Review: Becoming a Just Church

just church

Becoming a Just ChurchAdam L. Gustine. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Develops the idea that the pursuit of justice for Christians begins in and flows out of their communities as they learn to practice God’s shalom in every aspect of their church life.

There is a great deal of discussion about the pursuit of justice, particularly in public settings in some Christian circles. The problem is that these conversations are often “echo chambers” preaching to the converted while significant portions of the church is either indifferent or even hostile to these conversations. They are relegated to “justice teams” or even forced to begin their own “parachurch” organizations. Some question their gospel fidelity. Adam Gustine thinks this won’t change until justice, which he equates with the shalom of God, the wholeness of life shared by all of God’s people, flows through and out of the life of our local congregations.

The first part of his book develops an ecclesiology for justice, a way to think about justice in the church. The four chapters in this section first of all focus on what it means to be “the people of God,” thinking in terms of “we” rather than “I” and practicing justice, not as an outreach strategy, but as a way of loving God and one’s neighbor. Gustine challenges us to think as exiles in American culture rather than natives and that the church is meant to be a prophetic alternative to the American way of life. That alternative way of life is a mañana way of life that allows a vision of God’s future for his people to shape the way we live in the present, kind of like demonstration garden plots. Finally, along the lines of gardening, he invites the church to pursue the flourishing of the physical communities in which we are situated. Perhaps the challenge here to our commuter, big box model of “doing” church, is that he envisions a parish model in a particular place where we worship and live.

Part two of the book then looks at the practice of justice in the warp and woof of congregational life. First of all, Gustine talks about what it means to be a church that includes and empowers the “low ground” people in a “high ground” world (referring to the reality that in most places, those who have means and power live above flood-prone low ground areas where the poor live). He challenges us to radical hospitality that welcomes the “other,” whoever that may be in our setting, talking about the food pantry “guests” who had a hard time truly sensing they were full participants in his church. He believes that the practice of justice must be integral to our discipleship efforts, and critical to this is helping people to gain awareness of their own social location, and think of the kingdom implications of their particular place in society. Finally he contends that justice ought shape worship, moving us beyond the “Pleasantville” of “just praising the Lord” to confession, repentance, and lament, expressions rarely heard in most white evangelical contexts, but much more common elsewhere.

The book concludes with a conversation on power, a critical issue in the practice of justice in churches. He engages with Juliet Liu and Brandon Green, two other pastors of churches who have joined him in the pursuit of “just church.” Then in his epilogue, acknowledging that he hasn’t discussed “public justice,” Gustine briefly gestures toward some of the tangible ways the pursuit of public justice in his own South Bend, Indiana community has flowed out of his congregational life.

Gustine puts his finger on an important issue, that we put “doing” before “being” far too often, in this case the “doing” of public justice without “being” just communities, places where the kingdom is setting things to rights across the cultural barriers of class, and gender, and ethnicity and status in our own communities. Indeed, we often are trying to care for a community as disparate collections of individuals, a bunch of “I’s” doing our own justice “thing” rather than a “we,” a people.

Currently, the evangelical church is deeply divided about justice, often along secular political lines justified by a veneer of scriptures we hurl at one another. Sometimes, these divisions even find their way into local congregations. Becoming a Just Church offers a path for a church to come together as a “third way” people, not beholden to political and theological outlooks of the left or the right. Discussion questions allow for group use and the author has also developed a companion Just Church Vision Retreat set of resources that church leadership teams may use in conjunction with the book (information about this pops up when you visit the publisher’s website for the book).

Gustine mentions the lament of Carl F. H. Henry over nascent evangelicalism’s neglect of justice back in 1947 when he wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (reviewed here). Seventy years later, we are still wrestling with an evangelicalism deeply divided around issues of justice. Might it be that the practices Gustine commends, pursued in local congregations, offer a way forward? Finding that way forward seems crucial to me–I’m not sure the American church has another seventy years to fritter away.

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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: Reciprocal Church

reciprocal church

Reciprocal ChurchSharon Galgay Ketcham. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Addressing the loss of young people from the church, makes an argument for a theology of the church as vital in our Christian life, and for mutuality and reciprocal engagement between youth and other generations in a flourishing community where all contribute.

Statistics show that young people are exiting churches in significant numbers. Sharon Galgay Ketcham contends that part of the problem is our “gospel passage” which often emphasizes the individual’s need for Christ, but has little to say about our vital need for his people. Church is a consumable, a support in my faith journey, but not a vital aspect of what I am saved into.

