Spiritual Life by John Westerhoff

Westerhoff, John H. Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and  Teaching. Louisville, KY: Westerminster John Knox Press, 1994.

John Westerhoff was Professor of Theology and Christian Nurture at Duke University Divinity School. During this time, that he “discovered that laity and clergy across the country were more interested in [his] lecturing on issues related to the spiritual life than in any other subject in pastoral theology” (ix). One of many results of this discovery is his book, Spiritual Life: The foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Much of the material found in the book came from lectures Westerhoff gave as a conference held at the College of Preachers in 1992 (xv). Westerhoff has authored many other books, including Living Faithfully: As A Prayer Book People (2005), Will Our Children Have Faith? (2000), and Liturgy and Learning Through the Live Cycle (1994), but Amazon.com lists Spiritual Life as his best selling work. Westerhoff also served as the Director of Institute of Pastoral Studies at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Georgia.

Westerhoff sets out to instruct and encourage his readers to have a spiritual life, that is, one in which our identity is found in God, where we can draw closer toward God to know and love him more. In making this instruction, he must start with an explanation of what a spiritual life is and its importance. Understanding the spiritual life means setting our actions and understandings on firm foundation. A correct image of God is a critical first step, and then finding an openness to grow in God’s agape love is the natural extension in that. One way to measure this growth, according to Westerhoff, is to observe the outpouring of the Fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is one fruit and by it we might see and understand our spiritual growth. Furthermore, a spiritual life is a journey we are on with God.

Next Westerhoff moves to a specific objective of spiritual formation for teachers and preachers. If one is to teach and preach faith in a knowable God, it seems only reasonable that they themselves would experience that God in a significant way. They should regularly and intestinally approach God in meaningful ways that promote and develop their own spiritual lives. One way is through creativity. “The imagination,” writes Westerhoff, “is foundational to the spiritual life” (21). And in addition to an imagination, teachers and preachers should seek to embrace specific mysteries, as well as specific aspects of the human experience such as understanding suffering and embracing it. One must also learn to live in silence, if even for a time because in this solitude, one might hear from God rather than always talking at him. As teachers and preachers, we must also understand what it is to truly teach. One must be seeking and searching and through this, the teacher and preacher should be ready to embrace not only truth the teacher may present, but also the truth that might be learned from the student. As people who are indwelled by Christ, we are all teachers as well as leaners and we all can learn from each other.

As if something of a conclusion, Westerhoff offers some thoughts and guidance on engaging in a spiritual life. First, he takes his readers through a history of the topic and the various schools of thought—although he quickly warns that the various schools go slightly too far and end up in danger of heresy. Each of the school place their focus in a specific approach to the spiritual life; they are those focused on the sacramental, charismatic, mystical, and the apostolic. How one views these schools will also dictate how they may pray and engage in various aspects of the spiritual life. And then to conclude the book, Westerhoff addresses some methods and techniques to assist people in a growing spiritual life—timing and location, preparation, presence with God, journaling, having a spiritual community, lectio divina, and finally, living a life of discipline. Ultimately, Westerhoff argues, “A discipline is something we practice, an exercise,” and the final chapters are like an exercise instruction manual (65).

Westerhoff had hoped to provide a book to assist clergy, those responsible for the church’s education ministry, and even volunteer church-school teacher to understand the spiritual life and lead others to a strong spiritual growth in their daily lives. He achieved this goal and so much more. In something of an awkward book for teachers and preachers, Westerhoff has presented an argument that should be for everybody. Therefore, to assume this book should only be for teachers and preachers is what makes it awkward. The book is already small at less than 80 pages, but the approach toward the middle of the book for teachers and preachers should have been replaced with a chapter specifically for pastors, teachers, and preachers AND a chapter for any student of the Bible and lover of God. This book is for everybody. The spiritual life is a necessity for all who desire to soundly approach God to love him more and love him better.

Understandably, Westerhoff writes to an audience he feels is already burned out, drained out, or rusted out. He is seeking a way to revitalize their pastoral lives and even their ministries. However, it is highly likely that many seminary students are reading this book before they face the symptoms of any of these ministry problems. Should they learn to engage the spiritual life as Westerhoff encourages, they will likely avoid the pitfalls. In addition, they will likely live a rich life as they walk well with God. But does it not stand to reason that if this preventive approach is good for seminary students it would also be good for the layperson that deeply wants to know God better? Do these people not also experience burnout, drain out, and rust out? Spiritual Life is a fantastic book for teachers and preachers, but with some minor restructuring, it could be extremely valuable with believers and extremely popular in our age where people are thirsty for a deeper relationship with the Creator of the Universe.

Putting aside the critical view that the audience of this book is too narrow, Westerhoff’s book Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching should be read and practiced by any student of the Bible who wished to take the theological knowledge gained through deeper study and approach God with greater ease. This book should be read and practiced by anyone prepared to have a love affair with the Living God.

* I have no material connection to this book. This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.