Review: Workplace Discipleship 101

Workplace Discipleship 101, David W. Gill. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A practical guide to living as a follower in one’s workplace focused on how we get ready for our work, impact our workplace, and beyond our workplace.

As a teenager who had been raised in a Christian home and church, one of the things I struggled with in high school was making the connection between Sunday, and Monday through Saturday. Had it not been for the Jesus movement and later, the collegiate ministry I was involved with, I may have walked away from Christianity. To say Jesus is Lord but then live six days a week as if he has nothing to do with them seemed just a wee bit inconsistent. Atheism seemed more consistent and less hypocritical.

David Gill writes out of a similar conviction. Observing that we spend the largest part of our waking hours at work, Gill contends it only makes sense for those of us who follow Jesus to learn how we may do so during those hours. He then proceeds to give us a book (part of Hendrickson’s “Theology of Work” series) grounded solidly in a theology of both discipleship and work and incredibly practical in its applications.

The book is organized in three parts. The first considers how we might “get ready for our work.” He begins by inviting us to commit to be a workplace disciple and share it with someone else who won’t let us evade that commitment. He then writes about prayer, both crisis prayers and ongoing prayer with models of workplace prayers and even how to use the Lord’s prayer in praying about our work. He addresses the other side of our communication with God in listening to Him in scripture, understanding it as centered around Jesus and God’s mission in the world, and then offers ways to engage the scriptures personally and in groups. He urges us not to go it alone but to have a “posse” of the like-minded and offers helps for forming such a group. Finally, Gill believes we need to be lifelong learners, and particularly commends the importance of reading (I knew there was a reason I liked this guy). He makes extensive suggestions of books to get us started on a theology of work.

Having gotten us ready for work, the second part of the book speaks of our impact as Christians at work. First of all it means aligning our work with God. After looking at God the worker, he makes recommendations about understanding our gifted passions and pursuing them as disciples of Christ. Our model as imitators of Christ is a big part of our impact, living with the qualities of righteousness, peacemaking, and joy. He encourages us to be light in our workplaces, bringing the unique insights and questions that our shaped by our reading of scripture, with humility but without apology. We don’t have to say, “the Bible says,” but simply, “what do you think of this?” As we live in these ways, we will have chances to share our faith. As we listen to others, they will be ready to listen to us. Gill suggests various ways we might initiate but concludes “that the best time to share the gospel is when someone asks you about it and wants to hear your answer” (p. 163). Sometimes we will be confronted with wrongdoing or conflict in the workplace, and the challenge here is to be overcomers. He talks about how to identify serious wrongdoing in the workplace and how to address conflict with humility, courage and prayer.

The final part of the book moves beyond our workplace with a number of ideas of how we may contribute the gifts and skills we use in the workplace to the benefit of the wider church. His last chapter is on rest and the importance of sabbath in our lives as workers. He contends that intentional efforts to schedule and set aside sabbath, vacations, date nights, and periodically, longer sabbaticals, is crucial to gaining control of our time.

The text is broken up with periodic “chalkboards” summarizing key points and chapters conclude with a “to do” list and questions for reflection and discussion. This makes the book ideal for use in a church or workplace group. It also includes a postscript for pastors, urging them to address the workplace life of a congregation, including visiting people on the job.

What distinguishes this book from many I have read is that it is at once solidly grounded in a theology of work (without the author showing all his work!) and at the same time extremely practical and applicable. The challenge of this book is not figuring out what the author is saying or how to put it into practice. Rather, will one practice and live into the clear steps of discipleship laid out by the author? Again, having a posse will add to the impact of this book as you urge each other on the path of workplace discipleship.


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.

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.


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.

Review: Sacred Endurance

sacred endurance cover.jpg

Sacred EnduranceTrillia J. Newbell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Using the analogy of running a race, sets out the promises of God and the practices of the believer that enable us to finish the race of faith.

…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience…” Colossians 1:11, NIV

Years ago, my first ministry supervisor and I were studying through the book of Colossians together when we came to this verse in the middle of Paul’s intercessory prayer for the Colossians. He asked me why “great endurance” is so important as a believer. As a young believer, I’m not sure I fully grasped why this mattered. But the question stayed with me, as well as the promise of God’s strengthening glorious might. The years since have made sense of the necessity of endurance through the parenting years, through disappointments, serious illnesses, deaths of close family and friends, failures, conflict, and the gradual encroachments of age on one’s body. Equally, there are those seasons of the ordinary, the routine tasks that we get up and do over and over. Most of us have wondered at some point, “how can I keep going on?” “How can I finish well?”

