Ecumenism Without the Church

[tab:Plugged In, Tuned Out]

Plugged In, Tuned Out

“He’s there every time the door is open.” This often serves as a passing grade for “faithful” in many of our congregations today. Americans are passionate about productivity and this bleeds over into the management of the local church. Weekly headcounts and participation levels become proxy measures for spiritual growth and maturity.

Members must be “busy, busy, busy” in the work of the Lord. As long as we are “plugged in” to this program or that program then good things are bound to happen. Involvement creates a sense of belonging, which increases enthusiasm for “front door” outreach (through baptism and member acquisition) and stems the tide of “back door” losses (by members and converts quietly drifting away to other congregations or to the world).

And then the exhaustion sets in. This might be relieved by camps, retreats and other special events. People may come away feeling spiritually buoyed, but it is business-as-usual the very next Sunday. They return to find a congregation that is essentially unchanged. Worship services and other regularly scheduled activities may seem unsatisfying. Some of our people may yearn for something more, for a deep and abiding sense that God is present in their lives.

As is often the case, the denominational world has been looking at this problem for some time now, and there is a growing consensus that the standard “participation model” is falling short.  One recent and spectacular example comes from the giant Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area.

Greg Hawkins, the executive pastor at Willow Creek, gives a succinct assessment of the model in question: “So participation is a big deal because we believe the more people are participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, [the more] it will produce disciples of Christ.”[1] After polling over 20,000 people in 30 congregations, including their own, Hawkins and his ministry team came to the humbling conclusion that they were “doing church” wrong. Participation was not a good predictor of a member’s love for God after all. Some of the most active members in the church were spending little to no time in prayer, daily Bible reading, and so on. Other members were investing a great deal in their relationship with God, and yet were dissatisfied with the local church and were thinking about leaving.

With or without the Willow Creek approach, many of our own elders, preachers,  deacons and other volunteers can probably identify with this experience. There is no reason to think that the churches of Christ are exempt from the apparent disconnect between involvement and spirituality.

[tab:Spiritual Formation]

Spiritual Formation

Nothing in the Willow Creek revelations would surprise Dallas Willard—one of the leading lights in the contemporary spiritual formation movement. After all, Willow Creek’s stated goal was to make disciples, but on Willard’s view, nobody (with few exceptions, including himself) knows what “discipleship” really means. He prefers instead to speak of spiritual formation, which he defines in a Christianity Today (October, 2005) interview as “the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person.”[2]

The corrective mode continues with Richard Foster, who appears alongside Willard in the same CT interview. The two men suspect that most churches, and not just Willow Creek, are “doing church” wrong. In fact, “doing church” is precisely the problem. Too many churches, they think, are spending too much time focusing on outward conformity and rules for who is “out” and who is “in.” Churches across the board are failing to develop a Christ-like character in their members. Foster concludes by calling for “new forms of worship” and “new forms of living.”

Willard and Foster are not offering a self-help guide for individual church-goers. Nor are they proposing another ministry model. What they have in mind is a fundamental reorientation of the Christian faith. This faith will rest on a more subjective, experiential relationship with God.

At first glance, the two men are an odd pairing. Willard ostensibly is Southern Baptist and specializes in the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl, while Foster is a Quaker author and minister. But Husserl and the Quaker tradition are alike in privileging the authority and authenticity of personal experience.

The Husserlian part of the equation introduces a deep suspicion of modernism and all its trappings. We might think this applies only to positivism and materialism, which are clearly opposed to the Christian worldview. But Willard marshals Husserl’s distinctive philosophy against the view that faith—the kind of faith that he takes to be endemic in the church—is nothing more than a collection of propositional statements. So if I say, “God exists” or “God is love,” I might imagine that this God and His love are only ever out there, above me, in a distant spiritual realm. All I have in here, with me, is a bunch of abstract beliefs. Willard insists to the contrary that God conspires to make His presence a reality in my life. Only by seeking to interact with God in an ordered, disciplined way can I truly come to know the “beyond that is within.”[3] Willard further contends that God has made himself known in various ways over the millennia, and so there are many legitimate forms of interaction.

