The Kingdom and the Congregation: Some Recent Books About the Local Church

In worldview classes and sermons about being what God wants us to be, I often come back to the radical call to be bodily "non-conformed and transformed" found in Romans 12:1-2. The biblical warning not to be "taken captive" preaches well as an invitation to reflect on ways we are influenced (unknowingly?) by our culture and the diverse ideologies and philosophies which abound. Sitting at a Starbucks, I spot a poster laden with worldviewish notions and pagan assertions; browsing the aisles of my local video store, I'm assailed with not-too-subtle messages and (alleged) heroes. The evening news gives me the major media view, daily shaping my view of the world. Without vigilant "guarding my heart," I surely risk having some of these perspectives and value-systems become a part of my subconscious. (That I even said that -- subconscious! -- proves my point.)

Those who hear me teach in the context of campus ministry know that I enjoy pointing out the significant implications of this aspect of biblical discipleship for students and scholarship. I know fine friends of Jesus who know their evangelical doctrine and strive for holiness (they wouldn't think of getting drunk or yielding to gross sexual temptation), but who are nonetheless utterly "captive" to the reigning ideas in the given fields of their academic lives. They perhaps have done very serious and very secular graduate work and have (with hardly a thought about it) adopted as an operative vision notions that frankly are at odds with a consistent Christian worldview. From assumptions about the meaning of work, housing, leisure, the role of techno-medical interventions in childbirth, to the task of the state, or the way in which we think about our emotional "needs" or our "rights," or our expectations about technology, all sorts of worldly ideas and ideals have shaped the ways Christians live out their daily discipleship.

Hence -- as all of us in the CCO know well -- the need for a Godly approach to the thinking that undergirds the arts and sciences, especially as it is professed in institutions of higher education. It is not adequate to just be a professor (or student) of economics or communication or psychology who happens also to be a church-going Christian. We truly need to recall the work of George Marsden, author of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship or James Sire, whose classic Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God in the Way We Think tells us just how to help students and faculty develop the Christian mind. As it is often put, we need to integrate our faith and our scholarship, allowing our biblical perspectives to color how we think about and live our our vocations in the marketplace, public square or modern university. (The www.JubileeNow.com Web page is a guide to networking folks who want to think about this very stuff.)

It would seem to me that Christians of a variety of traditions -- Presbyterians, Catholics, Mennonites and Pentecostals -- would all agree. Who would not agree that Christian doctors, say, ought not to be cavalier about the ethics of reproductive technologies or that Christians in the field of business dare not cede too much to the greedy zietgeist which permeates most MBA programs. Regardless of denomination, wouldn't we all agree that Christians whose job it is to supervise others should break with old school assumptions about hierarchy, gender and notions of productivity and efficiency? What Christian filmmakers think about nudity in art, what Christian coaches think about competition and what Christians in computer work think about virtual reality really are religious questions; our churches must help us ask these sorts of questions as part of the local congregation's task to equip the faithful in day-to-day righteousness. We are, after all, God's "workmanship," as Ephesians puts it, and we are to walk in good works, doing all as unto the Lord. Our local church should help us raise these questions and live more faithfully, serving Christ with excellence and integrity wherever our callings take us.

Our hearing of weekly sermons and our participation in Sunday school, small groups, informal worship and regular Eucharist should affect us, should it not? On this very matter, former Jubilee keynote speaker William Diehl has written Ministry in Daily Life: A Practical Guide for Congregations (Alban Institute, $14.95) as a book to help local churches wanting to assist their members' service in the world. All of us -- Weslyans, Episcopalians and Baptists -- should draw upon our theologies and traditions (and the strengths and insights of traditions which may not be our own) to help us learn how better to be "in the world but not of it."

As one who is inspired greatly by Abraham Kuyper's Dutch Calvinism that encouraged the development of non-ecclesiastical cultural ministries, think-tanks, social reform organizations and distinctively Christian social institutions (see some of my recent reviews of books about Kuyper to learn more about this titan of 19th century faith), I am confident that the CCO, along with most American Christians, surely needs to heed the call to emphasize the role of the institutional church (which, by the way, Kuyper did. He was, after all, firstly a pastor, devotional writer, and preacher as well as a journalist, statesman, labor organizer and philosopher.).

Hearts & Minds Bookstore remains committed to offering literature which attempts to help Christians (and others) live meaningfully in the world, but much of our business, in fact, comes from serving local churches, Christian educators and parish leaders regarding congregationial life. We firmly believe that there is an immense, irreducible connection between the local church and the broader mission of faithful folk in the world.

Since its beginning the the early 1970s, the CCO has prided itself in being a campus ministry that partnered with local congregations in college towns (unlike some purely para-church groups who do not). So foundational has this been, it may be that we've neglected to adequately school our young converts and disciples into a deep awareness of the local, worshipping Body. (Might the phrase we've taken it for granted ring true?) Some have suggested that it seems like the CCO doesn't care about the local church and her practices since we so often talk about "outside the church" evangelism, the reformation of culture, social change and public justice issues.

