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
Web page is a guide to networking folks who want to think about this very

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
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.).

& 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
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.

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.

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

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!

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
& 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).

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.

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.

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?”

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
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!