It is harder to define the Quaker contribution as the movement has splintered in numerous directions over the years. Some groups conduct worship services with hymns and sermons, while other groups pursue a universalist and humanistic agenda. Traditionally, Quakers have shed conventional forms of worship and church leadership, reserved a special place for silence, and sought to bring the inner experiences of joy and peace to the rest of the world through social action programs. Many of these elements emerge in Foster’s writings on spiritual formation.

Discipline is the movement’s prescription for character development. In Celebration of Discipline (1978), Foster suggests meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.

In areas like meditation, solitude and guidance, the spiritual formation movement draws heavily on the “desert fathers” and various monastic orders, especially as interpreted through the work of Thomas Merton. This has gained considerable traction as “vintage Christianity” or the “ancient-future faith” in some quarters of the emerging church movement.

The discipline of guidance has led to the development of “spiritual directors.” People can now be certified in this role by the Shalem Institute, among others. Shalem also offers “quiet days,” “praying with the mystics,” and “earth spirituality.” Foster and Willard provide their own program of spiritual formation at the Renovaré Institute.

Several organizations associated with the churches of Christ have embraced this movement. Lipscomb University now offers a graduate degree in this area, and hosts both the Institute for Christian Spirituality and the Center for Spiritual Renewal. The ZOE Group take their “spiritual deepening” and “spiritual direction” programs into local congregations. ZOE is led by several individuals associated with Abilene Christian University (Randy Harris and Jackie Halstead), and Lipscomb University (Gary Holloway and Rhonda Lowry). Harris, Halstead and Holloway hold certificates in spiritual direction from Shalem. Harris and Halstead also cite their experience with monastic orders.[4]

[tab:Spiritual Information/Endnotes]

Spiritual Information

As may be evident by now, the spiritual formation movement borrows generously from multiple faith traditions. But when it comes to the churches behind those traditions, Foster and Willard take a good-cop/bad-cop approach.

In Streams of Living Water (1998), the ever-pragmatic Foster cherry picks his favorite parts from contemplative, charismatic, social justice, and other traditions. [5] In Renovation of the Heart (2002), the ever-critical Willard calls for the dissolution of Protestant denominationalism.[6] The shared goal, however, is not a nondenominational church but a diffuse movement that transcends institutional structures. It aligns perfectly with Postmodern eclecticism (picking and choosing from diverse traditions), and is tailor made for the growing “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd.

This low view of the church begins with the movement’s emphasis on spirituality as the direct experience of God’s presence in a Christian’s life. And yet, as we see in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, the spiritual person is the one who knows God through the teaching of the apostles. A Christian needs this teaching precisely because he lacks direct access to “the things of God.” Of course, the spiritual formation movement makes room for Scripture, but it also makes room for mysticism, miracles and a lot more besides.

The warning is there, nonetheless: If we jam our church calendars with activities, and do little to encourage spiritual reflection (2 Cor. 13:5), then we are opening ourselves to  the radical solutions proposed by Willard, Foster, and others. We must take time to be holy in the busyness that counts for life in the 21st century, but in doing so we cannot give up on the sufficiency of God’s word nor the necessity of the corporate church.

[A version of this article appeared as “The New Definition of Spirituality,” in Gospel Advocate, May 2010, pp. 17-18.]


[1] Leadership Summit 07, video presentation. [Link no longer active as of August 20, 2010.]

[2] Agnieszka Tennant, “The Making of the Christian,” Christianity Today, 49, no. 10 (October 2005), p. 42.

[3] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing, 2002), p. 17.

[4] The ZOE Group, “What is the Growing Deeper Spiritually Program?” Accessed on March 15, 2010 from

[5] See also, Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Third Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), pp. 163-164.

[6] Willard, Renovation, p. 22. See also Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1997).


© 2010 – 2012, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “Ecumenism Without the Church”

  • Mark Harris Says:

    Nice article. If only the "churches across the board were not failing to develop a Christ-like character in their members". That statement seems right on target. One follower of the Truth glorifies the Father more than a hundred 'church goers', right?


  • Trevor Major Says:

    "Across the board" is the key phrase here. The big, fat brush strokes are used to paint a big, fat straw man that can be torn down and made in the revisionist's own image.

    Yes, I mixed those metaphors, and I don't care 🙂