Review: Kingdom Collaborators

kingdom collaborators

Kingdom CollaboratorsReggie McNeal. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2018.

Summary: An affirmation of kingdom-centered rather than church-centered leadership and a description of eight signature practices that characterize such leaders.

Reggie McNeal coaches Christian leaders. One of his greatest concerns is that many have a vision that is church-centric rather than kingdom-centric. He describes the latter as “kingdom collaborators,” because they are engaged in what God wants to do so that his kingdom would come in the world beyond the church walls, in every sector of society. He argues that church-centric vision comes from a vision of church as institution that is siloed off from other institutions–business, government, arts and media, the social sector, education, and health care. He argues instead for a vision of “church as movement” that encourages people to collaborate with God as kingdom agents in all of these domains, and outside the church building walls.

The book then argues for eight key practices that he sees kingdom collaborators demonstrating in their work:

  1. They practice a robust prayer life that helps them listen to and look for God.
  2. They foment dissatisfaction with the status quo.
  3. They combine social and spiritual entrepreneurship.
  4. They marry vision with action.
  5. They shape a people development culture.
  6. They curry curiosity.
  7. They call the party in their city for collaborative initiatives.
  8. They maintain an optimism amid the awareness that the kingdom has not yet fully come.

McNeal devotes a chapter to each of these practices, giving practical, step by step pointers in implementing these practices mixed with stories that exemplify each practice. I find his ideas incredibly helpful. He roots kingdom collaboration in a prayerful life. He talks about agitating to foment dissatisfaction in constructive ways rather destructive ways that lead to dismissal. He describes a combination of social and spiritual entrepreneurship that sees opportunities, that is willing to risk and fail and practices abundance thinking. His chapter on marrying vision and action has powerful insights into work with volunteers. One could expand his chapter on people development into a book. He talks about the essential character of leaders as people with a lifelong sense of curiosity, and observes how many of them are avid readers. He argues for how effective kingdom collaborators convene and collaborate with others.

His eighth practice of maintaining pain-tinged optimism speaks to the challenge of sustaining leadership over the long haul. If prayer is the foundation of the life of a kingdom collaborator, then the practices he commends to address burnout and compassion fatigue are the capstone.

He concludes with some tips for accelerating impact, whether as church leaders wanting to have kingdom impact, or those working in other domains. For church leaders, he argues that three things are necessary:

  1. Change the storyline.
  2. Change the scorecard.
  3. Change the stewardship of your organization leaders.

For those serving in other domains, he suggests that while you might be tempted to address other pressing needs, leading where you are is the starting place, then networking with other kingdom leaders. Especially, he urges people to “become better at being you.”

I can think of many “marketplace Christians” I’ve known over the years that I would have loved to give this book. Many were excited about the opportunities for kingdom impact in their sphere of influence, but felt guilty that this meant they could not do more in the church. Most found little encouragement for a “kingdom-centric” lifestyle. At worst, they often felt their work was denigrated, except for the money they could donate to the church. This book comes as a breath of fresh air for such folks, speaking a language and affirming practices many have already intuited.

It is also a critical book for church leaders who tend to measure impact in terms of what is happening within the church walls, or through the church’s direct efforts. As important as these are (and the author does not dismiss them), McNeal casts a vision for what people might be engaged in for the sake of Christ and his kingdom in all the hours they devote in other domains. And the eight practices in this book suggest areas where the church might serve to equip young kingdom collaborators for maximum impact (this is where his chapter on a people development culture is so important, I think). Wouldn’t it be a great vision to think about equipping people to be viral kingdom agents in the 40-50 hours many spend in their work, rather than for just a few hours a week in church functions? Reggie McNeal thinks so.

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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: 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: Deepening the Colors

Deepening the Colors

Deepening the ColorsSyd Hielema. Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 2014.

Summary: An exploration of the question of “what is my place in God’s world?” that proposes that as we live into our calling to pursue God’s kingdom, our vision of our lives and the world grows ever deeper and richer.

