Someone has aptly described the contemporary American church as being “100 miles wide and a quarter inch deep.” Driven by our fast-paced-society and our penchant for entertainment, the modern church seems to prefer celebration to transformation. Like Jacob at Bethel,[1] today’s sensual[2] Christian goes after all the blessings while ignoring the deep inner struggle. We want enough power to make us happy but not enough truth to make us holy.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus identified three characteristics of nominal religion:[3]

  1. Routine confession – calling Him “Lord, Lord.”
  2. Religious activity – claiming to prophesy, perform exorcism, and do miracles in His name.
  3. Relational disengagement – “I never knew you.”

Actually, this fits the profile of many Sunday morning congregants – a confession of faith, accompanied by religious exercise and church involvement, but dutifully carried out at a distance from God by those who know little of intimate relationship with Him. But we seem more than willing to overlook this as long as the pews and the offering plates are full. In the words of Dallas Willard, this is the “elephant” in the church whose presence has now become an accepted reality.[4]

Co-opted by our society, the secularized church has, in many ways, supplanted kingdom principles with cultural presuppositions. Among them is the acceptance of a market-driven mentality that seeks to capitalize on the consumer mindset of modern churchgoers, with the ultimate goal of beating out the competition down the street.

The size of the Sunday morning huddle has become paramount in our thinking and is regarded by many as the ultimate benchmark by which the church and pastoral ministry should be evaluated. Success driven pastors and church leaders may be so obsessed with counting converts they forget that our imperative is to “make disciples” [apprentices]. The noise of the gun may be exciting, but shouldn’t we occasionally check to see if we have hit the target?

Disciples, not digits, are the focus of the Master’s Mandate.

This is not to suggest that evangelism is unimportant, nor to encourage the cultivation of our spiritual life in isolation to our circumstances. It is simply an appeal to return to kingdom principles and reclaim the Master’s method. Jesus ministered to the masses, but He discipled twelve. His public ministry was more spectacular, but in the long run His private mentoring was more significant, especially in terms of perpetuating His ministry and establishing the church.

But the Master’s method was more than a clever strategic decision to target the right group of men who were capable of carrying on His work after Him. His real genius is seen in how he went about the task of discipleship and what He wanted to produce, or rather reproduce, in the lives of His followers.

Jesus did not merely fill their heads with information about the kingdom, give them a workable strategy to reach obtainable goals, and send them on their way after a rousing pep rally. Rather, he chose twelve that “they might be with Him” (Mk. 3:14). In close communion with His disciples, Jesus imparted His very self to them so that through the Spirit’s empowerment they might become like Him. The goal was not information, but formation – inner transformation into the image of Christ. “It is enough,” Jesus said, “for a disciple to be like His master” (Mt. 10:25).

In the dynamic of their interpersonal relationship with Jesus, redneck fishermen were transformed into the ministers of Christ. Even their most ardent persecutors had to acknowledge the undeniable evidence that these ignorant and unlearned men had been with Jesus (Acts. 4:13). Becoming like Christ was prerequisite and indispensable to doing the work of Christ.

All of this is relevant to the development of apprenticeship ministries in the local church because ministry will almost always be an expression of the core values we hold about the nature of our calling and purpose.[5] Our underlying assumptions about the church’s mission form the foundation upon which ministry models are built and implemented. Therefore, a fundamental question that must be asked centers around the issue raised by Willard: Is it our goal to make disciples and let converts happen, or to make converts and let disciples happen?[6]

            Willard is right to devote the attention he gives to the issue of intentionality as it relates to apprenticeship in the local church. It will not “just happen” by coincidence or chance. To engage oneself and others in the pursuit of spiritual formation can be frustrating and difficult work. It defies most means of human measurement, is not easily evaluated, and virtually impossible to “count.” It does not incite the same kind of excitement and fanfare found in other, more spectacular, church ministries, nor does it draw the crowds. Congregational response to it will likely be less than enthusiastic and may even be met with opposition.

