Review: A Bigger Table

A Bigger Table, Expanded Edition with Study Guide, John Pavlovitz (Foreword by Jacqueline L. Lewis). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.

Summary: Traces the author’s journey into a bigger vision of and practice of Christian community that is far more inclusive in welcoming people and chronicles the stories of a bigger table and the lives it has touched.

This is an expanded version of a book first published in 2017. John Pavlovitz is a popular pastor and blogger who wrote this book as a narrative of his own journey into a ministry, starting with youth, that welcomed many who previously had not felt welcome. These were youth from different backgrounds, races, and especially, those who identified as LGBTQIA. This paralleled an internal journey from a vision of traditional church where there were things to be believed and not questioned, where you kept those questions and doubts to yourself. As Pavlovitz understanding about sexuality shifted, even though his ministry was thriving as kids encountered the love of Christ, he was fired from the congregation where he was serving.

This opened the doors to a new ministry of building bigger tables. His model was Jesus who set a big table at which “sinners” encountered radical hospitality, true diversity, and total authenticity. Establishment types, political radicals, sexual sinners, working class people, women as well as men were all welcome. The only ones who were not comfortable were the religious establishment. Pavlovitz argues for an “agenda-free” community that isn’t out to “convert” or “minister” but simply share life around Christ.

He argues that for Jesus, love matters more than theologies and apologetics and worldviews. He describes the response that opened up when he wrote about how he would love a child of his own who came out, and the stories and conversations with mama bears and mama dragons that followed, the mothers who advocate for their LGBTQIA children. He writes of the revolution that comes when we shed what he sees as false fears:

Fear of believing the wrong thing

Fear of not praying enough

Fear of joining the wrong denominations

Fear of not exegeting Scripture correctly

Fear of not evangelizing our neighbors enough

Fear of Muslims and gays and atheists

Fear of beer and Harry Potter and cuss words and yogo and mandalas and voting Democrat

Fear of a God who is holding hell over our heads–

Fear as our default setting

John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, (p. 166)

In the end, what Pavlovitz wants is a church that is the most diverse place on earth.

I found myself say “yes” at many points where he named some of the pathologies of the church, and the way our distorted theologies resulted in stunted, unloving lives in the world. I also grieve with him that the church is a dangerous place for many young people to open up about an LGBTQIA identification. It is also a dangerous places for others to talk about pornography or romantic fantasy addictions or adulterous affairs that are corroding marriages. It is also dangerous because we often cover rather than confront abuse in various forms. We tolerate bigotry and embrace of statist ideologies of the left and the right.

It was striking to me to read the afterword in the new edition. It seemed to recognize that there are dangers to the open table. Some are the dangers of political ideologies that would exclude persons of color or immigrants among believing people. Pavlovitz calls for pastors to exercise courage to stand up against a fear-based, loveless Christianity and for the diverse people welcomed to the table.

My concern in this book is what I believe is an either/or binary or dichotomy between radical love and good theology. I think it leads increasingly to a pastor having to open and also guard this welcoming table on their own authority, solely on the strength of their own incarnation of Christ’s love. While theologies can be sterile, distorted, and loveless, the authority of the biblical narrative centered in Christ can challenge idolatries of nationalism, racism, various forms of discrimination and injustice and also challenge all of us to Christ-shaped sexuality. Sadly, the narrow focus in some churches on the sexuality of LGBTQIA persons serves as a convenient dodge for allowing Christ to redeem and shape the sexuality of all of us in a supportive community.

The revised edition of the book includes a study guide for churches to use to begin to think about how they can remove barriers to a bigger table. While I do not agree at all points with the theological moves Pavlovitz has made to have a bigger table, the conversation he proposes for churches and his critique of the pathologies he experienced are worth taking on board.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Beautiful Community

the beautiful community

The Beautiful Community, Irwyn L. Ince, Jr., Foreword by Timothy Keller. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: An argument that churches united amid their diversity are beautiful communities that reflect the beauty of the triune God they worship.

Most of us love beautiful things and are drawn to them. That is often not the picture we have of the church, fraught with conflict and division, including division across racial lines. Irwyn L. Ince Jr. believes that such community is necessary, possible under God, though not easy, to point the world to the beautiful God as reflections of God’s beauty. Ince has walked this talk as a pastor within the Presbyterian Church of America, part of a multi-ethnic pastoral team pastoring a multi-ethnic church in urban Washington, DC. He is the executive director the Grace DC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission. In 2018, he was unanimously elected to serve as moderator for the PCA General Assembly, the first Black moderator in the denomination’s history.