The first part of her book makes a theological argument for how the church is vital in our Christian experience. Our identity is as a people of God, our growth comes as we experience reconciliation with others, and we are transformed through those relationships. She writes, “Our churches simply lose credibility when what we claim about Christ’s redemption does not influence our relationships with one another.” When this is occurring biblically, it happens reciprocal, where young and older contribute to each other’s growth in Christ, and where young people are full participants in, rather than just recipients of the church’s ministry.

The second part of the book talks about the values and the practices that incarnate them that nourish reciprocal churches as flourishing communities. Ketcham argues for the importance of remembering our corporate story, both our big story, and the stories of each of our communities. She advocates for a mutuality that is authentic, empathetic, collaborative, and companionable. Youth are seen as people with potential, not as problems, and are invited to contribute fully to the life of the community. Finally, reciprocal churches value maturity, growing in the fruit of the Spirit through their relationships with each other.

This is not a how-to book to develop a bigger youth program. Ketcham’s argument is far more profound. She asks us to consider how integral our whole church is to the working out of salvation for youth, and for all of us. She challenges us to think not merely of the needs of youth, but how we all need each other to grow up in Christ. She encourages us to see youth not simply as participants but as full partners and contributors. She gives the lie to the idea that Christian growth is simply between the individual and Jesus, with the church as merely an optional support. She is one of a growing number of youth ministry writers who recognize how vital an inter-generational community is to the vibrant faith of youth, and perhaps all of us.

I welcome this book. As a young believer, one of the compelling arguments for the faith, even in the face of some of the problems I saw with the church, was the opportunity to learn of the deep faith of others of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Caring for the yard of one elderly woman in the congregation powerfully changed me as she invited me in for milk and cookies (seriously!) and talked about her missionary service in Egypt, and then prayed for me. Another time, I was paired up in a local outreach with a grandfatherly type wearing a bow tie among a group of youth in bell bottoms. My eyes were opened when I saw him listen to those we were engaging with genuine interest, and then share the love of Christ. These were people who entrusted me with ministry and mentored me in high school and college, and let me into their lives–their struggles, doubts, and determination to believe.

This is how the body of Christ works at its best. Sharon Galgay Ketcham reminds us of a vision of church not segregated by generation but vitally and reciprocally connected to each other, helping each other work out what it means to be the people of God.

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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: Quit Church

Quit Church

Quit ChurchChris Sonksen (Foreword by Dave Ferguson). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: A challenge to quit a half-hearted commitment to church for lives of discipleship in six areas.

Chris Sonksen wants us to quit church. “Oh no!” I thought. “Another one of these emerging church types!” But I was intrigued as well–the title was a good hook for me. I was curious to find out what Sonksen was up to.

It turns out that what Sonksen wants is for us to quit our casual approaches to church. Quitting means saying no to particular ways of living in order to embrace a life of discipleship. Doing so will be a win both for us, and for our churches, that releases the blessings of God. He outlines six areas where we need to consider quitting and embracing whole-hearted, whole life discipleship:

  1. Quit expecting our churches to be heaven on earth and criticizing and gossiping against pastors and church leaders. Embrace a life of prayerful support, turning away from judgmentalism and gossip.
  2. Quit giving away your money when you can and commit to tithing, trusting God to provide.
  3. Quit helping when you can and find places to serve where the church’s and the world’s need and your gifts and passions meet. Disciples don’t wait to be asked.
  4. Quit hoping that people will come to church, and to Christ through the initiative of others. Pray for and invite them yourself. There are people we know who need the Lord and God wants us to be part of that–investing, inviting, and including them.
  5. Quit stopping by church when it is convenient and commit to weekly worship. Our lack of consistency robs us, robs others, and undermines the momentum of our church.
  6. Quit having, or being a “church friend,” someone whose relationships with others is a superficial weekly greeting, chat, or wave, and engage deeply with a smaller group of friends.

One chapter addresses each of these “quits” and in plain language spells out how our casual commitment is deadly to us and the church, and the “wins” we experience when we exchange this casual approach for a committed discipleship. The author shares his own journey, most memorably for me in his brief shared gym membership with former NBA star Ricky Berry. One day the two of them were alone in the gym, and Chris felt repeated promptings from God to speak to Berry, but did not, feeling awkward about approaching the celebrity. A few hours after leaving the gym, he learned of Berry’s suicide, and vowed never to say “no” to a prompting from God again to be an agent in his saving purposes.

