How can we be distinctive disciples?

The churches in the West face a major challenge of culture and discipleship. The radical changes in culture over the last 30 years or so appear to have taken society further from the values of the gospel, and despite all our efforts, both members and leaders of our churches appear to being formed deeply by the culture we live in.

One of the most important current writers tackling this issue is James K A Smith. The latest Grove Ethics booklet is an introduction to Smith’s thought titled Embodying the Good, written by Andrew Hayes. Andrew teaches historical theology at Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham.


The work of James K A Smith has become increasingly conspicuous and influential in recent years. Having written a number of helpful and accessible introductions to topics such as Radical Orthodoxy and postmodernism, Smith began his Cultural Liturgies (CL) project in 2009. This three-volume project (Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom and Awaiting the King, as well as a more accessible summary of the first two volumes, You Are What You Love, has gained Smith more in uence and attention, and deservedly so. The project asks some basic questions about Christian formation in the contemporary world we inhabit and offers a challenge to a number of unarticulated assumptions about what it is be formed into and to perform Christian life. What does authentic Christian discipleship look like in a world where the dominant narratives and cultural forces are powers such as consumerism, nationalism and self-expression? How does the church get beyond voicing disagreement or opposition and create an alternative embodiment, and demonstrate a different way of life and vision of what counts as flourishing?

In trying to answer these questions Smith offers a reassessment of the role of desire and imagination in Christian formation as an antidote to approaches to discipleship that assume distinctiveness is primarily characterized by thinking di erently. Being convinced of the problem, and counter-gospel nature, of consumerism does not stop us being captured by it. For Smith, being moved by, imaging, and intensely desiring a di erent sort of life might. Being moved will rely on good habits: habits which are more than activities but rather are bodily practices and patterns that shape our imaginations and vision as much as our beliefs. Smith’s project is concerned with how we imagine and perceive the world Christianly, as opposed to, say, as consumers; when we do economics do we see sacristy or gift? What possibilities are imagined in our philosophy, our way? Naturally, the possibilities that exist determine the action that can be taken. His concern is with cultivating a Christian feel for the world. This booklet will describe the claims of this project, ask what can be learnt from it for anaccount of what it is to do Christian ethics, and then briefly assess whether there may be more to say to supplement or correct Smith’s vision.


Having set out an introduction to Smith’s work, Hayes explores the key challenges that Smith’s work engages with. One of the major issues here is the disconnect between the way theological thinking has moved on compared with the practical approach to discipleship in most churches.


It is helpful to observe the gulf between the academy and the pulpit concerning how Christian formation and discipleship ought to develop. There is some considerable distance still between the formative approach assumed by theologians and ethicists who might be considered part of the incredibly influential ‘ecclesial turn’ or virtue ethics tradition and the, in Smith’s context at least, sermons and discipleship courses that have continued to privilege intellectual educative approaches. Furthermore, there are some questions to be asked of ecclesial turn approaches as to whether they focus on a theoretical or idealised vision which does not seem to be borne out in practice and renewal—in short, if it is all about liturgy and practices, why are all Roman Catholics not saints? (In his third volume Smith discusses this directly, characterizing it as ‘the Godfather problem’ after Michael Corleone’s duplicitous and disingenuous confession at the baptismal scene in The Godfather).

Smith expands on the approach of the ecclesial turn, which frequently emphasizes Aristotle’s or Aquinas’ understanding of formation through acquired and practiced virtue, by using Augustine’s anthropology of desire which emphasizes the place of the heart in shaping what we do. He supplements this with contributions from postmodern philosophers who stress the significance of habits for formation independently of the theological traditions. Using Augustine, and the postmodern voices, he is able to argue for more than the importance of practices and habits as formative activities but for practices and habits as reparative counter liturgies; alternative patterns of worship and heart formation. This relies on articulating the power of desire to determine and direct which practices become primary and formative. That is, he articulates a vision in which practices are not in and of themselves sufficient; they have to be fitted to desire, cultivated and targeted as counter measures to other formative forces. To be potent they must be meeting the same human needs. Morning Prayer alone will not save us from consumerism. Becoming aware of the spaces we inhabit, how they shape us (what they teach us to love and how much we fall for that vision of the good life), and the alternative shaping on o er cumulatively across a range of Christian practices in an attentive but not merely intellectual or rationalist manner is a necessary step to better and more successful Christian formation and discipleship.


A central question then emerges: which is the truly formational community that shapes our lives? Many of us hope that this is the community of faith—but in reality many Christians are actually formed by other communities in society.


