Recently the leadership team at my church read Ruth Haley Barton’s book Pursuing God’s Will Together as part of our ongoing effort to be a community that is actively discerning God’s will rather than merely leading an organization. When I saw that Barton had released a new book about spiritual transformation in community, Life Together in Christ, I thought it would be a good way to continue that journey of discovering what it means to follow Jesus with other people.
Barton begins the book by naming a problem that many people who have been part of churches for a long time have experienced: spiritual transformation is an “overpromised and underdelivered” part of church life. It is talked about a lot, but doesn’t always happen. If you hang around church long enough, you know people who don’t seem to have grown at all spiritually. And if many of us are honest, we know that we fall into that category as well. Barton defines spiritual transformation as “the process by which Christ is formed in us—for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives and for the sake of others” (11). This process takes place over time with others as we engage in practices that open us up to God. The “with others” part is essential to the process and is central to this book. In an individualistic society, we too often think that spiritual transformation is just one more thing that we can get done on our own without other people holding us back. Even if we do engage with others, it is usually on our terms and at our convenience. But it has never worked that way, and we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment if we think it is going to start now.
Throughout the book, Barton relies on the story of the disciples encountering the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 as a model for spiritual transformation. Like those disciples, in Christian community we are called to walk together, welcome the stranger, listen to each other rather than try to fix each other, gather together based on shared desire, embrace the gifts we bring to community as men and women, acknowledge that suffering is part of the journey, find our story in Christ’s story, discern Christ’s presence, and become witnesses of what we have experienced. It also seems that the “Life Together” in the title is no accident; Barton frequently cites Life Together, Bonhoeffer’s classic work on Christian community (though I have a minor correction: she gets the original context of that book wrong on p. 57; it was a clandestine seminary in Germany, not a concentration camp).
At the end of every chapter is an “On the Road Together” section that gives instructions for how to engage with some of these practices as a group reading the book together. While reading these I was especially reminded that the book was not intended to be read alone (as I was doing it). Like spiritual transformation in general, the book is intended to be engaged in community with others. I would recommend it for any church or small group that wants to investigate what spiritual transformation might look like in their lives together.
I’ve embedded a short video from the author below, and here is a Q&A on the book.
Note: Thanks to the publisher, InterVarsity Press, for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.