In the tradition in which I grew up there was a great emphasis on becoming a Christian, but much less of a focus on what it meant to be a Christian.What is God’s purpose for the world, and how does the way I live my life fit into that? This delightful book by Syd Hielema explores this question and does something more that I have come to see of value. He describes what it looks like to live that life over the course of a lifetime.

He begins by quoting a passage from The Last Battle in which Peter and Lucy and Edmund, and others pass into Aslan’s country. They find that it looks like Narnia, only the colors are deeper and richer, more vivid and real. This metaphor of deepening colors serves as the basis for the title and a way of expressing what happens in our lives as we follow Christ.

It begins with understanding that the Jesus we fall is the king of the new creation, his coming kingdom and that our lives are about pursuing that kingdom through following Him. It is to live as a “called” person as part of a new community as well as a new creation. This means living into our identity as redeemed image bearers of God, a daily putting off of an old self committed to false gods; a daily putting on of a new self that will reflect the glory of the living God. This happens through the practice of “truth-walking” habits, spiritual practices that help us walk more deeply into the richer colors of truth.

As we walk in truth, God’s transforming work shapes every part of our lives–minds, bodies, emotions, actions, aspirations, and relationships. It leads in turn to the growth of wisdom in our lives expressed in being careful observers and listeners, practicing thoughtful and civil discourse with others, thinking critically about what we hear, practicing self-reflection, and not jumping to hasty conclusions. All this ends up in more deeply understanding our calling in the world as those who bear the image of the King, and share in his rule in the world.

Hielema makes a most helpful observation at the end, that it is less that God has this “plan” for our lives that we find or miss. Rather, we are “called” by God, something far more personal that implies an ongoing conversation. He provides helpful principles for discerning this call, this conversation.

All this comes off in a conversational style that shows how deep theological truths bear on understanding the purpose of our lives and how we should live in the light of that. It also is realistic about the lifelong process in which God “deepens the colors” of our lives. It offers hope to those who may wonder if they will ever “catch on” and become the people God has redeemed them to be,.

This is one of those books published by a small, Reformed college press that might easily be overlooked. It was recommended to me by Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Books. I’m glad I picked up this little gem that reminded me of things learned gradually by experience over many years. This book won’t help you understand God’s “plan” for your life, but rather help you begin to understand the ways God calls and toward what ends he calls us that we might be attentive to hear, and follow, and understand.

Review: The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom

book of isaiah and God's kingdom

The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew T. Abernethy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A thematic approach to understanding Isaiah organized around the idea of ‘kingdom’ exploring the nature of the king, the agents of the king, and the realm and people of the king as elaborated throughout the book.

If you have ever attempted to study, teach, or preach the book of Isaiah, you understand what a challenge it is to wrap your mind around the 66 chapters of this book. Andrew T. Abernethy thinks that a thematic approach to the book can help with our overall understanding. The theme he develops throughout Isaiah is that of God’s kingdom.

For those looking for a discussion of the authorship of Isaiah (single or multiple), this is not your book. What Abernethy does is take a synchronic approach which looks at the finished product of the book as a whole, while still noting the distinctive character of chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. Likewise, while organizing his biblical theology of Isaiah around kingdom, he avoids flattening out the contours of the book. He takes a canonical approach to Isaiah without reading the book through an exclusively Christological lens.

He begins with Isaiah 1-39, observing God as both present and future king, reigning in holiness, seen in all his future beauty as judging and ruling on Zion, and in the present delivering from Sennacherib. Isaiah 40-55, speaking to exiles proclaims the good news of God as the only saving king. Isaiah 56-66 then presents God as the warrior king, showing compassion on faithful outsiders, and ruling over the nations as cosmic king.

