My favorite curriculum for small groups and smaller discipleship groups are the three books by James Bryan Smith entitled The Good & Beautiful God, The Good & Beautiful Life, and The Good & Beautiful Community. I have gone through the first book with five small groups and the entire series of all three books with three different groups. So I feel very qualified at this point to review them.
How Do We Grow Up into Christlikeness?
Smith claims the books are “a curriculum for Christlikeness” and he’s right. I have seen deep changes in people’s lives—including my own—as I have gone through them. They are built on Smith’s theory of spiritual growth which posits that growth into Christlikeness involves: 1) adopting the narratives of Jesus (his truths about God, ourselves and our world), 2) engaging in practices that help us tune into God, 3) in reflection and dialogue with others, 4) under the direction of the Holy Spirit (p. 23, The Good & Beautiful God). Then his books are built around these four elements with each chapter identifying the false narratives we tend to build our lives on and pointing us instead to Jesus’ narratives, offering “spiritual training exercises” to help connect us to God, and questions for personal reflection and discussion with others.
Interestingly, one of the guys in a men’s group I did the series of all three books with was a newer believer who had been in Alcoholics Anonymous for 18 years. Over and over again, he would say: “This program reminds me of AA. Just as Smith says we need to change our mental narratives and practice spiritual disciplines in the context of supportive believers with the help of the Holy Spirit, in AA we tell people that they need to change the way they think, do the program, find supportive friends, and rely on a higher power.” I don’t know if Smith is aware of how his “transformation triangle” is similar to AA’s paradigm, but I think the similarities speak to the power and practicality of these simple, Biblical principles.
The Flow of the Curriculum
The first book in the series, The Good & Beautiful God, is all about exchanging our misconceptions about who God is for the concepts that Jesus expressed. On this point, Smith quotes A.W. Tozer:
What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us…. Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?” we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man (p.88).
I’ve concluded that Tozer and Smith are right. If people’s concept of God is wrong, they will relate to God, themselves, and others in all the wrong ways. On the other hand, when we begin to get who God really is, we start to relate to him and others just as Jesus did.
So chapter by chapter this book looks at the key characteristics of God, helping us to lay aside our misguided concepts and embrace the truths about God’s character that were taught by Jesus himself.
The second book in the series, The Good & Beautiful Life, takes readers through Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount guiding us to look at the values that have shaped our lives to date and discard them, letting God change us from the inside out.
The final book, The Good & Beautiful Community, helps us look at our everyday interactions with others so that God’s life shapes and fills these relationships.
Dallas Willard for Dummies
I think of Smith’s books as “Dallas Willard for Dummies.” I mean this as glowing compliment. Willard, who died last year, was one of the most profound thinkers and writers on spiritual growth in recent history. Smith was mentored by Willard and by Richard Foster, another contemporary writer on spirituality. Willard’s writings are deep and insightful, but for most of us they can be thick and slow reading. I have a Ph.D. and am fairly intellectual. But to be honest, like most people I like things straight and simple. I want the cookies on the bottom shelf. That is just where Smith puts them. I’ve actually had a couple of “deep” small group members offended by how simple Smith’s stuff is, but as they have pondered the basics with him and really engaged in the practical exercises, they’ve been won over by how helpful it all is.
Soul Training Exercises
Each chapter in the book gives a practical assignment which Smith calls “soul training exercises.” These are disciplines that help you slow down and connect with God. Some of them are familiar, others are surprising. Some are fun, others are challenging. Engaging in these exercises and then discussing the experiences with small group members is one of the highlights of doing the curriculum.
At the conclusion of the third book, Smith suggests a helpful way to sort through which of the exercises really work for you so that they can be shaped into a personal “soul training plan” or rule of life.
I’ve read various books designed to help me develop such a plan, but this is the first time I’ve actually devised something that actually works for me! The curriculum does a superb job of giving you experiences with a wide variety of practical disciplines and then offers great guidelines on how to figure out what should go into your plan.
I continue to find value in the books even though I’ve gone through them repeatedly. I’m actually working through The Good & Beautiful God now for the sixth time, as I take our pastoral interns through the book in our weekly meetings. (We do the three books in the three terms of our year-long training program for future pastors and church planters.)
One Suggestion & One Problem
I think my only suggestion for improving the books is that they could talk about the role of the Holy Spirit more. Smith firmly believes in the importance of the Holy Spirit, but he doesn’t make it clear just how the Spirit is involved in our growth. This emphasis could be strengthened by sharing more principles and more stories illustrating how the Spirit works.
One problem I have with The Good & Beautiful God book is that I keep giving my hardback copy away to friends, so I have to keep buying another one!
Slow Warm Up
I was first introduced to Smith’s writing five years ago by my friend Greg Bowman who at the time worked for the GroupLife department of the Willow Creek Association. Since WCA was co-publishing the books, Greg was getting an early introduction to their contents and he shared his excitement with me. I picked up The Good & Beautiful God but didn’t make it past the first chapter, thinking to myself, “what’s so special about this?” It wasn’t until our Senior Pastors Happy & Dianne Leman took our senior leadership team through the book that I saw how brilliant and helpful it was. You really do get a lot more out of the books when you do the exercises and grapple with the contents with a group.
I have found these three books so helpful that I have purchased and use copies of all of them in hardback, Kindle, and audio versions. Besides the Bible itself, these are the only three books that I have in all three of these formats. I hope you also try them out with a group and that you and your group members find them as helpful as I and my small group members have!