There was part of me that felt “is that it? It all seems so simple.” And then I realized that it is not. I’ve seen the phenomena Sonksen talks about of inconsistent church attendance, throwing a few dollars in the offering, and helping out when one can. But I also worried about the “church busyness” that I have seen of people doing all the things Sonksen commends, but not experiencing a vital relationship with Christ. I do think this comes as we put feet to our walk with Christ in these ways, but the focus here seemed more on the personal and church wins achieved. This also felt very “church-centric,” focused around support of pastor and church leadership, attendance, church programming, and giving. I would have loved to seen a chapter on “quitting the sacred-secular split” and whole-heartedly serving Christ in the places most of us spend most of our waking hours–our work.

That is in no way to detract from the importance of quitting casual “churchiness” and unhealthy practices to embrace a more biblical involvement with one’s fellow believers. This is a good book for those longing for “something more” in their participation in the life of the body and his checklist at the end a good resource for self-examination as to whether we’ve become casual in our faith and need, in our own ways to “quit church” for something better.

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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.

 

Review: Contemporary Art and the Church

Contemporary Art and the Church

Contemporary Art and the Church, Edited by W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2017.

Summary: Essays from artists, theologians, and church leaders participating in the 2015 Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) Conference exploring the conversation to be had between the church and contemporary artists.

The relationship between the church and the art world has often been a tense one, particularly on the contemporary art scene. Often, believing people don’t know what to make of contemporary art, or they may find it repulsive or even insulting when images of their faith seem to be denigrated. Contemporary artists sometimes come from church communities but have experienced rejection, or the disjunct between professed beliefs and lived experience. Then there is the group working in both worlds, and living in the tension between those worlds. These are the people represented by the essays in this book, which came out of a Christians in the Visual Arts conference in 2015, gathered to explore how a conversation might be had between these two worlds–a conversation made up of artists, critics, theologians, and church leaders.

There are three groups of essays, and then two concluding symposia and two final essays. The first group of essays explores what is meant by a conversation between the church and contemporary art. Wayne Roosa’s essay seems to maximize the differences, that this is a conversation between strangers that will involve a posture of close listening and receptivity to even understand each other. Linda Stratford responds that there are overlapping qualities between the two, commending as an example the late work of Andy Warhol, who turns out to have been far more religious than many would have guessed. Jonathan Anderson draws on Paul Hiebert’s work around bounded and centered sets and suggests the latter offers a model for intersection between the two conversation partners around shared concerns of ultimate value. The final essay, by Bowden and Lettieri explore examples of what is being done at a practical level through exhibitions in church galleries and other settings.

The second set of essays focuses on theology–God and contemporary art. Ben Quash opens with the provocative question, “can contemporary art be devotional art?” He considers three oppositions in this relationship, which he describes as a “marriage in mediation,” Taylor Worley responds by exploring how faith, hope and love shape our engagement with contemporary art. Christina L. Carnes Ananias explores some of the different ways one might understand silence and nothingness in the work of Yves Klein. Finally, in one of the most interesting essays in the collection, Chelle Sterns explores a “haptic pneumatology” (the experience of the Spirit through touch, physical sensation) in the installations of Ann Hamilton. If her work is ever in my town, I want to see (and participate in) it after Stern’s description.

The third section concerns art and worship, Katie Kresser, an art historian, explores some of the theory of visual and spiritual perception around images and makes recommendations for art in the worship context that expresses shared apprehensions of truth of the worshipers rather than a mere personal expression of the artist. W. David O. Taylor affirms this but presses further in asking, “Which Art, What Worship?” Allen Craft argues for an art that gives a congregation a sense of its “place” in the world. Finally, David W. McNutt contends that churches in the Reformed tradition shaped by Barth’s emphasis on Word and negative view of images, may find support in Barth’s ecclesiology for art in the church. I have to admit that I wasn’t persuaded, but that McNutt is far more knowledgeable about Barth than I.

The final section consisted of two panels, one moderated by Nicholas Wolterstorff, the other by Kevin Hamilton. The first might be described as “the way it was and how far Christians in the arts have come.” The second was a much younger group of artists working in public settings, describing much more, “the way it is.” This is followed by an essay by Calvin Seerveld giving advice to recent grads–apprentice, do imaginative work rooted in one’s humanness, and create works that reflect one’s vision of “the city of God” in all of life. Finally, he argues that artists are jesters and ventriloquists. Cameron J. Anderson explores both the embrace of calling and beauty in the pursuit of one’s art and the knowledge that grace alone saves the world.

