Sam Van Eman starts his fabulously interesting and very helpful new book, Disruptive Discipleship: The Power of Breaking Routine to Kickstart Your Faith, helping us understand his curious project, giving us a hint even in the opening acknowledgements page. He tells about a guy who approached some of his Christian buddies, calling them together at a diner, admitting to them that his faith was on auto-pilot, so to speak, a bit meh. Over coffee, his friends asked him some good questions, helping him discern what was wrong, what he might do to kick-start his faith again, ratcheting it up to a more conscientious level.
A little communal discernment like that might enable any of us to diagnosis the doldrums or enculturation in our faith journey and with the right kind of guidance we might be inspired to set up a plan, maybe disrupt our routines, getting intentionally outside of our comfort zones to see what God might do. Who really wants to be stalled or bored in the life of faith?
Disruptive Discipleship is about this exact thing, how we can encounter opportunities for change and growth – pressing on to Christian maturity – by creating experiences that stretch us, by entering into some intentional effort to experience some new things, or experience ordinary routines in some fresh ways. Disruption, at least the sort that is explored here, is a good thing – or it can be, if managed well. It isn’t rocket science, really, but Sam has been at this a long time, working for the Experiential Design (XD) team of the Coalition for Christian Outreach campus ministry, and has created outdoor adventures, wilderness experiences, mission trips, and other designed programs that heighten participants openness to growth. By studying managed risk, community building activities, and a thoughtful approach to enhanced, interactive learning, Sam has honed his extraordinary gifts in setting up and leading these kinds of events. Disruptive Discipleship tells some of those stories.
And I couldn’t put it down.
Here are just a few comments about why I liked this book so much and why I think our BookNotes readers and Hearts & Minds customers will want to pick it up.
You can obviously order it from us by using the secure order form link shown below.
AUTHENTIC LEARNING AND LIFE (AND MY AVERSION TO DISRUPTION)
Firstly, perhaps you are not like me, but I have an aversion to these kinds of things, somewhat philosophically, maybe, and temperamentally. I hate it when a lecturer says (usually with newsprint and markers in hand) “Let’s break into little groups and talk about this.” I think, “No, let’s not break into little groups and talk about this.” Give me a good lecture in a classroom any day.
Now there’s a pitch for a book sale — it’s about something I don’t like.
But hear me out.
On my high-minded days I might (feebly) try to make a (unsustainable) case that contrived experiences are not to be trusted; they aren’t authentic; learning should be natural, not forced or manipulated. So, well… uh; this is just dumb of me. Education obviously happens in a variety of contrived ways, and creating outside-of-the-comfort zone activities is a fine thing. The literature on learning has shown this, over and over. Sam talks about growth and change that can happen in ordinary life, in our natural rhythms and daily routines, but (like the guy he mentioned in the beginning) sometimes we get stuck. We have to create some fresh opportunities which rock our own boats with purpose. So Sam helps us determine when we need such interventions and tells of such opportunities, explaining wonderfully what to make of them.
Often these learning experiences have dual purpose – the point of a mission trip is, firstly, to serve others, obviously, not to navel gaze or team-build; but surely such service trips are opportunities for learning and growth, hopefully receiving insight about those being served, maturing into mutuality and a commitment to social change alongside others. But they also present opportunities to learn about one’s own self, one’s biases and fears and judgements and weaknesses. The best mission trippers keep journals and leaders offer time to debrief, not just about the service/mission itself, but the interior and relational lives of those experiencing the details of the trip together. It is nearly a cliché to hear folks say that although they go to serve, participants come back enriched in their own lives, somehow changed, more aware, deeper as people having experienced something together.
Often, teams on such trips grow in relationship as they bear stress together and talk through hard stuff. There is nothing inauthentic about this team-building process, nothing wrong with being guided to consider what’s going on in one’s interior life, forced to grapple with feelings that arise because of the proximity to poor folks or being in the environment of a mission trip or working alongside people unlike yourself. What does it mean to behave generously and well when there are limited resources, when others in close proximity become annoying? It’s pretty obvious that deep learning on trips of this sort happens well, especially when guided by mature facilitators. Sam is such a leader and hearing how he does it is amazing.
And he does it not just on mission trips but on backpacking expeditions and bicycle rides, and in the day to day of his own family and marriage.
