Review: In Search of the Common Good

In search of the common good

In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured WorldJake Meador. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Observing the breakdown in community in both church and society, the author traces the root causes, and the practices of Christian community that can lead to recovery of community and a church that seeks the common good in society.

Many attentive culture watchers have noted the parallel declines of both church and wider American culture. Attendance is dropping in many churches even as churches are rocked with scandals of sexual abuse and financial mismanagement. The seduction of the church to corrupt political alliances, whether of the left or the right, in the author’s view, is only the final step in a church that has given itself to power instead of the doing of “small things with great love.” While all this goes on, America is “bowling alone” to even a greater extend than when Robert Putnam first published his study of the decline of social capital and community in America. Suicide rates are up, life expectancy is dropping, and the professionalized care industry is booming, even as local community and a sense of cohesion and pursuit of common good is vanishing in a land of toxic discourse.

Jake Meador chronicles these parallel declines and traces them to three factors. One is a loss of meaning, a pervasive existentialism that pretends to meaning in choices of radical freedom, yet without hope. A second is a loss of wonder, a dis-enchantment with the world as the buffered self cuts us off from both danger and wonder, resulting pervasive boredom. A third is the hollowing out of work, where efficiency and profitability is the sum total of work’s meaning, where we are alienated both from our work, and by our work from home, family, and religious life, as work becomes all-consuming.

Meador proposes three practices that may play a crucial role in restoring Christian communities to health, enabling them to exercise a societal presence that fosters a wider common good. He begins with the surprising proposal of keeping sabbath, as a tangible way of underscoring that human beings were made, not for work, but for God, that we are human beings, not human doings. One of the things Meador argues for is corporate worship, as one tangible way of keeping sabbath that begins to restore a sense of our being part of some “common good.” He adopts Wendell Berry’s idea of “membership” in which we recognize that we are embedded in both a human and wider biological community.  He advocates for work that is sacramental–that work is good and offers ways to bless others, that produces wealth, and is attentive to the membership.

His final section consists of two parts. The latter grounds the former, and really all that he has written, in the new heaven and new earth, a hope that is even more real than life in the present age. The former talks about what it means for the community of God’s people to be citizens in earthly societies. It is here perhaps that he makes one of his most trenchant observations:

   Put another way, the political priorities of many American Christians in recent years have been precisely backward. We ought to have begun with doctrine because doctrine defines the good life as it relates to political systems and societies. Then we ought to have turned to the formation of citizens. We should have asked what kind of virtues are necessary to live well in community with one another and what particular virtues are necessary for responsible political action. Then we should have asked how to cultivate those virtues within our people. Finally, only after attending to these issues, we should have moved on to debating policy….American Christians, and evangelicals especially, have done the exact opposite. (p. 161).

He argues for a political doctrine shaped by the Kuyperian ideas of solidarity and sphere sovereignty, and the practice of subsidiarity–that government should only do those things it is large enough to do, leaving other matters to other spheres of life.

Reading Jake Meador as a sixty-something took me back to what it was like to read as a college student a young Os Guinness in The Dust of Death, with his sweeping discussion of culture, and what it meant for Christians to live as a third wayThere is the same scope of considering cultural forces, the intellectual ideas behind them, and a fresh vision of what Christian faithfulness might look like in the present time. Sadly, a boomer generation fascinated with “fast-everything” circumvented doctrine and virtue and communal practices in pursuit of policy influence, power, or a personal prosperity without a sense of our membership and solidarity with others and all living things.

This leaves me reflecting. Os Guinness is still speaking and writing. Jake Meador has written for a number of publications. But who is reading? And who is heeding? I hope someone is and that the American church wakes up to how far it has declined over forty years, before all we can do is cry “Ichabod. The glory has departed!” (1 Samuel 4:21). Meador’s ideas and commended practices offer light for those tired of groping in the darkness.


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.

Review: Healing Our Broken Humanity

Healing our Broken Humanity

Healing Our Broken World, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill (Foreword by Willie James Jennings). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: In a world with deep racial, gender, national, and political divides, the authors propose nine formative practices churches can pursue enabling the church to have a healing presence in the world.

We live in the midst of a world with terrible brokenness, pretty much wherever we look. Hostility between ethnic and racial groups. Violence against women. Gun violence. Political discord. Relational brokenness. The deep ache so many who sense that life just isn’t the way it is supposed to be. Often our churches, even when they seem to be thriving, reflect the wider divides and brokenness of the surrounding society.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill have seen all this in their respective communities but are not in despair. Out of their experience of working with various church groups, they believe there are nine practices that both offer a roadmap for transformation, and enable God’s people to be a transformative presence in the world. These are:

1. Reimagine Church as the new humanity in Jesus Christ
2. Renew Lament through corporate expressions of deep regret and sorrow.
3. Repent Together of white cultural captivity, and racial and gender injustice, and our complicity.
4. Relinquish Power by giving up our own righteousness, status, privilege, selfish ambition, self interests, vain conceit, and personal gain.
5. Restore Justice to those who have been denied justice.
6. Reactivate Hospitality by rejecting division and exclusion, and welcoming all kinds of people into the household of God.
7. Reinforce Agency by supporting people’s ability to make free, independent, and unfettered actions and choices.
8. Reconcile Relationships through repentance, forgiveness, justice and partnership.
9. Recover Life Together as a transformed community that lives out the vision of the Sermon on the Mount.

Willie James Jennings, in his Foreward, emphasizes the importance of implementing these practices in diverse communities. He writes, “The crucial matter today for Christian discipleship is not what you practice but who you practice with.” In the practical suggestions Kim and Hill offer, the practices themselves take people into the diverse community Jennings commends. In “reimagining church” groups using this book are encouraged to serve other groups in your community and visit Christians from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In “renewing lament” groups are encouraged to gather for nights of shared lament with a mix of genders, ages, and ethnicities. In “repenting together,” groups are encouraged to spend time among the marginalized, and then reflect on what the Spirit is convicting them to repent of, and then form accountability groups to act in ways that express changed hearts, In the chapter on “relinquishing power,” the authors challenge people to stop organizing all-white male slates of speakers or panels at conferences and other events.

Each chapter grounds these transformative practices in biblical principles illustrated from the authors’ personal ministry experiences. Each chapter concludes with a number of practical suggestions that might be implemented by a small group working together. These include both study and action items. I would observe that this is not a chapter-a-week book for groups to read. If a group seriously engages each chapter, they probably need to take a month to several months on the action steps in each chapter. Often the action steps direct to other readings or studies.

That makes the questions at the end of the book for groups a bit puzzling. They seem to assume a single week of discussion on each chapter. The “nine practices accountability form” in the second appendix suggests that groups might study through the nine and begin to shape their lives around the various practices. My sense is that a group that is serious about pursuing these practices and living them out ought to think in terms of a year to several years of working together.

Actually, that could be quite an experience that moves far beyond socializing, a dip into scripture, and prayers that life would “go smoothly” that characterize many small groups. The challenge to lament is likely foreign to most in majority culture, but common among ethnic minorities. Practicing hospitality that goes beyond those “like us” would be transformative in many communities. Finding ways to seek and advocate justice, particularly for those who may not be part of our communities, will open us up to people we might not otherwise meet. The subtitle of this book speaks of “revitalizing the church and renewing the world.” These practices have the potential to do just that, if we dare.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.