Review: Wisdom From Babylon

Wisdom From Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age, Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: Considers what it means to live in a secular age, different ways of responding as churches, what may learned from sources ancient and modern, and the competencies of church leadership we need.

I grew up thinking that secular was the opposite of Christian and therefore must be bad. Gordon T. Smith, in this work offers a much more nuanced view. He begins by looking at the secular through historic, sociological and philosophical lenses. What he traces is a transition from Christianity as a “public square” faith to a public square that does not privilege any faith, where religious expression is privately allowed but must publicly tolerate all other ideas, and where in fact, we are all have become secular to some greater or lesser extent. How then is a vibrant Christianity which constructively engages its culture to survive? And what kind of leadership is needed within our churches in such a context. It is to this that Smith addresses himself in this work.

He begins with four responses that might be observed:

  1. The “go along to get along” response.
  2. The monastic response.
  3. The culture wars response.
  4. The response of “faithful presence.”

There are things to be said and critiques to be made for each and Smith will argue that each, for its problems, also has elements which might be drawn upon in living in a secular age as a disestablished churched. But first, he considers several sources from which the church may draw wisdom.

The first is the scriptures of exile, from which the book draws its title. Babylon teaches us to remember God’s glory, our identity as his people, and to hope amid lament. He invites us to learn from Ambrose and Augustine, two church fathers writing amid Rome’s decline. These teach us how to engage in the public square, how to form distinctive communities of Christians, and to embrace a trinitarian spirituality. Smith then turns to historic minority churches: how they related to other religions, affirming the uniqueness of Christianity in ways that speak to cultural aspirations. We learn about political witness without privilege, and the ever present reality of suffering for that witness. Then Smith turns to three recent European Christians who engaged European secularity: Bonhoeffer with religionless Christianity, Ellul, who was keenly aware of the discontinuities between the secular order and the kingdom, and Newbigin, who affirmed the church as a powerful sign of the kingdom. We may bemoan the loss of Christendom, but Smith sees fresh opportunity for the gospel in its true and powerful nature to be revealed through the church.

He contends that for this to take place, the church needs to be a liturgical, a catechetical, and missional body and considers what kind of leadership this requires. Liturgical leadership is marked by theological integrity; real encounter with the risen Christ through word, song, and sacrament; hope amid lament; and valuing liturgical art and space. Catechetical leadership embraces the importance of careful instruction of believers in the faith. Missional leadership calls for preaching that speaks to Monday mornings, to political and civic engagement, and peacemaking and conflict resolution. Smith addresses three further tasks of such leadership in the concluding chapters. They must be ecumenical in character, affirming the unity of the whole church rather than fostering divisions. They must be people who cultivate spiritual practices of interiority, leading from within, able to be present to others without distraction. And they must wrap all this in hospitality.

In a time where many seem to be trying to hang on to what they once securely held that seems to be slipping from their grasp, Smith invites us to accept our status as exiles in a secular age. He reminds us of the rich heritage from biblical forebears to recent contemporaries who have recognized the opportunities of exiles. His summaries of their teaching invite us to delve more deeply and listen at their feet and he offers an essential reading list. His prescriptions for leadership have an ancient-future character, mixing liturgy and catechesis with preaching for Monday and for civic engagement–very different from the strategist-celebrity model that has dominated church leadership discussions. What I most appreciated here was the combination of urgency and hope calling upon us both to glimpse the dangers, and to see the possibilities of our secular age.


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: Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal

evangelical sacramental pentecostal

Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: An argument for why the church at its best ought to embrace an emphasis on scripture, on baptism and the Lord’s table, and on the empowering work of the Spirit.

Don’t you hate it when a set of choices are presented to you as mutually exclusive options, when all are good and possible together? For example, apple pie or ice cream, or more seriously, being pro-life or pro-creation care. Gordon Smith contends that this is often the case with the three emphases of his title. Often, churches are either evangelical, that is scripture or Word-centered, or sacramental, emphasizing baptism and the Lord’s table, or pentecostal, focusing on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in worship, witness, and growth in Christ-likeness. Smith asks, and then asserts, why shouldn’t the church be all three?

Smith begins his discussion with John 15:4, exploring what it means to abide in Christ as Christ abides in us, and how this is fulfilled in the grace of the Word written which witnesses to the Word Incarnate, in water, bread and cup that includes and nourishes us in Christ, and the Holy Spirit through whom Christ indwells us. He then traces the outworking of all this in Luke and Acts. He goes on to explore in the work of John Calvin and John Wesley, how the grace of God comes to us in all three of these ways. He then focuses a chapter on each of these “means of grace,” both elaborating how each has been expressed distinctively in the life of the church, and how they function in tandem with the other two.

