Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love by Edward T. Welch

There are few books that have blindsided me as entirely as Side by Side, and it did so in the most challenging and revealing way. I downloaded this book at a time in my life when I felt that there were a lot of people in my life needing support and I felt in no way equipped to deal with all the different situations my friends were facing. I admit, I was looking for a fix-it: some incredible answer that would mean I could be the best possible friend to everyone all at once. The last thing I was expecting was to be challenged on the troubles I was ignoring in my own life.

In the Introduction, Welch makes it clear that this book is for anyone who is involved in providing emotional support to others: or, in other words, every Christian. He makes the claim that all of us are involved in this work, whether we know it or not, because ‘we were meant to walk side by side, an interdependent body of weak people’ (p.12 – ebook). He expands on this by explaining how important friendship is in the church, stating that ‘friends are the best helpers. They come prepackaged with compassion and love. All they need is wisdom, and that is available to everyone’ (p.12). It was a relief to read this introduction and realise that my weakness was actually exactly the right place to start. As Welch says: ‘You are one of the ordinary people God uses to help others’ (p.12).

The first part of the book is titled ‘We Are Needy’; this was by far the most challenging section of the book and the bit that left me a little shell-shocked. Far from giving any quick answers, Welch instead turns to the reader and asks them to look at the areas in which they themselves are struggling. There are exercises and response questions to help the reader think through the emotions of their busy hearts, and what happens when our busy hearts intersect with hard circumstances and sin. Above all, Welch encourages the reader to be vulnerable by asking God for help and asking others for help. By admitting our own neediness, Welch argues, we will be better helpers, encouraging others to ask for help in turn. Working through these chapters brought me to tears more than once as I realised the need to bring others, even those I felt most needed my support, into the messiness of my life.

The second part, entitled ‘We Are Needed’, is much more the content I was expecting going into this book as Welch takes the reader through some basic principles of helping others. There were two principles here that I found particularly helpful in thinking further about developing helpful friendships with others: the first is to see the good in people; the second is to ask for stories. It’s easy, when supporting those who most need our help, to forget that there is more than just that person’s troubles; instead, Welch instructs the reader to look for the character qualities, gifts, and examples of faith in the midst of the struggle. Once we have friendships built on these foundations, we have the privilege of hearing the stories of our friends’ lives; as a literature and creative writing student, this idea of drawing out the important people and moments of people’s lives from the stories they tell really struck me. It made me resolve to listen much more carefully when hearing others’ stories.

Welch finishes the book with a picture of the church as a community of people walking side by side serving and supporting each other in love. Ultimately, that is what this book is all about: how ordinary people in the local church can serve each other through times of trial. God has given us each other as a great resource: I needed the reminder that this is a resource which works both ways. This is definitely a book I would recommend; I think it would be a particularly good book for those involved in any sort of pastoral ministry to read with someone, to discuss any issues it brings up. I anticipate re-reading this in the future to remind myself of these principles.

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