In this third book in the Apprentice Series, James Bryan Smith helps us know how to live in relationship with others as apprentices of Jesus. "Apprentices of Jesus are not part-time do-gooders," he writes. "They live in continuous contact with the kingdom of God, and are constantly men and women in whom Christ dwells. They do not sometimes tell the truth, sometimes live sacrificially or sometimes forgive. There are myriad opportunities for us to impact the world in which we live." Yet many times we've gotten it wrong, tending to emphasize personal faith over social justice or vice versa. In these pages Jim Smith shows us how to bring spiritual formation and community engagement together, and then once again offers spiritual practices that root new, true narratives about God and the world in our souls. His insight and humility as a fellow learner with us will lead us to live in authentic ways as a good and beautiful community of Christ-followers, shining the light of the Spirit into every relationship.
- Practical and encouraging
The Good and Beautiful Community by James Bryan Smith was a deeply practical, encouraging read. It is the third book in the Apprentice Series, and I have not read the first two: The Good and Beautiful God and the Good and Beautiful Life. Now that I’ve read this one, I am interested in seeking out the other two. I have spent quite a bit of time with the Renovare resource, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, which was edited by Smith. It came along at a very important spiritual juncture for me, and the small group of young adults with whom I experienced Renovare were equally important to that journey.
The focus of this volume is squarely on the church, pointing out the deficiencies of the “personal faith” overemphasis of American Christianity, and its reactionary counterpart, the social justice movement. Smith reminds the reader that apprentices (disciples) of Jesus “live in constant contact with the Kingdom of God” with Christ indwelling them. Smith attempts to strike a balance by bringing spiritual formation and Christian community together.
He mostly succeeds in this attempt. Smith seems to be writing directly to the local church as one who has done the hard work of spiritual formation in the local church. This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky, academic look at spiritual formation, although Smith is a professor. This is for those who aren’t afraid to get down in the mud a little.
I love the focus on Christian community in this book, with all its messiness. The chapters deal with simple yet vital practices of spiritual formation: prayer, worship, forgiveness, service, etc. But the concepts, illustrations, and suggested practical exercises in every chapter deliberately deviate from a “personal faith” approach. Instead they are focused on how this is worked out while being a part of the body of Christ. Smith’s favorite expression for the Church is the Greek ekklesia. Literally the word means “called out from and to” (from the world, and into the Kingdom). This understanding of Church is the most appropriate for understanding Smith’s particular approach.
I do hear a lot of echoes of Foster and Willard in Smith’s concepts, which isn’t surprising since Smith has spent significant time with these two spiritual formation giants. In fact, this leads me to my only real criticism of The Good and Beautiful Community: Smith name-drops Dallas Willard and Richard Foster far too much. Story after story of Smith and his mentors populate the pages. I would have liked to hear more about how this material has worked with people Smith has mentored, and less about his mentors. It seems as if Smith is trying to lend credibility to his work by demonstrating how much was derived from his mentors. This isn’t necessary, as the material speaks for itself in terms of credibility.
Maurice England does a great job narrating the audiobook version. He always does solid work, and I appreciate his confidence and unique tone.
Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.
- The Importance of Community
This review first appeared on my blog, Jacob's Café (jacobscafe.blogspot.com).
Back in 2010, I reviewed the second in James Bryan Smith's Good and Beautiful series. Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to an audiobook version of the third book, The Good and Beautiful Community. Most of my reactions about the process of the book were similar to the prior. Smith is a good, accessible writer, who makes abstract concepts easily understandable.
One of the big differences is that this book did seem to tread some new material in contrast to The Good and Beautiful Life. It still is rather introductory, especially for those who have read a lot in the area of the importance of community. But I have a feeling Smith was on the front edge of this movement, as this book was originally published in 2010.
