I make no apologies for being an avid fan of Dallas Willard. For me he frames issues, poses questions and introduces concepts in such a unique and intriguing way that I find myself contemplating those things long after I set down his book.
One such issue regards a statement he makes about the exclusive, primary goal of the local congregation or fellowship. In other words, what is at the heart of why we are engaged together as believers? (Just to put it in the context of my spiritual paradigm, I want to extend that question beyond the walls and meetings of the typical church setting.)
The context of what the following statement is Philippians 2, where we are encouraged to “shine like lights” in a darkened world, “blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse population.” Given this, he maintains:
But what we see here is not an impossible dream, a hopeless idealization. It has been done and can be done now, if we turn our efforts under God in the right direction. And that direction would be one that makes spiritual formation in Christlikeness the exclusive primary goal of the local congregation. This is what one would naturally expect after having read what Paul says— and, indeed, after having read what Jesus sent his world revolutionaries out to do (Matthew 28: 18-20).
What caught my attention in this statement is its stark contrast to the seeming emphasis and direction of most churches and fellowships. Looking at the websites of churches in my area, the emphasis is on creating programs and ministries designed to address the 'needs' of specific groups in the church. In fact, one mega-church in the area promotes the fact that they have over 500 ministries to take advantage of or be involved in.
This results in what Dallas maintains is characterizing most of our local congregations whether big or small in size -- simple distraction from what is truly needed. We get all distracted with this program targeted at this group and that program targeted at another group and what we lose sight of is the necessity for spiritual formation in Christlikeness.
What if we put more emphasis on building relationships of trust and transparency so that we could speak the kind truth to one another? What if we engaged generations together so that the young could draw from the experience of their elders and the elders could be invigorated by the energy and drive of youth?
What if we stopped pretending that shaming and blaming others into conformity was a suitable substitute for Christlikeness? And what if we stopped making accommodations for behavior that the scripture specifically forbids, while maintaining that we are being compassionate and supportive?
What if we had discussions about the direction society is pushing and pulling us instead of stoppering our ears and issuing blanket condemnations? And what if we put meditation on the word of God back into common practice and revisited familiar scriptures with a genuine curiosity and openness to learn something new?
And what if we spent more time teaching and reinforcing our identity as new creations in Christ rather than producing "events" for Sunday morning?
So what if we did make spiritual formation in Christlikeness the exclusive primary goal of the local fellowship, congregation and gathering of God's people?
My guess is that we could then say with authority, "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." (I Cor. 5:20) And the result would be a much greater impact on the lives of others, our communities and the world.