This is a pretty high level conversation, where we overhear serious thinkers and artists exploring the conceptual and imaginary worlds of the church and the contemporary art world. Apart from Bowden and Lettieri’s essay, and the two symposia, there was less on practical program and more on exploring the first principles of such conversations. More important, it seemed to me a kind of rehearsal of how CIVA artists and church sympathizers might extend these conversations, both in the direction of the wider church, and the wider art community. This path-breaking work seems vitally important if a real conversation is to occur, one that fosters new-found appreciation for the concerns of artists, and one that explores how a contemporary aesthetic might open up fresh ways of apprehending the God we worship and God’s ways in the world.

Review: Political Church

Political Church

Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule, Jonathan Leeman. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Explores the nature of the church, arguing that it is a political institution that serves as an embassy of the kingdom of God, with implications for both its internal life and its engagement with the nations and governments of the world.

It seems that the relationship of church and state, which we often frame as spiritual versus political, and organic versus institutional, is a perennial discussion. In this work, Jonathan Leeman does a fine-grained analysis of both the biblical material concerning covenant-redemptive history and studies of the new institutionalism and turns much of the traditional schools of thought on their heads, arguing that both church and state are political and institutional, that our separations of spiritual and political realms don’t wash, and that our liberal idea of religious freedom ends in the destruction of religious freedom. He argues that both church and state function under the rule of God, albeit under different covenants and functioning in different “ages.” He contends that there is no neutral public square but that it is a battleground of the gods and that the state, ordained by God, either acting in accord with God or self-justifying.

Intrigued? I found myself growing more and more intrigued as I followed his carefully reasoned argument to its conclusion and thesis about the nature of the church. Leeman writes in his Introduction:

“Yet the primary claim of this book is that the local church is just such a political assembly. Indeed, the church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographic space but from across eschatological time.

“In other words, this book is concerned with the biblical and theological question of what constitutes a local church. The answer, it will argue, is that Jesus grants Christians the authority to establish local churches as visible embassies of his end-time rule through the “keys of the kingdom” described in the Gospel of Matthew. By virtue of both the keys and a traditional Protestant conception of justification by faith alone, the local church exists as a political assembly that publicly represents King Jesus, displays the justice and righteousness of the triune God, and pronounces Jesus’ claim upon the nations and their governments.”

Leeman begins by calling into question our conceptions of politics and institutions arguing for a broader conception of politics that includes the church, and that an institutional understanding of the church’s life is warranted in scripture. A political institution is “a community of people united by a common governing authority,” and he applies this both to church and state.

His next four chapters explore a politics of creation, fall, the new covenant, and the kingdom. He argues that the state operates under the Noahic covenant and has delegated authority to maintain the social order in the present age while refraining from enforcing belief, or impinging upon religious liberty, rooting religious liberty in an absolute standard, rather than in the conflicted conscience of liberal democracy. The church, foreshadowed by Israel, operates under the new covenant as ambassadors of the coming age, ordering its own belief and practice through the “power of the keys” while announcing the coming rule of Christ and its character to the nations.

A particularly striking conclusion is that it is the local church that is the focus of this work, and the only meaningful place, in Leeman’s argument, that functions as a kingdom embassy. Furthermore, he argues that the “power of the keys,” that is, the power both to admit people into membership and instruct them in truth, and to remove those who, by their lives, repudiate Christ’s rule, resides not in a single person or in a hierarchical structure, but in the congregation as a whole. This certainly is consistent with a “priesthood of all believers” theology, but I am troubled with what seems an inevitable consequence of his conclusion, the highly Balkanized kingdom of schismatic Protestantism. Are local congregations the only institutional manifestation of the kingdom?

His development of the idea of church as institution also bears on his discussion of justification and a difference with N.T. Wright. He would contend that covenant inclusion is not the definition of justification which he would maintain is being “declared righteous, but rather the institutional context of justification. This is one example of the careful analysis one will find in this work, in contrast with what Leeman believes is often fuzzy thinking. One also sees this in his critique of “advancing the kingdom” through social transformation without conversion. For Leeman, this begins with defining terms carefully, and distinguishing from notions that accrue more to liberal, Western ideologies than biblical theology.

This is a short review of a very long book. It is not possible here to “show all the work” in Leeman’s argument. His premises about politics and institutions and his covenant theology are key to that argument. It is particularly helpful in its conclusion that the church’s witness is a political act, in the ways it defines what both church and state do under a sovereign God. His discussion of the politics of forgiveness versus self-justification was another highlight for me in bringing to bear the distinctiveness of the Christian message as it bears on both church and public life.