Therefore, I would suggest that CCO staff work a bit in this area -- read some books about the church, about worship and liturgy, about your own denomination. Of course, always make it clear that our on-campus fellowships, coffee shop study groups and short-term mission projects are everywhere and always a manifestation of a local congregation. Our proper proclamation of the gospel good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand dare not exclude the essential teaching about the relationship of the Kingdom to the local church and the church universal. Further, our study of such things should not be abstract -- studying about the church in theory -- but should actually be done in the context of a real, live congregation.

This, I think, is one of the important points that has come out of recent discussion within the CCO (and is one of the beauties of Chris Noyes' marvelous vignettes each month). Worldviews, theologies, discipleship patterns, ministry goals and the like are all shaped -- tacitly or not, intentionally or not, for good or ill -- by our role (or not) in a local worshiping congregation. John Howard Yoder did not have his tongue in cheek when he did a little book (recently reissued) called Body Politic. The stuff we do at church -- sharing bread, allowing children in our midst, giving space for silence, talking candidly about our sin, regularly passing the peace to others we may not like, saying out loud "forgive us our debts" and even (in some traditions) washing one another's feet -- has vast political and cultural implications. Liturgy, religious ceremony and ritual shape our worldviews, and we should take every opportunity to talk about the relationship of liturgy and living, worship and way of life, ritual and reality, the Eucharist and the everyday.

And so I offer these resources for your consideration.

A ROYAL WASTE OF TIME
One of the most significant writers in the last decade, Marva Dawn, is not only world famous but a friend of the CCO (and will be the keynote speaker at our Jubilee conference in 2002). A highly liturgical and evangelical Lutheran whose public vision and understanding of the church has been significantly influenced by Mennonite scholar Yoder, Dawn ends up with a nearly genius blend of insights giving her an unique vision. She calls for rich and faithful worship so that we might be formed in character and community for the sake of our witness to and work in the watching world. I know of no other author whose passions are so deep and wide as Ms. Dawn's, and I commend any and all of her many books -- including, for starters, a brand new collection which can be used as a daily devotional.

One of my favorite books of hers -- despite a couple of bits with which I strongly disagree -- is called A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (Eerdmans, $18.00). It is a collection of powerful speeches, pithy articles, wonderful sermons, stirring essays, even letters, all of which are fairly brief and quite readable. A Royal Waste of Time is a much more accessible work than the earlier Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down and is a good place to enter the very important discussion about consumerism, the elevation of taste and the dangers of the modern marketing of contemporary praise music in worship. (In case you haven't heard, she's against it.) She invites us -- pleading, exhorting -- to attend to issues of worship, the grandeur of God, good liturgy, the need for theologically-rich song lyrics, the place of contemporary (youth) music in our intergenerational worship services and such.

Dawn always places these reflections squarely amidst the counter-claims of the modern/postmodern culture. She knows deeply (from her own immense personal pain) the woundedness of the world and in no way calls for us to be an elitist enclave with a "holy huddle" mentality. Like another influence of hers, Stanley Hauerwas, she has been accused of being overly "sectarian" and too disinterested in engaging society. (For instance, she is very critical of nearly all TV and steadfastly refuses the trendy notion of age-segregated worship.) While I do not understand Hauerwas enough to echo that accusation, I am confident that such a claim is a misreading of Marva Dawn, who cares deeply about the direction of our culture, is well-read in everything from contemporary fiction to global economics and shares her own life with the poor and hurting. Her brand new book, originally delivered at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God), is a study of the fallen principalities and powers and is a ringing call to Christianly fight -- through our Christ-dependent weakness -- the demonic systems of domination that bring harm to God's world. She is obviously not interested exclusively in the instiutional church.

A Royal Waste of Time calls us to dig deeply into our best biblical traditions, to learn to worship well and to truly become a Christian community so that we might (as disciples of the crucified Lord) share in and minister to those who are outside the community of faith. The subtitle of the book puts in squarely and should itself evoke much thought and repentance: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. I commend it to you heartily.

THE CONNECTING CHURCH
One of the most amazing, detailed and yet easy-to-read books on developing Christian community (as much as I am partial to Marva Dawn's Truly the Community or Bonhoeffer's little classic, Life Together, on this topic) is the new title, The Connecting Church by Randy Frazee (Zondervan, $16.99). Consider the endorsements from heavy-weight authors like J.I. Packer ("landmark status") and Dallas Willard ("by far the best corporate plan for spiritual formation and growth"). Perhaps I will explain it in greater detail elsewhere, but please know that this is an exceptional work, critiquing individualism, the lack of authentic community and the haphazard way even our best churches guide members into Christlikeness.

The Connecting Church is laid out in three major sections: Connecting to a Purpose, Connecting to a Common Place and Connecting to Common Possessions. Covering sociological concerns such as the problem of isolation and the sterility of suburbs to issues of consumerism, this book challenges us in significant and timely ways. Better, it gives us strategies to help the church take steps towards being a community where people truly belong and live out in strongly interwoven relationships a plan of intentional spiritual formation. This is a book which moves beyond small group ministry to reconstrue the church as community; your church leaders really ought to be aware of it!