  • The evangelical principle is rooted in the truth that God speaks in creation, in his Son, through the apostles and prophets, through their message inscripturated, and through those who proclaim the word in witness and instruction. Word and sacrament complement each other as those who hear and believe are incorporated into the church through baptism, and those who are taught of Christ are then nourished on Him at table. Likewise, the Spirit illumines our reading, our study, preaching and hearing of scripture, so that the Word becomes alive, convicts, and warms our hearts.
  • The sacramental principle reflect the material, enfleshed nature of creation, the Incarnate Son, and the visible body of the church. Visible symbols of water, wine, and bread are Christ-ordained gestures that speak of our inclusion in and ongoing fellowship (communion) with Christ. They visually demonstrate the message of the gospel but also have no significance apart from the words of institution. Likewise, these acts are not our acts but are “in the Spirit” and depend on the Spirit’s work to accomplish in us what they signify.
  • The pentecost principle reflects the immediacy of our experience of God through the Spirit, where the realities of scripture and sacrament are experienced. Smith talks about the two “sendings” of scripture and advocates that we need to experience both the redemptive work of Christ and the indwelling and empowering work of the Spirit through whom the fruits of Christ-likeness, as well as power for witness are fulfilled.

While I fully affirm Smith’s argument, I hope readers will not be put off by the three key words of the title. “Evangelical,” “sacramental,” and “pentecostal” all have negative connotations, that reflect abuses and failures of the church, but are not inherent in the principles these words represent. I think few would object to the idea that people are called to Christ and conformed to his image through the ministry of the Word, that they are included and nourished in Christ through baptism and the table, and that they are empowered for growth and mission through the Spirit. Smith puts it this way in his conclusion as he describes the new Christian:

“This new Christian would very much be a person of the Scriptures–knowing how to study, read, and pray the Scriptures and how to participate in a community that is formed by the preaching of the Word.

The new Christian would recognize the vital place of the Lord’s Supper, within Christian community, as an essential means by which the Christian meets God, walks with God, grows in faith, and lives in Christian community.

And, of course, the new Christian would know what it means to live in the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, be guided by the Spirit, and bear the fruit of the Spirit.

In other words, the Christian would be evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal. And the evidence of such would be that they live with a deep and resilient joy, the fruit of a life lived in dynamic union with the ascended Christ.”

Would we want any less, or other for new (or all) Christians? We do well, I think, to weigh the argument Gordon Smith makes, and consider where, in each of our churches, we may more fully lay hold of all Christ has for us. And it just may be that in so doing, we may more closely approximate the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” reality we profess in our creeds.

Review: Teach Us To Pray

teach us to pray

Teach Us To PrayGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A concise guide to prayer based on the Lord’s prayer, with a central focus on the coming of the kingdom and a dependence upon the Spirit expressed in thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Perhaps one of the most common struggles for many Christians is the practice of prayer. Little wonder that the disciples, observing Jesus at prayer, ask him, “teach us to pray.” In this small but rich book, Gordon T. Smith considers the practice of prayer through the lens of the model prayer Jesus gave his disciples in response to their request.

Smith begins with the observation that the whole prayer turns on the central request, “thy kingdom come.” He writes:

When we pray “thy kingdom come,” should not our prayer be an act of recalibration? Could our praying be an act of intentional alignment and realignment? That is, in our prayer our vision of the kingdom purposes of God will be deepened and broadened; we will be drawn into the reality of Christ risen and now on the throne of the universe. And thus through our prayers we not only pray for the kingdom but come to increasingly live within the kingdom, under the reign of Christ. (p.11)

From our longing for the kingdom come flow three movements in prayer, each of which Smith takes a chapter to cover:

  • Thanksgiving: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by recognizing how the kingdom has already come and is at work both in our lives and in the world. We celebrate the goodness of God, dwell in the love of God, and in suffering both lament (an acknowledgement and cry to the God we even yet believe is good) and trusting thanksgiving for that goodness and what is formed in us through suffering.
  • Confession: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by acknowledging where we are out of line with God’s intentions, accept responsibility, seek God’s mercy, and both receive and grant forgiveness, as we embrace the way of truth and light.
  • Discernment: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by asking and listening for God’s direction for how we may participate in his kingdom purposes. We learn to hear the voice of the Spirit through the noise of our lives as we pay attention to whether this direction is congruent with scripture, whether we have reached a place of holy indifference, and find affirmation within the community to whom we are accountable.

If these three movements arise from the centrality of the kingdom of God, they crucially depend upon the Spirit of God. The Spirit helps us see the good works of God, reveals our sin and humbles our hearts, and guides us in consolation.

Smith also emphasizes throughout the book how each of the three movements are realized in the Eucharist, as we give thanks for the work of Christ, come in repentance acknowledging the reconciliation won through the body and the blood, and strengthens us to say what we need to say and do what we need to do.

A concluding chapter then considers both corporate and personal prayer. Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, Smith commends the Psalms as both Israel’s and our prayer book. An afterword deals succinctly and helpfully with petition.

This is one of those books one can give a person just beginning in the practice of prayer, while enriching and deepening the practice of those who have prayed for some time. Smith shows us how prayer connects to a whole life lived around “thy kingdom come.” He weaves the importance of our dependence upon the Spirit, the richness of the scriptures and especially the Psalms, and our gatherings around the Lord’s table. And so we are taught to pray.

