In my review last week of
Diana Butler Bass' important new book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (HarperOne; $24.95) I noted that some readers and reviewers
have already been pretty critical, both of her ecumenical/liberal
theological bias and her conviction that a spiritual awakening is a-brewing, one that
may take new forms of renewal and reformation that are not necessarily grounded
in the traditional, institutional churches as we know them. She gets push-back when she speaks---I
have been little part of that push-back myself, asking questions of her during a lecture
a few months back, wanting to clarify if she is too hard on those whose commitment to orthodoxy may make them less than fully eager to embrace new formulations of doctrine, or who may seem less than fully inclusive in their outreach. I know
there are huge anxieties these days whenever we criticize traditional theology
or comfortable forms of congregational life and her pleasant demeanor and good stories are helpful, even though some church folks are always edgy when talking about change. We here have lost customers because we have admitted to being
eager to read and discuss and ponder and pray about (just for instance) the
emergent conversation, and because I'm not wanting to throw emergent friends (or conservative friends, or liberal friends) under the proverbial bus. I know this is complex and scary business and it sometimes brings out our worst.
it is worth, I wrote a long piece in 2008 sharing why I was interested
in that evolving "emergent" movement. I
should update it, I suppose, but I am frankly a bit less interested in their
splintered light then I used to be.)
I believe it is no small thing to drift away from historic orthodoxy,
and I hope those who study Diana's book are not cavalier about throwing
out the old and embracing the new, as if anything old is necessarily outdated and everything new is naturally good and helpful. Diana doesn't believe that sort of silliness and I don't think any serious author would want
such a knee-jerk, superficial response; we ought not misread the careful, studious,
valuable work presented in Christianity After Religion. Some who have read it, or heard her lecture about it, have found it immensely helpful in
drawing a portrait of the religious landscape as we move into the second decade
of the new century. Still, some are rather grumpy about it.
I start with this unhappy reminder of the sometimes unpleasant responses to provocative books and authors, especially given our current context of culture wars, ideological use of religion and prevalent mistrust of those outside of our customary faith traditions in order to be able to say this: Beth and I had a fabulously upbeat time this past weekend hanging around in one of the more diverse theological gatherings we've had the joy of being a part of. The conference was called Fresh Expressions and was convened to explore new forms of missional outreach and congregational efforts---the question Butler Bass is asking, really---and nobody seemed to be uptight about anything. We had Southern Baptists and charismatic Anglicans, mainline (ECLA) Lutherans and Church of the Nazarene, old-school Episcopalians and some pretty conservative Evangelical Free folk, singing Indian-influenced praise songs together in urdu (yes, you read that right!) A Presbyterian Church (USA) prof lectured on contemporary theology (and Karl Barth!) while Christian Missionary and Alliance leaders listened appreciatively. Non-denominational church planters---old school and hipsters alike--listened to Graham Cray, a commissioned Bishop of the Church of England, as he walked us through a Church of England document from a working group he chaired. We had a Calvinist ask if we had Armenian resources and a United Methodist guy was surprised to see a batch of new Abingdon Press titles. A Baptist who had never heard of Henri Nouwen or Parker Palmer picked up some of those authors. A male pastor of an historic black church and a (white) female oil painter did a workshop together describing their arts ministry with inner city kids. One of the speakers wrote a book on British versions of what we call the "new monastics" movement, so there was interest in that a bit, too. Yep, this was truly a diverse gathering---left, right, and center within Protestantism, at least (oh, if there only there were some Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox folk there.) We were so blessed not to have folks snooping around the book display sniffing for something they disagreed with, but searching for new insights, fresh ideas, faithful ruminations to help equip and inspire them to get on with our high callings of imaging God in effective ways in our needy world. It did our souls good to be with these folks----three cheers for the Virginia Baptists---and thanks to all who bought a bunch of books.
Fresh Expressions (U.K.), we came to realize, is a huge deal in the Church of England, a movement of encouragement to manifest fresh expressions of the church among unreached populations, from secularized youth in coffee shops to blue collar iron workers in the mill towns, from the eager-to-be-welcomed new immigrant communities to those languishing in retirement homes or prisons. Wherever our traditional parishes are failing to reach folks, fresh expressions of church can be authorized and new (Holy Spirited) energies unleashed. Because this is a British thing, it didn't surprise us to see Episcopalians and new Anglicans there. The U.S. version of Fresh Expressions is largely funded by Baptists, who have a good history of outreach, evangelism and new church planting. To see Presbyterians and Pentecostals (and, thanks be to God, a few Pentecostal Presbyterians, even) at this Fresh Expressions event was a delight.
