Review: The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation

The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation, A. J. Sherrill (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores how the Enneagram may be used as a tool for self-understanding that may serve as a guide on one’s discipleship pathway.

There is a spate of books on the Enneagram, which seems to be one of the latest “hot” things. Equally, there is a good deal of pushback around the use of the Enneagram, considering it more of a “New Age” or pagan approach that may lead Christians astray. One thing I appreciated about this book from the get-go is that A.J. Sherrill is cautious about both of these extremes. He writes:

People often ask me how I defend the Enneagram against such accusations. I tell them not to get sucked into defending it. One either finds it helpful or doesn’t. It is neither salvific nor soul-destroying. It’s simply a tool. From that standpoint it can be leveraged just as Paul leveraged “an unknown god” in Acts 17 to spur his listeners on to accept the claims of the gospel. God uses every square inch. If God can use an unknown god to amplify the name of Jesus, God can use the Enneagram.

Sherrill, pp. 13-14.

He goes on to mention four agreements he asks workshop participants to make:

  1. Remember you are not a number.
  2. Refuse to become branded as the Enneagram person, church, or organization.
  3. Resist the urge to type another person.
  4. Reclaim the Enneagram as a means and not an end.

Sherrill believes that the Enneagram is a tool to help offer self understanding that allows for the formation of our personality growing out of rooting our identity in Christ. He goes into each of the types of the Enneagram, the characteristic fault or sin of each, the lies we believe, and the truth we need for our personalities to be shaped by that identity in Christ. Sherrill argues that self-understanding rooted in Christ must lead to discipleship, which is the distinctive message of this book.

Sherrill believes that the self-understanding that comes from learning about one’s type enables us to move beyond a cookie-cutter discipleship to something that reflects both the flat sides and redeemed strengths of each type. He offers “downstream” and “upstream” spiritual practices that reflect each type. For example, for Fives (my type) he suggests downstream practices that go with the flow of the type of inductive Bible study and reading (both things I in fact love doing). The upstream practice for Fives is service projects on a regular basis to get out of our heads and use our hands. It’s probably why working in a garden, pulling weeds, or even digging post holes can be quite satisfying. For each type, Sherrill also includes a day or season of the church year that fits the type.

Sherrill proposes that while we cannot “type” biblical characters, we may find aspects of our types in them and so better understand how people like us encounter God. For example, he points to Nicodemus as an Investigator, like those of us who identify as Fives. We walk with him as he visits Jesus at night to investigate his teaching in John 3. In John 7:51, he vocalizes his thoughts with the chief priests and Pharisees, taking a risk. By John 19, he helps prepare the body of Jesus for burial, the act of a close follower, identifying himself closely with Jesus. Nicodemus needs time to process what he has heard, and then act, first vocally and then bodily.

One of the most interesting proposals in this book is that the Enneagram also may serve as a tool in evangelism, given the interest in the Enneagram in wider cultural circles including the corporate setting, in work teams for example. The Enneagram builds on the biblical insight of a world both beautiful and broken, exposing our need for redemption and transformation. We all have “holdings,” ways we try to stabilize reality so that we can cope with it, ways that reflect our brokenness. The Enneagram creates bridges for exploration with people turned off by or inured to churchy language but who are coming to realize that in some way, they are part of what is not right in the world.

The book concludes with a chapter on developing a rule of life based on character aspirations and practices that fit one’s type. Then the conclusion reiterates Sherrill’s approach of neither rejecting or making the Enneagram all encompassing. It isn’t Jesus, it won’t save our marriages, serve as a parenting guide, increase our profits, or save us. It can help us become Christ-like, give us insights into our relational dynamics, help us understand the uniqueness of our children, help us lead more effectively, and open conversations with those who do not yet know Christ.

This isn’t the best book to introduce one to the Enneagram or help one discover one’s own type. Sherrill offers an overview of the types and an appendix with some helpful background. He mentions other helpful works along the way, including Suzanne Stabile and Ian Cron’s The Road Back to You (review), which I would commend as the best place to begin if you want to understand the Enneagram. The gap this book fills is addressing how the Enneagram may be used in Christian discipleship, how it helps us not only understand ourselves but also how we may, as unique people follow Jesus as we seek the glory of God and the good of the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation

  1. The Enneagram is really not one of the “latest ‘hot’ things.” Some twenty years ago, I took part in summer workshops at the University of Notre Dame on its use in spirituality. And yes, I, too, am a curious five!

    • Pat, you are right in the sense that this has been around for a very long time. I remember Enneagram workshops 40 years ago. But have you see the spate of publishing of late? At least in some circles, it has become the “hot” thing.

  2. Bob, you’re right! Those ND workshops were in the 80’s … which makes it 40 years ago, not 20. It doesn’t seem possible they could have been that long ago, and I’m still a “5.”

  3. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2020 | Bob on Books

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