A Letter from Dallas Willard
The following is a letter I received from Dallas Willard on December 27, 2007:
I regret being so slow to respond, and I hope you will forgive me. In fact I had to get through a heavy patch of paper grading, and then got obsessed with a couple of difficult chapters in what I hope will be another book. I think your observations on REVEAL are right on. You were very gentle, as we should be, and I think I will be, too. In fact, I would like to be rather indirect. I love and admire the folks at Willow Creek, as I imagine you do, and would like not to offend them in any way. If they were to ask me for my opinion, I would be more direct and thorough. But they haven’t, and so I shall simply say a few things from which implications about the report can be drawn.
The main difficulty for “church life” as we know it, and one which proves to be practically insurmountable for most churches, is posed by the way people are brought into the church. Or, I should say “ways,” for in fact they come in a number of different ways or with diverse understandings of what it means. (Usually no one carefully works through their understanding with them.) What really matters here is how they understand what they are committed to by being there. That means, among other things, what they have agreed to let the staff do with them. As a result they standardly suppose that if they attend the main services with some regularity and contribute some amount of money, they are doing their part, and the pastor has no further real claim upon them. A small percentage of church members might think they should take some extra courses or seminars if they are in line with their interests, and a smaller percentage still might do some teaching or some custodial or committee work. But these activities almost never have any effect upon their growth in what a candid reading of the New Testament would suggest it is all about: for example, actually taking on the character of love as seen in 1 Cor. 13 or 1 John 4. Or putting off the old person and putting on the new, as Paul puts it in Col. 3, or “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as in Romans 13:14 (really, 8–14).
And then the church, quite naturally, can do very little with people who are there with such shallow understandings of what being a Christian is all about. They wind up thinking that involvement with the church’s activities will lead to spiritual transformation. But they do not really expect it to happen, and they do nothing that would be likely to foster it. Really, they cannot. Their hands are tied by the background assumption of what it is to be a Christian. And if they challenge that assumption, they are apt to be accused of switching the goods advertised, adding to grace, and of outright heresy. This is because of what they heard as the gospel when they came in the door.
The teaching about salvation that is now an American cultural artifact is that you confess faith in the death of Jesus on your behalf, and then you join up with a group that is trying to get others to do the same. That is all that is essential. So it is thought and taught. “Spiritual growth” is not required on this scheme, and there is no real provision for it. Salvation is free, which means you need do nothing else but “accept.” Then you too can sing Amazing Grace. Just observe who sings “Amazing Grace” now, and in what circumstances. You don’t really even have to accept it, just sing about it. Not even that. It is wholly passive.
To deal with this situation, one has to start with what you preach as the message of salvation and what you take salvation to be. Salvation is spiritual transformation, which is not an option for those with special interests. Grace is situated in that “salvation.” If you had a group, and you wanted to see such salvation in them, you would have to start from the beginning and teach closely. Do inductive Bible study on “grace” and all of the other central terms of our church discourse, and build your preaching and teaching around what you discover. Remember to include “repentance” and “faith.” You would probably lose a lot of people, and have to rebuild your work. This has been done with great success in past times. The earliest church is the best illustration of the painful process and of the success that can accompany it. Genuine discipleship in the church context of today is very much like discipleship to Jesus in the Jewish religion of his day.
Grace, faith, repentance, and salvation are not church things. They are life things, and spiritual transformation is something that happens only when people intelligently and resolutely take their whole life into the kingdom of God. I believe that the REVEAL study does not proceed along these lines, but hopes to make “church” work for honest transformation into Christlikeness without changing the fundamental assumptions. Undoubtedly I am wrong about many things. I pray for God to teach and empower us all to do his will his way.
Best blessings in Christ,
My Considerations from Willard’s Letter
- A major problem is the various ways people are brought into churches.
- We must again ask, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”
- What claim and authority does the pastor and church have on a member’s life?
- What can be done in teaching, training, and transforming if it is limited by a shallow understanding of the gospel and discipleship?
- The contemporary gospel is an American cultural artifact, namely, you can become a Christian and not follow Jesus. Discipleship is optional.
- The gospel will need to be carefully rebuilt from the ground up, and it must change some of our fundamental assumptions.
This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.
Image credit: Shutterstock.