Chapter 4 particular reflects Abernethy’s willingness to understand Isaiah on its own terms as he considers the “agents” of the kingdom. Rather than simply reduce them to a single kingly or messianic figure (Jesus!), he takes the text on its own terms and discusses three distinct agents, the Davidic ruler, the servant of the Lord, and the Spirit empowered anointed messenger. While a canonical approach sees the fulfillment of all of these in Christ, by allowing for the distinctive character of these three agents not to be merged into one in Isaiah, one sees all the more the splendor and greatness of Christ, who encompasses all three agents in his person.

Chapter 5 then considers the kingdom realm, noting both the focal point of Zion, to which all the nations come and yet the international, indeed cosmic extent of this realm. He then concludes the book by raising the idea that the theme of the kingdom and its many faceted elaboration is meant to encourage the readers of Isaiah, then and now to a richer and fuller imagination of what this kingdom rule is like. For Christians we see its fulfillment, now and yet to come, in Christ, the church as God’s living temple, looking forward to the Zion of the New Jerusalem. Following this conclusion, Abernethy provides two different teaching outlines for how one might teach Isaiah along the lines this book has developed.

Abernethy’s book makes a good complement to John Goldingay’s The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (reviewed here). Both authors take a synchronic approach to Isaiah, but Goldingay only considers the book from the horizon of Isaiah’s first readers, and not through a canonical lens. They reach different conclusions about the servant in Isaiah, but also recognize many of the same themes in the book–particularly the holy King of Israel amid the nations, and the ways this king will come as warrior, and judge, and savior. What Abernethy’s book most helpfully models is the process of both reading Isaiah in its own setting, and as part of the biblical canon, without slighting either of these. This makes the book a wonderful resource for the pastor-theologian, or anyone else who would make the attempt to scale the challenging and wonderful mountain that is the book of Isaiah. Abernethy helps us see that it is indeed Zion that we are ascending, to encounter the great King.

 

Review: Salvation by Allegiance Alone

Salvation by Allegiance Alone

Salvation by Allegiance AloneMatthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Summary: Argues that the words we translate as “belief” or “faith” are better translated as “allegiance” and that the focal point of the gospel is not simply being forgiven for sins or obtaining eternal life, but allegiance to King Jesus.

Matthew Bates thinks the understanding of salvation by faith is rooted in a poor choice of words to translate the idea of pistis in the Greek. A better understanding of this word might be “allegiance” or “faithfulness.” Part of the problem that he sees is a lack of focus on how the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension vindicate him as the King who has come and that the only appropriate response to this King is our full allegiance, both initially and through life, and that this restoration to our true allegiance is what constitutes our salvation which certainly includes pardon for our rebellious sin but encompasses so much more. Bates summarizes his case as follows:

So, in the final analysis, salvation is by allegiance alone. That is, God requires nothing more or nothing less than allegiance to Jesus as king for initial, current, and final salvation. As such, while continuing to affirm the absolute centrality of the cross, the atonement, and the resurrection, the church must move away from a salvation culture that spins around the axis of ‘faith alone’ in the sufficiency of Jesus’s sacrifice. It must move toward a gospel culture that centers upon “allegiance alone” to Jesus as the enthroned king. With the Apostles Creed as a pledge of allegiance, the rallying cry of the victorious church can become ‘We give allegiance to Jesus the king.’ For as the creed reminds us, Jesus the Christ is ‘our Lord’ and he ‘is seated at the right hand of God’ and as such he both merits and demands our undeserved loyalty.”

One might note several emphases in this summary that Bates develops in different chapters of the book. One is an understanding of the gospel as reflected in the Apostles Creed, which he thinks ought regularly be recited in our churches as a king of “pledge of allegiance.” He identifies eight elements in the gospel of Jesus the king:

  1. He pre-existed with the Father.
  2. He took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David.
  3. He died for sins in accordance with scripture.
  4. He was buried.
  5. He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.
  6. He appeared to many.
  7. He is seated at the right hand of God as Lord.
  8. He will come again as judge.

Bates contends that these last statements as well as the pre-existence of Jesus rarely are part of our gospel messages and that we thus fail to properly set forth Jesus as God’s anointed Messiah King.

