John Mark Comer: The Apprentice

For nearly 20 years, John Mark Comer pastored Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon, until moved into the leadership of a new nonprofit ministry for spiritual formation called Practicing the Way (PracticingTheWay.org), which also is the title of his latest book. Practicing the Way (WaterBrook) is arguably Comer’s most thorough presentation to date of his perspective on spiritual formation, and an important contemporary curation of Christian wisdom on discipleship. 

Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor sat down with Comer to discuss the new book, hear the latest on his new ministry, and get his take on the spiritual implications of our present cultural moment. 

Since you have moved out of full-time pastoral ministry, what have you been doing?

I was at Bridgetown Church for just shy of 20 years. That was really the whole first half of my life and ministry. Then I had a clear sense, along with the elders, that my time to serve in that role was done.

At Bridgetown, we did a five-year-long initiative that was a journey of discipleship and spiritual formation called Practicing the Way that we did with our whole church. As we came to the end of it, we had a strong sense that this was the work I was to focus more on, not less.

At the same time, a number of other churches were drawn to the resources we were developing. It was a lot of work, so we decided it was time for me to pass the baton of leadership on, and really give myself to specialize more. The lead pastor role naturally is a generalist role. Now I want to specialize in serving the church at large with resources for discipleship and spiritual formation. So we started a new organization creating resources for churches, and [also] called it Practicing the Way.

I’m not on staff at a church, but I get to serve thousands of churches. On the flip side, I get eyes on the church across the country and beyond. I’ve been learning a lot about the state of the church, good and bad.

Tell us how your new book comes out of this part of your story.

About 15 years ago, I had not a crisis of faith but a crisis of discipleship. The rubric for following Jesus that I had grown up with inside of evangelicalism had reached the end of its efficacy for my spiritual formation. The moment my discipleship to Jesus began to touch on the more deeply engaged habits of sin in my body, the stuff that goes back not only to my family of origin but generations before me, the stuff that is deep in my nervous system and the [autonomic] responses of my body (as the neuroscientists call it)—the sin of my flesh as the apostle Paul would call it—then the standard go to church, study the Bible and have morning devotions (all good things and still all a part of my life) were no longer effective. In the words of ancient Christian language, I needed the “purgation” of my spirit.

That was a really difficult time in my life. It was difficult personally because I was running into brokenness that I could not fix by what evangelicals were telling me to do: learning more of the Bible, reading more books, doing more Christian things.

There was also a crisis in me pastorally. I realized that our church was full of people like me: People who had a lot of growth in the first few stages of the spiritual journey and then hit a plateau, or worse, a wall. In my case, as the pressure of adulthood began to settle on me, once I was handed an iPhone at some point in there and got on social media, I began to feel like I was regressing not progressing in my faith. If you take the Fruit of the Spirit as your metric for success (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.), I didn’t feel like year over year I was becoming more loving, more joyful, more peaceful or patient. If anything, I was becoming more hurried, unkinder and more disconnected, more irritable, angrier. And again, worst of all, I realized our church was full of people like me.

Around that time, I discovered the writings of Dallas Willard. Through him, I found the whole world of spiritual formation, which is both a somewhat biblical term and language used for this body of learning rediscovered for low-church Protestants including Willard and Richard Foster in the late ’70’s, early ’80s, and has grown up since that time.

For me, it was almost like a second conversion experience. I realized how much I had to learn. Most of it was new information to me. I had been through Bible college and seminary, and planted a church. But still, most of what I was learning regarding how we actually grow was new information to me. That was a beautiful time in my life, and it has not stopped. That was over a decade ago.

Practicing the Way is my attempt to summarize and synthesize this extraordinary body of work, learning and practices. Most of these are not new. Even if you [initially] find it in neurosciences, Christian therapy or the social sciences, you can pretty much find all of it [previously addressed] in the church fathers, Desert Mothers and Desert Fathers. I want to help that tradition make sense to the kind of people that I get to serve in a pastoral way: millennials or Gen Z in metropolitan or urban areas, and for anyone who is interfacing with an iPhone, secularism, progressivism and our political climate.

Let’s talk about that broader spiritual crisis, both culturally and within low-church evangelical Protestantism.

There never has been a golden age in church history, but we are certainly not at a high point. I think it is an open secret that we are very much living through a crisis of discipleship in the West.

