I’ll begin with a confession: I was once very skeptical of John Mark Comer.

From afar, he seemed like one more polished celebrity pastor turned speaker turned writer, with slick content designed to evoke the Rob Bell aesthetic of yore—and for that reason, to annoy people like me. By “people like me,” most charitably, I mean bookish believers and teachers concerned with orthodoxy. Less charitably, I mean snobs with too many degrees who look down on books sold in airport terminals (and by “down,” I mean “with envy”).

Here’s how I learned the error of my ways: I noticed Comer’s books in the hands of my students. I assumed someone had assigned him; after all, many college students don’t read for any other reason. But no, they were reading him by choice. They were reading him on technology, on spiritual warfare, on sex—on everything. They started asking my opinion of him. I decided I needed to do due diligence if I was going to have an informed answer.

And even with my defenses up, he won me over.

In reverse order, I listened to his books on audio. Yes, they have a striking visual aesthetic and literary style. Yes, he is writing for young professionals in the pews. Yes, he’s a “secular city” evangelical pastor through and through. Pop cultural references abound, as do bipartisan third ways, all governed by a sensitive attunement to the allergies and appetites of Gen Z agnostics starved by society and hungry for the gospel. And?

And nothing. I was wrong. Comer is doing the Lord’s work. My students appear not only to be reading him but to be reading no one else. Once it was Lewis and Chesterton, then Schaeffer and Stott and Packer, and then Piper and Keller. Now it’s Comer’s world, and we’re all just living in it. If it’s true that the typical American adult reads at most only a handful of books per year, then young Christians reading Comer is cause for celebration.

Now, when students tell me they’ve read one of Comer’s books, my response is simple: Why not try another?

Deep catechesis with a light touch

The title of Comer’s latest is Practicing the Way: Be with Jesus. Become like him. Do as he did. It’s his seventh, and it builds on his two previous books The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (2019) and Live No Lies (2021). If I were preparing a college class or Sunday school series on spiritual disciplines in a digital age, this unofficial trilogy would provide a sturdy foundation. Comer is a master at distilling theological concepts for a general audience, whether Christian (but without much instruction in the faith) or secular (but seeking).

Article continues below

In fact, Comer’s special gift is deep catechesis with a light touch. In his earlier books, he sometimes indulged in the kind of Protestant “decline narrative” that spies a long dark ages reaching from the passing of the apostles to a few centuries (or decades) ago—the sort of rhetoric that implies that we today are rediscovering, reimagining, or restoring a long-lost “original” Christianity. Over time, though, he’s been reading himself into the great tradition.

This is nowhere more evident than in the newest book, whose endnotes might include more references to “catholic” sources (whether Roman, Eastern, or Anglican) than to evangelical ones. I lost count of the times Comer quotes a saint: Isaac of Nineveh, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus Confessor, Ignatius of Antioch, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, Benedict, Jerome, and many more. This is most welcome.

Comer is well aware of the tens of millions of Americans who have stopped attending church in recent decades. He’s from the Pacific Northwest, which is to say, from the future. He knows the score. He writes, then, for the sake of a church that is not yet, a church that might develop the backbone to endure in the West. Looking forward, therefore, he looks backward, drawing on the best of church tradition. Given the state of popular Christian culture today, with its influencers and celebrities, its digital brands and breathless innovation, Comer’s model stands apart. He’s willing to trade follows for roots. May his tribe increase!

The thesis of the book is this: Christianity means lifelong apprenticeship to Jesus, and apprenticeship is a practice of tarrying with Jesus, our master and rabbi. “All of Christ’s action is our instruction,” according to Thomas Aquinas. Comer argues that we should take Aquinas at his word. As he puts it, “Apprenticeship to Jesus—that is, following Jesus—is a whole-life process of being with Jesus for the purpose of becoming like him and carrying on his work in the world.” Jesus isn’t looking for adherents of a religion—a mental assent plus a weekly morning obligation in exchange for postmortem amnesty. Granted, not many would defend such a view. Comer suggests, however, that many of us live as if it were true.

