Book Review: Side by Side, by Ed Welch
Ed Welch, Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love. Crossway, 2015. 178 pages.
I want to lay all of my cards on the table from the start. If you want the members of your congregation to become more active and skilled in discipling others then there isn’t a better book for them—or you for that matter—than Side by Side by Ed Welch.
“WE ALL NEED HELP”
The purpose of the book is to help Christians develop the skills they need to help one another (11). Welch believes that the most skilled helpers are the ones who recognize they need help. “We all need help— that’s simply part of being human. The help we need goes beyond things like getting our house painted or finding a good mechanic. It’s deeper than that. We need help for our souls, especially when we are going through hardships” (11).
In chapters 1–3, Welch describes the various forms of suffering we experience and how our response to that suffering leads us either closer to God or further away from him. In chapters 4–6, Welch moves on to discuss suffering and sin and how we should respond to them. Sin should cause us to say “help” to the Lord and to others. Skilled helpers recognize their own need for help. Welch states, “Anything that reminds us that we are dependent on God and other people is a good thing. Otherwise, we trick ourselves into thinking that we are self-sufficient, and arrogance is sure to follow” (12).
Yet, the book isn’t just about our neediness. It’s also about the fact that we’re needed. Part Two describes how the Lord uses us to help others through their experience of suffering and battles with sin. “This is the way the church moves forward—through mutual love and care” (65).
In chapter 7, Welch dispels the notion that only experts and counselors are equipped to help others. Since God has given us his Spirit, we’re all able to minister to one another. Chapters 8–11 outline the basic skills every Christian needs to do spiritual good to others. Chapters 12–14 detail specific skills that help us to love those who suffer. Finally, chapters 15–17 provide wisdom for walking with others through individual struggles with sin.
HUMILITY AND LOVE
I said it at the outset, but will say it again. I love this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. And, I cannot think of any ways the book could be improved. Let me offer two reasons why I commend this book so highly.
First, the “method” Welch provides for becoming more skilled in discipling others is helpful and simple. Here it is in three words: humility and love. No, really, that is his method.
In discussing this first part of his method, Welch simply instructs: be humble. Admit that you are needy to others. Share your burdens with them. Open up about sin in your life. Welch states, “If we desire to be perceived as competent and in control, we will not ask for prayer. If we know that humans, by nature, are spiritually needy, and God’s plan is that we turn both to him and to other people for help, we will ask for prayer “ (60). Basically, we should say to others what God says about us. We need help.
For part two of the method, Welch instructs us to move towards others in love. Ask others how they are doing, and sincerely mean it. Move beyond surface conversation. “We hope to learn what is important to the person we’re talking to, which is another way of saying that we hope to hear what is on his or her heart. The way in is to listen for what is dear, what is loved, what is feared, what is hard—we listen for how someone feels” (81). Loving others means following their affections and entering into the deeper stories of their lives. It looks like being present during suffering and prepared to address sin. It looks like praying with and for others constantly.
I have read a number of Christian books aimed at helping Christians help others. While they all had strengths, I often found that the methods proposed were cumbersome and difficult to employ. This is not the case with Welch’s “method.” It’s simple and biblical. Be humble and love others.
The second reason I love this book is that it fills a much needed gap in discipling literature. Though there are numerous books on discipling, no others have helped sharpen my day-to-day interactions with other people like this book. Side by Side seeks to practically intersect with the daily grind of life and offer tangible ideas that we can all implement immediately. And, let’s face it, if we are going to grow as disciples and disciplers, it will happen in the thousands of mundane and ordinary interactions through which we’re being conformed into the likeness of Jesus.
To that end, Side by Side offers profound wisdom for daily discipling. In Part One, Welch visually organizes the various circumstances we all face into what he calls an x-ray of our human experience. His categorization of these circumstances provides a really useful rubric for considering the different types of hardships we all face, which in turn helps us to be aware of the ways we, and others, may be suffering. Welch also asks laser sharp questions revealing our own neediness, which have clearly been distilled from his 35 years of counseling. For instance, he states, “The heart is busy. It is our spiritual center. The evidence for its activity can be seen every day in the human mash-up of good, bad, fears, frustrations, joys, and sorrows. Trace these to the heart’s very core and we come face-to-face with the true God and the condition of our relationship to him. Are we trying to eke out an existence ourselves in the desert, or are we busily sending roots by the water?” (31). Sadly, I often recognize my roots reaching down into dry soil more often than I care to admit. What about you?
Yet, the wisdom Welch offers is not only for assessing ourselves, but also to grow in loving those around us. He teaches us how to become more skillful at greeting others (yes, he teaches us how to be better at saying “hello”), at asking thoughtful questions, at drawing out people’s stories, and how to be present during suffering and prepared to talk about sin. And, through it all, Welch encourages constant prayer. Loving disciples pray for others.
If you want to cultivate a culture in your church of members being deeply embedded in one another’s lives, a culture that has the fragrance of humility and love, then you should get this book into the hands of your congregation. Hand it out at church and assign your small groups to read it together (it comes with excellent discussion questions at the end of each chapter.) Consider reading it with your fellow elders. Just because you are a pastor does not mean you are good at recognizing your own neediness or being there for others when they are needy. In fact, sometimes pastors need more help at these things than their members.
Read this book slowly. Then read it again.