Name your malaise: from political polarization to people in our churches getting sucked into the left and the right ideologies and idolatries of political religion, to the breakdown of the family, to the divorce rate, to the scandal of pastors, to deconstruction, and 1 million-plus millennials supposedly leaving the faith in America every year. Those are all symptoms. I think the root cause is much deeper.

In 1978, Richard Lovelace famously wrote about what he called the “sanctification gap,” which is older language for the same phenomenon. That was the same year that Richard Foster wrote Celebration of Discipline. That came as a counterbalance, not only to the rise of the Church Growth Movement coming out of Fuller [Theological Seminary], but to the broader crisis of discipleship in evangelicalism.

It’s difficult to pin down where this came from, but I think you have a couple of culprits. One is simply a misunderstanding of the gospel since at least WWII, if not way before it. In North America, and far beyond, the gospel has been preached in such a way that you could become a Christian without becoming an apprentice of Jesus. Even today, most gospel presentations sound very different from Jesus’ in the Gospel of Mark 1, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Or Peter in Acts 2, or Paul throughout the book of Acts. There are similarities, but it’s almost like a different gospel.

Can you say more?

The way the gospel is presented in the West, and in particular in evangelicalism, even in those segments that hyper-emphasize what they call “the gospel,” often comes with no call to apprentice under Jesus. Willard used to say, “If people do not hear your presentation of the gospel and naturally ask the follow-up question, ‘how do I now apprentice under Jesus,’ then whatever you are preaching is not the gospel of Jesus.” So you have an issue there. That has created, in Peter Scazzero’s language, “a two-tier church.” This means you have a large swath of people who identify as Christians, but functionally discipleship is like an optional track for those who want to go deeper.

So, for all the talk about how we are a post-Christian nation still something like 63% of people self-identify as Christian (Pew Research). But, though hard to hard to measure, we can safely conjecture that almost two-thirds of Americans are not deeply committed apprentices of Jesus. The gap between profession and devotion represents the exhaust fumes of Christendom. (As an aside, Christendom gets a bad rap from people in Christendom. But if you live in Los Angeles or Portland, you realize it was not all bad. It had some huge flaws, but the alternative of paganism is far worse. I used to rail against Christendom, and now I kind of think of it nostalgically.)

So the gospel is for sure one [piece]. What do people think that being a Christian means? Another huge piece would be the way that the Protestant Reformation was so tied to the Enlightenment. It adopted some of the assumptions of the Enlightenment uncritically. That’s the danger of culture: We don’t critically question certain things that we just assume to be true.

One of those assumptions was Cartesian thinking that information transfer is the way to change. Almost all evangelical discipleship is built on the assumption that as a person’s knowledge of the Bible increases, their spiritual maturity will increase with it. Most people’s anecdotal experience will tell you that is, at best, a deeply flawed assumption.

If we need something bigger than information transfer, then what do you propose?

There is no silver bullet for discipleship. It’s not, “Read this book and let me give you the formula.” But I do think that there is what Jesus called the Way, or the road, or the path (hodos in Greek). There is an ancient way of following Jesus in community. Much of it has been lost in our culture, but we can recapture, rediscover and follow it. Jesus said, “Come and follow me.” If we do that, it will lead us to transformation. The two broad categories are practices (the practice-based approach to apprenticeship to Jesus) and deep, relational spirituality.

Regarding practices, in the Protestant-Roman Catholic divide, what Christians experienced was almost like a divorce. Some of the furniture went with Mom and some of it went with Dad. Some of the spiritual disciplines went with the Protestants, like Sunday church, preaching, the Bible, service and giving. Others went with the Catholics like solitude and prayer. And there were others nobody really wanted in a consistent way, like Sabbath or fasting. It is a real tragedy when that wholeness of Christian practice is lost.

I grew up and was very well-trained in a small set of disciplines for the spiritual life, but I was missing a few key ones. In an era of hurry, busyness and digital distraction, where most people are exhausted and on the verge of burnout all of the time, the practices that become the most important for our generation are practices of not doing rather than of doing. Willard called these “practices of abstinence.” Those would be practices like Sabbath, where you are not working. Or silence, when you’re not around other people or noise and the input of other information and other people’s voices. You’re just there with your soul before God for input. Fasting would be another one: You are not eating. These practices of abstinence, of not-doing, are important for all people in all time, but are crucial for our people in our time, and have largely been lost.

