Book Review: Life Together in Christ by Ruth Haley Barton

One of my goals for 2015 is to finish one book every week. I love reading and usually have a few books going at a time but I notice that though I may finish several books in a year, I don’t always retain much of what I’ve read. To combat this trend, I want to start reviewing and synthesizing some of that here, likely just for my own personal enjoyment. Here we go!

The Overview:  Ruth Haley Barton writes a lot about spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines.  This is a book about pursuing Christ-centered transformation in communal settings that leads to deepened relationships with both God and others. Core to the book is the idea that our communities need to be practicing communal spiritual disciplines and intentionally creating space for Jesus to speak and move in our gatherings.

The Good:  Honestly, there is a lot to praise about this book. It is structured around Jesus’ interaction with the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24.  Barton’s writing is that rare combination of deep rootedness in Scripture, practical application, and pastoral guidance of the reader through the material.  The reflection questions peppered throughout each chapter are actually helpful and the next steps designed for groups at the end of each chapter feel like something I would actually want to do with some friends.  For ministry leaders, there are many group spiritual discipline tools that she presents throughout that are easy to adapt and borrow for use with your people – in fact I just used one recently with some of my InterVarsity leaders.  To summarize, the book is an incredibly useful guide in moving community groups from a loose confederation of people who attend the same corporate gathering to a family of people committed to walking together as they are being changed by Jesus.

The Bad:  There is not much that I have to offer in critique of this book but one small notes does seem important.  In Chapter 5, Barton takes on the issue of gender in community. Much of what she has to say is beautiful and incredibly helpful, particularly while much of Western evangelicalism seems bent on reading our own specific cultural marriage and gender norms into Scripture. Barton maintains that men and women were created for equality and partnership in relationships and that the best communities will affirm and recognize the gifts that both bring to the table. I think this is refreshing and helpful. However, she seems to push the pendulum a bit too far back (in my opinion) as she openly criticizes the perceived need for gender-specific community and vaguely seems to advocate for completely unguarded vulnerability between men and women in community settings. While I don’t think that gender-specific community is best for someone all the time, it has been my (albeit, limited) experience that there are specific issues that are handled best in gendered sub-communities, particularly as relates to sexual brokenness. Paul seems to advocate for at least some functional need for gendered community in Titus 2 and I would guess that most followers of Jesus have benefited from such sub-groups in various seasons. That being said, there was much to glean from this chapter as well.

The Transferable:  Each chapter contains a tool or two that would be easy to replicate and teach to people that you are discipling. My favorite was from Chapter 3, which focuses on intercession in community. Here Barton gives a helpful framework and a very simple tool for teaching listening prayer as a means of helping people within a group hear a word from the Lord for themselves and others. I just used this with my leaders recently and several of them reported hearing encouraging and refreshing words from Jesus with its use.

Who Should Read This:  This is a great book for all but I would highly recommend it for anyone who leads a group of people on a regular basis and is desiring deeper community and a deeper realization of how Jesus can transform you as you gather.  As someone who has led several communities over the past 10 years, it was a breath of fresh air and a helpful reminder that Jesus is the one who brings change to our communities.

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