So, my instinct to say that learning has to be natural or is best when occurring in ordinary life (or a traditional classroom) is debunked: going on trips or creating learning environments to work on certain outcomes can be a very effective thing, and I was inspired by Sam’s good stories. You may be too – certainly if you like this sort of “disruptive” growth or maybe, too, if you, like me, are reluctant to change, don’t want to be disrupted, and use some intellectual argument against contrived learning. Maybe less skilled or shallow facilitators have given some of us a bad impression of experiential designs, but in the right hands, as shown in the stories Sam tells, breaking routine for intentionally taking up interactions for growth, can be an extraordinary gift of grace.
A CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY OF EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION
Secondly, although he doesn’t dwell on it for more than a few wonderful pages, there is ample philosophical theory behind this kind of experiential education, this gift Sam has to design participatory learning via outside of the classroom experiences. The wholistic and multi-dimensional underpinnings of Van Eman’s pedagogy were mostly learned from older leaders within the CCO, drawing from epistemologies that are more than rational, philosophies that are informed by the likes of Calvin Seerveld (Rainbows for the Fallen World) and Al Wolters (Creation Regained), Jamie Smith (You Are What You Love and the others in his “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy) and Andy Crouch (Strong and Weak.) Esther Meek, a philosopher who has taught the ways of knowing described by the world-class philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi (see her Little Manuel of Knowing) is an example of this deeper way experiencing knowledge (with head and heart unified) and what it means to learn to care about what one learns. Parker Palmer’s beautifully rich To Know As We Are Known: A Spiritual Education and Steve Garber’s profound Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior seem not far from the surface in the CCO’s conversations about experiential education. Learning, like life itself in God’s world, is multi-dimension, and learning happens best in community, shall we say, in collaboration. Deep transformation gained from profound engagement with theses truth truths, the really real in God’s good but broken world, is always more than gathering more data in our brains; such typical ways of learning are reductionistic and finally shallow. The learning theories that underpin Sam’s delightful book are mature and thoughtful and effective and, I think, deeply, profoundly Christian.
Van Eman’s Disruptive Discipleship is decidedly not an academic or philosophical book, but it has been written from within a context where a group of very sharp folks have been hammering out this stuff for decades. It is dedicated to the founder of the CCO’s wilderness and XD program, Paul Harbison, who is legendary in the world of Christian outdoor education. And Paul has as profound and natural a Christian world-and-life-view as nearly anyone I know. Sam’s dedication page is a huge sign for those who know, that this book stands within a longer conversation about ways of knowing, transformational learning, embodying truth, being playful in life, and what it means to grow into full-orbed, mature, honest, Kingdom people.
VULNERABLE, RAW, REAL
A third thing to keep in mind about Disruptive Discipleship is that Sam is himself very vulnerable in telling stories of his own need for change in his own life. It isn’t all colorful narratives of dramatic mission trips or vivid wilderness adventures (although the caving story literally made my heart pound faster as I read it!) There are stories of serving the homeless and stories of rock climbing and back country hiking, but much of content is almost mundane, stories of giving up watching football on Sunday afternoons for a season, stories of helping his daughters learn to push themselves to hold their breath longer than they thought they could, examples of fairly common place stuff that can be marshaled for our spiritual growth. And he tells of some things of his own life – he was raised by a single mom in poverty and to this day struggles with certain issues (even needing to have a snack around at all times.) I’ve known Sam a long time, and knew much of this, but was deeply, deeply touched by his sharing so candidly about his own inner life, his fears and foibles. This is a good thing in a book, getting a glimpse into the real story of the author and I compliment him for it. You will, too.
So when the author talks about designing experiences, he is aware that many of life’s biggest opportunities for growth just come at us. Isn’t our walk through this hard world and our own suffering what one theologian called our “school of discipleship”? If we’re attentive, can’t nearly anything become an opportunity for growing in faith, hope and love? Do we really need to go looking for disruption? Isn’t there plenty in daily life to keep us energized for the journey of Christ-likeness?
