Discipleship for Our Day

Spiritual formation is the key to Christian living


Respected Christian writers like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Mark Yacanelli, Eugene Peterson and the late Robert Webber are calling the church to a new method of discipleship through spiritual formation. What is happening? Why are church thinkers turning to more-traditional practices for 21st century evangelicals?

Many believe that there is a crisis in discipleship across North American evangelical Christianity. A 2006 resolution from the National Association of Evangelicals forecasts that, if trends continue, just 4 percent of teens raised in evangelical churches will return to such a congregation after college.1

During the last 50 years North American culture has changed so much that it has overwhelmed the ways we used to bring believers into a deep relationship with God in Christ. The forces of today’s post-Christian culture bombard believers with images, work habits and pressures that are quite different from those faced by previous generations. In addition, pornography and materialism are pushed at us in nearly every facet of daily living. We are fed life-scripts from entertainment, the Internet and even local school systems that form our identities, shape our imaginations and arouse our desires toward things not of God. Widely distributed statistics from The Barna Group and The Gallop Organization show that conservative protestant Christians lead lives morally indistinguishable from their secular neighbors.2

The apostle Paul calls these forces enslavements, principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12; Rom 6:16–20). Without counter
measures that shape us into integrity for engagement with these forces, Christians are literally at their mercy. In Dallas Willard’s words, “[The question is] not if you have a spiritual formation, it’s what spiritual formation is forming you.” If our people’s imaginations, identities and desires are not being shaped toward God at church, they will assuredly be shaped somewhere else. And so if we do not offer Christians the means of spiritual formation
within our churches, we are sending them out as sheep to the slaughter.

How are we as pastors/church leaders to guide our congregations through these new challenges? First, we must understand that many of our past discipleship practices do not function as they did in earlier generations. Evangelicals have often discipled believers by taking a new convert from an initial decision for Christ into a program of Bible reading, individual prayer and intellectual learning of Scripture. We teach a set of “do’s and don’ts.” We believe that regular Bible teaching from the pulpit will automatically translate into better Christian living.

Although all of these approaches to discipleship are good, they do not address the forming of the soul, the shaping of imagination, the orientation of desire. Our social environment is no longer neutral toward Christian living, and discipleship requires new measures.

Second, I propose we need less information and more formation. We require practices that form our relationship with God in such a way that all things—minds, bodies and souls—are ordered under the Lordship of Christ. Beyond the cognitive regiments of discipleship, Bob Webber asks us to participate in the story of God found in Scripture and in the worship of the Church. This entails not only daily prayer but also the regular corporate practices of worship and mission—sharing the Lord’s Table and engaging the poor .

Dallas Willard (The Spirit of the Disciplines) and Richard Foster (Celebration of the Discipline) offer us various disciplines, such as solitude, silence, intercessory prayer, fasting, Scripture memorization and lectio divina as well as corporate disciplines such as service and regular confession. Willard warns us that these are not the means to earn grace; rather they are acts of receptiveness to His grace .

Mark Yacanelli pleads that we quit producing youth programs that compete with the noise of rock shows and instead create spaces of quiet where young people can learn to listen to God . These are all examples of discipleship in these times.

To be fair, we in The Alliance have always emphasized dependence upon the Spirit. But this often developed into reliance on a personal experience of sanctification, which flittered away at the first true temptation. Believing that sanctification is a relational experience, members of Life on the Vine (the C&MA church plant I pastor) participate in “triads”: groups of three or four people that meet to encourage one another in submission to God. Following the model of the Benedictine Rule, each meeting begins with a Scripture reading from the previous Sunday’s service, followed by an invocation for the Holy Spirit to be with us and rule over our lives. After a time of silence, we “check in,” telling each other about anything new in our lives since the last meeting. We then confess our sins to each other (James 5:16) and develop a plan of repentance.

Next we bring to the group our life struggles to be worked out together in submission to Christ (Phil. 2:12). In a manner similar to John Wesley’s accountability groups, we ask questions, believing that when things are brought into the light, the power of sin is broken (Eph. 5:11–13). This opens the way for us to speak truth in love into each other’s lives (Eph. 4:15). We believe God works when we discern things together (Matt 18:15–20). New steps of submission to God, faith and obedience are blessed with prayer. Christian discipleship in our triads is always a matter of putting off old ways and putting on Christ (Rom 6–8; Eph 4:20–24; Col 3:1–17). We close by praying together, sending one another out into the mission of God.

These triads extend what happens on Sunday into a formational time in Christ, for it is in worship, in the hearing of the Word and in sitting around the Table that we are formed into a community for His Commission. We certainly have many struggles at Life on the Vine, yet we are thankful for the people who are maturing in Christ among us and the many sent out for mission.

The Alliance has a rich heritage in deeper life. We can find in our own heritage resources for the new demands of discipleship. Indeed, A. B. Simpson, our founder, often wrote about the practice of putting off the old life and putting on the new life in Christ. Let us forge practices of spiritual formation directed by Scripture as acts that open us to an awakening in Christ—a true centering of ourselves in Him and His mission in the world until He comes!

1 “Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers,” by Laurie Goodstein, New York Times Oct 16, 2006.

2 See chapter 1 of Ron Sider’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006). For a critique of these statistics read John Stackhouse’s “What Scandal? Whose Conscience?” in Books & Culture (July/Aug 2007).

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