BOOK REVIEW: SIDE BY SIDE BY EDWARD T WELCH

TITLE: SIDE BY SIDE: Walking with others in wisdom and love

PUBLISHER: Crossway

AUTHOR: Edward T. Welch

AUDIENCE: I would say it is most likely best applicable to small groups or Sunday School classes, but it is clearly general enough to be applicable to every Christian. Side by Side is a good mix of theological and doctrinal foundations, simple word choice, and a variety of interactive conversational style and tone that anyone could pick up, read, and understand. The more academic terms are explained. An example is in regard to the term progressive sanctification. Welch explains what he is using the term to explain and does so in a clear, concise, and helpful way. After giving us an example of the way change might seem slow in a baby’s weight or flower that was recently planted, time will reveal the growth. He then transitions into explaining the idea as a theological term: “In humans, this spiritual process is called ‘progressive sanctification.’ It means that growth and change are happening (Phil. 1:6) but not always as quickly as we would like.”

GENERAL SUMMARY:  God has designed man in such a way that each person is both needy and needed. He argues that Scripture has shown us we are better off when we are walking in community, sharing our neediness, and bearing each other’s’ burdens. “The basic idea is that those who help best are the ones who both need help and give help.” Welch provides helpful application to a biblical treatment of walking together in our God-given design that allows us to share and experience God-given love and wisdom through each other. If you dig down to the heart of the book, what you find is that Welch wants to see the church love each other with the wisdom of Jesus. I hesitate to call it incarnational in nature because of the lack of consistent pointing to Christ as our particular model, but it is incarnational in the sense that the work is done as we walk in the wisdom and love found in the gifts of Christ’s death, namely the whole counsel of the Word, some aspects of Christ’s relation to man and sin, and by the effectual power and application of the Holy Spirit.

WHY I READ IT: I was interested in finding a helpful book to work through with my small group brothers and sisters as we “gel” together. My hope was that it would give direction on what it means to live life-on-life together and start a larger conversation that we can take with us as we multiply in the future.

DID IT DELIVER?: Yes.  I will likely use this book in a general group setting in our first 18-24 months as well as in ongoing 1 on 1 meetings with the brothers I am discipling. I see it as a foundational issue for every member in small group to work through in order to establish common ground expectations and boundaries.

SUMMARY OF STRUCTURE:  Welch divides the basic structure of the book into two halves. The first half is an argument for every person’s inherent neediness. The second half is an argument that every person is built to be a helper, which is to say “We are needed.”

SECTION I: WE ARE NEEDY

Welch builds the case for living in light of our neediness through six chapters. Each adds to the argument and simultaneously explains how that knowledge can play out in community. He shares the good, the bad, and some of the ugly. He weaves the subjects together as he goes and makes the experiences of life that appear so complex a bit more simple to understand and act towards in the process.

He starts with a foundation of the complexity of life and submits a way of organizing the various relationships we live in. This is done in light of the reality of the authority structure of the world. At the top is God, below is spiritual beings in the world, followed by work, our relationships, our body and the heart. He will unpack the presence of each in the context of community as he goes. He then focuses on the heart and how “busy” it is. By busy, Welch intends us to understand it is working in various ways.  He defines the heart through many terms and then explains that it acts as a fountainhead, a tree, and a treasure chest. Out of it come emotions, good, bad, and spiritual allegiances.

Next he ties together what happens when hard circumstances meet busy hearts. At the heart of this chapter is the argument that we will inevitably have to face what we believe, in the form of a conversation, when hard circumstances collide with our heart. We will cry out in a psalm or an anti-psalm. Listen to what you are saying and where it comes from. Each time trouble comes, we have an opportunity to grow.

Welch then sets his sights on sin. Sin, not suffering, is our biggest problem. The weight of sin should drive us to Jesus, bring necessary humility, and be the beginning of power and confidence through gospel application. Confession toward God and in community is necessary to laying the weight of sin down. Confession is not for some people and not others. Confession is a necessity to every living person and as such is not simply necessary sometimes, but necessary daily.

