Jesus Brand Spirituality: Reclaiming the pilgrims’ path

OK, so when I said, “I hope to get the post on the first chapter up in the next day or two,” I should have said “a week or two (or three)” . . . sorry about that. I’m too easily distracted, I guess. That’s too bad, because the first chapter of Jesus Brand Spirituality, “Reclaiming the Pilgrims’ Path,” sets out the book’s overall agenda and approach, and does so in admirable fashion.

I have only one significant objection, and I’ll begin with that, both in order to get it out of the way and because it deals with Ken Wilson’s very first page: I don’t agree with his statement of the problem. He starts off by saying,

Jesus wants his religion back. And he wants it back from the orthodox, the Bible-believing, and the defenders of faith as much as from anyone else. So it can be for the world again.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not objecting to that paragraph as I understand it. It’s strong, bracing language, calculated like a slap in the face or a bucket of cold water to shock the reader to attention, and I think that’s undoubtedly necessary for what the book is trying to accomplish. However, the caveat is important, because what this isn’t is precise language. What does it mean to say, “Jesus wants his religion back,” and why and in what respect does he want it back from his own followers?

In the next paragraph, the Rev. Wilson imagines what it might look like if he were a non-Christian beginning to be interested in Jesus; he writes,

How would I begin to pursue faith today? I’ll tell you what would put me off. I’d be repelled by the witch’s brew of politics, cultural conflict, moralism, and religious meanness that seems so closely connected with those who count themselves the special friends of Jesus. It’s a crowd that makes me nervous. Beneath all the talk of moral values and high principles, I don’t think I could get over the hissing sound.

I would be deterred by the impression that the more people organize their lives around Jesus, the more likely they are to become defensive, prickly, and dogmatic about their beliefs. I’d have to stuff my questions, curb my curiosity, and be willing to get with the program. I’d have to mindlessly accept some package deal agreed on by the gatekeepers of orthodoxy—virgin birth, heaven and hell, Jesus as the only way, the Bible as the unquestioned Word of God—where would it stop?

Methinks the Reverend doth concede too much. This is certainly the perception of the church among non-Christians (especially the intelligentsia), and it’s the perception of the conservative wing of the church in this country by its liberal wing; but is it fair? I know there are churches like this, but in my own experience (limited, but random enough not to be completely meaningless), I’ve never come across any; the churches I know fail in other ways and in other directions (many of them in efforts to address precisely this perception among non-Christians in their communities). The perception problem is obviously real and significant, but it seems to me that it might be more gracious not to assume that the perception is correct.

That said, where the Rev. Wilson goes from this point is excellent. I appreciate his use and defense of the word “religion,” a word which needs to be rescued from those who oppose it (negatively) to “spirituality”; indeed, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the chapter is the model of religion he lays out, which he takes from Dr. Phyllis Tickle, describing it as

a rope that . . . has three cords: spirituality, morality, and corporeality . . . held together by a casing, like the clear plastic casing that holds the strands of a rope together and keeps the water out. The casing of any religion is the story it tells about the way the world works. . . . Everything else about religion makes sense only in the context of the story it tells about the world.

Though the Rev. Wilson focuses in this book on spirituality, he doesn’t elevate it above the other elements, but rather recognizes them as equally necessary and important, and I appreciate that. Indeed, he seems to recognize as well the ways in which these various components overlap and interpenetrate one another; I will be interested to see what he makes of that in future works, assuming God grants him the opportunity to write further.

This is particularly true because I think I see a parallel here that could be fruitful. When I first read the book The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North Americaa decade ago at Regent, one of the things that struck me was in chapter 7, drafted by the Alan Roxburgh, on “Missional Leadership.” The Rev. Dr. Roxburgh describes the typical picture of the life of the individual church this way:

In this series of concentric circles, the inner circle A represents the committed core of a church community. . . . They seek to live out faithful lives but give most of their church time to providing services to those who only attend. . . . Circle A represents people with a genuine commitment to function as bearers of the gospel. But the gospel itself is reduced to the categories of our culture. . . .

The next circle (B), the congregation, includes the core (A). Circle B is composed largely of affiliates who expect services but have minimal ownership. It is a voluntary association of expressive individuals. Again, leadership spends a large part of its time responding to the expectations and needs of these people. . . .

The final circle (C) represents the context. The unchurched and the seekers reside here. Much of the activity in A and B is spent convincing unchurched people to connect with a particular brand of church. . . . The focal energy of leadership is directed toward getting people into the center, A, but the location where the leader expends most of his or her time and energy is in circles B and C. All of this assumes a reductionistic gospel of meeting personal, individualistic needs. This assumption is what generates vendor-type ecclesiologies.

