Dallas Willard: Discipleship in the Local Church

Dallas Willard

Renovation of the Heart

Chapter 13 – “Spiritual Formation in the Local Congregation”

Willard’s book as a whole is tough reading, but well worth it.  He is seeking a way for Christians to actually do what Jesus said (Love God, love neighbor, etc.) and become more and more like Him.  In the last chapter, which I think may be the best in the book, he seeks to apply the process of genuine spiritual transformation to the local church.

One major obstacle confronting conservative, evangelical churches is the notion that to be saved all you need to do is affirm certain truths—to be right.  The irony is that too many who believe the right things about God and Jesus look and act nothing like the Lord they say they believe in.  Which has lead many, especially outside the church, to characterize conservative Christians as mean.  Willard seeks to answer the question, “Why are Christians so mean?” with the following:

Well, there actually is an answer to that question.  And we must face this answer and effectively deal with it or Satan will sustain his stranglehold on spiritual transformation in local congregations.  Christians are routinely taught by example and word that it is more important to be right (always in terms of their beloved vessel [i.e. the particular doctrinal beliefs or practices of their denomination] or tradition) than it is to be Chirstlike.  In fact, being right licenses you to be mean, and, indeed, requires you to be mean—righteously mean, of course.  You must be hard on people who are wrong, and especially if they are in positions of Christian leadership.  They deserve nothing better.  This is a part of what I have elsewhere called the practice of “condemnation engineering.”

Now I must say something you can be mad at me about.  A fundamental mistake of the conservative side of the American church today, and much of the Western church, is that it takes as its basic goal to get as many people as possible ready to die and go to heaven.  It aims to get people to heaven rather than to get heaven into people.  This of course requires that these people, who are going to be “in,” must be right on what is basic.  You can’t really quarrel with that.  But it turns out that to be right on “what is basic” is to be right in terms of the particular church vessel or tradition in question, not in terms of Christlikeness.

Now, the project thus understood and practiced is self-defeating.  It implodes upon itself because it creates groups of people who may be ready to die, but clearly are not ready to live.  They rarely can get along with one another, much less those “outside.”  Often their most intimate relations are tangles of reciprocal hatred, coldness, and resentment.  They have found ways of being “Christian” without being Christlike.

As a result they actually fall far short of getting as many people as possible ready to die, because the lives of the “converted” testify against the reality of “the life that is life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:19).  The way to get as many people into heaven as you can is to get heaven into as many people as you can—that is, to follow the path of genuine spiritual transformation for full-throttle discipleship to Jesus Christ.  When we are counting up results we also need to keep in mind the multitudes of people (surrounded by churches) who will not be in heaven because they have never, to their knowledge, seen the reality of Christ in a living human being.

In this chapter, Willard states that the reason churches do not stay focused on genuine disciple-making and substantive spiritual transformation is that they are distracted by other things that they have come to see as essential—usually items specific to their denomination or movement.  He suggests 3 stages for churches to follow in order to move away from distraction toward a focus on spiritual transformation:  (1) church leadership must facilitate the spiritual transformation of the people already in the church; (2) the church must seek the presence of God—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—in their midst and move away from performance driven worship, ministry, and programs; (3) there must be an “intending and arranging for the inner transformation of disciples”—Willard suggests that this sort of church should advertise itself as a place where “people are taught and trained how to do what Jesus actually said.”

In my view, “stage 1” is the toughest one to achieve.  Here is what Willard has to say about it:

If spiritual formation is to be the central focus of the local congregation, the group must be possessed by the vision of apprenticeship to Jesus in kingdom living as the central reality of salvation and as the basic good news, and they must have formed the clear intention to be disciples and to make disciples, as the central project of their group.

To achieve this, the leadership of the local congregation, the ministering elders and overseers, must recognize that the primary candidates for discipleship are the people who are already there.  And they must recognize that the first step in leading the people who are there to become apprentices of Jesus is for the ministering elders and overseers to be apprentices of Jesus.

It is, I gently suggest, a serious error to make “outreach” a primary goal of the local congregation, and especially so when those who are already “with us” have not become clear-headed and devoted apprentices of Jesus, and are not, for the most part, solidly progressing along the path.  Outreach is one essential task of Christ’s people, and among them there will always be those especially gifted for evangelism.  But the most successful work of outreach would be the work of inreach that turns people, wherever they are, into lights in the darkened world.

A simple goal for the leaders of a particular group would be to bring all those in attendance to understand clearly what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and to be solidly committed to discipleship in their whole life.   That is, when asked who they are, the first words out of their mouth would be, “I am an apprentice of Jesus Christ.”  This goal would have to be approached very gently and lovingly and patiently with the existing group, where the people involved have not understood this to be part of their membership commitment.

And of course it need not be assumed that every person in the local congregation has fully moved to this position.  But the goal would be for them to be clearly in motion toward it, at least, and that goal should be constantly and gently held before the group by example, teaching, and ritual. . . .

. . . Who we are in our inmost depths is the most basic issue.  Ray Stedman wrote some years ago:

God’s first concern is not what the church does, it is what the church is.  Being must always precede doing, for what we do will be according to what we are. . . .

. . . In our present context, to be sure, serious work will have to be done, and there is a strong likelihood of failure.  Here is a true story: A lady came to a pastor who had been emphasizing discipleship and said, “I just want to be a Christian.  I don’t want to be a disciple.  I like my life the way it is.  I believe that Jesus died for my sins, and I will be with him when I die.  Why do I have to be a disciple?”  How would you answer that question?  Would you say, “You don’t”?

I want to be used of God to lead a local congregation into being the church as God meant it to be!  It’s time to set aside the many distractions and focus on being the Kingdom—a place full of Christ-like people who are leading and training others into that same Christ-likeness.  Lord Jesus, hear our prayer!


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