First, my repeated criticisms are the stronger influence of the contemplative tradition on Smith's form of community building in addition to the reliance on spiritual disciplines. I've written about my view of the limitations of both before, so I won't rehash that. I think both are valuable, especially in community-building, so this isn't truly a bad thing; I would have just liked to see more options from the other of Foster's streams.
One of the elements I most appreciated was Smith's emphasis on the role of community as going through the faith journey together. And being humble. Smith spends an entire chapter exploring how to love those with whom we disagree. This is such an important topic that I often don't find adequately addressed in most discussion of community. I've discussed the topic before on my blog, but it's great to hear balanced efforts toward unity from a national leader. Smith was able to include anecdotes to illustrate his points well (as was helpful throughout the book), and in this section, the story was not just about actually being able to achieve unity. That's one of the things I found most helpful: This book is not about perfection. It's about how to live in an imperfect, fallen community, and how beautiful that is.
Some of Smith's arguments for the need for being in a faith community are a bit weak in my opinion, but he's never heavy-handed or forcing of his opinions. In fact, I experienced his sharing of his perspective as quite grace-filled in recognizing the various ways people approach and experience community. And this method reinforced his view all the more by practicing what he was preaching.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. 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.”
- Spiritual growth is not accidental, it is intentional and it needs to be intentional as part of a community.
The Good and Beautiful Community is the last book in a trilogy of books that started with The Good and Beautiful God and The Good and Beautiful Life. These books together are intended to be a full year group study on discipleship. Starting with God, then moving to individual character and concluding with community. I read Good and Beautiful God nearly 2 years ago and have always intended to read the rest of the series. Christianaudio.com offered me a copy of Good and Beautiful Community for review and I snatched it up.
The basic structure of each of these book is to talk about the false narratives that we as Christians tend to have around various issues. This third book seemed a bit more disjointed than the first, but I think it is partially the nature of community. Community is a broad topic and Smith covers the ways that community needs to come together to serve, reconcile, worship, disciple. These topics are not always joined together in people's minds, but for the purposes of this book, they are all primarily about the church, not the individual.
This is the fourth book of Smith's I have read and each of them really draw me back to focusing on discipleship and spiritual growth. I tend to enjoy discussion (and arguing in my head) issues of theology and church practice, but Smith rightly brings the focus back to growth. If by our discussions and reading and coming together we are not moving toward greater love for God and his people, then our discussions or reading or gatherings may not be beneficial.
From my reading of Smith I think he is fairly similar in temperament to myself, introverted, slightly academic, devoted to family and leaning away from conflict. But this book continually celebrates the importance of Christian community.
In most cases I believe that Smith does a good job balancing the competing interests that can push the good into the legalistic or push out structure in favor of individual freedom. But one area that I think he comes to a different emphasis than I do is in the matter or gathering together for worship.
I completely agree that gathering together is important. And I also agree that the style is less important than the community. However, it seems that in trying to provide cover for the traditional worship of many churches, Smith (and a lot of others) minimize the role of enjoyment of worship. Enjoyment cannot be the only reason that you go to worship. But I think it is a mistake to minimize desire for worship.
Our church asks all people being baptized to do a short video testimony. What I hear over and over again, are people that say, 'I grew up in the church, but I never understood what the gospel meant.' Many (but not all) also say, 'church was boring, rote and just something we did. So when I had the choice, I stopped going because it didn't matter to my life.'
Smith would affirm that this is a problem. But I think we would have different prescriptions for the solution. I think he would say, people were not being challenged enough. I think quite often there was plenty of challenge, just not much focus on making the message of the challenge understandable and meaningful. One thing I believe our church does very well is make sure that our children and youth are taught at a level they can understand and in a way that they want to participate. I don't remember who said it, but the line "making the gospel boring is a sin" is something we believe in. Of course there is also place for children to worship with adults and a significant number of our teens volunteer as assistants in teaching the younger children which gives them a part of a sense of belonging to the greater church.