Trillia Newbell has written a marvelously encouraging book exploring this crucial topic of endurance. A former runner, she describes running the anchor leg of a 4 X 400 relay, running swiftly until the last 100 meters, when exhaustion left her summoning every last ounce to finish ahead of those on her heels. Throughout the book, she uses the image of a race to speak of both the provision of God to enable us to finish our race of faith, and what it means for us to live into that promise.

The book is filled with biblical passages, grounding our hope for enduring in the promises and instructions of God. She reminds us of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on, and the necessity to strip away any encumbering sins and to focus on Jesus. She explores our running motivations, particularly the “love of Christ” that compels. She confronts the lies of the gospel of success and prosperity and explores how the presence and power of God meets us in our suffering, troubles, and weakness. She addresses the importance of the mind to endurance and the call to be renewed in our minds.

I was particularly impressed with her chapter on enduring amid the troubles of society and the world. She acknowledges the particular challenges she faces as an African-American female confronting blatant racism, even white supremacism. She describes her own disciplines of stopping to remember God, taking heart in the truth that the Lord has overcome the world, that people are not the enemy, to persist in doing good, not giving way to cynicism, and knowing toward whom we are running when we can be distracted by other loyalties.

She explores abiding in Christ, and practical disciplines of abiding, particularly the word of God and prayer. She speaks of how God meets us in our brokenness and contrition, helps us press on when we fall and fail, the provision of running companions in the church, and the prize toward which we run. Even her appendix, on those who don’t endure, stresses how God is fully able to help us run to the finish.

There is nothing startlingly new here, but perhaps in our preoccupation with so many challenges in life, we need to hear these words afresh. Trillia Newbell is like the good track coach who keeps telling us the things we need as often as we need to hear them. She coaches out of her own journey with honesty, humility, and a contagious joy that arises from her own experience of the promises of God that help her run and endure with joy. She reminds us of all the resources God provides, the practices that help us keep running, the things we need to let go of, and the God who meets us at our weakest places and the Christ toward whom we run.

If you are asking yourself how you will get through the next year, or month, or even day, this is a great book to read. It is a good book for young parents balancing work, childcare and other responsibilities. It is good for those in the mid-life “sandwich,” wondering where they will find the strength to handle it all, and why it is worth it. It is a good book for those in their senior years, approaching the finish line, wanting to do it well. Endurance never goes out of season.


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

Review: Faith for Exiles


Faith for ExilesDavid Kinnaman & Mark Matlock. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: The results of a Barna study identifying five defining characteristics of resilient young Christians who continue to pursue Christ in our generation.

David Kinnaman has been studying youth culture for some time, especially trying to understand the reasons many young people are leaving the church, detailed in his book You Lost Me, reviewed here several years ago. This book is different. Based, as were his previous books on Barna research, he and his co-author Mark Matlock look at five key practices that help account for a resilient Christian faith amid what they call “digital Babylon” in which are youth are often discipled far more on their screens than in their churches.

The book walks through each of these five practices and the survey data that distinguishes “resilients” from prodigals/ex-Christians, nomads who are unchurched, and habitual church goers. These practices are:

  1. To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus. Resilients clearly identify as Christian, consider Christ central, experience intimacy with God and talk with Jesus.
  2. In a complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment. They learn wisdom for living faithfully, with those who differ, stewarding their sexuality and their money. The Bible serves as an anchor for that wisdom and resilients spend far more time digesting Christian content.
  3. When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships. Resilients connect meaningfully to a local congregation and have strong relationships with adults one and two generations ahead of them, especially those who genuinely care for them without ulterior motives.
  4. To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship. Resilients are equipped with a robust theology of work and calling and engaged Christianly in their workplaces. There is no sacred-secular divide and Christians are supported and equipped for workplace discipleship.
  5. Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission. Resilients have a strong sense of mission worked out in countercultural practice in their lives. They live as exiles in Babylon discerningly seeking the peace and prosperity of the city. Life is about the big thing God is up to in the world and not one’s personal fulfillment.

