Dallas Willard’s death in May has given us a chance to think about his substantial legacy, and his contribution to the wonderful trend of turning the core evangelical conversation toward discipleship and life in the Kingdom.
Only 30 years ago, the heart of our discussion was on “church growth.” Now we talk about living in the Kingdom of God; that is a giant step in the right direction. As Reggie McNeal has put it, the missional scorecard has changed.
Willard did this by naming the gospel in distinction to false or incomplete gospels. He distinguished discipleship in the way of Jesus with other sorts of discipleship. In an interview, he said,
“In our country, on the theological right, discipleship came to mean training people to win souls. And on the left, it came to mean social action — protesting, serving soup lines, doing social deeds. Both of them left out character formation. Spiritual formation in a Christian tradition answers a specific human question: What kind of person am I going to be? It is the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person. That's all it is. You are taking on the character of Christ in a process of discipleship to him under the direction of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. It isn’t anything new, because Christians have been in this business forever.”
Willard likened spiritual formation to education. He was fond of saying that we all get an education; it’s just a matter of which education we get. We are all brainwashed; it’s just a matter of choosing what washes our brains.
In redirecting our thinking, Willard repositioned us for life in a culture where the place of the church in society is not what it was only 60 (or even 30) years ago. Being a soul-winner or social actionist can be discouraging and increasingly unfruitful when congregations are no longer valued in culture. But being a disciple of Jesus whose life is being transformed into Christlikeness? That can happen anywhere and at any time, regardless of larger cultural currents.
And that is incredibly good news.