In a time where political engagement tends consist of knee-jerk reactions to hot-button issues, slogans and soundbites, and efforts to return America to some kind of mythical Christian age, Leeman challenges us to the hard thinking about what our proper role is in our churches, and a framework for how Christians involved with the state might act. Whether you agree with all of his conclusions, the process he uses to reach them will challenge your own thinking and assumptions.

Review: Love Big, Be Well

love big be well

Love Big, Be Well, Winn Collier. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017.

Summary: Letters written through the seasons of the church year by Jonas McAnn to the people of Granby Presbyterian Church on the varying facets of believing and living as a church, the warmth of friendship and the dark nights of doubt, each ending with the words “love big, be well.”

It is still early in the year, but I think this book is going to end up on my “best of 2018” list. Perhaps it is because I resonate with so much here, and because it is written so well.

A disillusioned pastor making his living selling insurance receives a letter written by Amy Quitman and signed by rest of the search committee at Granby Presbyterian Church. In it, she writes:

“Here are our questions. We’d like to know if you are going to use us. Will our church be your opportunity to right all the Church’s wrongs, the ones you’ve been jotting down over your vast ten years of experience?…Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you’ve had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church-thing straight? Or might we hope that our church could be a place where you’d settle in with us and love along-side us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God’s crazy about us? 

In other words, the question we want answered is very simple. Do you actually want to be our pastor?”

Jonas writes a long and frank response about why he’d packed it in as a pastor, and why he started looking to serve a church again. He confesses, “The truth is, my give-a-shit’s broke.” But he concludes,

“This letter is too long, just like my sermons. I’m working on it. But all this is to say that if our conversation leads anywhere and I were to join your motley band, being your pastor is the only thing I’d know how to do. I’m at an utter loss on anything else.” 

And then he adds,

” If I were your pastor, I’d want to continue this letter-writing thing. We’re on to something.

Love big. Be well.

Jonas McAnn

The church agrees and this is the first of many letters from 2008 to 2014, when he takes a sabbatical. The letters sparkle with the warmth of his growing friendships with the people of this church, notably big Don Brady, a hulk of a man who came to faith later in life, and who later experiences a recurrence of a cancer that had been in remission. He reflects on the nature of this thing they call church and the high-blown language and cant that obscures the reality of friends on a journey together in a place. He honestly confesses to the mystery in much of which he preaches, and his own struggles to believe the things he proclaims from the scriptures–how often he preaches, prays, and lives into things when the feeling of confidence is absent.

The letters continue when the honeymoon is over and they wrestle with the hard realities of this relationship between church and pastor. Toward the end, he includes a letter from Luther, chair of their elder board, the lone black, and what it is like to “represent” his people when he is just Luther, and yet how he does in feeling the pain and the disjuncts of racial history, even in their own congregation.

One of the letters that summed up the ordinary and yet compelling vision of church being worked out in this book is titled “The People Who Bury You.” It concludes,

“As the church, we’re the people (whenever we live true to ourselves) who will welcome you into this world, who will join you in marriage and in friendship, who will bless your coming and your going. We will pray for you to prosper and know love’s depths even if you think our prayers are foolish or offered in vain, and we will mourn you when you leave us. We will bless the land and the nations we share, and we will grieve together through tragedy and heartache. We will celebrate, with you, everything beautiful and good, everything that comes from the hand of mercy. And then, when your days conclude, we will bury you. We will return you to the earth and pray God’s kindness over you.

This is who we are. This is who I hope we will continue to be.”

This was one of a number of passages that caught my breath with the beauty, or the blunt acknowledgement of things for which I did not have nearly the words. I’ve been in a church for twenty-eight years that has been doing all these things, groping, imperfectly to be sure, to live out the realities of what it means to live in Christ both through the seasons of the church year, and all the seasons of life. We’ve been through vision and church growth processes, the products of which mostly reside in a file drawer somewhere. We’re not a large bunch but we are blessed with a pastor who reminds me of Jonas McAnn. We celebrate births, seek to teach our children well, revel in marriages and housewarmings and summer barbecues. We’ve marveled as we’ve walked alongside saints like Betty, whose life seemed to burn brighter and brighter as cancer consumed her body. And we’ve sat with families in times of loss.

Winn Collier describes a reality both of pastoral ministry and church life that seems from another time, what with all our language of “missional communities,” all our strategies, and what not. In a society of virtual relationships, of celebrity pastors, and transience, I wonder how many find places like Granby Presbyterian? And I wonder how many simply want to be pastors of such places?