Ince grounds his argument for the beautiful community is grounded in the relational beauty of the Triune God, and the first part of his work is devoted to this idea. In his introduction, he lists twenty-two attributes of the beautiful God. This is the source of our beauty as creatures in the image of God, the source of our dignity. And since the beauty of God is a beauty in community, no single individual can fully reflect that beauty but only the diverse community of humanity.

Ince writes, “We were made to image God as beautiful community but sin ruptured our communion and polarization has been our story ever since.” Ince argues that we moved from garden to ghetto, including the racial ghettos of the American landscape. He argues that while race is indeed a human construct, it is one that has had real effects on the lives of people. He would contend that those who want to do away with the term are unwilling to deal with the harmful consequences of this sinful construct, and how the history of race in this country shapes our present context. He notes the often-failed efforts to form multi-ethnic congregations and the exodus of people of color from many evangelical congregations following their overwhelming support of the current president. He notes how ethnic identity may feel central for all, including whites whose ethnic and cultural practices subtly dominate in many multi-ethnic churches and only the new garments of an identity established in Christ can transform us.

One of the striking chapters in this work was the critical importance of devotion to doctrine. He argues that the injustices people of color have faced are departures from the fundamental truth of the unity of a diverse church, and gospel integrity calls us to address these injustices. He follows this chapter with a call to costly holiness, a holiness that faces and confesses our failures, and relinquishes majority dominated power structures. After challenging words, he concludes with a joyous vision of a beautiful, beloved community enjoying the pleasures of the Lord, including the pleasure of table fellowship, the sharing of good food.

The power of this book is that Ince addresses a challenging reality with a beautiful God-centered vision. Sociologists he cites have analyzed as a near impossibility that churches can gather across racial differences. Yet his doctrinally formed vision of God, of humanity, of the work of Christ, and of the church come together in his beautiful vision, under God’s grace. His conviction is that it won’t be easy, that it will involve intentional hard work, and reliance upon the grace of God. The question for us is whether our vision of the beautiful God will fuel our vision of a beautiful community that reflects God’s beauty to the world.

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

Review: Analog Church

analog church

Analog ChurchJay Y. Kim (Foreword by Scot McKnight). Downers Grove: IVP Praxis, 2020

Summary: An argument for churches maintain real community, participatory worship, the ministry of the word, and communion in an era when it is tempting to “go digital” with the rest of the culture.

This has been an interesting time to come out with a new book. This book takes “interesting” to a new level. It “dropped” on March 31, amid lockdowns and the pivot of business, education, and church to all-digital. In the words of the subtitle, it argues “why we need real people, places, and things in the digital age.” Gathering to sing together in close proximity to other people in an enclosed space, listening to the Bible taught without a mediating screen, sharing the Lord’s table right now seems like an epidemiologist’s nightmare scenario. I can’t recommend it–for now.

Jay Y. Kim’s argument is an important one that our current constraints actually amplify. He commends “whole body” worship where we are not passive observers of a performance but actually join our voices with others. Right now, the most I can do is sing to a computer screen, with my mike muted, to the accompaniment of either an actual singer or a recorded music track. I’ve had desserts online and hundreds of conversations, including some rich interactions, but apart from socially distanced visits with family without hugs and a few socially distanced visits with friends, no real presence other than with my wife. I’ve listened to some great teaching of the scriptures and webinars with thought-provoking content (I’ve even hosted a few) but none of the times of sitting around a table, Bibles open, wrestling with a text and letting it wrestle with us together. I’ve not partaken of the Lord’s Table since lockdowns began. I’ve heard of it being led virtually where we bring our own bread and cup. Our church does threefold communion including footwashing, a “love feast” or meal, and the bread and cup.

Kim, I believe, would argue that despite our increasing creativity with digital technology in this time, we are becoming more aware than ever of its limitations, as much of a mercy as it has been. We grow impatient, we become aware of how shallow many of our interactions are, and we feel our isolation even though we may have thousands of “friends” on our social media accounts. He proposes that the medium is not just a neutral means through which the message comes but that, in McLuhan’s words, “the media is the message.” He contends that the move of churches, even in normal times to an increasingly digitized worship is actually contrary to the spiritual longings of the rising generation’s longing for transcendence rather than relevance, in the gatherings of God’s people unmediated by digital technologies.

I think the misguided attempts of churches to gather during the pandemic, ostensibly for reasons of “religious freedom” actually reflect these longings, and make Kim’s point. “Analog” church does something different than digital. It is incarnational, celebrating the Incarnate Lord. There has been a move away from such churches in recent years, and I’ve heard people say they can “do” church with the device in their pockets. What if one of the strange mercies of this pandemic is to make us so “Zoom-fatigued” that we re-examine our uses of digital technology, and realize the gift of hearing the real voices of the older woman who warbles and the fellow who can’t carry tune in a bucket, but who sing with such joy that we get caught up. What if we rediscover what a pleasant and good thing it is to break bread around a common table?