For those interested of the working group on fresh expressions, a group chaired by our plenary speaker Bishop Graham Cray, you should know that he edited a book all about this (a book we sold out of at the conference) called Mission Shaped Church (Seabury; $20.00) It is part of a series, actually, but this first is the one that describes the Fresh Expressions movement within the Church of England and it is recommended especially for more mainline denominations. Cray is a wonderful man and, incidentally, ran the famous GreenBelt Festival for many years. We chatted about mutual friends like Calvin Seerveld and Bill Romanowski and Jim Wallis and Brian Walsh, not to mention some sweet stories about Bono and the band and the times Bruce Cockburn played at GreenBelt. But I digress...
We are taking pre-orders, by the way, for a forthcoming book by Bishop Cray, enticingly called Fresh Expressions and the Kingdom of God: Ancient Faith Future Mission It will be published near the end of June by Canterbury Press ($24.95)
Parenthetically, not all the
books we took were about missional outreach and new forms of congregational
life construed to touch the lives of the "nones" (as Butler Bass tells us they
are being called, as in those that say "none" on religious surveys.) In fact, there is a sense that besides emerging new expressions of church, for some people, historic, older styles of church and worship will remain important and viable. Duh.
For fabulous examples of how serious thinkers these days are considering and reconsidering their denominational loyalties, often deepening their explorations of older liturgical traditions, see the brand new book (expertly edited by a Southern Baptist, at that) called Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism edited by Robert Plummer. (Zondervan; $18.99.) Chapters are by Francis Beckwith, Chris Castaldo, Lyle Dorsett and Wilbur Ellsworth where each tell their story of how they have found a spiritual home within these historic traditions, traditions in which they did not originally belong. After each chapter there are responses from the others, so you can read, for instance, a Catholic response to evangelicalism or an evangelical reply to Anglicanism, or an Orthodox reply to the others. The whole journey begins with a nice foreword by Scot McKnight. As Moody Bible prof Bryan Litfin notes, "If you have ever wondered, 'Why in the world would someone become that type of Christian?' this book provides the answer."
Fresh Expressions wasn't convened to debate theology as this
book does, and yet, as we consider
new forms and expressions of parish ministry, creative outreaches and provisional church plants, we must continue to think through
these large doctrinal questions about our largest divisions and the nature of the apostolic faith handed down. Kudos to Zondervan for releasing it.
The FreshX event had a very well-curated art display (thanks to the Washington Arts Group) and was a bit multi-ethnic, too and we all appreciated those intentional efforts. There were women in leadership, too---what a joy to finally meet Jo Saxton, for instance, who has worked with our friends at Catalyst and Q in recent years, and whose new book More Than Enchanting: Breaking Through Barriers to Influence Your World (IVP; $15.00) is a wonderful example of missional vision and Kingdom perspective for purpose-driven women. (Jo is the director of 3DM which "helps train leaders for discipleship and mission in an increasingly post-Christian culture.") What an exciting presenter, bringing stories of her native UK and her current setting in California. I meant it when I told the audience that this book, while it is written to inspire women in missional leadership, it is good for anyone. In fact, I think it is important for leaders who are male to read this book, learning what obstacles are sometimes before our sisters in Christ.
Here is a talk Jo Saxton gave at the Q Ideas conference a few years ago. Check it out and order the book from us, asap! She is a dynamo!
What a delight it was to
hear Reggie McNeal. We have sold McNeal's books over the years, and we
stock all the books from the Leadership Network Publication line that he helps
oversee. I think the first of his
I read was his book on the spirituality of leadership, A Work of Heart:
Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders (Jossey Bass; $24.95) which is a study of the life of
David that has been recently reissued in a revised second edition. You should know that he has taken much of his learnings from being a coach and mentor to pastors and other leaders and published Practicing Greatness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders (Jossey Bass; $24.95.) We even have his 4 DVD set The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church (Jossey Bass; $149.00.) I knew he was important, but had no idea he was so funny. And passionate about the church getting involved in ways that help solve problems of poverty. Thank goodness.
So, you've got to read some Reggie McNeal. His Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church (Jossey-Bass;
$24.95) is widely considered his most important and we highly recommend it.
Missional Renaissance has been promoted in our own
Presbytery, even, illustrating that it is vital for mainline
congregations as well as the energetic new church developers. It invites us to
measure and celebrate other things (he was powerfully clear about this---we go
after than which our metrics measure, so if more members, better numbers,
bigger offerings is what we report on, we'll see that as some "end all." What would it look like, he teaches us
to wonder, to find ways, rubrics and rhetoric and habits of
conversations---re-languaging, he called it---that promoted God's work in the
world, the fidelity of folk in the marketplace and neighborhood, the
social flourishing breaking out through the Spirit's work, here and there? If disciples are called to be salt and light and leaven, how to we honor and celebrate that? Can that be on our "missional scorecard?"