            Apprenticeship in my local church cannot be seriously undertaken until I have a firm, steady resolve to deliberately embrace spiritual formation as my chief purpose and highest intention. It will require strong determination and unwavering commitment, along with patience, consistency, perseverance, and the absolute conviction that I am, in fact, pursuing my God-given calling and purpose. I must be willing to work over it, weep over it, pray over it, and stay over it.

            To meaningfully engage in spiritual formation as a local church ministry calls for thinking that is “outside the box” – the willingness to abandon the popular and preferred methods in favor of what might be regarded as radical or even unorthodox. The supreme irony here, of course, is that what is actually necessary is not new or innovative at all, but simply a return to what is old, tried, and proven.[7]

In some instances the elephant in the church remains inconspicuous simply because he is not recognized for the beast he is. That is, we mistakenly equate the latest fad or the hottest book with spiritual formation and fool ourselves into thinking that discipleship is taking place when it is not.

A quick review of Dr. Sandra Wilson’s paradigm of the 12 Steps to Change will help to make this point. She outlines the 12 steps that we usually go through in our attempts to experience transformation:

She goes on to say that if at step 5 something else other than repeating the first five steps takes place, this cycle can be broken. The something else that must take place is:

The first 5 steps represent what I call “the cycle of frustration” – an ecclesiastical merry-go-round that picks up speed and intensity each time one rides. The problem is, no matter how many times you go around or how fast you go, you always get off at the same place – frustration.

Note how quickly the usual approach goes awry. At step 2 we are already off track in our belief that information will result in transformation.[9] What it actually leads to is disappointed expectations that turn into disillusionment, skepticism, and cynicism, ultimately contributing to burnout and ADDD – Adult Destructive Disappointment Disorder.

Resignation does not usually occur until after years of riding the merry-go-round and the motion sickness has simply become intolerable. At this point desperation leads to inspiration and it is inspiration, not information, which leads to change.

The most obvious question is this: “Why do we drag new converts through the frustration cycle?” Why not eliminate steps 2-5 altogether by channeling their pristine desires for God away from information (step 2) that leads to frustration and toward inspiration (step 8) that leads to intimacy? Most new believers are already motivated … already desperate for God … and if they are never put on the merry-go-round in the first place they will have nothing from which to resign!

If Dr. Wilson’s paradigm is accurate, it simply means that our highly vaunted and much celebrated methods of discipleship are fundamentally flawed. By choosing information over intimacy, we erroneously lead new converts in the wrong direction from the outset and set them up for burnout, frustration, and the destructive effects of ADDD.

Rethinking and restructuring our approach to apprenticeship is long overdue, but the real question is do we have the courage to change, at the risk of upsetting the status quo and offending ecclesiastical sensitivities, or will we continue down the safer path of least resistance? Do we dare reveal that the Emperor is wearing no clothes?[10]

            We must resist our tendency to “fix” the problem by developing a new paradigm. The best way to do that is to simply rediscover the old one. In the words of Jeremiah, we need to “seek out the old path” – a path that does not lead through the quagmire of the frustration cycle.

            With apologies to Dr. Sandra Wilson, I have taken the liberty of altering her 12-step model to suggest another, and hopefully better, alternative (diagramed on the following page).

The diagram speaks for itself and requires little elaboration or explanation. Perhaps it should be noted that I have substituted the word “celebration” for “culmination.” “Desperation” has not been excluded, but is included in the idea of “motivation.”

Going deeper with God is not an end within itself, but is the means of greater usefulness in the kingdom with fruitful ministry emerging naturally as a by-product of a transformed life. It is the recognition that before God can do a significant work through me, He must first do a significant work in me. Or put another way, to be much for God I must be much with God.