The book both explores the practices of churches that have equipped resilients, including a special section on mentoring, and tells stories of many Millennials and Generation Z youth who are living the resilient life outlined in these pages. The book strikes the right combination of stories and statistics, empirically grounding and personally elaborating its conclusions. This is not the book to provide fodder for intergenerational criticism, but rather one that offers hope for what God is doing in the rising generation, and wisdom for those in preceding generations who want to bless, mentor, and release these resilient disciples.


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


Review: Walking with Jesus on Campus


Walking with Jesus on CampusStephen Kellough. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019.

Summary: A former college chaplain reflects on ten key issues students face.

Stephen Kellough is Chaplain Emeritus for Wheaton College. At twenty-five years, his was the longest tenure of any chaplain at Wheaton. In this book, he reflects on what he believes are the ten most important issues facing Christian college students today.

I love where he begins. He starts with what he thinks the most significant challenge, which he believes is that students know that they are loved by God and invites them into a relationship of growing in love for God, in discovering the love that casts out fear and that dispels false guilt and deals with true guilt.

Other chapters deal with weakness, perfectionism, doubt and depression, sabbath, sexuality and singleness, servanthood, safety in community, revival, and living as an apprentice to Jesus. Each chapter includes reflections on one key biblical passage. For example, the chapter on doubt and depression begins by frankly discussing symptoms of depression and other mental health issues. He explains why he discusses doubt and depression together, because these are often connected at an emotional level, he considers David’s lament in Psalm 13 and how it reflects the dilemmas of doubt (being in two minds) and depression and its debilitating character. He helpfully encourages seeking care and also talks about how doubt actually is a form of faith, indeed that we cannot know what faith is without having doubted at some point.

One of the most fascinating chapters is that on revival in which Kellough narrates the unfolding of the 1995 revival at Wheaton. It began when a student leader of the World Christian Fellowship confessed openly, calmly, and briefly his sin of pride as a leader. Here is what followed:

After a pause, another brave student came forward to a microphone and confessed his own sin of pride. Others came forward; and lines grew on each side of Pierce Chapel. After someone would honestly and vulnerably share a public confession, friends would huddle around and pray over that person while another student began speaking from the other side of the chapel.

What was confessed? There were confessions of pride, hatred, lust, sexual immorality, cheating, dishonesty, materialism, addictions, and self-destructive behavior. There were tears, and there were smiles. There was crying and singing. People confessed their sins to God and to each other, and there was healing. It was biblical. It was orderly. It was sincere. And it honored our Lord.

This went on nightly Sunday through Thursday of one week, involving as many as 1500 people a night. He describes powerful and ongoing racial reconciliation and forgiveness.

His concluding chapter is on being apprentices of Jesus–for life. He quotes Canon Andrew White of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Iraq, who said, “Don’t take care. Take risks.” He proposes that this is the life of faithful and obedient stewards of God’s gifts.

I recognized that Kellough is writing from a place of wisdom and yet there was nothing stuffy or stodgy about his writing. He speaks with deep compassion for students and admiration of students he knows. He freely quotes younger writers like Rosaria Butterfield and Wesley Hill in his chapter on sexuality. His work combines grace and biblical truth.

I’m not sure this is the book for the “churched” student who has never personally embraced the faith for him/herself and wants to get as far away from it as possible during college. I think this makes a good book for the committed Christian student who wants to live for Christ in college to understand some of the practical issues this involves. It could be a book first year students might discuss together and the reflection questions at the end of each chapter lend themselves to this. It’s a good book for parents of students as well, and it raises the question of whether we want our students just to be successful, or do we want them to whole-heartedly, and sometimes riskily following Jesus. It will certainly give parents ideas of how they might pray for their students.


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

Review: Quit Church

Quit Church

Quit ChurchChris Sonksen (Foreword by Dave Ferguson). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: A challenge to quit a half-hearted commitment to church for lives of discipleship in six areas.

Chris Sonksen wants us to quit church. “Oh no!” I thought. “Another one of these emerging church types!” But I was intrigued as well–the title was a good hook for me. I was curious to find out what Sonksen was up to.

