The Common Good
November-December 2003

How is it With Your Soul?

by Keith Matthews | November-December 2003

The Renovare movement fosters spiritual development as the heart of social justice.

"Perpetual spiritual infancy does not please God nor does it honor Christ," says Richard Foster, founder of the spiritual formation movement Renovaré. "The fact is," continues theologian and Renovaré team member Dallas Willard, "our existing churches and denominations do not have active, well-designed, intently pursued plans to accomplish discipleship in their members. You will not find any widely influential element of our church leadership that has a plan—not a vague wish or dream, but a plan—for implementing all phases of the Great Commission." According to Willard, Renovaré is a simple, grounded way for followers of Jesus to mature in their faith.

Richard Foster and Dallas Willard met more than 30 years ago at a Quaker church in Woodland Hills, California. Little did Foster, then a young pastor, and his congregant Willard, a philosophy professor, realize that three decades later they would become two of the most acclaimed contemporary writers on Christian spiritual formation.

Foster speaks with a great deal of fondness of the early days of their friendship and church life together. "I was fresh out of seminary when I took this little Quaker church," recalls Foster. "I had great ideals, ready to convert the world by tomorrow, and yet they were very patient with me. Dallas led the music and his wife, Jane, played the organ; they were very special days." Foster spotted Willard's brilliance very early on. "When I spoke to the congregation people listened," Foster remembers with a laugh, "but when Dallas spoke they brought their tape recorders." In that church they learned how to pray with people and that the kingdom of God is good news to the lost and faint of heart. This early church experience was the seedbed for dialogue about the spiritual life that eventually led Foster to write his contemporary classic Celebration of Discipline.

The name Renovaré means "to renew" in Latin, and renewal is the guiding definition of the group's work. According to the Renovaré publications, it is committed to working "for the renewal of the church of Jesus Christ in all her multifaceted expressions." Foster founded Renovaré in 1988. It now has a mailing list of 29,600 and has launched hundreds of spiritual formation groups across an unusually wide denominational spectrum. Renovaré invites people to commit themselves to "spiritual exercises, spiritual gifts, and acts of service."

At the heart of Renovaré is the desire to help followers of Jesus develop practical strategies for spiritual growth. The primary model for this is the Renovaré "spiritual formation groups" that form within, alongside, or outside of traditional church settings. They are small fellowship meetings that exist for mutual support, mutual encouragement, and mutual accountability. Drawing their format from small group models that span the centuries—from the Benedictines in the 4th century to Methodism in the 17th century to Alcoholics Anonymous in the 20th century—participants in these gatherings of between two and seven people ask one another in various forms the old question, "How is it with your soul?"

After covenanting to confidentiality and to become better disciples of Jesus, participants use a common "order of meeting" each week that contains common disciplines and questions for examining one's conscience. These are based on the six Renovaré traditions and serve to remind, guide, and prompt further reflection on developing a balanced life with God. At some point during each meeting, individuals indicate how they intend to partner with God before the next meeting. Examples include making a one-day retreat (growth in the contemplative tradition) or reading a book of the Bible (growth in the evangelical tradition). At the next meeting members ask one another how their plans went by using the questions designed to encourage accountability. Meetings conclude by sharing prayer requests and saying the Lord's Prayer.

WHILE THERE IS a temptation to see this movement as a privatized, individualist pursuit—a kind of modern ascetic movement—nothing could be further from the truth. Foster's early doctoral work was developing "a theology of nonviolent direct action," studying the effects of Quaker theology on the issue of slavery as a historical model. Activism and social justice are important values.

Yet, with this primary value deeply embedded in Foster, he began to feel a growing concern as he traveled the country. He had a nagging sense that "doing" God's work was replacing the importance of "being" God's people. The gap became clear that "trying to do God's work" must be embodied through "training to do the works of Christ." Hence Foster's emphasis on spiritual formation and discipleship. "Our burden is that spiritual formation, or taking on the character and nature of Christ, becomes the central reason why people gather together. It is here where activism, social justice, or social righteousness flows, from the central vision of inner formation into Christ," says Foster. Willard agrees, "What you are inwardly invariably comes out in what you are publicly. Jesus' teaching is ‘that it always comes out.' Those who have made the biggest difference in the social realm are those whose lives have been radically changed by the love of Christ. If you try to deal with the social issues apart from spiritual transformation of the whole person, you will likely produce a secularized form of legalism that will hardly look like Christ."

The Renovaré ministry is booming in the United States, with twice as many conferences scheduled in 2004 than the previous year. There are new opportunities for Renovaré to go international in the United Kingdom, Korea, and Africa. There isn't a sense of urgency though. "Waiting" and "watching"—two Quaker values—permeate the demeanor of Renovaré. This isn't a ministry driven by high-level marketing techniques. "Our role," asserts Foster, "is to lead people to Christ, to give, and let them go. We are not out to build dependence, but to set people free to follow Christ."

They encourage the reading of Renovaré-produced materials (including the soon-to-be-released Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible), but also an array of spiritual classics is on the reading list. These include Thomas Merton, Thomas à Kempis, Teresa of Avila, William Law, St. Francis, John Woolman, as well as Henri Nouwen and Frank Laubach. Foster resists spiritual formation formulas, but instead gives people "a framework for living life."

While Renovaré has been a niche movement among broad-thinking evangelicals and Catholics, its appreciation of ancient wisdom and future praxis makes it a potential bridge ministry to the "emerging church movement," small groups of Christians experimenting with how Christianity will thrive in the transition from a modern to a postmodern world view. "All we are doing," says Willard, "is teaching the simple call to be reconciled to God. All around the world and throughout history, that has been the most obvious need for all people; people are searching for reconciliation with God."

Both men have a rich sense of optimism that doesn't seem jaded by the dismal statistics about church life in America. "As we go across the country, and even the world," Foster says, "we are seeing ourselves in a spiritual centrifuge, where traditional forms are breaking apart, and many new forms are emerging and uniting in ways we never could have imagined 20 years ago."

Keith J. Matthews is executive pastor at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland, and an adjunct faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is co-author of Dallas Willard's Study Guide to The Divine Conspiracy.

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