Article continues below

“Disciple is a noun, not a verb,” he writes. There are a lot of Christians in America, if we’re to believe the surveys, but in Comer’s view there are few apprentices of Jesus. Besides, he says, “There are no accidental saints.” What does he mean by these claims?

First, that Jesus wants followers of his Way, not a lukewarm “crowd” that claims his name as a cultural marker but can’t bring itself to drop its nets and follow him to Calvary.

Second, that disciple or apprentice is something you are, not something a pastor “does” to you (as in “I wasn’t discipled at my last congregation”). A musician is an identity defined by an activity: learning or mastering some skill or instrument. The same goes for disciples of Jesus.

And third, that the activity of Jesus-apprenticeship isn’t something that happens on its own, much less passively. It’s a practice, and practice makes perfect, here as elsewhere. No one becomes an excellent pianist or mechanic or basketball player without a plan of action. The Holy Spirit produces saints not at random but by a rigorous regimen. These are the spiritual disciplines or, as Comer terms them, the practices of the Way of Jesus. If you want the life Jesus has to offer you, then you must live the way he taught and lived himself, from his baptism to his crucifixion. Your own empty tomb, like his, comes only after a life spent carrying a cross.

A Christianity that builds

The rest of the book unpacks what this looks like when lived out by ordinary people in today’s world. It involves creating time and space (not by adding but by subtracting) in order to “be with Jesus.” Moreover, it involves surrendering oneself to the powerful forming hand of the Spirit on the clay of one’s soul and body, over the years becoming less in thrall to the flesh and more in likeness of the image of Christ. Jesus’ apprentices commit to all this so that his promise in John 14:12 might be fulfilled: “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

How? Comer answers: through a Rule of Life.

The book concludes with reflections on, and concrete strategies for, creating and implementing a Rule of Life. The emphasis is on the individual, but Comer urges pastors to organize their churches around a common Rule appropriate to their context. Either way, he identifies nine practices for any Christian Rule: Sabbath, solitude, prayer, fasting, Scripture, community, generosity, service, and witness. Readers are directed to Practicing the Way, a nonprofit Comer founded when he stepped down from his role as pastor a few years back that provides free resources on spiritual formation for churches and small groups.

Article continues below

It’s worth pausing to comment on this. Early in the pandemic, Marc Andreessen, the engineer and venture capitalist, wrote a widely-shared piece called “It’s Time to Build.” Likewise Ezra Klein, founder of Vox and now a writer and podcaster for The New York Times, has called for “a liberalism that builds.” Others have taken up the call in various ways. All agree that our institutions are in disarray, decadence and rot have set in, and a kind of social lethargy or political paralysis has us in its grip. What we need, according to conservative intellectual Yuval Levin, are not platforms for individual performance but strong public institutions, which serve as “durable forms of our common life,” providing “the frameworks and structures of what we do together.”

Comer’s nonprofit is a wise response to this hollowing out of common life—a pattern present in many of our churches. His is a Christianity that builds. To be sure, there is always a danger that any institution might become a platform, hence my initial skepticism of Comer’s work. The internet and social media exacerbate this danger tenfold. But unless we are willing to forgo digital technology entirely, Christians need to build new institutions that harness its power shrewdly for the gospel and the upbuilding of God’s people. Practicing the Way is one model for this venture.

A disappointment, a comment, and a question

I trust it is clear why I hold Comer’s writing in general, and this book in particular, in such high regard. His project is one we should all be collaborating on together. That said, I want to close with a few concerns. Specifically, a disappointment, a comment, and a question.

The disappointment is that, in a book on spiritual formation, the sacraments are missing in action. Take the Eucharist, for instance. In it and by it, Christ feeds us and gives us himself. Comer is no cessationist; he’s as open to the Holy Spirit as they come. If the Spirit continues to work signs and wonders in his people, does he not also make the bread of mortals into the bread of angels?

