To Alter Your World, Michael Frost and Christiana Rice. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.
Summary: Explores a different metaphor for the church’s role in God’s mission, that of midwife to what God is birthing, and how this might change the ways we engage with our world.
One of the dominant metaphors for Christian cultural engagement today is that of battle, whether of spiritual warfare, a war to “reclaim” the culture, or retreat, because of perception that either we’ve been fighting the wrong war, or that we are seriously losing and need to re-group and re-build. A more sophisticated model is that of “changing” or “transforming” the world. Yet as James Davison Hunter points out in To Change The World, this has often been an exercise in starry-eyed naivete’ and a prescription for burnout when the world doesn’t easily or quickly change.
Michael Frost and Christiana Rice, two missional practitioners and theorists have come together in this book to suggest a different model, a different way of “joining” God in the mission. Their inspiration is drawn from Isaiah 42:14:
“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”
Their contention is that it is God, through his work in Christ, who is birthing a new world and our role is akin to that of the midwife. They write:
“If God is groaning like a woman in labor, and if a new world is being born before our very eyes, being pushed forth through the cracks of our broken world, our job isn’t to hurry it along. Rather our job is to join God and partner with him in the delivery room and to stop imagining we can birth the new world with our own strategies and methodologies. Indeed, our attempts to usher in the new order in recent years haven’t produced the kid of restoration, redemption or reconciliation in this world that we believe God envisions” (p. 17).
Frost and Rice don’t stop with a new metaphor or a new paradigm but press this out in the practical work in which teams of missional people engage. They challenge us to forego our colonizing and rootless efforts at church planting that fail to listen to and attend to communities and develop wholistic ministry in partnership with its people. Instead they elaborate the metaphor of midwife, both in ancient Israel and contemporary practice.
Midwives neither give birth to the child for the mother nor “make it happen” according to a plan but attend women during their pregnancies. They make space for a birth to happen to remove all barriers to giving birth and welcoming new life. They study place, they notice signs, they look at physical space. They act flexibly and fearlessly to the changing circumstances of the birth process. They don’t spend lots of time arguing the importance of midwifing, but quietly live that narrative with the women they attend. Rice and Frost work out practical applications of these principles.
They also see that collaboration to effect change is a multi-level process: with individuals, interpersonally in small groups like families, in community, in institutions and in structures and systems. Much of this happens not just through “church” activities but through a transformed vision of our work that things about our work societally as well as individually.
Place and space is a big part of what they talk about, and often overlooked. They draw on the work of the Project for Public Spaces to identify seven principles for creating great spaces that missional communities in a space need to consider:
- The neighborhood is the expert.
- Craft a place, not a design.
- Look for partners.
- You can see a lot just by observing.
- Have a vision.
- Money is not the issue.
- You are never finished.
The concluding two chapters concern the missional person. Not only do they attend to the changes God would birth, but they are changed themselves in the process. Often this comes through suffering. Change is disruptive and there will be push back. To love a place and its people and to persist in all this is hard and we will be changed through it.
The call of this book is not to quietism as opposed to human-centered activism, a kind of can-do, we can make it happen spirit. The midwife, is active, but in a different way, and this is what I most appreciate about the theme and approach of this book. It offers, to people who have begun to think they must make something happen to advance the mission of God, the insight that God has something God would give birth to in the world. Perhaps most striking is that this is a distinctively female metaphor–one of a woman attending to another giving birth, and God uses it of God’s self! Many of us who are fathers went through childbirth classes that taught us how we might attend and accompany our wives, perhaps in the presence of an obstetrician or midwife, in the incredible process of birth, one we could only support as our wives labored. Perhaps we might begin to draw upon that to understand and become skillful midwives in the birthing process of the new creation.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.