This also informs his understanding of justification. Bates understands justification as tied up with God’s vindication of the son, crucified for sin in his resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand. Through our union with Christ, we share in that vindication, that justification, both instantaneously through our allegiance to Christ, and increasingly through life as we stay with Christ, which he calls “restoring the idol of God” reflecting all and more than we were made to be through Christ. He, along with Wright and others, also observes that the future hope of Christians is resurrection life with Christ in the new creation, not some vague hope of heaven.

He deals with objections, foremost of which is the idea of allegiance as a “work.” So much of his case hinges on the thinness of how we often discuss belief, which seems mere intellectual assent or some kind of trust in Jesus without any further obligation. He contends that faith is in fact a human response to the grace of God, no matter how defined, and that allegiance fills this out as the form of loyal trust appropriate to servants of the Risen King.

I do think the title may de-center the proper focus of allegiance. The focus seems to be on “allegiance alone” but this is dangerous and de-centered if we do not focus on “allegiance to whom?” It is Christ who saves and restores. Just as it has been observed that faith is not “faith in faith” so here we need to avoid “allegiance to allegiance.” While the title makes a polemical point, we might more accurately say “by allegiance alone through grace alone in Christ the King alone.”

I find several things helpful in this work. One is that it addresses the question of “cheap faith” that does not seem to eventuate in any kind of transformed life, often because the person does not think or expect that this follows. Another is that it does reflect the full gospel that the church has confessed through history, the gospel of the king and his kingdom and sets our pardon for sin in the context of being restored subjects, indeed vice-regents, in his kingdom. Finally, and Bates alludes to this, the idea of allegiance may address the sharp divides around grace, faith, justification and works that have separated Protestant and Catholic for five hundred years. The focus on scripture and creed to understand these things may point the way forward. We can hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope

Essential EschatologyDiscussions of eschatology (the study of end things) often get wrapped up in debates about interpretive themes for the book of Revelation, attempts to equate different symbols with different contemporary events, and predictions of the date of Christ’s return (several of which I’ve seen come and go in my lifetime!). What I loved about this book by John Phelan is that he focused on how the future hope we embrace can practically shape our lives as individuals and church communities in the present.

Hope is a theme that runs through the book, and even through the chapter titles. Phelan begins by exploring the hope of Israel and the promises to Israel fulfilled in the breaking in of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus. That fulfillment is both present and future and in fact the church in mission  brings the future into the present through its hopeful life. At the same time this is not a hope that should be diverted into accommodations with political powers. Phelan traces the sad history of this from Constantine to the present and our call to be a counter-cultural people of hope in the Lord who will make all things new. Because of this hope of creation renewed and the resurrection of Jesus, we believe that this renewal will extend to the resurrection of our bodies. Our hope is not to be disembodied souls floating around heaven but saints with new creation bodies in the new creation on earth.

Phelan then turns to the strange hope of judgment that actually is good news, that God will set things right. While he argues that descriptions of heaven and hell are metaphorical, he does believe in a reality behind these metaphors and the possibility that God will honor the choices of those who refuse heaven while arguing that we may depend upon “the judge of the world will do right.” While arguing against purgatory as an intermediate state or process, he allows for the possibility of healing and growth to fully realize God’s image in us.

He goes on to explore in more depth the idea of the coming of the kingdom, which was not “the end of the world as we know it” but the coming of God’s rule into the world. He argues that the community of those who are under the rule of Jesus are a reflection but not the coming of this kingdom in its fullness. It is a community whose life should anticipate mending the rifts in the world as a people of peace and reconciliation. The church at the same time is not to consider either personal renewal or societal renewal to replace the ultimate personal return of Jesus. This expectation also provides hope in the midst of empire, whether that be the power of Rome or western capitalism. Against both amillenialism and premillenialism, he argues for the personal reign of Jesus on earth, leaning toward a type of post-millenialism. With regard to Israel, he argues against supercessionism (i.e. that the church has superceded Israel) to propose the salvation of the Jews alongside Gentiles. He argues that perhaps the most powerful witness to the Jews is to manifest Christ’s transforming power in living lives of shalom in the world, bringing peace rather than conflict. He recounts a conversation where a Jewish rabbi, in response to sharing along these lines says, “Well, we Jews have not seen it.”