Welch then helps us think through seeking help through the source we are intended to request it from: God. Welch argues that we naturally resist asking for help because we follow in a path of seeking self-sufficiency. He then helps us see a solution through a call to “Pray the Prayers of Scripture.” He does this through Scripture’s general call to cry out in this pattern and follows with two types of prayers of Scripture to consider. He argues prayers of confession teach us confession is essential to satisfaction. He then argues that this prayer of confession which has come in response to hardship actually drives us further into a desire to know God in a personal way. This category of prayer is called “Prayers to Know God Better” and they piggy back on our need as we seek help with the seen into the unseen, spiritual realities that are going on.

Welch ends the first half of his book, our neediness, by pointing us to the reality that everyone is needy, not just us. Since we see this is a shared need, we should reach outside of ourselves to ask others for help. He helps us practically work through three areas of this process. He calls us to ask for help, tells us how to ask, and how to recognize help when it comes. At the end of the process is public proclamation of praise.

SECTION II: WE ARE NEEDED

There is a short section break that further describes the book as “Looking Back” and “Looking Ahead.”  “Looking Back” points us to our neediness and states the goal of the section: “To become transparent and humble friends who are at ease with our neediness” by reflecting on our hardships and sin, the conversation this reflection produces, and increasing willingness to open up to our friends to seek help. “Looking Ahead” will argue that Scripture has taught us the church moves forward as we fulfill our calling through mutual love and caring. The goal of this section is to grow new skills and use them in our everyday, common toolkit of moving towards others when they are in need, getting to know them, and praying for them. Welch uses eleven chapters to unpack the skills we will need to learn and develop while he shows us how they complement our daily interactions.

Welch begins his argument for our inherent need for service to others by reminding us that we have the Holy Spirit. The impact of Holy Spirit empowered people is unexplainable outside of the power and wisdom that they carry by the gift of the Spirit. So often we can fall into the mindset that we are just ordinary people that have so little to offer to others, but the Spirit works in ordinary people and possesses wisdom to accomplish God’s work in the lives of the people in our community.

There is a problem: people don’t move towards others for help. This is true in our relationships with God as well as with our relationships with other people. We look to God who moved towards us. We can see this in God’s relationships with His people, or “better yet, watch Jesus. He relentlessly pursued and invited the marginalized and outcasts to be with him.” Welch emphasizes this grace and argues it starts a grace cycle. We now move towards other people as we follow our King’s example. He gives some help for those of us who may struggle with greeting people and lays out a hierarchy for how we prioritize our “greeting time” at church with “the visitor” taking first priority and moving through stages to children and a goal of saying hi to as many people as possible.

Welch then turns to what I call “the art of conversation” and explains greetings aren’t enough. We need conversations to really know people. There is a proper give and take to conversations, so Welch teaches us the basics through an initial script with what you might call icebreakers. He gives insight on how to watch for and act on the other person’s revealed affections. He closes this chapter by transitioning us into their life by asking how we can pray for them and following that request by actually praying with them either right then or in the near future. The personal prayer relationship is “help at its most basic and best.

Relationships don’t end at prayer. That is the beginning of growth. To cultivate growth you need to look for the good. All humanity is made in the image of God and therefore carries with it some of the good of God’s grand design. To look for the good in others, we need to notice character qualities, gifts and talents, pleasures, preferences, hobbies, and spiritual vitality. Use these signs of good to encourage the other person and to be encouraged by God’s work in their lives.

The next step Welch brings us to is that of actually walking beside others by listening and taking part in their stories. You want to ask the other person to tell you stories. There are short stories like you might get if you ask about a doctor’s visit or a vacation. There are long stories that might require a meal like is the case of someone’s conversion. As we listen and come into someone’s life, we need to watch out for a few mistakes that we can make. One of them is matching stories. Keep the focus of the story on the person and avoid comparing your stories with theirs. We then follow in line with love, which “naturally moves to what is important in someone’s story and follows up.” He gives emotions and terms to listen and watch for as well as advice on how to focus in on those items to draw the person out.