Perhaps some will read this book, and it will feel like waking from a dream, and wondering if the good stuff here really can be so. My hunch is that there are places like Granby Presbyterian in neighborhoods and small towns that you have driven past many times. Maybe it is our church building you’ve driven past, oblivious to the beautiful and good that is happening among our people. The only thing that I’d ask if you decide to stop in is that things will work a lot better if you leave your grandiose dreams and “flaming visions” at the door.

Review: Faithful Presence

faithful presence

Faithful PresenceDavid E. Fitch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2016.

Summary: Expands upon the idea of “faithful presence,” exploring how this may be practiced by the church in fulfillment of her mission through seven foundational disciplines practiced in three different settings or “circles.”

In 2010, sociologist James Davison Hunter penned a probing critique of evangelicalism’s “change the world” rhetoric in To Change the World (reviewed here), and proposed as an alternative, the idea of the subversive practice of “faithful presence.” David E. Fitch, co-pastor of Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois, takes up this idea contending that Hunter ran out of space in his book in fleshing out “what the actual practice of faithful presence might look like.” He contends that without a new kind of formational practice in the church (in truth harking back to our beginnings), attempts at faithful presence on the part of individual Christians will simply be absorbed by the broader culture. He writes:

“Faithful presence, I contend, must be a communal reality before it can infect the world. It must take shape as a whole way of life in a peopleFrom this social space we infect the world for change. Here we give witness to the kingdom breaking in and invite the world to join in. For this to happen, however, we need a set of disciplines that shape Christians into such communities in the world” (p, 15).

In this book, Fitch commends seven disciplines that the churches he has pastored have practiced. He proposes that each of these disciplines presuppose the presence of God already in our lives and that our faithful presence, fostered through these disciplines, is the visible expression of God’s faithful presence going before us. He argues that these are disciplines that make faithful presence possible in our churches, neighborhoods and the wider society. He also contends that a key idea undergirding the practice of these disciplines is submission, to Christ and to one another, and that this is what makes these so counter-cultural.

The seven disciplines (he also calls them marks or sacraments) are: the Lord’s Table, reconciliation, proclaiming the gospel, being with “the least of these,” being with children, the fivefold ministry, and kingdom prayer. Fitch devotes a chapter in the book to each of these. He also proposes three circles in which each of these disciplines must be lived out: the close circle of the Christian community, the dotted circle of home and neighborhood, where Christians function as hosts, and the half-circle of wider society, where we are guests, but may also be the faithful presence of Christ. Faithful presence that advances the mission of the church operates in all three circles, not simply in the close circle, leading to a maintenance mentality, or in the half circle, leading to exhaustion.

I appreciate the effort of Fitch to expand this idea of “faithful” presence, because I also found Hunter’s proposal thin on specifics, and lacking in articulating the practices that sustain such presence and allow it to take a robust and transformative public form. I thought Fitch had some distinctive things to say about gospel proclamation, as opposed to teaching, in the context of the church, about the ministry of presence with children, and about the fivefold ministry (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers), contending for plural ministry leadership as opposed to hierarchical leadership in the church. I would like to have seen Fitch say more about the ministry of prophets, which was not elaborated.

Fitch also argues that through church history, the seven disciplines, meant to be personal, relational, and practiced in all the “circles” of life, have been institutionalized, formalized, and programmed. His proposal and practice breaks these strictures. Nowhere is this more evident than in his discussion of the Lord’s table, which is not only practiced weekly in his church but constantly in the lives of its people:

“The Lord’s table happens every time we share a meal together with people and tend to the presence of Christ among us. Granted the formal Lord’s table only happens at the close table. But that table extends from there. When Jesus said, “Whenever you do this, do it in remembrance of me: (1 Cor 11:24-26, my paraphrase), he, in essence meant, in the words of theologian John Howard Yoder, “whenever you have your common meal,” whenever you eat in everyday life with people. And yet this table is shaped differently in the three spaces I call the close, dotted, and half circles of life. The table is never merely in here or out there. It is the continual lived space with and among the world. It is the table on the move. It starts with the close circle, the ground zero of his presence around the table” (p. 64).

This work is also important in how it connects our communal disciplines to mission, and particularly the working out of the practice of these disciplines in the “dotted” circle, and the “half” circle. It is a valuable resource, not only for the training of ministers, but for leaders of churches to read and discuss together as they think about the nature of the church, and the formative practices that shape the lives of its members. Throughout, Fitch couples biblical principles and practical examples, many from his own practice. In an era increasingly disenchanted with posturing and programs, this vision of faithful presence may be the cup of cold water desperately longed for in our cultural wasteland.

