In her book, Barton writes: “Spiritual transformation is the process by which Christ is formed in us—for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives and for the sake of others; it results in an increasing capacity to discern and do the will of God.”
All people are, as Dallas Willard famously wrote, in the process of spiritual formation. Our spirits are constantly being formed by what we do, what we read, our experiences, and the company we keep. Christian spiritual formation, specifically, is focused on changing our heart and actions to be more like Jesus. Unfortunately, Barton says, churches often promise that change, but don’t deliver it.
“We could all admit that we’ve been in groups and church but don’t ever change,” Barton said. “It would help us to move forward if we would acknowledge that change and transformation requires more than intellectual pursuit.”
Why don’t people engage in transforming community? Barton says our evangelical tradition has been influenced by, and highly values, a “heady and intellectual approach. Our tradition has tried to convince us that if we just know about God, we’ll change. Those of us who have been around the block a few times know that it is not true.”
“I think people really do believe mere study will change them. But it doesn’t. Study has great value, and it’s a necessary foundation, but study alone will not change us,” she says.
Still, Barton believes that groups focused on study are necessary and provide a foundation for transforming community. It’s an essential starting point, but not where we are meant to stay forever.
“I want to cast a vision that groups can be more. It’s very challenging and some people are simply not up for it. Some groups are not ready for this kind of interaction, or, for some groups, what is most needed is basic biblical literacy. Discipleship, study, hermeneutics, these are essential first.”
From this foundation, groups can begin to listen to God together. “This way of being together would work well with people who have biblical literacy first,” Barton says, noting that those without a strong understanding of the Bible might easily go the wrong way. “This type of group presents risks for those who don’t have biblical underpinnings,” she says. That is why leaders, especially, need to know and understand the Bible. They need that foundation of discipleship in order to guide a transforming community.
But assume group members do have plenty of knowledge about the Bible and about God. Why do people stay in groups where study of theological facts is the main focus?
“We stay safe by just staying at a surface level,” Barton asserts. “But the deeper patterns don’t ever get exposed. The false self is made up of sin patterns that help us survive, things we developed as coping mechanisms in childhood—as part of our impulse to survive. We needed them, but eventually, they keep us from abandoning to God the safety and control. All of us do it, because it served us well. But it no longer serves us well. A true spiritual journey is going to confront those places and go deeper, but that can be scary for people.”
Barton’s organization and writing are dedicated to challenging leaders to go deeper so that the church can become a place where people actually do change and become more like Christ.