Summary: 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 baptised 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.)
An MP3 audiobook was provided by christianaudio.com for purposes of review.