Kim himself suggests as much in an interview on Front Porch Republic. He acknowledges the ways this technology has made it possible to stay connected when physical gatherings carry danger. He touches on how we may struggle to find our way back to embodied presence with others, when a hug with someone from another household is no longer dangerous. His hope is that we will recognize the gifts of our life together as the church, unmediated by technology and screens, and reconsider our embrace of digital technologies. My hunch is that we will continue to use some of these technologies, having discovered uses that extend beyond the pandemic. But Kim’s book is one worth reading now as we consider what our transition to a post-pandemic new normal will look like. Hopefully it will be a new normal vibrant with warm, incarnate life, as warm as the vinyl some of us never stopped loving and others have newly discovered.

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

Review: The #MeToo Reckoning

the metoo reckoning

The #MeToo ReckoningRuth Everhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A discussion of sexual harassment and assault in the church, the impact on victims and the response of many churches more focused on institutional reputation than protecting victims and justice for the perpetrators.

Ruth Everhart tells two #MeToo stories of her own in this book. In the first, she was raped at gunpoint in college. Part of her healing was testifying against her rapist, seeing him convicted and sent to prison. In many ways, the second incident was harder. Serving as an assistant pastor under Zane Bolinger, a respected senior pastor, she became the object of inappropriate attention, culminating with being forcibly kissed in her own office.

The early chapters of this book use this incident to trace how the dynamics of sexual assault often play out in churches, beginning with the patriarchal power exercised by Bolinger in assaulting her. She describes her efforts to seek redress from the church’s personnel committee, how they accepted the pastor’s account that he had acted from “pure Christian love,” burying the assault in pious language that protected the abuser and the institution. She concluded that she had to leave.

Perhaps the most chilling part of this narrative was the subsequent consequences in her former church. It did not have to do with Reverend Bolinger, who was gone by this time, at least not directly. A young man had been sexually abused by a church member. Everhart describes the conspiracy of secrecy that followed that did not report abuse to the authorities or even to the congregation and that elicited a “confession” that failed to acknowledge responsibility. The culture created by Bolinger, one of autocratic leadership that covered over anything detrimental to the church’s reputation continued. Healing only began with a process of bringing what had been hidden into the light, eventually resulting in the perpetrator’s conviction, and a new policy for handling allegations of sexual abuse.

Everhart then goes on to describe her efforts to bring Bolinger up on charges before the denomination and the mixed results that illustrate how such proceedings often try to bring healing without justice, that neglect the basic issue of sincere apology, and the preservation of power and institutions (including protecting the institution from legal exposure above protecting victims). Subsequent chapters detail the connection between purity culture and rape culture in the church, patterns of betrayal and deceit by perpetrators, not only on victims, but on manipulated church leaders, and the challenge, particularly for women, of finding a voice to speak up, to press for justice.

Everhart interweaves biblical narrative with her own and others narrative. Abuses of power and sexual abuse run through scripture, in the stories of Tamar, of David and Bathsheba, and others. She shows God’s concern for the victims, some incorporated into the ancestral line of Jesus. Everhart also speaks frankly and practically about what denominations and churches can do to care for survivors rather than institutions, from honest language (“rape” instead of “had sex with”) to involving the whole church in how churches will respond to sexual abuse.

There has been a #MeToo reckoning taking place in our culture, from exposing assault by physicians to gymnasts and other athletes, to movie moguls and political figures. The Catholic Church is paying huge damages for past abuses. Bill Hybels, longtime leader of Willow Creek Church, was forced to step down due to a pattern of improper sexual behavior. These are stories now being played out in many churches. Everhart’s book ought to be a must-read for every church governance board. The church in the greatest danger is the one that says, “it won’t happen here.” Those are the ones that practice institutional denial when it does, including shaming, or shunting aside the survivors of abuse. Those are the ones that wittingly or unwittingly create a culture where abuse can continue unchecked–until the reckoning.

Everhart does not want your church to be among these but rather among those who create brave and safe spaces where these matters are spoken of with candor, where survivors can find support rather than shame, where “brightline” policies are in place that discourage or identify potential abusers early, and if abuse occurs, it is made public and prosecuted, not covered up. This is a book filled with hope for survivors and gritty encouragement for leaders who are ready to set aside patriarchy and power for protecting and raising up the vulnerable, who are willing to expose the ugly underside of human behavior to Christ’s truth and justice.