The area where this book (and the series) seems to really shine is its focus on intention in spiritual growth. It is not enough to desire to grow spiritually. We need to actually do something about it. We need to make plans, build accountability, be a part of a community that is also moving toward growth. We need to set aside distractions (while balancing a necessary care for ourselves and our families and community.)
One minor complaint that seemed more apparent in this book than in the first book, is Smith's over reliance on quotations and stories from Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. These are two great men in this field and Smith worked with, was mentored by and even lived with Willard for a while, so he is definitely shaped by them. But I do wish he had worked a bit harder to get relevant quotes and stories from more sources.
In spite of these minor quibbles, this book in particular and the trilogy as a whole is great resources and I think are well worth reading. And probably even better in group. The audio is also very good (I listened to both books on audiobook.)
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- Good for small groups, but not so much for the individual
This review, by Dr. Nicholson, has been provided courtesy of Desert Bible Institute www.desertbibleinstitute.com.
Dr. James Bryan Smith has written a good book for small group instruction as the third installment of his Apprentice series. The Good and Beautiful Community does a respectable job of looking at the importance of serving as one church under Christ and developing a faith community. All the ideas that Dr. Smith shares are both biblical and clearly from the heart. He obviously has a love for both God and God’s people. Additionally, all his arguments are intelligent and well thought out.
There are several reasons that this book will work well for a small group. The author has broken each idea down into small, manageable sections that could easily be read and discussed. He also has specific tasks for each member to do between the hearing of the current session and the next session. His ideas are organized and clear and he uses very little advanced vocabulary that would confuse the novice or lay-reader.
All of that said, I didn’t particularly enjoy the book. While there were a number of “nuggets” of wisdom that were useful, there wasn’t a solid through-point that tied it all together. I’m not saying there wasn’t a theme; because, there was. It just had the feel that these were several individual lessons strung together under one umbrella of “community” rather than a steady building of one thought. Again, this might work well for a group with expanses of time between readings, but becomes tiresome to the individual reader.
Another issue was Smith’s use of diction. Admittedly, I have not listened to his first two books, but it seems that he is trying to create his own, relevant terminology by using catch words and catch phrases of his own devising. The problem is they aren’t all that catchy. His attempt to create a common vocabulary is clunky and occasionally is too vague to accomplish his purposes. This seems to be a matter of personal preference and style; however, since many of his quotes and examples from other authors have this same aesthetically displeasing discordance.
Lastly, it seems that most of his examples seem to be limited to himself, his seminars, and Dallas Willard. While none of these are bad, it does lend a lack of scope to that he is saying. A more wide-ranging and balanced sense of research would not only level out some of the biases of the book but also allow the reader to experience other viewpoints on community so that they would have a fuller understanding of the importance of faith community.
I have to assume that it was the author’s style more than Maurice England’s reading that made listening to this audio version challenging. England, as usual, read with crisp diction and a steady pace. While it was a smidgen more “announcer” than it was narrator, I thought it was good considering the challenges the book presented. I was left with the impression, at the end of this book, like it was good and I would be happy to endorse it to a novice study group, but I would be hesitant to recommend it as an individual read especially if the reader was going to listen straight through rather than utilizing the week-by-week structure established in the book. It seems likely the author realized this since he gave similar caveats in the introduction of the book – only with a more positive spin.
Dr. Nicholson reviews academic, Christian living, and fiction books for a variety of publishers in an array of formats. He is never paid for any of his reviews. He writes these strictly as a courtesy to his students at Desert bible Institute and for any other readers that might find his insights valuable. For more reviews or information, visit Dr. Nicholson’s blog at drtnicholson.wordpress.com.
A copy of the book was generously offered to Dr. Nicholson by christianaudio.com in exchange for this unbiased review.
- looking forward to growing in community
This title is exactly what community is to me -- good and beautiful. I'm looking forward to gleaning more insight into how to BE engaged in community and how to INVITE others into community!