out the Christlike curriculum; second, he clearly demonstrates that this process bases on the collective endeavor instead of the individual one.

Considering the spiritual formation as a lifelong process, the author states that the biblical understanding of man assumes a spirit, soul, and body, while the church is the paramount party to respond to all human needs. Focusing on the four pillars of the spiritual formation, Wilhoit delineates communal views on the above process. The following issues lay at the core of the community life: openness, responding in service to neighbors and the world, remembering, and building relationships in the context of community. Receiving or being open to God’s grace is the ability to be close to God. Jesus said that if you show a more equitable relationship, you will be blessed according to the Gospel as He gives his own spiritual gifts, and even faith itself gives people the feeling of His love and the divine presence. In terms of Wilhoit, “Christian spiritual formation requires that we actively and continually receive from God”2. In other words, openness means being with God open to his spiritual blessing.

Responding in service to neighbors and the world is the second point of the book. It is necessary to be sensitive to everyone and the community as a whole. Besides, remembering, or understanding who we are and why we were created is a significant constituent of the given topic. However, what is the key to understanding God? Firstly, it is vital to understand that the person in itself is not able to truly know God because of his sinfulness. The Gospel reveals that we all have sinned and that we do not fit the standard of holiness required to communicate freely with God. We also know that the consequences of our sin are death and that we will have eternal death without God, if we do not take the promise of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Thus, to understand God, people should first accept Him in their lives. Those who receive Him will obtain the right to become children of God. Nothing is more important than an understanding of this truth, when it comes to the knowledge of God.

Finally, building relationships in the context of community completes the discussion. This issue reflects the biblical terms and refers to spiritual health through the maintenance of social stability, balance, and harmony at the expense of respect to each other. The community relationships suppose not only collective service on Sunday but also the collective integrity, when everyone is ready to help and support others, if required.

Additionally, in order to prevent Christians from wrong way, the author lists six false theories of spiritual formation that are as follows:

  • The Quick-Fix model;
  • The Facts-Only model;
  • The Emotional model;
  • The Conference model;
  • The Insight model;
  • The Faith model.

In other words, the book provides an in-depth analysis of the spiritual formation both on personal and communal levels.

Critique

In my point of view, the book is undoubtedly worth reading and deserves the highest assessment. The problem of the spiritual formation is a lamentable issue of the modern Christian society. Plenty of scholars talk and write about it yet it is essential not only to be aware of this problem but also to clearly see the ways of resolution. In this regard, Wilhoit stresses the role of the Gospel and the local church as the bearers of a centuries-old tradition based on an apparent understanding of man, his moral nature, and spiritual life. The voice of the church addresses to the conscience of every human being, but more importantly to the community that affects the formation of moral awareness and opens up the possibility of the collective spiritual formation.

Personally, I highly appreciate the Gospel, and the church for me is a collection of people serving God. God created the church and presents there in a special way so that we can rely upon it as spiritual people and create happy families and community in general. I support Wilhoit’s idea of “transformational teaching leading to a deep awareness”3 based on the absolute need for others to enjoy the Gospel. The community here assumes the veracity and help to each other. In particular, the spiritual formation of Christians begins immediately upon acceptance of Christ as their Savior. The fact that Jesus comes into our lives means that He remains there permanently. Since then, He becomes very close to us. Such is His attitude towards us, but He also wants us to be close both to Him and within the community, and this should be our attitude toward God. Intimacy with God is the foundation of our spiritual life, spiritual formation, and spiritual growth. However, if God is always close to us, we do not always immediately close to Him. The process of rapprochement with God can include several steps where the strong awareness that our salvation in Jesus Christ is the focal factor that helps us to understand the mentioned intimacy.

It is also important to point out that the book under discussion is purely holistic. It enlightens all the sides of the community spiritual life based church called to declare the spiritual formation. What is more, it is theological and, therefore, thoroughly examines the Gospel itself leaving Scriptures aside. The author also pinpoints a number of essential recommended readings that embrace a variety of topics including brief excerpts of each book. It confirms the fact that before writing the book, he researched a lot in order to offer the reader valuable information.

Indeed, this book is something more than usual self-help manual. According to Wilhoit, “All of our work in spiritual formation must be set against the backdrop of the God who forms us in love”4. In this connection, it seems appropriate to discuss the Christians’ task that is to live such a life and to be such men so that people around were interested in God as well. Perhaps, this or that miracle in their life will send non-believers on the path of knowledge of God; possible exemption from bad deeds and habits will be awesome that arouse interest in the One who made the change; and possible forgiveness and kindness of the believer unusual for the world will affect the strings of the soul. If the mentioned occurs, people interested in Christ become at the initial stage of discipleship. Thus, discipleship is a process originating long before a person professes Jesus. Nevertheless, equally important is the fact that it continues after repentance following the path of renunciation and suffering. All in all, I believe that the paramount contribution of Wilhoit in this work is the transition from information to formation providing grounds for Christians’ appropriate development determined by the Gospel in the context of the community spiritual formation.

Application

Speaking of the application of the summarized and critiqued book in my life, I can note that it might be rather useful in terms of the personal spiritual formation yet integrated into my local church community. More precisely, seeing the mentioned practical advice, it is possible to create a comprehensive curriculum and design specific recommendations that would contribute to the discussed goals. I consider that the incorporation of this book in my everyday life would undeniably be advantageous in terms of being more connected and close to the community and the local church.

As the principles of spiritual formation should comprise agreement, love, respect, vitality, unity, learning, and evangelism, the following brief curriculum might serve as the appropriate way to perform the spiritual formation:

  1. Reconciliation is the initial stage of the spiritual formation. Answer the question of whether it is His will?
  2. Agree with the Pastor and local church leaders.
  3. Discuss where, how, and when to carry out the community-based service.

To draw the conclusion, one can say this book is a brilliant attempt to guide the reader on the way of obtaining a spiritual formation. Based on Christian’s lifespan, Wilhoit moves from the individual’s personality to the spirituality of the whole community focusing more on the local church. Furthermore, the value of the book is considerable in the larger academic context, too. It might be used both by other students and scholars for the prospective research. The book will also be helpful for those who teach in the area of the evangelistic approach playing the role of the vivid place for conversations.

References

Wilhoit, James. 2008. Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Footnotes

  1. James Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered (Grand Rapids, MA: Baker Academic, 2008), 32.
  2. Ibid., 77.
  3. Ibid., 50.
  4. Ibid., 35.