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

Review: When Narcissism Comes to Church

when narcissism

When Narcissism Comes to ChurchChuck DeGroat. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores the expressions narcissism can take in the church, the damage it may do, and healing both for the abused and the narcissists who abuse them.

Chuck DeGroat makes this observation early in this book: “A colleague of mine says that ministry is a magnet for a narcissistic personality–who else would want to speak on behalf of God every week?” As a counselor, Chuck DeGroat has seen both narcissists and the people they leave in their wake. Many of them are in the church–church leaders, pastors, or even the quiet but “indispensable” administrator, who is controlling and has everyone around him or her walking on eggshells.

DeGroat helps us to recognize the narcissist in our church and what attracts them. Particularly, he notes how many of the screening inventories for church planters actually select for narcissists. Using the Enneagram, he shows nine different ways narcissists manifest according to each of the types. He then identifies ten characteristics of the narcissistic pastor including: all decision-making centers on them, impatience, feelings of entitlement, and inconsistency and impulsiveness.. Inwardly, the narcissist struggles with shame and rage.

The insidious aspect of this is that narcissism can infect they entire system of a church. A narcissistic leader. It results in a church unable to be honest. DeGroat describes different times of dysfunctional system and what health looks like. He exposes the gaslighting techniques of the narcissist that make others feel “crazy, uncertain, confused, insecure, and bewildered.” This is what life around a narcissist is like and DeGroat helps us see what it is like to be married to one, and why so many such marriages end in divorce.

DeGroat’s final chapters chart the process of healing both for individuals and churches who have been abused by narcissist in the church, and the narcissist.  Both take time, pealing back the layers of defense. Especially with the narcissist, the challenge is coming to believe that the real person underneath the glittering image of the narcissist is actually far more beautiful.

This is an important book, especially for any of those involved in calling and placing church’s leaders. Pastoral search communities need to read this book before embarking on their work. Most of all, those in a situation where the charismatic leader who fills the pews or is indispensable is driving everyone crazy, you might want to read this book to understand what may be going on.  Sadly, we often are drawn too much to the glittering images and do not consider what lies beneath. DeGroat relates numerous examples but also offers hope that healing can take place, if people are willing to face the truth.

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

Review: From Adam and Israel to the Church

From Adam and Israel

From Adam and Israel to the Church (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology [ESBT], Benjamin L. Gladd. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the theme of the people of God, tracing this theme throughout scripture in Eden, in Israel, in Christ, and in the church.

This is the inaugural volume of a new series looking at essential themes in the story line of scripture. This work is written by series editor Benjamin L. Gladd and traces the idea of the people of God through scripture. For many, particularly in the dispensationalist stream, this is defined by covenant with a sharp demarcation between Israel and the church.

Gladd uses a different lens, focusing on the people of God as created in the image of God, expressed in terms of the functions of king, priest, and prophet. Kings control the environment, keeping it holy. Priests both worship holy God and discern between holy and unclean. Prophets speak truth on behalf of God. Gladd also develops a three level understanding of the world that mirrors the heavenly temple with the Holy of Holies (Eden), the Holy Place (the Garden) and the outer courts (the outer world).

Gladd traces this from Eden, where Adam and Eve allow the unholy serpent into the Holy of Holies, yielding control of the environment, and shade and then disobey rather than speak the truth. He then shows how this image of God as king, priest, and prophet was reflected in the creation and fall of Israel, at Sinai, in the Tabernacle and Temple, and the nation’s decline into idolatry with unfaithful kings, apostasy with unfaithful priests, and prophets bringing the word of God competing with those who were false. Ultimately, in Nebuchadnezzar they experience what they’ve embraced in the anti-king, anti-priest, and anti-prophet. The prophets point to Israel’s restoration, centered in a person who would embody king, priest and prophet.

Jesus embodies restored Israel in his person as the ideal king who succeeds where Adam and Israel fail, and gives himself for his people as great high priest, who is also the temple, the Holy of Holies, and speaks with authority the word of God that constitutes the people of God. These people, the church are the Israel of God, displaying the image of God who rule by standing and suffering with the king, to be vindicated by God, who are priests built as a temple for God to dwell on earth and who bear prophetic witness to the world and the cosmos and stand guard against the evil one’s wiles.