Friends have compassion on others when they face trouble. I highly recommend reading the entire book and letting this chapter’s insight sink in. I lack a certain level of natural compassion and found this chapter to be helpful in providing some don’ts as well as insight on how our theology shapes our compassion. If we have the wrong beliefs, we will likely cause hurt. If we have the right beliefs, there is a great and spacious opportunity to love others. Welch links the flow of facing trouble together with his next chapter as he transitions into moving to prayer with your friend. I was edified and comforted by Welch’s view of prayer as I have often experienced either a prayer for help in the world of the flesh or prayers focused on the spiritual side of things. Welch doesn’t settle for either or call us to discount one side for the other. Instead he directs us to use prayers for the things that affect us in the material world while digging into scriptural truth and seeking the spiritual at the same time. He does this specifically in relation to prayers for healing, comfort, faith and ends with insight on praying for everything. But don’t just pray, follow up.

Be alert to Satan’s devices is a lesson presented through four gardens of interaction with Satan. Welch wisely warns/reminds us that Satan is a hunter who has a strategy that involves suffering. Welch works us through the Garden of Eden, the Wilderness with Jesus, Gethsemane, and the Resurrection Garden found in John 20. Hardships can lead us to vulnerability that Satan loves to use for his attacks. When we are vulnerable, he tempts us to sin and then accuses us. We must fight with God’s promises and the Word of God as Jesus fought. A friend will warn their friends of this reality when they see them suffering. Welch gives a great list of ways to do this.

The last thing we might typically do as we are walking together side by side is talk about sin. This takes preparation. “Suffering and sin are the sum of human struggles. This means that we need one another with our struggle with suffering and in our struggle with sin and temptation.” You do not just jump in with someone else’s sin. You first examine yourself. We have to look to grow in humility and patience. Humble people see their sins as worse than other peoples. You will likely be tested if you talk to someone else about sin as they point back to your lack of holiness. Patience partners with humility. “Patience is interested in what direction people face. Do they face toward Jesus? Patience is more interested in direction and less interested in how fast people are changing.” In order to talk to people about sin we first have to see the good, having laid a foundation of building them up, and acknowledging the hard circumstances they have faced. He ends with direction on a simple principle of addressing one sin at a time.

To close out the book, Welch teaches us how to be prepared to fight alongside others in situations we know carry extra temptation or opportunity for sin, at times we have seen sin take place, and when someone discloses or confesses sin. There are a number of key steps that Welch lays out to help us work through the process of acting in love with wisdom when we see sin as well as in the cases where sin is confessed or disclosed. At the end of the day and at all times in it we need to remember that this is a part of our master’s story. Welch unpacks Ephesians 1:2-14 and explains how God has worked by grace in our past, present, and future. I’ll leave that for you to read.

PRIMARY SUBJECTS: Community, Neediness, Spiritual Gifts, Serving, Being Served, the Heart, Authority, Sin, Satan, Mankind, Suffering, Temptations, General Counseling

STRENGTHS: Simple to read, theologically grounded and simultaneously practical (head, heart, and hands), it flows like relationships flow so you can work through the steps in real life many times. It also provides a plan to grow each and every reader in their love for God and others as they experience God’s great plan and design in a life within Christian community.

WEAKNESSES: There weren’t many weaknesses I ran across other than it is a surface view of relationships and doesn’t really provide resources or insight into more complex issues that are bound to come up at some point of church life together. I have experienced questions on what to do when someone confessions sins that might require long-term jail time or repeat offenses of particular kinds that hurt the vulnerable repeatedly. Though Welch does speak of involving the entire church and other key figures in the church at certain points, life and levels of maturity or emphases within a church can present unique obstacles in this growth. I could really use a companion or follow up to this book that delves deeper into these issues.