Our goal should be to avoid the left side of this paradigm at all costs. Yet, we seem to instinctively lead young believers in this very direction, down the bumpy road to frustration and years of pointless cycling in the ADDD wilderness. Years later, if they are still alive, we may find and rescue them from their futile gyrations by pointing them to the “inspiration pathway” as the remedy to the misery we inflicted on them in the first place!

This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and yet, as preposterous as this is, we continue to promote and perpetuate this folly – more by default than intention.

The comments of Henri J.M. Nouwen seem to be especially relevant to this matter.[11] Nouwen has pointed out that Protestants usually aim toward getting new converts involved in church, hoping it will lead them to spirituality. The problem, he says, is that church becomes a substitute for spiritual intimacy. He goes on to say that Catholics begin with solitude and other spiritual disciplines, hoping that young believers will connect with the church as they go deeper with God.

It is hard to argue against his point of view. The program options in most Protestant churches read like the menu at a smorgasbord. Consumer-wise churches know that among churchgoers ice cream is more palatable than spinach, so the dessert trays are loaded. That makes customers happy, but not necessarily healthy or holy, and keeps them coming back for more. But what they are coming back for is something other than a transformed life born out of deep intimacy with God.

Like the “broad road” in the Lord’s sermon,[12] the information highway is filled with sincere pilgrims who are unaware that they have taken a wrong turn. Because the “inspiration pathway” is narrow and more exacting, it has become the road less traveled.

What I am suggesting is an approach that in this instance at least, resembles the Catholic idea of leading young believers, from the very beginning, in the direction of intimacy, with priority given to formation over information. Further, that we avoid the frustration cycle altogether, eliminating the need for resignation and rescue. For older believers who are already cycling, we graciously wait to help them when they are finally ready to get off the merry-go-round and journey with them in the right direction.

At this point the question could appropriately be raised, “Isn’t this just more information? Aren’t we just substituting one kind of information for another?” That is a valid question that deserves thoughtful consideration. If the “old path” is just more information we will all be back at step 5 again very soon. I argue that there are two notable differences between the kind of information we normally receive while riding the merry-go-round and the inspiration that defines the old path.

First, they are different in NATURE, as outlined below:

Information                                                               Inspiration

Cognitive                                                                    Affective

Focused on the mind                                                Focused on the heart

How to do                                                                   How to be

Points within/to us                                                     Points above/to God

Secondly, they are different in their URGING, as shown below:

Information says …                                                  Formation says …

Run                                                                             Rest

Work                                                                           Wait

Worry                                                                          Worship

Be smart                                                                    Be still

Be busy                                                                      Be broken

Finally, the use of three metaphors may also help differentiate the two:

Information                                                               Formation

Martha                                                                        Mary

Broken cisterns                                                         Fountain of living water

Driven                                                                         Called

What I have presented thus far are the underlying presuppositions that help to formulate my theology of ministry as it relates to spiritual formation in general and its application to the local church in particular. Therefore, whatever ministry model for local church apprenticeship is developed it must be built upon this foundation and reflect in practice what is affirmed in principle.

Beginning on the next page is a proposed model for spiritual formation in my local church. It is not comprehensive and is presented in an abbreviated form as a schema for apprenticeship.

Conformity to the Image of Christ

Salvation is more than “fire insurance” – escaping hell and going to heaven. God’s highest purpose and ultimate intention is to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29; Mt. 10:25; Eph. 4:13).

Living as a Kingdom Citizen – Integrating Life and Faith

An apprentice is one who lives in the kingdom of God and applies the kingdom for his own good and that of others, helping them to enter the kingdom.

Naturally Reflecting the Likeness of Christ

Spiritual formation is not behavior modification – working hard in the attempt to be like Jesus. Rather, through dynamic and intimate relationship with Christ we are transformed from within so that our own life naturally expresses the life of Jesus as our normal means of living, so that living as Jesus lived becomes a spiritual reflex that corresponds naturally to Him.