Perhaps most bracing is the author’s thoughts about how kingship, priesthood, and prophets works out in the new creation:

   Perhaps another dimension of imaging God in the new creation will be the development of technology and science. Will we invent the wheel again? Will we learn how to start a fire once more? What about basic human knowledge such as math, language, music, and so on? I suspect that we will not start from scratch. One could possibly argue that we, being perfected in God’s image, will develop what we have learned in the past. The knowledge that humanity has acquired and is acquiring through observing the world around us may not only inform us about God’s creative power, but it may also prepare us for life in the new creation.

The author speaks of the wedge between Israel and the church and the church as the true Israel, the people of God who image God, in continuity with ethnic Israel. I wish the author might have said more specifically about the Jews, and about how Romans 11 might be fulfilled in this people of God. The author allows for a “remnant of Christian Jews” saved through history (p. 128-129), which seems far from explaining how “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). He contends that the church does not replace Israel, yet he calls the church the true Israel of God. Granted that how these things shall be is unclear for any of us, this presentation seems to be murky at best.

That said, Gladd paints a picture of the people of God throughout history, a people who images God in the world, and in our own day is called to be kings who rule without exploiting, who worship God alone and commend his excellence over all worldly idols, and who prize the truth in our lives and words. We pursue these in faithfulness to the great high king, high priest and ultimate prophet, Jesus. This is not insipid pablum but strong and substantive food for the follower of Jesus. I look forward to seeing what successive volumes in this series do to enlarge on the biblical story line.

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

Review: How the Body of Christ Talks

How the Body of Christ Talks

How the Body of Christ TalksC. Christopher Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: A discussion of how substantive conversation can be central to the growth and transformation of our churches and the people who are part of them, the ground rules and spiritual practices that enable such conversation, and how conversation might be sustained as conflict arises.

C. Christopher Smith believes that one of the reasons many of our churches are struggling and many people are heading for the exits has to do with the lack of the capacity for substantive conversation about things that really matter. Just as our physical bodies are an ongoing conversation between our various members, so our social bodies, including churches, require ongoing and deeply connected conversations for both individuals and our collective bodies to thrive. Yet we live in a society where people have lost the capacity to talk about any serious matter where they might differ and we have become isolated in echo chambers of those who think like us. Sadly, conversation in the church often is little more than polite chit-chat about sports or recipes, or where we are going out to eat afterward. This happens in a body that is an earthly echo of the mutuality and conversation of the Triune God who is “God with us.”

Smith and his church have been practicing substantive conversations about ideas and practices that deeply matter in their congregation for over a decade. It was messy at times. People became angry. Some left. They learned how to set up ground rules to enable the speaking of truth in love. They developed practices to prepare for those conversations. They learned how to address conflict that can threaten to shut down conversation. This book is the distillation of that experience.

He begins by treating the subject of conversational dynamics, dealing with questions of group size, formal and informal conversation, how often a group meets, who facilitates and how to foster coherent conversations. He explores what to talk about, and not talk about, particularly when a group is learning conversation. He highlights three methods that have been developed to facilitate conversation: Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Café, giving brief explanations of each method and providing additional resources in an appendix.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of the book is the section on “Spirituality for the Journey.” Smith focuses on prayer as a means of being attentive to God first and throughout, including Quaker practices of silent, listening prayer. He helps us see the connection between the messiness of real life and our honesty about that, and the messiness of our conversations. Good sustained conversations have a high capacity for messiness. Finally he speaks of how we might prepare ourselves heart, mind, and body for conversation.

Conversation is critical in remembering and telling our story and discerning its next chapter. Often understanding our history and identity helps us discern how we might proceed on questions of how we might pursue our mission. The toughest season of conversation is conflict, which Smith believes is inevitable and can be healthy. Using the analogy of broken bones, he talks about acknowledging our fractures, aligning the fractured parts (our “like heartedness in Christ”), and supporting and healing the fractures.

His final chapter fuses the idea of conversation and dance and the picture of being drawn into the dancing conversation of the Triune God. His conclusion focuses on his church, Englewood Christian Church, and how conversation has eventuated in action creating a vibrant set of community ministries in the Englewood, and a church community that is integrally a part of the community in which it is situated.

The book includes numerous examples from different churches, including an appendix of examples of conversational ground rules different churches have set, and the governing principles at which a church arrived out of extended conversations on how to relate to LGBTQ+ persons joining their community in a denomination with traditional convictions.

Smith dares us to believe that the church could be the place where we recover the art of serious conversation, the kind that has the capacity to cultivate respect among people who differ, to live with messiness that defies neat resolutions, and to persist to the shared understanding that enables people to act creatively and missionally in their context. He shows how it has taken shape in real congregations, which makes it the most valuable sort of guidebook, one born out of years of trial and error and learning.

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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: Becoming a Just Church

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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

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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.