Well, yes. And, again, Sam does address that – much comes at us in life but we have to be seasoned, practiced, at making the most of it. We can practice growth, actually, by creating these episodes, activities, experiments, adventures. From camping programs with ropes courses to the classic spiritual practice of giving up something for Lent, from a service project far away to a renewed commitment to simply reach out to a next-door neighbor, many kinds of adventures await us, and we can plumb them for greater growth if we know how. Sam’s book – with a perfect blend of narrative storytelling and direct teaching even with bullet-pointed guidelines – helps us learn how to do this. It seems rather simple, but processing what we’re learning, applying insights to our real lives, actually growing and maturing in our faith is the point, and too few of us know how to do that. Disruptive Discipleship is a great handbook for basic Christian growth, for Kingdom maturity, for spiritual formation.
This doesn’t all have to be dramatic or painful, either, although at one point Sam suggests that a plan for growth should “cause a bit of anxiety in anticipation of being shooed from the nest.”
CATALYSTS FOR CONNECTION
To help us realize out how anxiety- producing episodes (even minor ones, with low-levels of anxiety) can be a vehicle for growth, he talks about how he and his wife, Julie, worked at a Christian summer camp, serving as outdoor adventure coordinators. They took cabin counselors and campers hiking, biking, rock climbing, caving and such. Most camps do this – but what real transformation comes of it? Pondering this, they deepened the approach, which he describes like this:
This involved converting the activities from thrill-seeker entertainment into catalysts for connections, from independent focal points to integrated waypoints.
Wow. Read that line again!
The book is divided into three major parts: first, about Growing Restless, where we admit to feeling stuck, explore our options for what to do about it, and make a plan – a part that I’m sure most of us overlook. He even has some exercises we can do to diagnose our malaise. I’m sure this will be life-giving and helpful for many.
The second unit within Disruptive Discipleship is called Growing Deeper. Here is where we hear about stepping out in faith, working on trust, testing our endurance, and experiment with service. These chapters offer profound insights into the nature of hope and love, especially, and I’m sure you will find them thrilling.
The third part is entitled Growing Up.
Here Van Eman teaches about “translating change” and “navigating valleys” and “getting unstuck together.” All of this is wise and insightful and – to be honest – not spoken of as much in most circles as we ought. This is good pastoral wisdom, pushing folks on to deeper more faithful living, but not many of us get so down-to-Earth about seeking how we actually change. Really, this is solid, helpful stuff and it was a blessing to hear Sam say it so bluntly, back it up with Biblical teaching, and compliment it with stories both hilarious and hairy.
Whether you are one who wants to grow up a bit or if you are one who is tasked to make disciples of others, helping them grow, there is good information for you here. There is, by the way, a very good small group study guide, making this an ideal book to use with others.
JAMES 1: 4
Sam has two epigrams in the front page of the book. One is a favorite verse, James 1:4, which is a guiding text for this exploration of disruptive type discipleship. It reads: “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Well, that says a lot, doesn’t it? With some grit and determination – at least intentionality – we can allow God’s faithfulness to bring us to greater maturity. (And, as he says later in the book, that can best be measured by the rubrics of faith, hope, and love. Nice! ) So that is one of the Biblical guides for this project: a work of perseverance that has to be finished, a goal of growing where we don’t lack spiritual maturity.
SUFFERING ON PURPOSE
Also on that frontispiece, he writes something to “all who have suffered (a little or a lot) with me on purpose.” I liked that, that we can suffer on purpose. (He says, too, that he’s “ready to go again” whenever they are ready, and you can just sense the gleam in his eye as he anticipates another adventure, messy and difficult as it may be.)
The interactive experiences of intentional growth aren’t all heavy introspection about suffering or filled with gritty, dogged determination. Most are joy-filled and stimulating. Once you have the right attitude, disruption can sometimes be a blast. And this book, prodding as it may be, calling us to make a plan to get out of our doldrums, moving deeper and into more authentic maturity by trying some experiential educational experiments, will be a thrill ride of a read. I’m confident you will enjoy it.
Just to give you a flavor, here is a bit from early on in the book:
If this book is broadly about going somewhere when we feel stuck, it’s more specifically about growing up when we’ve been acting like children. How might this happen outside of persistent prayer or life’s unwelcomed challenges that force growth upon us? One way is by adding intentional, out-of-the-ordinary disruptions to our daily routines. Disrupting every day’s routines would lead to chaos, but an occasional shift in the schedule can offer a world of good.