Of Missional Renaissance, Victor Pentz of Peachtree Presbyterian writes, "If you are a pastor or church leader ready to get down to the raw specifics of turning a Christendom club into a missional community, you will love this book. The concepts are easily understood as they are radical and breathtaking. There are a number of brilliant missional theorists, but no one can speak the language of our American context and put the rubber on the street like Reggie McNeal."
In my book announcement time I was trying to illustrate this idea of attending to God's work in the world (not just within the walls of the church) by pushing the must-read Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work by Tom Nelson (Crossway; $15.99) and the visionary, multi-layered missional work Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy Sherman (IVP; $16.99.) Ha -- I forgot that Reggie McNeal, in fact, wrote the very positive preface to Kingdom Calling. (My friend Steve Garber, by the way, wrote the afterword.) Not enough churches talk about--let alone measure and testify about and celebrate successes of marketplace ministry---so I was happy to bring that contribution to the FreshEx gathering. And glad that Reggie affirmed it as he took in my energetic book recommendations.
McNeal's latest book,
Missional Communities: The Rise of the Post-Congregational Church, (Jossey-Bass; $24.95) is an
evangelical and practical work that would be excellent to read on the heels of
the new Diana Butler Bass. Rather than fret much
about the post-Christian culture or await some ill-defined awakening, he
invites us to get involved now in what these Brits and Baptists are calling fresh
expressions of church. He calls it
"post-congregational" and is picking up on the work of guys like Neil Cole, who wrote Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens (Jossey Bass; $24.95) and like the insightful The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community: The Posture and Practices of Ancient Church Now by Hugh Halter (Jossey Bass; $23.95.) These are all practical resources helping congregations ponder and apply missional principles, reconsidering their very nature, the way they do ministry, and how to form communities on the move, reaching out and making disciples.
People sometimes ask me where to begin, or what to read next, in this on-going missional movement. The one's listed above are excellent to start with.
For what it is worth, though, the seminal 1998 book
which was the first to use the phrase in print, is Missional Church: A Vision of the Sending Church in North America edited by
Princeton Seminary prof Darell Guder (Eerdmans; $29.00) who was at Fresh Expressions, too. It seems to me that this idea of being
missional---being a church that realizes we are not to be civil religious
chaplains to the status quo, but view post-Christian North American as a mission
field to which we must contextualize our own discipleship and outreach--came
from this important conversation, drawing largely on the missionary insights of
Lesslie Newbigin. His The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans; $24.00) is a true classic, a bit slow-going, but
important and worthy of repeated, careful readings. His earlier and briefer Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans; $16.00) is a bit more
readable and I think more important. The Gospel and Our Culture
Network, by the way, was a co-sponsored of the FreshEx conference. They are, as they say, spot on. Anyway, Guder channeling Newbigin, is one of the
grand-daddies of the movement, and we've stocked their books since they first came out.
Here are a few more recent must-reads if you want to get up to speed with these missional conversations. There are so many, and many are good. This is the essential short list.
The Shaping of Things to
Come: Innovation and Missions for the 21st Century Church Michael
Frost & Alan Hirsch (Hendrickson) $19.99 As early
articulation of cultural exegesis, looking at secularization, the rejection of
Christendom, the need for a wholistic Kingdom vision and all the rest. This is
one of the most often-cited works in this field, perhaps the most important
missional book to read. I can't say enough about it. This is the book that put these guys on the map, and set the stage for a whole new generation of very astute cultural critics and whole-life discipleship visions, contextualized for our brave new world.
Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture Michael Frost (Hendrickson) $19.99 I'm very fond of this, maybe because of its radical social critique. Again, this reminds us of the dysfunction of a "churchy" view of faith, and affirms the spirituality of the ordinary, the importance of the Kingdom themes, the way we are called to resist ideologies in the culture. Shades of Brueggeman and Willimon, drawing on the themes of the Hebrew prophets during the time of the Babylonian captivity. Wow. This will get your motors running!
The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church Alan Hirsch (Brazos Press) $19.99 Okay, this is
it. A must read. Period. You can't be fluent in this conversation without knowing about Hirsch, and this is the first one to read of his.
The Forgotten Ways Handbook: A Practical Guide for Developing Missional Churches Alan Hirsch (Brazos Press) $13.99 I sometimes am a bit cynical when a publisher does a companion book or workbook like this. Is this really necessary or just milking the thing a bit more? Well, thanks to Brazos for offering this---it is a guidebook for congregational use that is very helpful and highly recommended. Get your church pals reading this, sooner than later.
Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood Alan Roxburgh (Baker) $16.99 Not sure why, but this is very popular, I think because it is so very clear about local outreach, about caring enough to be creative in reaching out. It is one I often tell people to start with. All the reviewers insist this is Roxburgh's best, and any of his are great. This explains the shift to an "outwardly focused" church as well as anything in a reasonably sized paperback. David Fitch, says, "It is sure to be a tour de force for the missional conversation. I am not being excessive when I say this book is brilliant."
Missional Map-Making: Skills
for Leading in Times of Transition
Alan Roxburgh (Jossey Bass) $24.95
Others have used the map metaphor before, how the maps we have and use
themselves shape our journeys.
What if the cityscape has changed?
What if we are using outdated and consequently inadequate maps? This is one of the most interesting, creative
and generative resources for big thinking leaders that I know of.
Craig Van Gelder (professor of congregational mission at Luther
Seminary) notes "Roxburgh continues to move the missional conversation
forward! His Missional Map-Making
creatively builds on his previous publications offering critical perspective on
how to navigate the overwhelming complexity of today's world. This important book
provides insightful historical perspective toward clarifying the contours of
our present landscape, while also being deeply instructive for helping
reflective and courageous Christians develop skills for creating new maps
toward participating more faithfully in God's mission." That's a mouthful. Read it again, and tell me that this
doesn't sound exciting and fruitful?
Church in the Present
Tense: A Candid Look at What's Emerging book + DVD Scot McKnight, Peter Rollins, Kevin Corcoran, Jason Clark (Brazos Press) $21.99 This book is less about the missional
movement as discussed by McNeal, Roxburgh, Hirsch, Frost, Guder, et al. It really is a roundtable discussion
about the state of the emergent conversation. There are rave reviews by John Franke (theologian in
residence at First Presbyterian Church of Allentown, PA), David Fitch (North
Park Seminary) and Tony Jones of Solomon's Porch---one of the clearest (that is, most funky) examples of the
emergent way of being church these days, and they all recommend it as exceptional. Phyllis Tickle
(author of The Great Emergence) writes "This is the most complete, detailed, critically
sympathetic, and totally remarkable overview I have yet seen of where Emergence
Christianity presently is and appears to be going. McKnight's two essays alone
are worth the price of admission." The DVD is fun and comes with the book making this a fabulous bargain for those who want to listen in to this provocative convo. A bit heady at times, as you might imagine...Corcoran, who mostly put it together, is a philosphy professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.
Remixing the Church: Towards an Emerging Ecclesiology Doug Gay (SCM) $30.00 Yeah, it is pricey, even for an import, but this is a huge (too often missing) piece of the emergent, missional, (and now, Fresh Expressions) conversations. Graham Cray, the Church of England leader of the Fresh Expressions team (and missioner appointed by the Archbishop) spoke about this at the conference and as an Anglican he has certain important sensibilities about sacraments and ordination and ecclesiology, or at least I assumed he did. He was surprisingly less anxious about this than I was, and I was glad for a helpful, if brief conversation with him. At what point does an organic outreach, forming a discipleship community, become a church? What is an expression of The Church? What is a missional, Kingdom eccesiology? I still love Howard Synder's Community of the King (revised and expanded) (IVP; $18.00) and often say it is my favorite book on the nature of the church. Also a favorite is a more recent book by Tim Chester---I sometimes called it "gospel centered church"---titled Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community (Crossway; $15.99. ) I do think it is important to revisit this regularly and this new one by Gay is good.
I've helped start and
have spoken at dozens and dozens of para-church fellowship groups over the
years, but have routinely reminded them that their coffee-shop Bible study or
Bread for the World citizens lobby group or college ministry fellowship are not
real churches; I am very grateful that unlike some para-church campus ministries, the CCO has written into their goals a hope for partnerships with local congregations, insisting that college kids should not view their campus fellowship group as a substitute for an established parish church. I still have a fairly traditional set of assumptions---the maps
that inform my worldview---about real church and para-church, I guess. The esteemed Bishop Cray
invited us to lighten up a bit, since any and all congregations, no matter how
formal, sound, large or well-established, are only but "expressions" of the
full Body of Christ, after all. "Wherever two
or three are gathered" he reminded us...and called for risky experiments of outreach, hopes for new nests, new start-up projects, fresh expressions, disciple-making, worshiping bodies.