Article continues below

The comment is this: Community is a noun, not a verb. Comer treats it like a verb, though, encouraging readers to “practice community.” I know what he means, but the problem is twofold. On one hand, it threatens to reduce the church—the chosen people of God, the body and bride of Christ, the beloved family of Abraham—to “needing others for the journey.” The church is no longer the secret mystery and final end of the Lord’s saving work but rather the desired social accompaniment for individual apprentices who can’t “go it alone.”

Seen in this light, on the other hand, the gathering of God’s people to worship him in Word and sacrament becomes one among many coequal elements of spiritual formation, one aspect among others of “doing community” as a Christian. At times, reading Comer, I wanted a good strong dose of Martin Luther on the matchless power of God’s living Word, both audible and visible, to confront, convert, indict, and transform us broken sinners. Against Comer’s wishes, the reader walks away from his book with the sense that apprenticeship is something individuals do while granting it is best when done in community. But this gets things exactly backward. The life and calling and public worship of God’s church precede discipleship. The latter exists, if it does, by participating in the former; the former does not follow from the latter.

As for my question, it concerns the idea of “intentionality.” Comer makes much of this, as do many Christian writers and pastors. I’m less convinced. If, for example, the forces that shape our daily habits are so hard to resist that they require a Rule of Life to counteract them—and I agree with this judgment—isn’t calling on individual believers to form a personal plan of spiritual action just moving the problem one step back? If most Christians are not moral heroes, if they are just trying to get by without losing their faith, is it reasonable to expect them to possess the resolve to audit their spiritual habits, fashion a personalized plan of attack, and execute it?

Like Comer, I believe the church has much to learn from Stanley Hauerwas, James K. A. Smith, and Tish Harrison Warren on the role of habits and “liturgies” in forming our hearts. The fly in the ointment, however, is that the kind of liturgical formation presupposed in Christian history was neither self-starting nor optional nor individually directed. It was a matter of communal obligation imposed by ecclesial authority. It was nonnegotiable, on pain of mortal sin.

Article continues below

You didn’t discern meatless Fridays. If you were Christian, if you were obedient, you did the fast like everyone else. You didn’t decide when to feast. The calendar told you when to do so. Fasting and feasting, sacrament and confession—these were just obligatory. For many they still are. As it happens, this is far more faithful to Aristotle and his insights on the formation of virtue through habit than our present attempts to personalize daily liturgies. We run the risk of DIY spirituality, which is the very thing we want to avoid.

Two quotes from the book illustrate this challenge. One has Comer citing “our vision for a new kind of church,” which he implemented while still a pastor. The other records Comer’s experience of finishing Kallistos Ware’s book on Eastern Orthodoxy: “It felt like coming home.”

These two impulses are at odds with each other. One rethinks church from the ground up; the other receives the church as it is from an authoritative past. The tension between them makes Practicing the Way an unusually resonant and useful resource, even as they quietly pull in different directions.

Consider them as ecclesial types. Is the church the corporate sacrament of salvation, whose liturgy is a foretaste of heaven and whose voice speaks with divine authority? Or is the church the company of disciples, a vanguard of urban contemplatives whose daily life together attests the kingdom of God? To my ears, the second sounds like a kind of spiritual Navy SEALs—elite, ultra, for the special few—whereas the first seems tailormade for normies, deplorables, mediocres, and failures. For the Simon Peters and Sauls, the rich young rulers and Kichijiros.

I’m sure Comer would say this is a false dichotomy: We don’t have to choose between them; that’s just the problem that got us into this mess. He may well be right. But I wonder.

Brad East is an associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University. His forthcoming book is Letters to a Future Saint: Foundations of Faith for the Spiritually Hungry.

Practicing the Way: Be with Jesus. Become like him. Do as he did.
Practicing the Way: Be with Jesus. Become like him. Do as he did.
WaterBrook
2024-01-16
288 pp., 17.99
Buy Practicing the Way: Be with Jesus. Become like him. Do as he did. from Amazon