Look Within

The old adage is, “You teach what you know but reproduce what you are.” Much of discipleship is “caught more than taught.” The effectiveness of my pastoral efforts to promote spiritual formation in others will be largely determined by my own. This challenges me with several important questions:

Look Over

A complete overview and thorough evaluation should precede the inauguration of apprenticeship ministry and should consider such things as:

Note: At this point, the final chapters of Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy, will be given priority for the purpose of implementing his concepts as appropriate, but it seemed unnecessary and redundant to detail his suggestions here. Other resources will be sought out and given consideration as well.

Look Around

Initiating this ministry calls for an honest evaluation of the congregation and realistic projections about potential candidates and how their participation will be encouraged and enlisted.


I agree with Willard that even a small minority of genuine disciples will have a great transforming effect in the church. It would be reasonable to expect a greater response in the future as the ministry of spiritual formation proves itself viable and relevant, demonstrating its importance through the transformed lives of others.

Look Above

Spiritual formation is not self-improvement, but God at work in us to will and do His good pleasure. Strategies, methods, activities, and curriculum alone cannot bring about transformation. The spiritual dynamics of prayer and the Holy Spirit must constantly support this ministry if it is to be fruitful.


            It is my firm conviction that participants in this ministry must have a sense of “ownership” if it is to succeed. I also believe that one of the ways this is accomplished is through “team building.” That is why I have listed questions and considerations rather than setting policy and establishing guidelines on my own, with the expectation that others who have had no input in the decision-making process will simply buy into my plan.

            Rather, I will carefully choose a development team comprised of believers who are more mature and who share my convictions about spiritual formation. Together we will develop a ministry model centered on core values and seek to find workable solutions to the questions and problems raised in this paper. The necessity of re-evaluation and the willingness to make corrections and improvements will be central in our planning.

            Jesus did the work of apprenticeship in the context of community – a small group of men in relationship with Him and one another. Initiating this ministry as a team is in keeping with His example.

            In describing the “discipleship crisis” as it presently exists, Willard is careful not to point fingers or assign blame. He points out that the church’s present state of affairs has been caused by “unconscious historical drift over many years.”[15]

Further, he says that the possibilities for change lie with the power of decision – the intentional choice to do the work of apprenticeship:

It must be our conscious objective, consciously implemented, to bring others to the point where they are daily learning from Jesus how to live their actual lives as He would live them if He were they. That implemented intention would soon transform everything among professing Christians as we know them.[16]

I know what to do. I know that it should be done. I know how to start.

All that’s left is to do it.

[1] Genesis 28.

[2] This does not necessarily imply “erotic,” but refers to the gratification of the senses or the indulgence of appetite.

[3] Matthew 7:21-23. “Nominal” refers to existing or being something in name or form only. Rank sinners do not emphatically call Jesus “Lord, Lord” (note the use of repetition for emphasis). True believers will never hear Him say “Depart from me … I never knew you.” This nominal group must lie somewhere in between.

[4] The Divine Conspiracy, p. 301

[5] I am referring to the values we really hold as demonstrated by our actions, not those we merely profess as written in our creeds.

[6] The Divine Conspiracy, p. 305

[7] Vance Havner once remarked that if we live with subnormal long enough, we eventually think of it as normal Subsequently, when we encounter what is normal we think it is abnormal.

[8] These four disciplines are not intended to be comprehensive, but representative of the spiritual disciplines.

[9] If information could facilitate transformation, nobody in America would smoke.

[10] Naked Emperors have a way of getting even.

[11] Cited in class lecture.

[12] Mt. 7:13

[13] By elitism I mean the tendency to view themselves as “holier than thou” or spiritually superior to those outside the group. This cannot become an exclusive “bless me club.” Should that occur, it would be the surest evidence that very little spiritual formation is actually taking place.

[14] The Divine Conspiracy, p. 322.

[15] The Divine Conspiracy, p. 315

[16] Ibid., p. 302.