It turns out that what Sonksen wants is for us to quit our casual approaches to church. Quitting means saying no to particular ways of living in order to embrace a life of discipleship. Doing so will be a win both for us, and for our churches, that releases the blessings of God. He outlines six areas where we need to consider quitting and embracing whole-hearted, whole life discipleship:

  1. Quit expecting our churches to be heaven on earth and criticizing and gossiping against pastors and church leaders. Embrace a life of prayerful support, turning away from judgmentalism and gossip.
  2. Quit giving away your money when you can and commit to tithing, trusting God to provide.
  3. Quit helping when you can and find places to serve where the church’s and the world’s need and your gifts and passions meet. Disciples don’t wait to be asked.
  4. Quit hoping that people will come to church, and to Christ through the initiative of others. Pray for and invite them yourself. There are people we know who need the Lord and God wants us to be part of that–investing, inviting, and including them.
  5. Quit stopping by church when it is convenient and commit to weekly worship. Our lack of consistency robs us, robs others, and undermines the momentum of our church.
  6. Quit having, or being a “church friend,” someone whose relationships with others is a superficial weekly greeting, chat, or wave, and engage deeply with a smaller group of friends.

One chapter addresses each of these “quits” and in plain language spells out how our casual commitment is deadly to us and the church, and the “wins” we experience when we exchange this casual approach for a committed discipleship. The author shares his own journey, most memorably for me in his brief shared gym membership with former NBA star Ricky Berry. One day the two of them were alone in the gym, and Chris felt repeated promptings from God to speak to Berry, but did not, feeling awkward about approaching the celebrity. A few hours after leaving the gym, he learned of Berry’s suicide, and vowed never to say “no” to a prompting from God again to be an agent in his saving purposes.

There was part of me that felt “is that it? It all seems so simple.” And then I realized that it is not. I’ve seen the phenomena Sonksen talks about of inconsistent church attendance, throwing a few dollars in the offering, and helping out when one can. But I also worried about the “church busyness” that I have seen of people doing all the things Sonksen commends, but not experiencing a vital relationship with Christ. I do think this comes as we put feet to our walk with Christ in these ways, but the focus here seemed more on the personal and church wins achieved. This also felt very “church-centric,” focused around support of pastor and church leadership, attendance, church programming, and giving. I would have loved to seen a chapter on “quitting the sacred-secular split” and whole-heartedly serving Christ in the places most of us spend most of our waking hours–our work.

That is in no way to detract from the importance of quitting casual “churchiness” and unhealthy practices to embrace a more biblical involvement with one’s fellow believers. This is a good book for those longing for “something more” in their participation in the life of the body and his checklist at the end a good resource for self-examination as to whether we’ve become casual in our faith and need, in our own ways to “quit church” for something better.


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.


Review: The Spirit of the Disciplines

Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Summary: Dallas Willard’s classic work explaining why and how spiritual disciplines are vital for transformation into the character of Christ as his disciples.

This book, along with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, were instrumental in introducing spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation into the parlance and practice of both mainline and evangelical Protestant Christianity. This work has been in print for 27 years and it may be time to take a fresh look at what has become a classic reference work on spiritual disciplines.

Willard contends that one of the major challenges facing the church is the transformation of character in the lives of Christians. He contends that spiritual disciplines, which may be observed in the life of Jesus, are in fact the “easy yoke” of Jesus. He likens transformation to the athletic feats of sports figures, that only are possible through years of practicing certain disciplines. His thesis is that:

“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” (p. 252).

A critical aspect of Willard’s thinking is his understanding of what it means to be humans who are meant to image God in their embodied existence. What has been overlooked in much of the church is that the “spiritual life” which is a vital part of being human is one lived out through our physical bodies. Salvation is not a moment but a life of transformation worked out in our bodies. He spends several chapters laying out this theology of the body, culminating in a look at the life of Paul and how his own understanding of spiritual life exemplifies this embodied understanding.

Willard then in two chapters outlines the history of the disciplines and enumerates some of the most important. Critical in his survey of history was a monastic asceticism focused on forgiveness of sin. Willard contends that Protestantism either continued or reacted to this mistaken focus. He argues instead for a kind of asceticism focused on the discipline of the body through which spiritual transformation occurs as it positions us to interact with God. He then describes key disciplines in two groups, those of abstinence (including solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and those of engagement (including study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).