And so he concludes with what it means for the church to bring its hope for the future into the present. It is the living of shalom, this mending of the world lived out in service, in mission, in play, and celebration. It is to do so without corrupting alliances with political powers or structures of ecclesial power. It is proclaiming the God who both respects human freedom while entering into the suffering caused by the misshapen exercise of that freedom.

Some may take exception to the author’s ideas about the millenium and about judgment. What is incontestable is the challenge to live into the new creation hope of the risen Lord which means living toward the peaceable kingdom to come. This challenges our false hopes in technology and political structures while calling us to lives of great joy, humble service and abiding hope. What Phelan has given us is a book about the future enabling us to live with hope in the present.

Review: The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction

The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction
The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction by James W. Skillen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In our current toxic political climate one might ask the question, “can anything good come of politics?” James W. Skillen would answer that affirmatively. His main contention is that to be created in the image of God means, among other things, that we are political creatures and that political life, along with things like work and family, is part of God’s creation intention for us. It is not a consequence of the fall. Like other aspects of the human condition, political life certainly has been distorted by the fall but part of our call as the redeemed is to bring a redemptive influence into political life.

After laying out the biblical basis for this position in Part One, Skillen goes on in Part Two to survey how the church through history has addressed itself to this question. He covers Augustine’s two cities, the ascendancy of the church over civil government, and the splintering of authority and the two kingdom approach of the Reformers, particularly Luther. Finally he moves to the contemporary scene and the influences of Hobbes and Locke on the American Experiment.

Along the way, he engages the Anabaptist alternative of Hauerwas and Yoder and others that advocates for the kingdom of God as its own political entity and that the church, which is called to peace, should abstain from political engagement which inevitably requires the use of force in restraining evil, including lethal force. He argues that while this may allow the church to maintain its purity, it raises questions about the character of a God who ordains government to restrain evil through the power of the sword. My difficulty with this contention is that these questions are unavoidable no matter whether you are Anabaptist or not and go back to the question of why God permits evil at all. However, like those who would ascribe to some form of just war theory and who take this seriously, he argues that many instances of warfare do not meet this test and should be opposed by Christians.

This last is covered significantly in the third part of the book where Skillen engages the questions of how Christians engage in politics. He explores hot button issues like marriage, family, economics, and the environment. Because this book is an “introduction” he covers a lot of ground. His most interesting sections to me were his discussions of citizenship and the responsibilities all of us have in a republic, and his thoughts on politics in a globalized setting–avoiding nationalism and one world government options while allowing for various regional and other international regimes to deal with the international issues that are inevitable. In this discussion he argues that our situation is not one of a clash of civilizations between country blocks but rather competing claims within many of our countries: secularism, Christianity, capitalism, Islam to name a few.

The one thing I found most impractical was his proposal for “proportional representation” in the House of Representatives of national parties based on voting percentages for each party in elections. What he is trying to do is create a context where parties address national concerns rather than simply being split into electoral base politics. What seems to have a better (though still a long shot to me) chance is redistricting reform that requires districts to make geographic sense and to be demographically representative of a state’s population as far as that is geographically possible. The current gerrymandering of political districts means that one only need cater to one’s base to get elected rather than representing all the people. At least both Skillen and I agree on the problem that makes the House so dysfunctional.

On balance, this is a helpful proposal for how Christians might think about political life and exercise redemptive influence in politics. The most important part of this book is his argument for politics as a result, not of the fall, but the creation. His survey of historical positions is also helpful. His exploration of contemporary issues seemed somewhat cursory, even though he is thoughtful and nuanced. Yet he shows some of the directions Christians might go in pursuing these issues in greater depth.

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