Discipleship, says Willard, has been marginalized to an option or special function in the church rather than essential to being a follower of Jesus:
In my circles it always had to do with soul-winning. In the more liberal wing of the church (you know, Sojourners and The Other Side, if you are acquainted with those magazines and the segments of the church they appeal to), discipleship came to mean some type of "social action." Discipleship in the sense spelled out clearly, through word and deed, in the New Testament was moved out of the center of the Christian life. The subsequent rise of talk about spiritual formation occurred because of the felt (though often unarticulated) need to find something deeper: something that actually lead to the transformation of life, that actually moved people in the direction of "the good tree", that looked into the tangled depths of the heart and said, "There must be a way of doing something about that."This interest in spiritual formation, however, can go down the wrong road, including one Willard labels more dangerous than others:
Another possibility . . . . is that spiritual formation will simply become a new label for old activities--for what we are already doing: worship, hearing the word, community, quiet time, plus a new twist or two such as spiritual direction and so on. Now all of these things are very important. But if spiritual formation merely becomes a new label for things we are already doing, it will leave us right where we are. And the issues of deep inner transformation will remain untouched. And I say with trepidation that there is a real danger of spirituality becoming a field of mere "expertise," of academic competence, focused upon "religious activities."What is spiritual formation? According to Willard friend, colleague and fellow-Renovare leader Richard Foster, it is “substantive formation of heart and soul and mind and body into Christlikeness.” People don’t get this through a program, says Foster, but through a life: ”We simply and powerfully introduce them into an ongoing, interactive relationship with Jesus, their ever-living Savior, Teacher, Lord, and Friend. Apprenticed to Jesus they will be able to go forward from faith to faith and from strength to strength.” The spiritual disciplines (study, prayer, worship, etc.) help us in learning to discover and live in this relationship, but they are not “it.” What is “it”? “LIFE—life with Jesus, interactive relationship with the great God of the universe, inner transformation into Christlikeness.”
But the temptation to programize is strong—it is part of church culture. Don’t do it, says Foster: “It will only produce legalism and bondage, and it utterly defeats spiritual formation. Many of the familiar practices are useful, to be sure, and some more than others. But none is essential. We all are to walk with the living Christ and then ‘in humility regard others as better than yourselves’ (Phil. 2:3).”
Can it be so simple? Oh, yes. It is the Good News. It is the Message. The Kingdom has come. God is here. Life is here. Drink deep and live. Really live.
(Image: from Corrine Vonaesch's Creation series)