We need to recapture a practice-based approach to discipleship that takes the body seriously, our habits, our emotional life and even our health at a holistic level.

The other category I would want to focus on would be what Todd Hall at Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology calls “relational spirituality.” Spiritual formation is a relational process. Humans are relational beings, created in the image of a relational God that we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means that discipleship cannot be only a one-to-many monologue-based lecture learning or book learning. Not that those are bad things; I do both of those. But it must be a deeply relational process. And the kinds of relationships that are most conducive to formation are small-scale: you and a couple of others or a dozen other people, not large-scale. I think evangelicals are much better at the large-scale side of Christian spirituality than at the small-scale side of it.

How does this rediscovery fit the unique wounds of our culture right now?

It’s no secret that we live in a time of painful loneliness. The digital age has given us the promise of connectivity being the same thing as community, and it’s just not. In a bunch of different social theories of relationships, there are about three or four categories of relationships. The first and most important is what sociologists call your intimates, which is one to five people max that know you as you actually are, love and accept you as you actually are, and know your shadow. Most people in America, the largest category of Americans, have zero. None. No confidants. They may have some friends, but nobody at that level. That is a major problem. People are painfully lonely.

I think there is an extraordinary offering here. Christians have a 2,000-year tradition of deep, relational community. The church is a communal reality. It is a community of people. One way of understanding the kingdom of God is as a new society of peace, justice and love. While we constantly fall short of the vision of Jesus, we have this rich history to draw on of doing life together. Many parts of that we take for granted, like knowing other people and talking about soul stuff and being able to confess your sin and your shadow side, and having people love and care for you in times of suffering. To us, these things are often normal if you’re in a healthy church experience (it is for me certainly). It is often radical to our neighbors, co-workers and people in cities.

On the practice-based side, it is fascinating—in many ways, I think the world is ahead of the church in understanding the needs of the hour. I think a lot of churches are responding to the problems of the 1970s and ’80s, not to the problems of today. For example, if you look at the explosion of mindfulness meditation, apps like Calm or Headspace, yoga, workout groups, reading groups, therapy, etc., all of this is naming the acute problem of our era. I think most of it has much good to offer the world, but basically a Christian equivalent exists for every single thing I just named, and is even better. Instead of just calming your nervous system or helping your body attune, or having someone to process your pain with, it’s doing all of this in a way that is opening the deepest part of our self up to God, who is the great doctor of the soul (as Jesus called himself and all the ancients called him).

I think a return to a slower, quieter practice-based, emotionally intelligent, body-informed model of discipleship is not just in keeping with the need of the hour, but I think we have a unique contribution. I don’t think there is anything in the mindfulness world that the Christian contemplative tradition doesn’t have that’s a thousand times better. We have this rich legacy of truth, beauty and access to the Trinity that is a powerful witness in our day.

It strikes me that often it is a crisis that helps us find the path into a rediscovery of a richer spiritual practice. What would you say to urge people who may not have met that crisis yet, that this is still worthy and needed and a perennial rich tradition in which they can experience a greater depth of Christian life?

l love that you’re asking that. I agree with you. We generally only go on the spiritual journey based on either pain or desire. And it seems like for most of us, it is by pain. But I think you can go on it just based on desire. Most of us don’t—it’s too un-American, too counterintuitive, too against our flesh to enter a life of discipline without enough pain. Yet, desire is still the best lead-in.

I would say if you are doing the more standard “American church” thing, there is likely a depth, joy, peace and possibility of a life with God that is so much deeper, that no matter how good it is right now, you are only scratching the surface. There is so much more that God has for you. Find that desire. It is in you. If you have the Spirit of God, that desire is in you, no matter how buried. Find that desire, unearth it and let it roar.

I love that dichotomy of pain and desire, and it leads us to the subtitle of your book: “Be with Jesus. Become Like Him. Do as He Did.” Talk about the path here.

That subtitle is just me channeling some of the best of Willard and others. Jesus didn’t invite people to convert to a new religion called Christianity. He never once used the word Christian. The New Testament barely uses it at all. Jesus invited people to apprentice under him.