Someone gave it to me in passing a couple of years ago. I opened it the next day, skipped the introduction, and began reading from left to right, as quickly as possible. The first chapter was on “celebration,” and the second was on “gratitude.” Since I felt devoid of both, reading about their explicit practice was too much for me to bear. I felt exhausted, and stopped reading the book altogether.
I know. Awkward way to start a book review.
But I’m reviewing the book because months later, a friend told me that I was not supposed to read it from back to front; and that reading the introduction was vital to my understanding the rest. So I sat back down with what I thought was a terrible book, and read the first twenty-three pages that night. Everything changed. That night.
What it’s about.
It morphed from a book about trying harder to a book exposing my innermost self. Calhoun spends the first few pages carefully articulating a theology of desire; that is, how our desires work, how sin distorts our desires, and how God heals them. Against this, I always thought of spiritual disciplines as pietistic acts of self-hatred—-means and methods for suppressing desires, not listen to them. Now, there is a clear thread of self-denial woven through all biblical disciplines; but self-denial is not self-hatred. As Calhoun explains, the process leading to self-denial must inevitably start with a degree of honesty and vulnerability. This means listening to our desires. It doesn’t mean they are right desires. It doesn’t mean God won’t change those desires. It just means they are true, and that they tell us something about ourselves. This makes the beginning of any spiritual discipline fairly straightforward: “We simply desire. We bring our ache for change, our longing for belonging, our desperation to make a difference” (19). All of this then sets us up for any spiritual discipline worth its salt: “they simply put us in a place where we can begin to notice God and respond to his word to us” (19). That’s just from the first few pages of the introduction! The rest explains how our desires help us find what discipline is necessary for spiritual maturity in any given area of our lives.
After reading this introduction, I felt a hunger in me begin to simmer, and skimmed through the various disciplines Calhoun lists to discover what I needed to single out the most in my life. The result has been spiritual, emotional, and even physical health; the thing I’ve learned the most through this process is that time spent alone with God is the best thing I can do for myself and others.
The structure of the book is easy to follow. After the introduction, Calhoun offers sixty-two disciplines (!). This large swathe of practices makes up seven larger groupings: worship, opening self to God, relinquishing the false self, community, hearing God’s Word, incarnating the love of Christ, and prayer.
Each discipline is given a page or two of summary, along with simple, practical instructions, Scriptures, and questions to not only discover which disciplines are right for each person’s desires, but also to guide the process of practicing them once the right discipline is found.
Why you should get it.
If you have ever felt a longing inside for something deeper in your spirituality, this might be the book for you. If you’ve ever felt a disconnection between your heart and your actions, this might be the book for you. Or if you just want to wake up every day and “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7)—in other words, to live everything Jesus taught and did at every moment of every day…this might be the book for you. Over the last two years, I have felt all of these things to the point of frustration. And this was book really helped me. It is the single most comprehensive, simple, and practical book on the disciplines I’ve ever read. I would probably still be depressed, teasing burn-out, and closed off to God (I share about that here and here) had it not been for the compassionate wisdom and simplicity of Calhoun’s writing. Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended by me.
It’s important at this juncture to know at the outset that spiritual disciplines are the means, not the end. Spiritual transformation is the end. Things get out of hand when these get mixed up. What transforms a person is not disciplines, but the Spirit of God in Christ indwelling the human heart. What disciplines can do is posture that person, already desiring God, to then receive from God and live for God; not just in moments of spiritual prosperity, but in the tedium of normal life. It’s this consistent Spirit-fanned flame of devotion, even if small at first, that causes the Christian life to soar long and true through circumstances and setbacks of any kind. Isn’t this the Christianity we long for? It is available to you. You just have to want it bad enough.
There comes a point in the Christian’s life where we recognize the need to grow into spiritual maturity, to be nourished in the life of Jesus, to be effective in His kingdom. We often speak of this in individualistic terms, (e.g., “quiet times with God”) or as a one-on-one environment (e.g., “discipleship”). Both of these are equally necessary, yet still incomplete. The Christian needs the Christian(s). We also need spiritual formation that is energized and provided by a community of like-minded believers. We need the whole family. So, I introduce to you James Wilhoit’s, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community, as a worthy choice.
