Taking Us Deeper Into Our Life Together
A Review of
Incline Your Ear: Cultivating Spiritual Awakening in Congregations
Chad R. Abbott and Teresa Blythe
Paperback: Fortress Press, 2021
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Reviewed by Kevin Wildman
For several years now, I have been convinced that spiritual formation is of utmost importance for the Church. To be clear when I say spiritual formation, I am referring to the process of being conformed to the image of Christ, for the sake of others (this definition is influenced heavily by Dr. J.K. Jones Jr. and M. Robert Mulholland). We have seen the fruit of decades of evangelism that lacked spiritual formation, and the result is that those who don’t know God or God’s grace can’t hear because of the way they see Christians live.
It was around 2010 when I was reading Renovation of the Heart, by Dallas Willard where he explains that all people are being formed spiritually, whether they think about it actively or not. Being formed into the image of Christ– Christian spiritual formation– takes an intentional effort. Willard argues that Christian spiritual formation will naturally lead to evangelism, but evangelism does not necessarily lead to Christian spiritual formation. These ideas and concepts have been incredibly helpful in my journey toward Christlikeness.
The spiritual disciplines are essential for Christian spiritual formation. There are an abundance of resources available for people who are seeking to grow in their understanding and practice of spiritual disciplines. While I have found various resources through the years that touch on modifying various spiritual disciplines for group practice, there are limited resources that focus on group practice of the disciplines.
When I saw that Incline Your Ear was a book specifically written for leading congregations through some of the spiritual disciplines together, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to read and review it. The opening line of the foreword had me hooked, “The church is too busy, often with church business instead of the true business of the church.” I resonate with this affirmation down deep. Furthermore, as I listened to people who dearly love and serve the church even in the midst of the COVID shutdown, what I repeatedly heard was an appreciation for a slower pace. Numerous times people voiced the desire to learn from this slower pace. I am excited to dive into the work of helping us see how to spend our time on the “business of the church.” This is further reflected in the question posed in the preface, “Why aren’t our churches meeting the spiritual need that is palpable in our society today?”
The question that arises as we pursue a less frenetic pace that meets the needs of people is, “How do we know what things to keep and which ones to cut?” Or as the authors put it, to focus “on things that feed our souls and take us deeper into our life together.”
Abbot and Blythe take the reader through five different spiritual disciplines to help answer these questions. Don’t be misled though, the book itself does not provide the answers. This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest strengths of this book; it gives congregations the tools that allow them to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit, which the authors call the “Congregational Spiritual Road Map.”
Each of the five chapters focus on a different spiritual discipline. The chapters begin with some teaching and explanation on the discipline, and end with practices to engage. Unlike some other resources, the practices to engage comprise roughly at least half if not the majority of each chapter. There are multiple examples and options to sort out what specific practice in the various disciplines will best fit one’s respective congregation. Many of the practices take disciplines that we know and love on the individual level (i.e. centering prayer and lectio divina) and give ways to engage these disciplines in a group context.
Growing up in the Restoration Movement, and often feeling a lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit especially in regard to discernment and direction, I greatly appreciated the chapter focused on congregational discernment. Abbot and Blythe define discernment, writing, “Discernment is the practice of noticing where God’s spirit is alive in us, then sifting and sorting through all of what we notice—the information, feelings, insights, intuition, beliefs, and values—so that we can make a faithful choice.” This chapter had several great practices for a congregation to use in the discernment process; it helps put multiple levels of specific prayer and exercises in place for the pursuit of God’s direction.
Regarding discernment, the authors wrote, “group discernment requires the wisdom of all of us, from the sage to the dreamer, the young, the old, and even the one who always plays devil’s advocate.” There are several biblical examples of discernment. Too often we use spiritual-sounding words to talk about decisions we’ve made without engaging any kind of discernment. The last two chapters of the book continue to engage spiritual disciplines, but with the purpose of putting into practice the things learned through discernment.
As a whole, I think this work can be very helpful for congregations and leaders seeking to grow together in spiritual disciplines. The “Congregational Spiritual Road Map,” included with each chapter, was especially practical.
There are also some questions left unanswered, and even some shortcomings to the practicality of evaluation, specifically as it pertains to discernment. As I already mentioned, I am from a Restoration Movement church, which tends to be very Word-centered. While each chapter has some examples from Scripture for the disciplines being taught, I found the use of Scripture in the evaluation process to be lacking– specifically when it comes to discernment. The question that is somewhat addressed, but also left hanging is, “What happens when through discernment, people come to drastically different conclusions?” I’m not talking about trying to discern carpet colors, or what to do with seating, rather matters that have scriptural significance.
To use an example from the book; one of the authors wrote about how their congregation decided to affirm homosexual marriage. [Disclaimer: this is not a position I would support.] Consequently, some may ask, “How can we trust the discernment process when it can lead to such differing conclusions?” This is where I would echo the authors– that in discernment, we need to strive to set aside our own desires and listen solely to the Holy Spirit. I would also add to their 12 principles of discernment, that we need to weigh what we think we have discerned against Scripture, knowing that the Holy Spirit will not lead us against Scripture. I recognize that with this singular issue, I have identified my own interpretations that I carry.
Overall, I found Incline Your Ear to be helpful and I think many congregations could benefit from the practices in each chapter. I appreciate that the bulk of the work is focused on practices and engagement in disciplines rather than talking about the disciplines. I don’t agree with every conclusion, and would encourage any reader to read this like we should read all things, weighing what is taught against Scripture and striving for deeper intimacy and faithfulness to God.
Kevin Wildman lives in west central Indiana with his bride and their five children. He is a pastor and football coach, as well as an alum of Lincoln Christian University (B.A. Preaching 2008 and M.A. Spiritual Formation 2014). He enjoys running and has completed two full marathons. When it comes to reading Henri Nouwen is his favorite author.