Review: The Way of Hope

the way of hope

The Way of HopeMelissa Fisher. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: Through a narrative of her own experiences, the author proposes ways in which the church might offer hope to LGBT persons without condemning or condoning.

“I used to want to be a boy.

Seriously, literally, have the surgery. Change the name. Live from the new identity. Be a boy, not a girl. That’s what I wanted.

It seemed to make sense with how I felt on the inside. At that point in my life, my feelings had been all over the map. After all, I grew up in the church, left the church, dated boys, then left the guy scene and ended up in the same-sex lifestyle, and a same-sex marriage. Somewhere, in the midst of all of that, I contemplated becoming a boy.”

This is Melissa Fisher’s introduction to her life journey. It is one that begins with a response to shame of perfectionism–“pretty is as pretty does.” She learns to keep secrets, about witnessing her mom’s affair, about sexual abuse both as a child and as an adult, about the pain of her parents divorce, about discovering pornography, and more. She describes the “monster” of dating guys and then falling in live with one of her girlfriends, the struggle to deny her attraction to women, her attempts to medicate herself against her struggles, and her surrender to them. She marries a woman, has what seems an ideal life as an athletic coach, and then comes to an end of herself when she loses it all in an impulsive affair. On a car trip near the Arkansas border, she stops in tears and comes to the realization that even though she doesn’t want God or church in her life, she does.

She describes her struggle to even show up at church, and eventually a small group, which is important for any church to understand that is committed to ministering with LGBT persons. She finds one, Gateway Church in Austin, a church that was committed to a ministry that neither condemned nor condoned around issues of sexuality, but loved people and allowed them the space to struggle and take steps at their own pace toward God. They offered community to the isolated. She narrates her steps to believe that first one woman, Karin, really wanted a friendship with her, and then that she could be part of a community of PBM’s (Pottery Barn Moms).

Later chapters chronicle the further work of coming to terms with her past, her perfectionism, her secrets and shame, and all her strategies of dealing with these, including her drive to perform could be laid aside as she learned to behold and believe in Christ, and allow him to shape the way she lived. She writes, “if I never felt safe enough to be a girl, I would never feel safe enough to do the more work needed to become a healthy woman.” Yet as she did so, she found herself opening up to the possibility of being with a man (although she is careful to not make herself a norm or example for others). Like several other LGBT writers like Greg Cole or Wesley Hill, she talks about all this in day by day terms of trusting God in this day.

The epilogue is fascinating because it includes interviews with her mother, her father, and her former spouse, Kristi. Life isn’t all put together in any of these situations, but there was really healing, and real reconciliation. What is striking throughout the narrative of this book is Melissa’s honesty about herself, whether she was exulting in a same sex marriage with Kristi, or struggling to put life together. Equally striking was the church she found and the loving way they cared for people like Melissa, neither condoning their choices nor condemning them, but loving them, and providing a space where they could encounter and behold Christ, where they could be as honest as they were ready to be, and where change was something that was not enforced from on high or by social pressure, but allowed to occur from within if and when the person was ready.

Others who identify as LGBT may not struggle with their orientation or identity and may be critical of Fisher’s narrative, and may contend that she is self-deceived. Perhaps the practice of a kind of golden rule here may help in honoring the narratives of others as you would have them honor yours. She joins a growing number who tell a similar story, and of churches that have made a safe and good place for them. Perhaps rather than arguing with them, we might learn from them, whether we agree or not.  Perhaps even this may be a first step on the way of hope…

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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: Praying For Your Pastor

Praying for your Pastor

Praying For Your PastorEddie Byun (foreword by Chip Ingram). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A practical guide both advocating for the importance of prayer for our pastors and offering a practical rubric in the form of the acronym PRAYERS.

“I often tell my congregation, “Your prayer support is my life support.” Someone who has been rescued from drowning or is recovering from a serious injury like a gunshot wound may need to be put on life support for a period of time. The injured person doesn’t have the strength to keep going by himself, so he needs the help of something outside of himself in order to allow his body to rest and to be strengthened to health again. In many ways, the pastor is under a wide range of attacks from the enemy. The attacks may come in various forms, such as gossip, criticism, slander, sickness, or even threats. There are days when your pastor feels emotionally burned out, physically exhausted, and spiritually weak. She feels she just can’t go on. These experiences are far too common and come far too frequently. These are the times when pastors need the life support of our prayers to keep them going. You may not know the struggles your pastors face today, but you can know that your prayers will make a difference in their lives” (pp. 22-23).

