The Shape of Faith to Come: Spiritual Formation and the Future of Discipleship

Brad J. Waggoner B&H Books, Nashville October 15, 2008
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Reviewed along with Christian Formation: Integrating Theology and Human Development, by James R. Estep and Jonathan H. Kim.

Two new works have joined a recent spate of books on the topic of spiritual formation. Brad Waggoner, researcher and president of B&H Publishing Group, measured the beliefs and actions of twenty-five hundred Protestant church attendees from North America during a year-long longitudinal study, using a tool that he labels Spiritual Formation Inventory (SFI). Seven key markers were measured, including learning the truth, obeying God and denying self, sharing faith, serving God and others, exercising biblical faith, building solid relationships, and seeking God.

Helpful at the outset is Waggoner’s questioning whether spiritual formation can be observed and measured in the lives of believers. A brief analysis of biblical data and a topical literature review demonstrate that “God intends a radically different lifestyle for His followers, and this regenerate lifestyle is inherently observable. Since spiritual maturity can be seen, it can also be measured” (p. 11).

The first important finding revealed a correlation between a church member’s growth with a growing, godly pastor or church leader. “Leaders are the key. Leaders set the tone for the church. Leaders help create the soil conditions for spiritual productivity. . . . Credible leaders stand upon the foundation of God’s authoritative Word and call others to join the journey of spiritual formation and biblical discipleship” (p. 296).

Waggoner and his team also found a simple reason why Christians are spiritually mature. “Statistically, the number one issue correlated to higher maturity scores was the discipline of daily Bible reading.” An additional key factor the team discovered was the important role of parents in the spiritual formation of their children. Therefore “church leaders need to develop clear strategies for equipping parents to teach and disciple their children” (p. 300).

The Shape of Faith to Come is a helpful work for pastors and others who are passionate about discipleship. While some of the data predicts discouraging trends for Christianity in North America, readers can rest in the Lord’s promise, “I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).

While The Shape of Faith to Come is clearly organized around a central thesis, Christian Formation suffers from a too-ambitious goal, namely, attempting to explain to lay readers how the theology of spiritual formation (sanctification) can integrate with humanistic social sciences. Estep, professor of Christian education at Lincoln Christian University, and Kim, professor of Christian education at Talbot School of Theology, pen several chapters, along with contributors, explaining the theories of lifespan human development thinkers such as John Bowlby, Erik Eriksson, Sigmund Freud, Carol Gilligan, Robert Havinghurst, Abraham Maslow, Jean Piaget, B. F. Skinner, and others.

Unfortunately many of these social researchers take as their starting point an atheistic evolutionary view of humanity. Trying to wed their ideas on human growth, however painstakingly cautious, with thoughts on how Christians mature in faith, is akin to mixing oil and water. The hypotheses of various sociologists and psychologists necessarily mitigate against the total depravity of man and the necessity of faith for regeneration.

For example in several places the authors describe the Christian experience as taking place in stages, awakening, purgation, illumination, and union (p. 255). In another section three domains of spiritual formation are suggested: the inward domain, the outward domain, and the corporate domain (p. 262). And further, six aspects of the human person are delineated: spiritual, physical, emotional, social, mental, and moral (p. 263).

While the authors do seek to promote holistic growth, these different lists can leave readers wondering whether they are “growing enough” to reach some ambiguous and arbitrary standard.

Also the authors encourage individuals to seek after “means of grace.” “The means, like grace, were available to all – even to those who did not yet experience what Wesley calls ‘salvation’ ” (p. 259). However, it is difficult to imagine how unbelievers can be encouraged to grow in Christian formation.

While Christian Formation may encourage further study for those serving in academic circles, active pastors and lay leaders would be better served by pouring over the results and recommendations included in The Shape of Faith to Come.

—Paul E. Pettit

October 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2010 vol. 167 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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