Spiritual formation as belonging

Dallas Willard wondered, “Is salvation itself a new and active attachment with God that forms and transforms our identities?”

We teach Spiritual Formation because we want disciples developing character, not just downloading information. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline has been a favourite text, along with several from the late Dallas Willard. If you enjoyed those, check out Jim Wilder, Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms.

Based on reviews, this book could take us a good direction. Spiritual disciplines always have the danger of turning us inward: solitude, prayer, silence, meditation, contemplation, alone with God. As an introvert, I love that style, but I’m conscious that it’s also my culture. Spiritual disciplines can collapse into trying to be the best version of myself I can be, which is more a reflection of the culture we live in than the character of God.

Foster recognized this: a quarter of his classic was devoted to corporate disciplines. Willard knew this: his recent writings increasingly emphasized the kingdom, our connectedness as community. Wilder takes this theme to the next level.

Geoff Holsclaw (pastor with Vineyard North, Grand Rapids, MI) has a review of Wilder’s book at Christianity Today. The final part of his review emphasizes this crucial move:

The third shift Wilder describes is from a form of discipleship rooted in me to one rooted in we.

From our first cries to our final breaths, the necessity of being attached to someone — first to our parents and then to a larger group — means that my sense of “me” is always built upon an established sense of “we.” Our semi-automatic reactions to life are marked indelibly by the people we spend the most time with, the group we identify with. At the most basic level of our brains, we become like the ones we love. …

Because of this, Wilder argues that true transformation comes through changing our understanding of who “my people” are and how they act. As he writes, transforming our character “depends on becoming attached by love, joy, and peace to a new people.” And this is why discipleship is fundamentally a we, rather than me, activity.

… We first see how more mature disciples behave in the crucibles of everyday life. Then we imitate their reactions as best we can. And eventually we spontaneously act in a way that witnesses to our identification with a new people — the people of God.

Spiritual practices done alone will not change our character. They may help a little. But relational skills grown through community will lead to lasting transformation.

Earlier in his review, we learn that Wilder connects discipleship with how the brain learns. I’m comfortable with this as an analogy (what happens between the neurons is more significant than what happens within a neuron), but am cautious of building theology on our understanding of the brain (since a human is much more than a brain). I’ll need to read the book to see if he goes too far in that direction.

What I love is Wilder’s communal emphasis, what he calls being “transformed by loving attachment.” I hear Aboriginal people speak of “my people” — a sense of belonging to clan and land and culture. Perhaps they can help us transition from “me” to “we.”

Spiritual formation cannot remain as personal development (self-actualization). It’s communal development: actualizing the community that’s alive in Christ. Discipleship means learning to participate meaningfully to kingdom life, for the benefit of the world. Church means the community that already recognizes Christ as Lord, empowering and implementing the king’s care for each town in his realm.

If the task seems overwhelming, it is the Spirit who coordinates and resources us to be the effective body of Christ in our local area, the corporate expression of Christ’s presence, fulfilling through us together what the head wants done under his governance.

Spiritual formation is being formed by the Spirit. The Spirit is not forming me into somebody; he is forming us into some Body!


What others are saying

Jim Wilder, Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms electronic edition, (NavPress, 2020):

“You need to write about this,” Dallas said. His voice was steady but with mounting passion: “I know of no soteriology [doctrine of salvation] based on forming a new attachment with God.” He offered no arguments in favor or against the idea. …

He wondered, “Is salvation itself a new and active attachment with God that forms and transforms our identities?”

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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