True mastery of any subject is reflected in one’s ability to take complex matters and make them simple. Acknowledging personal weakness and seeking help is no simple matter. Nor is it simple to step into the darkness of another person’s sin. These are extremely challenging and complex issues of the soul that are often reserved for vocational ministers or licensed therapists. In Side by Side, Edward Welch draws upon thirty-five years of counseling experience to translate the complex and intimidating language of soul-care into an understandable dialectic between the needy and the needed. He asserts, “God has determined that run-of-the-mill people do most of his work—not professionals, not experts” (p. 70). His primary thesis is that “those who help best are the ones who both need help and give help” (p. 11).
Side by Side is divided into two parts that reflect Welch’s thesis: “The first part guides you in sharing your burdens; the second part guides you in bearing the burdens of others” (p. 11).
Part one opens with language that is intentionally provocative: “Your neediness qualifies you to help others” (p. 17). This is disorienting for those who implicitly believe the strong and credentialed are uniquely qualified to walk side by side with the weak and broken. Welch dismantles this false assumption throughout the book by drawing attention to the physical, relational, vocational and spiritual neediness that is inherent to all human beings. His desire is to help the church “acknowledge some specifics of the fragility and uncertainty of our lives and the difficult circumstances we face and then to speak about them to God” (p. 21). Welch’s goal for mutual confession in the pews is lofty because “we have our own views of strength, honor and what is most becoming, and pleas for help are not on that list” (p. 60).
In part two of this work, Welch argues that all people are needed as much as they are needy. Chapters seven through seventeen function as a primer for basic caregiving within the body of Christ: “This is the way the church moves forward—through mutual love and care” (p. 65). Welch works diligently to disarm the fears associated with helping others, while keeping the reader honest: “Make no mistake: to move toward others is hard” (p. 74). This difficult move is mitigated by Welch’s consistent return to biblical truth and practical wisdom: “We are simply interested in knowing another person, which is a basic feature of everyday love” (p. 79). Love is the foundation upon which Welch builds his framework for entering into the brokenness of other needy individuals: “God has determined that help takes place in the context of love and respect” (p. 87). One common temptation in loving needy people is focusing exclusively on their weaknesses. Welch cautions against this and reminds the church that, as a general rule, we will not be able to have growing relationships in which we help other people unless we see the good in them, and they know we see good in them.
One obstacle that readers may face in Side by Side is Welch’s use of the word “needy.” The word comes loaded with cultural presuppositions (inside and outside of the church) that trend more towards a particular sin pattern as opposed to the general need for redemption that is common to all humanity. The difficulty with this word diminishes as the reader progresses through part one and gives Welch an opportunity to develop his thesis. Other readers may desire more nuance in Welch’s argument that “Your neediness qualifies you to help others” (p. 17). For example, some pastors will argue that the degree of neediness they see in some of their members disqualifies those individuals from helping others. While it may serve Welch to add this qualification to his argument, he is certainly aware that some people enter into temporary seasons that preclude their ability to help others.
Side by Side is simple, but in no way simplistic. Operating behind the scenes of this work is a sophisticated anthropology (pp. 23–31), a robust theology, and a biblical ecclesiology. The style of writing reflects a scholar whose greatest concern is the equipping of the saints and the implementation of his thesis into the fabric of everyday life through the hearts of ordinary people. This book is tailored to the small group, Sunday school class, or church planting team looking to create a culture of mutual care among its fellowship. Each chapter concludes with a few discussion questions that set up naturally for group reflection. The most commendable achievement in this work is its practicality. Not only does Welch teach the church what to say, he teaches the church what never to say (pp. 104–7). His writing is experientially seasoned by decades of personally walking with others in wisdom and love. Side by Side is a wonderful tool by which the body of Christ may protect herself against unbiblical hierarchies and correct the unhealthy practice of limiting soul-care to the few paid professionals.