The final two chapters take up the issues of poverty and power. First, on poverty, Willard argues that the idea that it is more spiritual to be poor. While we are not to show preference for the rich and should care for and even patronize the businesses of the poor and live among them, the issue is using resources under the grace of God for the good of people and the glory of God. He also has an interesting take on power–we idolize power when the radical character transformation of disciples leads to a situation akin to life under the judges in Israel. In the church Willard argues that:

“The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ (Eph. 4:12),  and history and the God of history waits for him to do this job. It is so easy for the leader today to get caught up in illusory goals, pursuing the marks of success which come from our training as Christians or which are simply imposed by the world. It is big, Big, BIG, and BIGGER STILL! That is the contemporary imperative. Thus we fail to take seriously the nurture and training of those, however few, who stand constantly by us” (p. 246).

The book concludes with an epilogue which is a personal appeal to apply the truth of the book. There are two appendices, the first of which is an excerpt from Jeremy Taylor “on the Application of Rules for Holy Living.” The second is an article on Discipleship that first appeared in Christianity Today in 1980. Don’t skip over this–it is a bracing challenge for church leaders to devote themselves to the work of making disciples.

I was struck afresh with how important this book for any of us who teach the spiritual disciplines and are committed to their practice in our lives. The disciplines are so much richer when we understand how God works through the disciplines for our growth in Christ. The central section, which can be a bit heavy going, is vital in a church that still often is “gnostic” in its view of the body. Most of all, it is a critically important book for any who are tired of nostrums and empty ritual and long for the experience of transformation.



Review: Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery

CDMThe main idea of “contagious disciple making” is both simple to summarize and presents a real challenge to the contemporary church. It is to model and encourage trusting obedience to Christ as we discover his will in scripture, and to share these discoveries with others. This simple and compelling idea is a breath of fresh air for a Western church long on talk and short on obedience.

The authors (father and son) have been involved in church-planting movements throughout the world resulting in thousands of churches being planted under indigenous leadership in each country. This was not always the case and the first part of the book recounts the “re-thinking” that took place for them in moving from attempting to plant churches that conformed to Western ideals to launching Disciple-Making Movements. They argue, to begin with, that the task of church planters is not to contextualize the gospel but to “deculturalize” it–to help people discover the message without Western cultural or denominational accretions.

What is crucial is simply building relationships within the appropriate structures, often family or tribal or village, where one can lead people in discovering for themselves from the Bible the basic message of the gospel, and even as they are learning it and beginning to act on it, to share it with others. Even before becoming disciples, proto-disciples are making disciples. From the start, and at every phase, an emphasis on obeying what one discovers, and inviting others to discover and obey is central.

The disciple-maker facilitates discovery and encourages obedience. This is so different from a teacher-student model that focuses around transfer of knowledge. Instead of creating perpetual learners, disciples quickly learn to become disciple-makers themselves and continue to perpetuate this with those they lead in discovery. The approach is one that respects and holds up the priesthood of all believers rather than a cult of experts.

The second part of the book explores practices around this core mindset that have proven important to these movements. Parts of this reiterate the focus on disciple-making from the first part and seem repetitive at times. But the authors also cover the importance of prayer movements, the nature of discovery groups, how churches are established out of these, and the development of leadership through mentoring that concentrates not simply on action but also character.

I found two sections particularly thought-provoking. One, concerning engaging lost people, talked about identifying the “silos” in which they live — the different affinity groups by family, village, or interest that bring people together. Rather than seek to “extract” people from this group, the Watsons advocate disciple-making within these groups so that families, villages or significant parts of affinity groups come to faith, rather than isolating a single convert from the former “silo” of which they were a part.

The other section concerned finding the “person of peace” in this silo, the person sufficiently spiritually receptive to host the disciple-maker as they form discovery groups. They recommend not attempting to plant in a particular “silo” without having the support of such a person.

There was much that I found to be refreshingly helpful. I work in university ministry that incorporates much of what these authors recommend, building groups around discovering what it means to follow Jesus in scripture, defining leadership in terms of those who are making disciples with others, doing all this in a context of prayer, and even thinking about the different “silos” on a university campus.