And so, it shouldn't have surprised me to see Bishop Cray's rave commendation on Remixing the Church, and his affirmation of this study. He writes, "We owe Douglas Gay a debt of thanks. Through this book he has made it possible to continue a conversation about the emerging state of the church...with courtesy and humility. This is a gift from Scotland about the catholicity of the church."
Jonny Baker (whose latest book published by Seabury offers a new way to think about worship and worship leading
is interestingly called Curating Worship [$20.00]) writes of Douglas Gay's Remixing... "I was very moved by this book. It's a creative, mature piece of
practical theology that maps contours of the emerging church movement over the
last few decades and offers reflections on ecclesial practice into the future.
Doug's passion for a generous and humble ecumenism is inspired and much
needed. I am so thankful he has
written it and so identify with the sensibilities and themes." I've followed Baker's work since his
days as a student at Toronto's Institute for Christian Studies, and am glad for
his input on this.
I liked the phrase "ecclesial practice." It reminded me a bit of Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Christian Formation by James K.A. Smith (Baker Academic; $21.99), a book I wish I would have sold at Fresh Expressions since it is about how we need thick and rich liturgies and other "ecclesial practices" to counter the shaping influences of the secular litanies that so inform the habits of our hearts. If we are going to offer fresh expressions by doing edgy little church plants and forming house churches or communities of discipleship, what is it about those communities that will truly transform us? A great love for Jesus and desire to serve Him well a radically transformative body does not make, I'm afraid. Hmm.
Well, such a phrase takes us back to Diana Butler Bass' new book and Reggie McNeal's latest one. Listen carefully to the titles and subtitles. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening and Missional Communities: The Rise of the Post-Congregational Church. What might congregations look like in a time of "Christianity after religion?" Will we be "post-congregational?" It is no wonder those of us loyal to denominational churches and their sturdy status quo are a bit shaken by these questions...
Well, here is one more. It is truly a gift from God, a wonderful little book that I am very eager to chat about. I hope you consider it, and read the various short pieces reflectively, talking about them as you listen to the pain and hope they represent.
Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals edited by Chris Lewis (IVP) $15.00 This is creatively written, exceptionally passionate, and diverse in orientation. I promoted it at the Fresh Expressions event and wish I had more time to explain it better. Lewis is the cofounder of the Epiphaneia Network, yet another movement to equip and inspire Jesus followers in Kingdom ministry, this one focused mostly on Canadian Christians. This intriguing book came out of one of their projects, the "Eighth Letter Conference" which, as you might guess, invited leaders old and young to offer pastoral letters to the church. Exiled on the island of Patmos, the apostle John was commanded to write about what he saw and heard and to record and send messages to seven churches. (Get it --- these are the "eighth letters.") What might the Spirit say to our North American churches today? There is a fabulous opening piece by Andy Crouch the bears several good readings, and then there are short letters by Canadian evangelical leader Aileen Van Ginkle, Soong-Chan Rah, Peter Rollins, Makoto Fujimura, Ron Sider and more. Imaginative notes are offered by Walter Brueggemann, Shane Claiborne, Tim Challies, Rachel Held Evans, David Fitch, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Janell Anema, Kathy Escobar.
There are four main sections, grouping the epistles around mission, truth, art, and hope. There are some playful letters from a girl's diary offered as interludes, and plenty to ponder as these folks draft their manifesto-like letters, appealing to the church, sometimes with whimsy, sometimes through tears...
The final appendix "Letters to a Future Church from the End of a Millennium" include short pieces by older leaders, aimed at certain sorts of churches. We hear briefly from John Ortberg, William Willimon, Gardner Taylor and Eugene Peterson. (Is this the first time IVP has published the legendary black preacher, Gardner Taylor? Wow!) These are rich and thoughtful, little works of writerly art. They read well out loud and I think you could use them in many settings.
Reading Letters to a Future Church is a good way into this conversation, listening well to these creative pleas which
describe our contemporary setting so well, inviting us to reconsider what, really,
the mission of God is, and how we can best embody and create signposts pointing
the way of restoration promised by the resurrected Lord. Hearing these folks offer their letters, their hearts, their pleas, will touch your own heart, and perhaps compel you to further seek how to be an agent of conversation in your own congregation, raising the urgent questions of change, outreach, mission, and the nature of "Christianity after religion." More than ever, now, I want to use my little book-selling slogan: Read for the Kingdom! These books will help us think through some of the most basic things of the Christian life, the very nature of our churches and their work.
ADDENDUM: Just saw this cover story in The Christian Century that discusses church planting. It mentions Pittsburgh Theological Seminary's Scott Sundquist, a quote well worth reading. And Darrell Guder, and other good folks.
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