THE KINGDOM & THE POWER
To get a good theological basis for the church, know that Reformed author Peter Leithart has written a very significant work highlighting an immense matter of concern which circles around and hovers over the first page of this review -- namely, the relationship between the institutional church and the creation-wide Kingdom of God. The Kingdom and the Power: Rediscovering the Centrality of the Church (Presbyterian & Reformed, $11.99) clearly and helpfully affirms and explains a broad vision of the Kingdom, complete with a classic Reformed discussion of how we "take dominion," serving as caring stewards of God's world. Christ is the Head and Heir of all things and, in Him, we too reign. Through Him, with Him, for Him!

But we dare not reduce this vision to social gospel activism, sociological improvement of society or heroic efforts to fight culture wars. All that we do -- in the arts, science, politics or education -- we do as members of the Body of Christ. The Kingdom comes "on Earth," but God's method of bringing such cosmic restoration is to gather a people -- united with one another as we are united to Christ, "baptized into His death, suffering and resurrection." For author Leithart (and I remain a touch concerned that he overstates his case), "The really big Kingdom activity -- the act that radically changes the world -- is the gathering of the people of God on Lord's day at the heavenly banquet table, when God's people hear His Word, offer humble petitions to the Kingdom and feast on the flesh and blood of Jesus" (page 213).

HOWARD SNYDER
Older readers may recall the excellent and classic mid-'70s work by Wesleyan writer Howard Snyder whose (out-of-print) Problem of Wineskins and the still available Community of the King (InterVarsity Press, $14.95) raised similar themes: God's Kingdom may be a-coming in ways that affect human history and all areas of life, but it begins and is sustained in the actual community which worships and shares life together as a "city on a hill." Synder has more recently written a very, very useful book on how different theological traditions understand the Kingdom -- if church and Kingdom are related, it may help us get a proper ecclesiology if we first consider our assumptions about the nature of the key biblical phrase "the Kingdom of God." Simply called Models of the Kingdom (Abingdon Press, $12.95), it is illuminating for those interested in this question and I highly recommend it.

WILL WILLIMON
Although I don't have space here to describe it well, I am very, very happy that we have found a newer edition of an older, wonderful William Willimon book simply called What's Right With the Church? (Insight Press, $16.00). Laden with resident alien chutzpuh, it looks at this rather odd and sometimes difficult thing we call the church and wonders why we keep coming back week after week. It is a wonderful primer, showing how this often boring little project -- gathering to sing some songs and pray and talk about the Bible read-out-loud -- is the form that the Risen Christ has chosen to take in the world. (Ya gotta love a book about the church where the clergyman author himself starts a chapter with the confession: "If I had my way, I wouldn't be here.") A very honest, clever and convicting biblical study. We should use it often.

In an era where Christian young people no longer feel compelled to attend worship or be active in the life of a local congregation, and among those of us who rightfully encourage lay folks to serve God in the daily grind of their work-a-day voting and shopping and playing, it would seem that even a bit of an overstatement about the strategic centrality of the local church may be exactly what is needed. Surely between all the reading we do on systematic theology, spiritual formation, cultural critique and societal reformation, we should regularly come back to books about the nature, role and significance of the local congregation.

PHILIP YANCEY
Although not as feisty or as in-depth biblically as Willimon's, Yancey's small book on the church ought to be as well-known as his other spectacular works like What's So Amazing About Grace? Largely auto-biographical, Church: Why Bother? allows Yancey to share his own struggles and frustrations with what seems too often a toxic organization. Still, through our foibles and worse, God has given us this community of people with whom to journey, He has put us in this forgiven family called church and this is, frankly, the only hope we've got. This is a book I would gladly give to anyone who asks, "Why bother?"

OPEN SECRETS
For those who might enjoy reflecting on the local church in a less academic way and want to supplement their library of books like the ones recommended above with something more, well...more, ummmm...fun...let me highlight a brand new release that is getting stunning rave reviews. Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church by Duke Divinity School prof Richard Lischer (Doubleday, $22.95) is a new memoir which can be described as part Garisson Keillor, part Frederick Buechner. This tells the story of a bright young Lutheran seminarian and his wife, whose first parish is a rather dull, small church in a small and boring Midwestern town. And the wacky stuff he got himself into. Believe it or not, this is a riveting read!

Open Secrets is a grand, understated book which is fun, funny and wise. And it will surely remind us of the great and grand work of God in holding us together in our quite ordinary local congregations. As Marva Dawn herself says about it, "It might seem trite to call Open Secrets true, but that is its rare and sparkling virtue." A great summer read, a great gift to anyone who has been in the church a while, a great reflecting on, ultimately, the meaning of it all -- this is a delightful story. Order this one from us and if you don't like it, we'll give your money back!