At the same time, I found myself wrestling with a tacit anti-intellectual, anti-theological emphasis that focused on the Bible and nothing but the Bible. I’ve seen too many unorthodox movements that are able to appeal to the Bible to say that relying on people’s personal discoveries from scripture to counter false teaching.

Also there is the question of Christian witness and discipleship in centers of learning and culture. While it is true that unlearned disciples who had been with Jesus confounded the religious elites of their day (which underscores the priority of trusting and obeying Christ!) I would contend for the value of coupling that devotion with the development of a Christian mind that is both theologically acute and culturally astute for engaging these culture-shapers. Just as a willingness to learn gaming is important to reaching a “gamer” silo (an example used by the authors), this intellectual work, which underlines the value of the theological enterprise and the intellectual work Christians are doing in many fields, should be encouraged for those engaging the intellectual world.

Yet the authors’ challenge to churches long on words and experiences and short on consistent obedience is one that needs to be heard. The authors contend that “A church that condones disobedience to God’s laws cannot stay a church. A church that does not practice grace and mercy cannot stay a church” (p. 159). Any of us seeking to plant or develop a ministry or church do well to heed this.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God

Living in Christ's Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God
Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God by Dallas Willard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book represents the “last words” of Dallas Willard, who died in 2013. In February of that year, he gave a conference at the Dallas Willard Center and was joined in presentations and dialogue by John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. The book, more or less, is a transcript of their presentations and interactions. The format was that they alternated presentations, giving a total of seven with Dallas giving the first and last. After each presentation, there was a time of dialogue between the two of them (except for the second presentation where Ortberg is in discussion with an unnamed party).

The presentations explore what it means to enjoy Christ’s presence in our present life. Dallas begins with talking about taking Jesus yoke of discipleship on himself. Then John talks about spiritual transformation and the kingdom of God. Dallas follows with what it means to seek the kingdom and obey the king’s teaching. Then John explores not so much the doctrine of the Trinity as our experience of the Trinity in our own lives and in the church, as we are drawn into these eternally loving relationships. Dallas explores the inner life of persons and John follows with spiritual disciplines that train our persons for life. The book concludes with Dallas talking about the nature of blessing and leaving us with a blessing from God.

While I think it is important and valuable to read all of Dallas Willard’s work, one does find something of the “essence” of Willard in this book. He talks about the spiritual disciplines as a way of opening ourselves to transformation that we cannot work directly into our lives. Through John Ortberg, we hear about the relentless elimination of hurry in our lives. We’re challenged by Dallas at several points to support our fellow believers and leaders in other churches rather than treating them as rivals. We learn about a discipleship that is embodied in our physical life and actions and not “spiritualized”.

There are statements throughout that are aphoristic in nature:

“There is nothing wrong with the church that discipleship will not cure” (p. 16).

“You know something when you are able to deal with it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience” (p.31).

“Well, what Jesus teaches us is that within his presence and with his work, we begin to live in heaven now, and that’s why he says that those who keep his word will never experience death…. I think many people do not realize they’ve died until later” (pp. 83-84).

And one for us readers: “Aim at depth, not breadth. If you get depth, you will have breadth thrown in. If you aim at breadth, you will get neither depth nor breadth (p. 149).

As good as each presentation was, the interactions between Ortberg and Willard are priceless as we see two men who have walked with God, and helped others do so, reflect on this life and work with Christ. Often, the asides are sparkling gems of insight–several of the quotes above are from the dialogues. All of this not only gives us a taste of Dallas Willard, but whets our appetites for the kind of spiritual life about which he wrote and in which he mentored so many. And if it did so, he would rejoice, in the more immediate presence of the Lord he loved and followed in life.

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Bringing Discipleship and Scholarship Together–Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote that because scholarly communities are formative communities, Christians and other persons of faith who care about a seamless connection between belief and scholarship need to engage in what James K. A. Smith calls “thick formative practices” that foster that seamless connection.  The alternatives to this are assimilation into the prevailing worldview and values of one’s scholarly community at the loss of vibrant Christian faith, the bifurcation of life into sacred and secular categories resulting in privatized faith and a public embrace of the worldview of one’s discipline. A third alternative is the “embattled enclave” mentality, where one holds to one’s faith convictions but engages with one’s discipline from an exclusively conflict-oriented posture.