In the Coalition for Christian Outreach, we refer to these intentional disruptions as “designed experiences.” In fact, I work in a department called Experiential Designs – XD for short – which has a forty year history of delivering customized learning moments for groups, like six-week mountaineering trips for college students and interactive retreats for board members. We don’t create this stuff from scratch – not all of it, at least; we adopt work others pioneered before us and alongside us.
So, again, it is this XD work from within the CCO that has shaped Sam’s vision for helping us “grow on purpose.” Again, here is how he puts it:
Whether planning an overnight hike or nixing chocolate for Lent, designed experiences help us uncover what curbs and what catalyzes our growth as followers of Christ.
The book is just loaded with memorable lines like that.
He reminds us of the basics, but speaks plainly about our need for growth:
…if we want our road rage to decrease and our compassion to increase, worry to be replaced by serenity, and financial fear to meet generosity, and if we have any desire to learn to wait, forgo, remain calm, listen, forgive, press on, or practice self-denial, we must place a high value on maturity.
Disruptive Discipleship aims to show you how to grow up – and how to do so on purpose.
I want to say two more things about why you should consider buying Disruptive Discipleship.
USE IT AS A RESOURCE TO STIMULATE YOUR OWN TEACHING, MENTORING, LEADERSHIP
For many of us who are leaders, educators, those who work with groups, want to build community or nurture teams, this could bring professional insight about experiential education to stimulate your own fresh ideas about your own disciple-making plans. Reading this (and working on the study guide and reflection questions, especially with a friend or colleague) will bring some focused, creative energy to your own designing of growth opportunities for those you seek to impact. Disruptive Discipleship has a personal growth focus, but I’ve called it a resource and tool on purpose. If you work at a camp or do youth ministry or disciple or mentor others, or need to think about how to make your teaching more engaging or fruitful, you need to be stimulated by this experiential educational model and Sam’s good stories.
I think Disruptive Discipleship is a good book for your small-group, Bible class, youth ministry, church camp, spiritual retreat, campus leadership group, non-profit board, or team-building workshop.
DON’T UNDERESTIMATE ITS VALUE NO MATTER WHAT STAGE OF FAITH DEVELOPMENT YOU ARE ON
I think some of you might be thinking this is a tool for those who are just starting out on the Christian journey or for idealistic young people who are super eager to take risks and learn well. Maybe you’ve been at this maturing in Christ stuff for a life-time, or are a seasoned pastor, or have a highly-trained spiritual director. I want to suggest that this could be useful for you, too.
But more, I want to suggest that no matter how mature you seem to be in faith, hope, and love, no matter how much you sense God’s presence, how much you value liturgy or spiritual formation or realize that the gospel is transforming you from the inside out, we can all use a little fresh help. Those who are wise in the ways of the Lord know this already – we all need as much assistance as we can get and it doesn’t all come from just reading books; we need on-ramps, means of grace, perhaps, to prod and help us process and apply and live what we’re learning. This is one such resource for your own formation in the ways of God’s Kingdom. It is a tool not just for the stuck, but for anyone wanting to grow, wanting to deepen their faith, wanting to move forward. It can be adapted to whatever life stage you are on, applied in varying situations and environments. Maybe you just feel “under-utilized” (an interesting phrase Sam introduces, one that rings true for many fairly mature Christians, I’d bet.)
Or maybe you are in transition in your life. Sam writes about that as well.
You’ve accepted a new job, you retired last month, you’re graduating, or you adopted a child. You’ve entered or are about to enter a new season – exciting or terrifying, minor or major – and you want to make the most of it.
Or, as he also says, quite evocatively:
There are moments in life when faith falls out of its old container. Heading off to college can cause this. Being unemployed can cause this. Losing a loved one can cause this. What once worked – comfortably, I might add – suddenly doesn’t. The neat little box that held all of faith’s parts in one organized place cracks across the bottom, and the pieces spill onto the floor.
So, you see, Disruptive Discipleship, clever and interesting as it is (even with a Bible study offered as an appendix called “What Jesus Knew About Experiential Education”) is really a book about maturing in Christ, growing as a self-aware person, and becoming a real agent of God’s redemptive work in the world, no matter who you are or what condition your life is in. Don’t you want to grow up, to be a self-assured “wounded healer” and Spirit-guided agent of hope? This fun book will help you, as Sam invites, knowing that suspending normal can be scary and disrupting routines can challenge the status quo, nonetheless, we should “take the risk and sign up.”
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