As director of the Aprentis Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation, James Bryan Smith has a heavenly agenda for a down-to-earth mission.
“What we’re trying to do is to give people an everyday life with Jesus that can actually transform their souls,” he said.
Smith, 51, founder and director of the institute and theology professor at Friends University, has written a series of books on spiritual renewal and spiritual disciplines for churchgoers and those who are nominally Christian.
With the publication of his latest book, “Hidden in Christ: Living as God’s Beloved,” Smith talks about why he started the institute, the response of people to it and the spiritual resources that have influenced his life.
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With so many programs for and books about spiritual development, why did you start the Aprentis Institute?
I was a student of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. I was so fortunate to have been mentored by those two men who I think will go down historically as two of the most important voices in the latter half of the the 20th century in terms of spiritual formation. I wanted to blend together their teachings – Dallas’ teaching on life in the kingdom of God and Richard’s understanding of the nature of the (spiritual) disciplines and how they transform us.
What does the institute uniquely offer to a person seeking spiritual growth?
Sometimes spirituality becomes isolated practices that people do. They may walk a labyrinth, they may have a time of meditation on the Scripture, they may spend an hour or two in solitude. It’s my belief that it’s an everyday way of living. It’s going through your life as an apprentice of Jesus, trying to put into practice the things that he taught about life. What we’re doing with the Aprentis Institute is to say we want to arrange our lives around Jesus’ teaching and see what that looks like for a homemaker, or a lawyer, or a schoolteacher.
How have people responded to it?
People are quite hungry for some usable tools. The Aprentis series of books seems to have found that niche that people are looking for. The books have sold over 200,000 copies and have been out less than three years. It’s been a pretty phenomenal response. People are finding it to be a helpful tool to teach them basic spiritual formation practices and ideas about God.
Your latest book “Hidden in Christ” focuses on a single section of the New Testament, Colossians 3:1-7. Why that biblical section?
Dallas Willard, about 12 years ago, talked to me about the importance of memorizing not just verses but whole passages. He said Colossians 3 is the summation of Jesus’ teaching in just those 17 verses. As I began to dig into those words, I began to see a whole new understanding of the faith open up. It had such an impact on me. I made that one of the exercises for groups going through the Aprentis series that people were also asked to memorize it. And that’s where the idea came from, to write a book on single words within that third chapter.
According to the Pew Research Center, one-fifth of Americans – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today. It’s the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. Do you think spiritual development programs such as the Aprentis Institute can reach those people?
My experience is people have a hunger for truth and a real authentic experience of God. There’s a lot of toxic narrative about God that is really quite damaging. That’s why we see so many “nones” – those that don’t have any religious connection – because what they see is that our gospel message is not very inviting. Henry Cloud (clinical psychologist and author) says that if you walk into the average church in America on any given Sunday, the gospel you’re going to hear is “God is good, you’re bad, try harder.” What I’m trying to do in the Aprentis series is to expose people to the gospel that Jesus came to reveal. I found that people who don’t have strong background in the church find it very refreshing and it seems to make sense to them.
In addition to the Bible, what other resource or spiritual practice have you found to be particularly helpful to you?
I’ve benefited greatly from reading the devotional classics, reading the great writers, the men and women of the past who’ve embodied this way of life, from Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine. This morning I had wonderful time reading through Francis de Osuna, who was a spiritual mentor of Teresa of Avila. I just find that these people are communicating a life with God that I’d also like to have.
In addition to your work with Aprentis and as a theology professor at Friends, what else is keeping you busy?
We’re still a pretty young organization. I find it really challenging to work with a staff of people trying to get the job done. It’s a different world for me because I’ve mainly focused on teaching. That side (of the Aprentis Institute) has been new to me and pretty challenging.