Review: Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving & Receiving Direction

Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving & Receiving Direction
Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving & Receiving Direction by Gordon T. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many longing for a deeper awareness of the presence of God in their lives have rediscovered the special relationship known as spiritual direction. One of the needs that have existed is for a readable and concise treatment of the nature of this relationship. Gordon T. Smith has given us that account in this 96 page book packed with both a theological basis for and practical explanation of this form of spiritual friendship.

He begins by describing the agenda of this relationship as one of “directing our attention to the presence of God in our lives.” This relationship is grounded in four theological themes: the Triune person and work of God, the nature of religious experience, the particularity of each person and the church as the people of God and means of God’s grace.

The conversation in a spiritual direction relationship is a focused one where a director seeks to listen to both directee and God as the directee talks about relationships and work, key decisions, our experiences of suffering and pain, and most of all in the life of prayer.

After talking about the content of this conversation, he talks about the form it takes–how is this hour (usually a fixed time is set and typically an hour) spent? It is a conversation that begins with the directee sharing about his current life experiences, reflected upon coming into the meeting. After a time of silence the director may ask questions, and propose observations regarding how God may be present in what has been shared or how the directee may respond to this presence. After silence, the directee responds and the two may dialogue further with the director closing the time with a prayer of blessing.

Smith has a chapter on the role of direction in evangelism and how direction is a special form of friendship and its relationship to pastoral ministry. Spiritual direction is a helpful counterpoint to worship, teaching, and pastoral leadership in pastoral ministry. Spiritual direction can be instrumental in helping a person come to faith as a director helps a seeker discern how God is present. Like a friend, a spiritual director speaks with truth and freedom but at the same time never preempts one’s personal responsibility to choose.

The next two chapters focus on the qualities of both a good director and a good directee (something I’ve not seen elsewhere!). Good directors are schooled in a theology of the Spirit, have an awareness of the history of Christian spirituality, extend compassion and grace, have a capacity for “double listening” to directee and to the Spirit, and keep confidentiality. Directees approach with a desire to grow, a meekness and humility, and intentionality of preparation and response. He then concludes with a focus on the true director in this relationship, the Spirit of God.

We often oppose “spiritual” and “practical”. Smith fuses the two in an account of spiritual direction that prepares the reader engaging in or considering direction to understand the nature and practice of this formative discipline.

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Review: Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity

Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity
Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity by Gordon T. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book might change your thinking about “sainthood”. Sometimes, we conceive saints as these unworldly, serious, ascetic, and somewhat odd creatures. Gordon Smith would propose instead that being a saint is something to which all of us are called and what this means is growth into Christian maturity–a kind of perfection of holiness that isn’t perfectionism but rather a kind of completeness or wholeness of life.

This is especially important for many evangelicals, who may excel at seeing people come to faith but have little idea of how to direct them into becoming holy (or sanctified, a word drawn from the same root as saint–in other words, saintified). Most often, since we do the crisis experience of conversion so well, we simply propose additional crisis experiences. Smith proposes a different route.

Smith begins with what he sees as the essence of the Christian life, which is union with Christ. To be in Christ is to be united with Christ through his Spirit, which is a profoundly humbling thing that promotes our dependence upon Christ, our focus on the person and work of Christ, and our Spirit-enabled obedience of faith. In a later appendix, Smith applies this to the scholarly life, which is a life grounded in prayerful dependence upon Christ and illumined by Christ.

Smith then talks about four expressions of holiness that might surprise you. The first of these is wisdom, the practical understanding and knowledge of how to live well in the fear of the Lord. This can be expressed as having the mind of Christ, of seeing all of life through the lenses of creation, fall, and Christ’s redemptive work. Wisdom that understands the cross understands suffering in light of the cross.

The second expression of holiness is vocational holiness. By this, Smith means a life of good work that flows out of a sense of being called both into union with Christ, and into the world. Vocational holiness understands our agency in the world as fallen but redeemed image-bearers of God. It involves self-understanding of our temperament, skills, gifts and situation and lives in hopeful realism throughout the seasons of one’s life.

The third expression of holiness is social holiness expressed in our love for others in the communities to which we are called. This will find expression in radical hospitality where we welcome each other as we have been welcomed in Christ, forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation, and in generous service to others. All of these are formed in the worship, teaching, and witness of our churches.

Finally, and surprisingly, Smith speaks of joyful holiness–the ordering of our emotional lives around our hope in Christ. He sees these particularly worked out in the practices of worship, friendship, and sabbath. This last is especially radical because in sabbath, we trust that while we must rest God doesn’t and his work is prior to and over ours.

The book concludes with two extended appendices, one addressed to applying these truths to the life of the church, and the other to the life of the academy, particularly, but not exclusively the Christian university and seminary.

I came away from this book with a different rubric for thinking about Christian maturity that is neither obsessed with sin nor activity, but rather in the kind of person we become in union with Christ–wise, called, loving, and joyful. That is a kind of “sainthood” that seems quite attractive, and one to which all, and not simply some “spiritual elite”, might aspire.

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