In my last BookNotes piece I reminded you of a longer essay I wrote about neo-Calvinism and Kuyper and how they influenced us. That is posted at the “columns” section of our website.
Then I listed and described 13 books — just couldn’t do a top ten — that highlighted the strengths and interests of mainline denominational churches. I had a few things about preaching the lectionary, a devotional based on Feasting on the Word Year C, and gave a shout out to our friends at the Alban Institute who do sharp stuff about church revitalization, congregational best practices and pastoral ministry resources. It was occasioned mostly by our recent book displays with a group of Presbyterian educators, a retreat with UCC clergy, and a Synod Assembly of the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I think it is known that we are particularly interested in the health of our mainline denominational parishes. I think those books were pretty useful.
So, to follow up, here are 6 more about church life. I think they are extraordinary, each in their own way. I often huff and puff about the role of the laity in the world, about vocation and calling and culture-making. We here invite you to nurture the Christian mind for God’s missional purposes in the world, thinking faithfully about art, science, media, business and more.
But let’s face it. We learn this stuff in church. Our Kingdom vision for a being agents of God’s reconciling work in the world happens, mostly, in the often mundane practices of doing church together, week by week by week. Amen?
Church Worth Getting Up For Charles Gutenson (Abingdon) $16.99 Gutenson has done community development, health care ministry, public justice work, has been on staff at Sojourners, and now teaches systematic theology at Asbury Theological Seminary. A recent book looked at the practices of the early church (The Right Church.) This is a distillation of much of his thought about congregational life that is vibrant, meaningful, missional, and inviting. He is a good writer, and this is exciting and clear; visionary and practical. He highlights well how churches must contextualize their ministry to their local setting and reminds us of the need to keep younger adults involved.
We hear lots of talk about being “authentic” these days. He shows us what it looks like. There are chapter titles like “The Big Six” and “Focus, Focus, Focus” and “Right Belief, Right Practice – Equal Partners?” He is all about getting beyond the “sacred/secular divide” (did he read that Kuyper essay of mine? Ha!) I think you learn something from this, see some things in a new light, and — for leaders who don’t have a lot of time to read too much in any one thing — will be brought up to speed in some of the latest missional conversations and insights about making congregational life what it ought to be.
Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community, and Worship Holly Catterton Allen and Christian Lawton Ross (IVP Academic) $22.00 It is always a delight to see mainline denominational leaders (in this case, Karen Marie Yust, whose books are on Chalice Press, and who works at Union Presbyterian in Richmond) endorsing books on historically evangelically publishing houses. There is little doubt in my mind that this is the definitive book thus far on this vexing and much-debated topic. How do we live out Psalm 145: 4 which invite one generation to commend God’s redemptive words to the next? Allen and Ross have given us a comprehensive, thorough, systematic, and provocative study. This rejects seeing church as largely (market-derived) demographics — which may appeal to what one friend calls “generational narcissism.” There is practical stuff here, but it isn’t mostly a how-to handbook. It is a rich, serious, mature rumination on the theology of church, the nature of Christian pedagogy, and what it means to be an inter-generational, diverse Body of learners together. They look at worship, education, service and more.
When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church Lillian Daniel (Jericho Books) $19.99 You may know I promoted this earlier in the spring, naming it as a certain front-runner for my favorite book of the year, especially in the category of short, devotional essays. I think I filed this under memoir. And it is memoir-like; Lillian is a great storyteller, good, good writer, and a wise reporter, calling out sightings of Godly life here and there, as she sees it. Alas, she sees it — surprise! — in ordinary stuff of ordinary churches.
I know, it is more sexy to plant a hip, cool church with an edgy website. I know your elders are supposed to have skinny jeans and you should have a craft beer night and latte art competitions; maybe you don’t even gather — hey, it is cool to have virtual church. Or, as many say, just skip it — Jesus isn’t about religion, anyway. God is alive and well in the world, so let’s talk about design and culture, and justice and visioneering. We can all be just spiritual and let it go at that. Yeah, yeah, I get it. And so does Lillian Daniel, who does find God in a yoga class, or celebrates Christ’s grace showing up when encountering animals at the airport. (What a chapter that is!)
But Lillian also lives in the world of fairly small, fairly ordinary, often struggling (but not always) mainline churches. There are old people, children, liberals and conservatives, debates about using the old hymnal, versus the new (that isn’t so new) and the hard work of doing, well, fairly mundane stuff. For the folks of these churches, faith isn’t spectacular. And they haven’t heard about Crazy Love or Not a Fan. These are the churches that have not been shaped by evangelical publishing or televised mega-churches. And it is the world Daniel, and many of us, inhabit. And she makes it all glow, beautifully honoring through real-world essays about real-live ministry in common-place congregations. She can be biting — the first, wonderful essay, especially, just sizzles with sarcasm. But she can be light-hearted and fun, tender and wise. I loved this book, about God, faith, social concerns, and, yes, mostly about ordinary Christian faith lived in ordinary churches. This would be a really enjoyable summer read and might relieve some anxieties that your church isn’t as cool as it might. Love it!
Being Church: Reflections on How to Live as the People of God John F. Alexander (Casc
ade) $29.00 I wrote about this book before, but have wanted to write with more depth about it, but haven’t been able to. Still, I simply can’t wait until I could review it at greater length to promote it again. The late John Alexander took up the editorship of the magazine his father, Fred, founded, The Other Side, which was about racial justice and inner city work and intentional community, and eventually so much more. They were fellow-travellers with Sojourners, in the 1970s and beyond. John Alexander’s writings have been exceptionally influential in my faith journey and his two previous books are among my favorites — they are feisty and radical and amazingly challenging, taking Jesus and the culture we live in, seriously.