Today, I want to turn to what those “thick formative practices” might be. I would like to focus on four practices which I believe important to bringing our discipleship and scholarship together.

1. Cultivating practices of attentiveness to God in one’s life. Years ago, as a college student, I was taught the habit of “The Daily Quiet Time”. At times this is maligned as inflexible, or confining of God to one’s personal devotional life. This needn’t be the case and there are a variety of spiritual practices of attentiveness one may explore in these private times with God over a lifetime.  At the core of all of these practices is the idea of listening attentiveness to God, in prayer, in scripture, and in the examination of one’s life resulting in a response to God of joyful worship, trust in the practical matters of our lives, and obedience to the commands and precepts and personal insights from God that we gain in these times. What I and others are discovering more in recent years is that the habit of humble attentiveness is one that spills over into academic life, as we seek to attend to the creation, to data, to other voices–listening for the promptings of God–sometimes in the form of questions that turn into research questions, sometimes in terms of insights.

life of the mind book

2. Learning to think Christianly about all of life. This practice flows from the practices of attentiveness as we consider, what is God’s pleasure in this area of research, this area of human activity, this personal endeavor, this relationship? But there are two additional pieces that the scholar-disciple needs to cultivate. One is a devotion to study of Christian sources: the Bible with the end of understanding God’s redemptive story as that is worked out from cover to cover, the basic contours of Christian belief captured in creeds, confessions, and theological works, and at least some understanding of Christian history and how believing people have confronted life’s greatest questions over two millenia. It is often helpful to ask how the truth we encounter bears on the questions of our disciplines. Mark Noll in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind gives us a wonderful example of how reflecting on Christology, our beliefs about Christ, inform questions in various disciplines. The other is study in and practice of one’s chosen discipline where one is consistently asking God for insight into the underlying worldview, the questions, findings and practices of one’s discipline. In some cases these may be consistent with Christian conviction, in some cases they actually reflect a creative outworking of that conviction, and sometimes at the level of ideas, sometimes at the level of ethics, we will find ourselves differing. My sense of how this seems to work for many is the movement from disparate things (faith and scholarship) to strands of connection, to a seamless garment over the course of years of thought, exploration, questioning, and discussion.

3. Engagement in Christian scholarly communities.  One of the paradoxes of scholarly life is that one is both deeply embedded in a formative community of fellow scholars, and yet often working in a solitary fashion. Temperament may reinforce this as many, though not all, academics are introverts. Certainly an important element is involvement with a diverse worshiping community beyond the university that reminds us of the relevance of our faith beyond our own contexts. At the same time, via physical communities in one’s own university, virtual communities online, and the written works of others wrestling with questions similar to ours, we sharpen our insights and strengthen our resolves to live faithfully in our own contexts. The “Inklings” with which C. S. Lewis, Tolkien and others gathered to read and critique work is an outstanding example of this (which also included friends who didn’t share their beliefs). In another context, William Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish slavery were greatly enhanced by a community of religious leaders, businessmen and scholars committed to working out the implications of Christian faith for the benefit of British society and the glory of God.

4. Practicing intellectual hospitality and engagement in one’s context.  I posted recently on some of the contours of intellectual hospitality so I won’t reiterate all of that here. In brief, I would say that in the departmental or professional context where one works there are opportunities to the practices of Christian charity, courtesy, and courage. Charity means welcoming colleagues or peers as Christ has welcomed us and treating them as valued human beings regardless their views. Courtesy calls us to afford the ideas and beliefs of others the same respect we would wish for our own. It also can mean accepting the hospitality of peers and colleagues–both in terms of personal friendship, and in terms of intellectual exchange. And finally it may sometimes call for courage in being honest about our faith where the situation requires it, even while we seek to be charitable rather than belligerent, and willing to listen as well as to speak. Sometimes, speaking to a Christian student group or as part of a public discussion hosted by such a group involves practicing this courage. This is not a call to proselytize in class but rather a call not to “duck” when we are given opportunities to be honest about our identity or speak about how our faith contributes insight to important disciplinary questions.

I would appreciate hearing the insights of others in bring faith and scholarship together. In a world where these two are so polarized, and often function antagonistically toward each other, it seems this is a vital discussion.