If we can unconsciously move in ways contrary to what we believe, this poses the question, ‘Where do we really stand?’ or ‘Which vision of the good life do we actually appear to be captured by?’ Since Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminalAfter Virtue it has been something of a truism in Christian ethics that our values,our actions and our expectations are formed in community and the practicestherein. The deeper question Smith is pushing towards is ‘Which community are we really a part of?’ MacIntyre’s project exposed unrecognized moral philosophical problems in need of repair by the formation of stable and committed communities of tradition and virtue. What Smith suggests is that even attempts to do this may have been deceived. Perhaps more of our practices or the most powerful practices are constitutive of a community other than church, even while we are in church. That is, the way we live already shapes us and orientates us to particular expressions of the good. If we do not even recognize this, then we do not really know what ethics we are a part of, what vision of the good we seek, which is probably different from the one we think it is. This makes changing that vision even more diffcult.

Not only are we dulled so as to believe we can choose to live any way we please by force of will and beliefs, but we do not even know what we are attempting to change from. The result is that any change we try to enact in our behaviour is most likely a surface modification because the underlying desires remain undisturbed. We still will not do what we want—either what we choose to think we want or what we really want at a deeper level. Instead, we will continue to do what we want as de ned by the practices and communities we are a part of; in many cases those of the liberal western consumerist. This is the power of Smith’s question; ‘When did you become a consumerist?’ You had no believer’s baptism, not rite of initiation. You are brought up in that church with no memory of conversion. It has been your mother’s milk. And of course advertisers understand and feed us in ways which perpetuate the desires of consumerism in visceral and embodied ways.


Hayes also includes quotations from Smith himself, which give a flavour of the insight that he brings to these questions.

Christian worship is less the rites of an enclave and more like the training ground for a sent people whose missio will take them into the contested space of markets and elections, corporations and council halls…Thus the church is less a contrast society we retreat into than a re-centring community of practice that we are sent from. As an imagina-tion station whereby our social imaginary is shaped by the gospel, the church is not an end in itself, an alternative place, but rather a pedagogical community of the Spirit where we are equipped for discernment…the formation of our social imaginary in Christian worships equips us for an active discernment, the engaged wisdom and prudence that enables us to see openings for participation, collaboration, and critique within the wider contested spaces of the saeculum.


Hayes is not uncritical about Smith’s overall approach, and he asks some penetrating questions as well as offering an appreciative summary.


What then can be learnt from Smith for understanding what it is to do Christian ethics? First, Smith calls for attention as much as doing. Smith helps us to see that discipleship, Christian formation and character are not neutral or automatic processes. Our ordinary everyday habits may not be making us more Christian. Formation is already happening, often under our noses, which may indeed be antithetical to Christian character…

Secondly, following from this, he helps to see the need to for intentionality,though not primarily cognitively, in engaging Christian practices so that theymay become our primary repertoires, which in turn reshape our desires and imaginations towards a Christian vision of the good. In this way he is helping prompt a move beyond the criticisms of an idealized vision of worship and liturgy that automatically lead to renewal. This is to recognize that Christian practices are not goods in themselves and can be corrupted or misdirected…

Thirdly, and negatively, we might want to be cautious in commending the political turn of Smith’s third volume…

Ultimately, however, Smith has done the church a service in encouraging it to think about not only what it thinks but what it loves. This can reveal where we have been subverted but can also, more positively, help us to think creativelyabout how we might shape our hearts, desires and imaginations throughcounter practices towards a more definitely Christian vision of the good.


The booklet is an excellent introduction to Smith’s thought, and it will both equip you and encourage you to read Smith for yourself. The booklet is available from the Grove Books website for £3.95 post-free in the UK, or as a PDF e-book.


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3 thoughts on “How can we be distinctive disciples?

  1. This is fascinating and raises a lot of really important and influential points and questions. Part of our job is Christian ministers is consistently to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves under the searching power of the Spirit: and to challenge our faith communities about assumptions and fall-back attitudes. I feel energised!

  2. Some great reflections on the important contribution of Smith’s work, of which I have valued and use in my own teaching and ministry, and the continuing discussions and engagement on discipleship, perhaps the most important and distinctive issue facing the Western church in particular.

    You might like to consider the contribution myself and my colleague Rev Dr Andrew Hardy have made to this debate in our recent publication Missional Discipleship After Christendom, part of the After Christendom series.

  3. This is a very thought provoking piece Ian. It immediately brings to mind Romans 7.19 but goes further in asking if we Christians today even really ‘want’ to do good or are even sure what that good might really be.

    Thinking about ‘counter practices’, it’s an easy thing to say – perhaps every generation says it – but are we not daily bombarded with so much stuff (people, talk, images, emotions, advertising etc) that the only escape from its clutches (and therefore its overbearing influence) is regularly to seek the kind of separation from it that probably implies real physical removal of ourselves, on our own – sans mobile, sans watch, sans everything? It’s not the same thing as an hour in church once or twice a week, important though that is. If Jesus needed this (Matthew 14.23), we can be certain we do too.

    But it’s only one initial thought on what most of us must surely recognise is a real problem among us Christians at present.

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