By the 80s he had ended up nearly losing his faith, nearly paralyzed with activism and high expectations about communal living; he left The Other Side and became a house church member out West, speaking, writing, pastoring. He had returned to robust, sustainable faith in a less ideologically left-wing way, and in a more intentional manner drawing on historic orthodox Bible teaching, including inputs from sources as diverse as the best of Francis Schaeffer and the radical Anabaptist folk. He was influenced by the philosophical ethics of Stanley Hauerwas (and his rejection of liberalism’s view of rights) but more, his view of church as an alternative polis. And he got cancer, and died in 2001.
John was a Wheaton trained philosopher, a justice and peace activist, and a house church/ intentional community advocate, and a servant of others. This book is a collection of his pieces that were to become a book, put together posthumously. It is a major work (with extraordinary footnotes, indicating a huge range of reading) on the nature of the church and happily, it does not feel unfinished. It is truly amazing, challenging, wildly Christ-like, raw, real. It is witty and biting and well-thought out. It is big on relationships (love and unity), on servanthood, social justice, grounded in grace, grace, grace and the mercy that flows from being forgiven sinners in a broken world. There are glimmers of joy, but it isn’t upbeat. There are signs of hope, but it isn’t cheap. There is theology, philosophy, pop-culture, Biblical study galore, history, politics — making it a book that defies description. There is an excellent forward by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and it is featured as a part of the important series on new monasticism called the New Monastic Library. Here is a piece Jonathan wrote at Patheos about John, “The Soul Friend I Never Knew.”
Intense endorsing blurbs on the back are by Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, Mark Scandrette and Chris Rice. All say the most amazing things about this most amazing book. I dare you to read this and not be driven to profound consideration about the nature of church and the nature of discipleship itself. Very, very important.
Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals edited by Chris Lewis (IVP) $15.00 We all know the letters to churches in the early part of Revelation. Suppose the Spirit was inspiring people to write to churches today. Suppose you could write a letter to church folk you know? You have one shot — what would you say? How would you say it? Lewis compiled this marvelously interesting, provocative, and stimulating book as a set of letters from all sorts of leaders, mainline and evangelical, Reformed and otherwise, social action-oriented and profoundly contemplative. As the sub-title suggests there are gentle works of good encouragement and there are hard-hitting calls to prophetic action. Here, you’ll real missives from Shane Claiborne and Tim Challies, from Rachel Held Evans and Walter Brueggemann. There are pieces by John Ortberg and Will Willimon. The famous black preacher Gardner Taylor has an eloquent piece and so does Eugene Peterson.
Many of these letter-writers are young, or a bit on the margins of typical congregational life. There are edgy thinkers like Peter Rollins and artist like Mako Fujimura.
One of the devices which adds an extra “wow factor” to this interesting compilation is a set of four pieces by our acquaintance Janell Anema, who shares insights of her growing up as a super-churched kid, writing a forward, a piece from her 16 year old self, as a 22 year old, as a 25 year old, and then a closing reprise. Which is to say, these letters are not an excuse for pontification, but are all heartfelt hopes for real congregations — not abstractions! — that minister to and with people like Janell. I’ve recommended this book before, and am happy to suggest it again.
Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier David Fitch & Geoff Holsclaw (Jossey Bass) $24.95 I have respected these two deep thinkers for quite some time, and was glad to see this new book in the esteemed, useful “Leadership Network” series. I am not necessarily Anabaptist, but I greatly appreciate that Fitch and Holsclaw have brought a serious commitment to local body life in light of Yoder and other Mennonite theologians in their broad contribution to missional church conversation. That this book has gotten rave reviews from Scot McKnight, Alan Hirsch, Alan Roxburgh and others speaks a lot. They are both scholars and practitioners, so I want to hear their story. I have not read this yet, but believe me, after just looking at the table of contents (and some videos of them speaking about it on line) I was hooked. It is on my stack, one I will personally work through this summer. I like what Gary Nelson, President of Tyndale University and Seminary in Toronto says, (they) “do something with Prodigal Christianity that most authors can’t pull off. They hold the tension between the prophetic and the priestly. As a result they make some readers squirm and others question.” I like that there is an emphasis on the local, on being an incarnation of the gospel in the neighborhood. I think these “10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier” are good pointers, and we should join the journey.
For what it is worth, I think our store carries almost every book published by mainstream publishers on the missional church. Bunches; we’ve got bunches. We have some odd-ball ones, too, self-published and obscure, or specially ordered from overseas. Too many start to sound the same. I am confident this one does not, is a deep wrestling with real issues, and is an important contribution to the vision and practices that many of us trying to absorb and embody. Although this is largely around being missional faith communities in post-Christian North America, the authors are both very fluent in the emergent conversations, as well. You may not like everything they say but I think anyone who reads this will be able to find something wise and good and useful here.
Buying any of these will be money well spent. Your church friends will thank you, as it always is g
ood to have folks in the church who are thinking intentionally about what it is we are and what it is we do. These are interest and raise the right questions. They each tell moving stories. I hope you find that they bear fruit in your place, for God’s glory. Let me know what you think.
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