I have to confess: For all the buzz and provenance surrounding them (Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, the latter more or less commissioning this “curriculum for Christlikeness”), the first two installments of James Bryan Smith’s Apprentice Series (The Good and Beautiful God and The Good and Beautiful Life) didn’t do a whole lot for me. Even truer confession: I didn’t even bother finishing the second book. They said all the right things, sure — and given all the other resources out there that focus on statements and movements more than on Jesus, that’s saying something — but in the end, both left me cold.
But when the third and final installment, The Good and Beautiful Community, landed on my desk, I had to give it one more shot — if only because this is a site dedicated to building community. And you know what? It’s easily the best of the three.
I think the reason this volume hits me so differently can be found in the introduction. As opposed to the first two books, where Smith writes as more or less an “expert” on spiritual formation and character-building, he openly confesses: “You are not reading the words of an expert in human relations. You are reading the journal of a novice who is sharing his struggles and insights… Fortunately, I have a lot of great people around me who are teaching me about this important area.”
And Smith lets those great people do the talking, or at least talks about what they’re taught him over the years — from his rediscovery of Jesus in a college group that was the antithesis of the cold, quiet church he grew up in; to the student who taught him about forgiveness in the face of sexual abuse by a family member; to the South African pastor who gave up the “fast track” to start a small church that focused on commitment and accountability.
And sometimes even bad examples make good teachers — such as Smith’s experience at a denominational conference where leaders literally turned their backs to him and showed him the door shortly thereafter, over a rather fine theological point (to introduce a chapter on putting Jesus first).
In each of the book’s eight sections, Smith also does a good job of breaking down “false” and “true” narratives — in other words, taking our “religious” misconceptions and replacing them with the actual biblical teachings on such matters as service, reconciliation, accountability and stewardship. There’s also a helpful closing “soul training” piece at the end of each section to help individuals address and practice those areas in their lives.
Now, notice I just used the word “individuals.” That’d probably be the one objective kvetch I can make about this book — yes, people are strongly encouraged to work through this book in community, but it’ve been that much stronger if some of the application ideas had actually been built for the group, rather than just providing opportunity for group members to debrief individual experiences. True, most people are going to do the challenges — and arguably read the book itself — on their own, but opportunities to work together as a group should’ve been on the table, especially for this volume.
For similar reasons, I’d’ve loved it if the small-group sessions had been placed at the end of each section, rather than lumped together at the end of the book. It would have reinforced the “community” approach to this book so much more. But the important thing is that they’re there at all.
Bottom line is: There’s depth here that you just don’t find in a lot of small-group materials these days. James Bryan Smith saved his best for last in the Apprenticeship Series, so give it a shot (and maybe even another chance).
This review originally appeared in smallgroupministry.com.