There are some great books on spiritual growth, but Wilhoit’s emphasizes a heavy communal approach. Spiritual formation is described in Wilhoit’s own words as “the intentional communal process of growing in our relationship with God and becoming conformed to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit” (23), and presents the local church as an irreplaceable necessity. Wilhoit asserts that spiritual formation is the central task of the church, and not a supplement. Instead of placing the loci of formation on a few specialized people or programs, he suggests that the local congregation “must resume the practice of making spiritual formation of their members into Christlikeness their primary goal” (10). This topic of spiritual maturity seems one of the more evasive practices of the church, because it is so easy to lob abstract theoretical grenades into the congregation that make little sense or are difficult to apply to the tangible sphere of recreation, family, and work. There are plenty of books on spiritual formation and discipleship that start with the imperatives of Scripture, but leave you to guess the implementation of those Scriptural truths. Granted, while no one wants to be mechanical or formulaic with spiritual maturity, it would still be nice to have a tangible push in the right direction, even if only to polish the rust from our orthopraxy. What I appreciated most about this book is Wilhoit’s practical insight into the disciplines of spiritual formation in community. Here’s a glance…
A brief outline.
In the first chapter, Wilhoit quickly sets the groundwork for spiritual growth in the Gospel. A lot of groundwork!—seven pages are devoted to unpacking the meaning and implications of the Gospel for the Christian’s identity, so as to prevent moralistic therapy from pervading the process that he outlines in the book. This chapter is excellent, and can stand on it’s own, with anthems such as, “All our spiritual problems come from a failure to apply the gospel,” (32) and “the gospel is the power of God for the beginning, middle, and end of salvation” (27). These indicative truths serve as a divine railway to guide the reader into a practical set of imperatives designed for measured growth. What follows chapter one is a curriculum (ch. 2) made up of four responses to the gospel that are designed by Scripture to take a church through a holistic engagement of spiritual nourishment, discipleship, and formation. These four are receiving, remembering, responding, and relating. Each subsequent chapter is a lens for viewing the practices in terms of community and the local church. Spread throughout the remaining 8 chapters is the following narrative… Read the rest of this entry
This was a book title I overheard of periodically among several church-planters who all ended up moving to urban areas. Since I’m not a church-planter, I put it off for a while to read books that were more practically geared towards mission where I’m at in life. And where I’m at in life is very passionate about the kingdom of God goin g forth! But without a place to engage myself in the kingdom of God, I went where I was needed or wanted. I have had the privilege of visiting 12 different countries seeing people’s stories being developed within God’s redemptive story. But over the last year, I developed a slight tension with evangelizing the nations of the world: the world has come to OUR doorstep, by making their homes in our cities. Why would I leave to go elsewhere when world evangelization can happen within a square block of any city? Of my city?
That is the punchline of Ray Bakke’s book on cities, which can be summarized by two complementary quotes from his book,
Large cities are both magnets, drawing the nations into them, and magnifiers, broadcasting the gospel out into the hinterlands (p.1592).
Early Christians penetrated the whole city, but not by claiming space for church buildings or programs of their own. They penetrated everybody else’s space instead (p.1836).
Bakke develops all of this through a systematic view of the Scriptures in which he concentrates on God’s plan for all cities–with over “1,250 uses of the word city in Scripture,” sprawling urban environments are obviously on God’s mind (p.87). However, it doesn’t read with the dryness of anything “systematic,” as Bakke draws you through narratives of the city in both Old and New Testament, full of urban character portraits of people who cried out to God for their cities, and saw dramatic results. Much of this is interwoven with his own testimony of being pulled from his rural environment into one that was far more urbanized. Of course, one intentional character is missing from the story: the church. And this is the point of the book.“We need deep roots to survive in urban ministry,” says Bakke (p.220). This book is a call for Christians to consider living in the cities of the world.
If you have a passion for cities, your neighborhood, or simply love people, I highly recommend this book. If you like living comfortably, with little risk, but still go on the occasional two-week missions trip to spice up your life…well, I highly recommend this book to you too :-)
You can purchase this book on A Theology as Big as the City.
You can purchase the Kindle version of A Theology as Big as the City.
- Is “going on missions” a misnomer? (christopherlazo.com)