Book review - "Centering Discipleship" by E.K Strawser

7 June 2024

Book review -

Review by Rev. Mark Cornford

'Centering Discipleship' by Eun Strawser was a difficult read, not because it was hard to understand, but precisely the opposite. Strawser has written a book that is accessible and relatively straightforward to read - and is profoundly challenging.

Strawser contends that discipleship, rather than being central to the Western church, is periphery, and she confronts us with a stinging question from Dallas Willard: "What is our plan for Discipleship? Is it working?". This question becomes doubly stinging as Strawser defines discipleship primarily by the actions of Christians in the living out of faith in everyday life, her definition being - "Discipleship is clearly and intentionally abiding in God and living in his kingdom reality and helping others abide in God and live in his kingdom reality".

Strawser doesn't just leave us with a critique but then goes to lay out some simple, powerful and challenging frameworks for developing what she calls a Discipleship Pathway to form people into the practices of following Jesus within an action learning context - that is - there is no discipleship without a missional context (a place where we intentionally seek to love, serve and share God's love).

The emphasis of the whole book and Strawser's frameworks are about practice. As someone who has done some learning/experiences in a community development context, I found her frameworks/tools refreshing, simple to understand and use, but powerful in what they reveal and where they lead. Unfortunately, sometimes people hear the word 'practical' as opposed to 'theological,' and while this is not a book that is heavy on theological and biblical theory, it would be a mistake to assume that it is not 'theological. ' Centering Discipleship is built on a vision of what an 'incarnational theology' actually looks like incarnated!

Strawser bases both her critique of current church practice and her frameworks on the end in mind - the end being followers of Jesus imitating Christ individually and as a community. Therefore, she defines the goal of discipleship as maturity in Christ, which is defined by four essential markers.

  1. Character - the inner person being transformed by Christ, bearing the fruit of the spirit
  2. Theology is not just growth in learning about God but learning to think, love, and do like God, e.g., the 'mind of Christ.'
  3. Wisdom - competency in the complexity of life - e.g. justice and mercy
  4. Missional living - engaged in the world compelled by the love of Christ

As you can see, each of the characteristics has its focus on the practice of Christian living and not knowing about Christian living. When these markers are placed alongside tools that require mutual vulnerability and accountability for how we are actually living out these markers, you can see the challenge that Strawser puts before us. In what I found to be one of her most challenging sentences in the book, Strawser says

'Often we think discipleship is experienced privately, conveniently and organically … Our expectation then is that there will be no accountability, peer reflection, or mirroring helping us examine whether we are we are maturing into the likeness of Christ'.

In Centering Discipleship, Strawser continually reminds the reader that discipleship is not about copying the latest program but about developing a locally grounded discipleship pathway that equips its participants to live Christlike lives in their unique missional contextual settings. Centering Discipleship is about equipping leaders with the frameworks and tools to do their own work, and this is what I greatly appreciate about this book. Strawser's context (Hawaii) is different to mine, and while she uses the concrete detail of what their framework looks like as a helpful example, the tools she gives enable the reader to develop their own detail.

If you are passionate about equipping people to practice following Jesus then I highly recommend this book. It will challenge you - but also equip you in how to move discipleship from the periphery of our churches to the centre.

Rev. Mark Cornford

As a brief post-script - Eun Strawser's background is bi-vocational (i.e. not a professional minister/pastor), female and BIPOC (I had to look it up!). As she points out, she is not a 'usual suspect' for writing a book on discipleship in the field dominated by 'professional' pastors, mostly men and mostly Anglo. To me, this highlights the need for us to listen and learn from people who are not the 'usual suspects' and who will challenge us to learn from the 'edges' as we seek to follow where Jesus is leading us.

The book is available to order through Koorong.

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