Against this, the Rev. Dr. Roxburgh points us to the truth that the church is a “pilgrim people, moving in and toward the reign of God,” and that this is what is really “the center of the church’s life and identity”; he proposes therefore that rather than understanding the church as merely a bounded set defined by formal membership and formal roles, we need to understand ourselves as a centered set, with our center being “the gospel’s announcement of God’s reign that is forming a people as God’s new society.”

In our pluralistic context, where people search in multiple directions and struggle to understand the nature of Christian life, a centered-set model represents the church as a people on the way toward the fullness of God’s reign in Jesus Christ. People are constantly being invited to move toward and into a covenant, disciple community. This kind of centered-set church is open to all who may want to be on this journey. It has a permeability that is open to others since it seeks to draw others alongside and minister to people at every level on the way.

This, it seems to me, sounds quite a bit like the “thought experiment” the Rev. Wilson proposes:

Maybe it’s time to adjust some of the conventional assumptions about Christian faith. Maybe the starting point is as basic as people in motion, moving toward Jesus. . . .

Let’s imagine ourselves in relation to Jesus—all of us who feel drawn to Jesus in some way—as being neither on the outside of faith looking in, nor on the inside looking out, nor at one of the stages of a predetermined four-stage linear progression of belief.

Instead, let’s imagine ourselves at various points in relation to an imagined center, like pilgrims coming from the north, south, east and west and every point in between to a holy city. Only we aren’t pilgrims in search of a city so much as pilgrims in search of . . . Jesus of Nazareth. Some of us are here, others there. Some are running, walking, milling about, traveling in groups or singly, doubting or believing—but all of us are within range of his attractive pull. Because we come from different points of origin, we take many paths to our destination. The closer we get to the center, the more our paths converge. But for now, the only concern each of us shares is this: how can we take “one step closer to knowing,” one step closer to that center we’re longing for?

It strikes me, in comparing these passages, that perhaps Ken Wilson is trying to do the same thing with regard to the spirituality and spiritual theology of the church that Alan Roxburgh, Darrell Guder and the rest of that group were and are trying to do with the corporeal reality of its structures and programs. Certainly when the Rev. Wilson writes, “Jesus brand spirituality is a way of living that Jesus modeled as a fellow pilgrim,” it seems reasonable to describe that as a truly missional spirituality; we should be wary of defining his work in terms of someone else’s work or agenda, but there seem to me to be real affinities there. As such, those who are attracted by the missional-church movement and its understanding of who we’re called to be as the church and how we’re called to live, and who are grappling with trying to lead a congregation in that direction, may well find this book particularly valuable.

One further word on the first chapter would seem to be in order, to set up the discussion of the rest of the book: having set up his description of Jesus brand spirituality as a life of pilgrimage toward Jesus, the Rev. Wilson identifies four dimensions to this pilgrimage, four different aspects to the spiritual life.

By “dimensions” I mean aspects of reality . . . the four dimensions I’ve selected to describe Jesus brand spirituality are active, contemplative, biblical, andcommunal. . . .

These four dimensions of spirituality are as interdependent as the four space-time dimensions. We separate them to examine them, but as soon as we’re done, they reconnect. We must resist the temptation to force-fit these into a preordered path: “First, we take the active step, then the contemplative,” and so on. It doesn’t work like that. Depending on where we find ourselves on this pilgrimage, we may be drawn to one dimension or the other first or next. But as we move forward into one dimension . . . our understanding of all the others will be affected because they are four dimensions of one reality.

Why these particular dimensions? Because they are integral. Each is an essential part of spirituality—distinguishable in representing a discrete aspect, yet interdependent in affecting and being affected by the others. They also emerge naturally from the spiritual path of Jesus himself.

There is, it seems to me, a lot of wisdom there, though I would add that all of us are probably temperamentally tilted in one direction or another; I’ll be interested to see how the Rev. Wilson develops this model and fleshes it out in subsequent chapters.


Posted in Books, Religion and theology, Reviews.


  1. I can’t help but think that “Jesus brand spirituality,” for better for worse, is in the eye of the beholder. Progressives and conservatives, for example, are equally able to cite relevant passages supporting their views.

    Maybe Christians will be judged by what verses we choose to select and emphasize.

  2. Progressives and conservatives, for example, are equally able to cite relevant passages supporting their views.

    As long as that’s the mindset, what you’re looking at is not truly a Christian spirituality. What makes it truly Christian is that following Christ and obedience to his Word is prior to one’s own views–that one sets one’s own views aside to follow Christ, recognizing that those views will necessarily evolve or be replaced as a consequence.

  3. Pingback: The crucial challenge of living by grace | Wholly Living

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