So writes pastor Eddie Byun in what is both an impassioned plea and practical guide to pray for our pastors. Throughout this book Byun uses both statistics and personal stories to describe the challenges pastors face that leads to so many dropping out of the ministry. He believes that one of the most important things churches can do is to mobilize teams of people to pray for their pastors.

Byun goes on to provide a simple rubric around the acronym PRAYERS to guide those praying for pastors. Each chapter in the book is organized around one letter in the acronym:

  • Protection: Against temptation, evil, and the enemy and praying through the armor of God (Ephesians 6:14-17).
  • Rest: For physical, emotional, and spiritual rest, for unhurried times with the Lord, against burnout and for times of refreshing.
  • Anointing: For growing intimacy with the Lord, greater consecration, and for power to be released in your pastor’s life and ministry.
  • Yielded heart: Daily transformation by the gospel, obedience out of love and gratitude for the cross, trust and obedience, growth in treasuring Christ.
  • Effectiveness: Wisdom, increased fruitfulness in life and ministry, in people being saved and discipled, and faithfulness to the end.
  • Righteousness and integrity: A strong foundation in one’s life, that all that one does is motivated out of love and honor for Christ.
  • Strong marriages and families: protection of marriage and family, support in the church to encourage pastor in marriage and family life, and strong discipleship of children with parents who live their faith.

Each chapter fleshes out these themes, provides discussion questions, prayer points, and action plans one may take to form and guide a prayer team. Reading this book challenged me with regard to how much (or little) I pray for my pastor and reminded me of the challenging character of his work as well as how thankful I am for him, and other pastors I’ve known who faithfully shepherd God’s flock.

It also reminded me again how important it is for all of us in ministry to have prayer teams. I am blessed with ten people who have committed to pray for me daily and I truly believe they have been instrumental in God’s work through the ministry in which I engage. Byun, in his concluding chapter quotes Deuteronomy 4:7 which says, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” He observes that while God is always present, there is a special way he is present to people when we pray for them. I know I need this, and I know those who pastor our churches need this. Byun’s book makes this case and shows us how we may get started.

Review: The Post-Racial Church

The Post Racial Church

The Post-Racial Church, Kenneth A. Mathews & M. Sydney Park. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011.

Summary: A survey of the teaching of the Bible that concludes that racial reconciliation and multi-ethnic Christian communities are integral to the message of the gospel.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States marked both how far the nation had come and the work yet to be done to come to terms with the issues of race in our society. The election just past underscored that there is a significant journey yet to occur in the life of an evangelical church that split radically along racial lines in its choice of candidates.

Might it be that the church is listening more to political discourse than to the teaching of its scriptures which serve as its rule of faith and practice (at least in theory). For those who wish to redress that balance, this is a good introductory survey written by a multi-ethnic pair of authors, a Caucasian male (Mathews) and a Korean-American female (Park). What these authors do is survey the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation showing successively that God is the creator of diverse peoples (Babel was God’s way of saving diverse nations from themselves by dispersing them), that God chose a particular people to bless all peoples, that even then, inter-marriage did occur (just look at the lineage on the human side of Jesus), that Jesus’ ministry was one that cared for the prodigal, that held up the Samaritan and that anticipated the gospel to the nations. From there the authors show how the gospel preached was one of reconciliation not only to God but between Jew and Gentile. The confrontation between Paul and Peter confirms that the ideal was table fellowship, not just some “spiritual” reconciliation but real hospitality. All this anticipates the worship of the Lamb by every tribe, race, people, and tongue.

Along the way the authors dispel the flawed treatments of scripture used to justify racial separation such as the “mark of Cain” and the “curse of Ham.” They deal with the question of intermarriage, and the flawed construct–even from a biblical point of view–of race. They uphold the ideal of multi-ethnic worship in multi-ethnic churches while not insisting every church must be this way. They talk of Christ’s self-sacrificing work, and how this calls for similar servanthood in entering into the hard work of reconciliation.Toward the end of the book, M. Sydney Park shares her own narrative, which reflects a conversion not only to Christ, but from her own racism that was a product of the racism she experienced as a Korean-American.

The book includes “Thought Provokers” at the end of each chapter that encourage readers and groups to apply the chapter content to their lives and congregations. This makes the book a good resource for ministry teams, leadership teams or others within a church who are asking how their church might reflect the multi-ethnic people of God which the gospel both heralds and creates. The combination of biblical content, challenge, and space to consider makes this an ideal resource for those taking the first, perhaps uncertain, steps toward trying to think and act biblically around questions of race and ethnicity.