Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Write-Up: Spiritual Companioning

Angela H. Reed, Richard R. Osmer, and Marcus G. Smucker.  Spiritual Companioning: A Guide to Protestant Theology and Practice.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Spiritual Companioning is about both one-on-one spiritual relationships and also small groups.  The purpose of having a spiritual companion is to find affirmation and to explore with someone where God may be in one’s life.  While the book is leery about spiritual mentors offering people advice, advocating instead non-judgmental listening and hearing people’s stories, encouragement to perform spiritual practices and good works, accountability, and even tactful confrontation (depending on the level of trust in the relationship) are still part of the equation.

The book contains stories about spiritual companioning and small groups, as well as suggestions on how to be a spiritual companion or to facilitate a small group.  People who are interested in this will probably find this book helpful.  The book does not exactly hold people’s hand and tell them exactly what to do, but it does present a picture of what spiritual companioning looks like, what a spiritual mentor should aim to be and to do in the relationship.  The book especially shone in its suggestions on how to facilitate a small group, such that people feel included and are learning from the Scriptures.

There were parts of the book with which I especially identified.  There was a statement about how difficult it is to form a bridge and connect with another human being—-to know truly another human being—-and I especially identify with that, as a person with Asperger’s.  There was a statement about moving the focus of Bible study in a small group from people showing off how much they know to listening to the Scriptures in silence and humility.  There was also a challenging reference to a point that Dallas Willard made.  Willard’s point was that “focusing only on securing our own comfort, safety, and righteousness makes it impossible for us to receive God’s guidance” (the book’s paraphrase of Dallas Willard, on page 107).  In addition, the book told a story about a person’s refreshing honesty: a married man was sharing that he was attracted to a married woman at work.  I cannot picture too many Christian small groups where a Christian man could be that open and vulnerable!

In reading this book, I thought about my own experiences in small groups, some bad and some good.  I was also thinking about whether I can envision myself within a spiritual companioning relationship.  What the book presents appears non-threatening: I like the idea of everyone feeling included in a small group, people sitting in silence for a brief time, and people sharing how they identify with certain biblical characters.  I cannot think of too many Christians with whom I would want to have a spiritual companioning relationship, since I know a number of Christians who are dogmatic and opinionated.  There were times in reading the book when I thought that human interaction or relationships may be messier than the book may think.

The book does present a picture of what people should aim for: openness, learning people’s stories, etc.  Still, the book could have done a better job in addressing what happens when one has a round peg and a bunch of square holes: What should one do in messy situations?  The book referred to a person who came to a small group to debate theology, and it says that the group loved him.  It should have been more specific about how the group addressed this situation.  The book talked about service projects and the group not becoming self-focused, but what if someone in the group does not want to participate in a service project?  What if someone in the group is on a different page—-religiously, spiritually, and personally—-from others in the group, such that he does not share the group’s views about how to live and what to believe?  Is the assumption that this person will simply not show up at the small group?  But, as the book acknowledges, different people attend small groups or desire spiritual companionship, for different reasons.

In addition, I think that the book could have been clearer in explaining what God’s activity in a person’s life might look like.  I, personally, am very reluctant to identify certain things in my life as God’s activity, or to predict what God may do in my life.  I am just not that dogmatic.  But a significant part of spiritual companioning is encouraging people to identify what God is doing in their lives.  The book should have fleshed out more what that means, and it should have recognized that some people may struggle with that question.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Baker Academic, in exchange for an honest review.

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