5 things I learned from James K.A. Smith

5 things I learned from James K.A. Smith

I’m a big fan of Smith’s work I have have enjoyed three of his books so far.

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernity
Desiring the Kingdom
Imaging the Kingdom

Desiring the Kingdom has without doubt been the most influential in my thinking and informs the 5 ideas outlined in this post.

1. We need to rethink our strategy of Christian discipleship in light of a Christian understanding of the person

I was brought up in a tradition that primarily aimed at the head as the core of the person. Romans 12:2 was the proof text “

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

Now it is true some traditions react against this emphasis on the mind and have an anti-intellectualist approach. Neither of these extremes is helpful. Smith presents a compelling case that education needs to be more holistic. We need to engage heart, mind and body. We need to develop a more holistic understanding of the person – we are not just “brains on stalks” but rather affective beings. The core of our being is the heart (kardia) which is not just fluffly emotionalism but recognising in a Augstinian (and I suppose Jonathan Edwards ) sense we are affectionate beings.

“What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions – our visions of the ‘good life’- and not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking? What if the primary work of education was the transformation of our imagination rather than the saturation of our intellect? And what if this had as much to do with our bodies as with our minds?” DTK, p. 18

2. We are formed not just but the ideas of this world but by its practices

“Our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which participate” DTK, p,25

It is not just what we believe that determines who we are, but what we do habitually that shapes our affections. Tim Keller once explained that if you do not love someone then you should act lovingly towards them and the affections would come along afterwards. That is part of what Smith is advocating here. He uses Mall shopping as a powerful example of how this operates. We are socialised into desiring a certain form of life – through the architecture, the images, the example of others, the ambience, the physicality and instant gratification provided by the things we purchase. This repetitive exposure and immersive experience shapes what we consider a life worth living and shapes what our hearts value.

Liturgies in Smith’s sense are heart altering repetitive practices.

3. It is no accident that scripture normalises practices for the body of the church to repeat

Smith argues that we need to pay attention to rituals / liturgies prescribed by scripture:

“every liturgy is an education , and embedded in every liturgy is an implicit worldview or “understanding.”
DTK, p, 25

Smith’s picture of an average or normal church service is limiting – he assumes a relatively “high church” setting. He once remarked that he thought there were certain transcultural norms for the church’s worship but when pressed these still seemed to be culturally bound. Nevertheless he lists the following as the essential formative practices of the church:

[quote_box author=”” profession=””]a) the act of gathering
b) the welcome
c) reading of the Law
d) the creed
e) Singing
f) Baptism and Communion
g) Prayer
h) Scripture and the Sermon
i) Offering
j) The dismissal or benediction[/quote_box]

There’s lots to like about Smith’s analysis as I will explore. I would take issue with the structure that Smith seems to think is transcultural – I think there is a colonial critique to be applied to this and a middle class western filter that needs to be exposed. There’s a power structure going on in the way that the vicar is seen to stand in for Christ rather than body of Christ serving as priests. There’s a passivity to the elements that is an inherited part of a reformed clergy lead ecclesiology.

Often we seek to dismember the service – what is the least we can get away with and still call it church? That was partly influenced by the Seeker friendly church movement of the 80s and is present to some degree in some Fresh Expressions. Similar sentiments were raised in the Gospel Driven Church by Ian Stackhouse in the 1990s. The implicit model seemed to be
“Can we demystify and declutter the service so that we can make room for the sermon which is where non-Christians are going to be converted.”

Smith makes a bold case that these practices are not just filler before the sermon, not just relics of a former way of doing things – but have affective and formative function in the disciplemaking we are tasked to do by the risen Christ.

4. Do we need to reconsider the way we do evangelism too?

Does Smith’s work reopen debate about evangelism? In many circles there was a long debate about Belonging before Believing in the cell church movement. This affectionate reorientation of Christian formation would seem to argue for more along those lines.


Is being a part of the “liturgical life” of the church a means by which we induct people into the narrative of the gospel? Is there a connection with what Newbigin described as “the church as hermeneutic of the gospel.” Again the communal life of the church in Smith’s thought seems to take second place to the act of formal worship

5. Is it possible we have still neglected the family as formative community?

Strangely for a book on Christian education no role is given to the family . The Christian university is Smith’s setting but a truly biblical anthropology will not view an individual as a consumer of Christian formation. Even at tertiary level family is a hugely significant context for a young adult.

Perhaps the habitualised environment of teaching at a Christian university has set an unnatural normalising limit to Smith’s work. Because I know Smith’s work is being applied in contexts that are very different to the Christian university I believe this is worth noting.

The church’s lituirgical practice is given as a positive example of Christian formation – but again the unit of attendance is assumed to be an individual. What difference does it make that liturgical practice takes place in the context of family?

Watch this space as I want to unpack this as we explore the discipleship of children and young people in future posts.

There’s lots more to enjoy in Smith’s work, read more in Desiring the Kingdom



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