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Archive for the ‘ekklesia’ Category

Let’s Get Radical

Radical. Epic. Revolutionary. Transformative. Impactful. Life-Changing. Ultimate. Extreme. Awesome. Emergent. Alternative. Innovative.

On The Edge. The Next Big Thing. Explosive Breakthrough.

You can probably add to the list of modifiers that have become, ironically, part of the ordinary conversations in society and in today’s church. …

We’ve become accustomed to looking around restlessly for something new, the latest and greatest, that idea or product or person or experience that will solve our problems, give us some purpose, and change the world.

—Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan; 2014; Kindle Edition; p. 11)

In my recent soul searching journey, I have to guard against a certain kind of restlessness that can subtly creep in unawares. I have to remind myself that our significance, security, and satisfaction is ultimately bound up with our identity in Christ. It’s who we are, not what we do; and yet, in church circles, it is easy to get caught up in the cycle of “virtue signalling”.

The daily, ordinary grind of life, of faithfully following Jesus in whatever He has called us to somehow doesn’t seem enough. Horton asserts that “‘Ordinary’ has to be one of the loneliest words in our vocabulary today.” In our social media saturated world, the desire to appear anything but ordinary is only amplified.  Horton goes on:

Our life has to count! We have to leave our mark, have a legacy, and make a difference. And all of this should be something that can be managed, measured, and maintained. We have to live up to our Facebook profile. It’s one of the newer versions of salvation by works. (p. 12)

And yet. And yet, when I stop and think about it, it is often in the small, quotidian details of life where God in fact, does His extraordinary work in and through us. As the song goes, “Even in the quietest moments / I wish I knew what I had to do”, and it is only as we journey through each day with intention that we will recognize the opportunities before us.  Indeed, modern life in the Internet age conspires to make it difficult for “forming genuine, long-term, and meaningful commitments that actually contribute to the lives of others” (p. 13, 14), as our attention skips from one post, tweet, email, text to the next.

This attitude has infected the church: “We want big results — sooner rather than later. And we’ve forgotten that God showers his extraordinary gifts through ordinary means of grace …” (p. 14).

 

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Although both authors, Vanhoozer (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and Strachan (Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) are academic theologians, they both share a concern for the well-being of the church, hence this book.

After the introduction, the book is simply structured into two parts of two chapters each, followed by a concluding chapter. The book shares the same goal as Hiestand and Wilson’s book of recovering the lost vision of the pastor theologian. They furthermore argue that the pastor theologian is a public theologian as indicated by the book’s title.

In the book’s Introduction, Vanhoozer laments how today’s pastors are more focused on “management skills, strategic plans, ‘leadership’ courses, therapeutic techniques” than they are on theology. The book’s “underlying conviction is that theological minds need to return to where they belong: in the body of Christ” (2) rather in the academy. In laying out his thesis, Vanhoozer notes that there are “three sets of people, three publics, each with its own kind of opinion. By three publics, I mean three social realities, three locations, into which pastors [me: only pastors?!] may speak of God and Jesus Christ: (1) the academy, (2) the church, and (3) the broader society.” (p. 4)

He argues that pastor-theologians “must be trilingual, able to speak the language of all three social locations, or at least speak it well enough to ask directions (and give them). Our task in this book is to argue, first, that pastors must be theologians; second, that every theologian is in some sense a public theologian; and third, that a public theologian is a very particular kind of generalist.” (5) He then goes on to survey how the vision of the pastor-theologian was lost, and here the story is a familiar one, if one has already read Hiestand and Wilson.

They argue that theology became an academic discipline during the rise of the medieval universities, so that the locus of theological influence shifted from church to academy. This shift was decisive after the rise of liberalism in the early 1800s with the restructuring of the “theological curriculum into its now-familiar fourfold division—biblical studies, church history, systematic theology, and practical theology” (5). In their view, the

perception that academic scholarship is abstract and “theoretical,” disconnected from the issues of daily life, neither relevant nor necessary for “practical” ministry, is perhaps the single greatest prejudice against theological education, along with the corresponding notion that the “practical” disciplines are pragmatic and lacking in theological sophistication in its underlying foundation. (5-6)

The situation is  exacerbated by the reality that “much theology is written by academics for academics”, or as he calls them, “professor-theologians”.  As such, it is “often difficult to translate or apply these technical treatments of specialized topics to the everyday needs of one’s congregation.” (6)  Furthermore, the divide in the academy between biblical studies and theology, and their increasingly sophisticated and specialized nature adds to the challenge in trying to reap the benefits of the scholarly insights therein.

Within the church context, Vanhoozer and Strachan argue that metaphors used to paint the picture of pastors’ roles have changed and multiplied, e.g., the pastor as CEO, manager, and therapist. Many of these images reflect shifting cultural trends and are not always healthy (nor biblical!).  Eugene Peterson note that the “vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans” (The Pastor: A Memoir, p. 4). In another book, Peterson has even stronger words of critique: “American pastors, without really noticing what was happening, got our vocations redefined in terms of American careerism” and that they are consequently driven by “opportunity for advancement” (Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, p. 20). I think any honest observer of the religious scene would have to affirm the detrimental effects of the professionalization of pastors. This is not entirely the fault of your average, well-intentioned pastor, who are subjected to both the expectations of the congregation and pressures for growth (i.e. numbers) from denominational HQ.

Lastly, with respect to the context of the larger society, the authors lament the loss of the golden age when “pastors were revered and respected public figures with a certain degree of social status … and frequently the best-educated persons” (10). Drawing from studies such as Oracles and Odysseys of the Clergy: Images of the Ministry in Western Literature (David Larsen; 2007), The Church on TV (Richard Wolff; 2010), and Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature (Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken, and Todd Wilson; 2012), they outline the shifting (and increasingly negative) characterization of clergy in popular culture (novels, television and films). On the flip side, there is also the disturbing trend of churches capitulating to the culture of celebrity worship, where big name brand preachers are idolized and lionized, and rewarded with financial gains and church growth.

In clarifying what they mean by their proposal of pastors as public theologians, they urge “Christians to be neither a domineering presence in society nor an otherworldly absence, but rather a witnessing presence”, or in other words, “to be salt and light by bringing the Christian vision of God and the good life into the public sphere” (20). They go on to quote Miroslav Volf to crystallize what they have in mind: “A vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate.” (A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good; 2011). They further note that the word public has in view “people”, hence public theology is simply “theology made up of people” (20), i.e., the life of the church is a “hermeneutic of the gospel” (Newbigin’s phrase):

In sum: the people of God are the public place where what is in Christ is remembered, celebrated, explored, and exhibited. Stated simply: the pastor’s task is to help congregations “to become what they care called to be.” This is the ancient-future task of the pastor as public theologian. (21)

The rest of the book is the fleshing out of this vision and task.  Part 1 (by Strachan) approaches the subject from the standpoint of Biblical Theology and Historical Theology and comprises two chapters:

  • Of Prophets, Priests, and Kings: A Brief Biblical Theology of the Pastorate
  • Of Scholars and Saints: A Brief History of the Pastorate

Vanhoozer takes up the task in Part 2 from the standpoint of Systematic Theology and Practical Theology, again in two chapters:

  • In the Evangelical Mood: The Purpose of the Pastor-Theologian
  • Artisans in the House of God: The Practices of the Pastor-Theologian

An added bonus is the inclusion of 2 or 3 short practical meditations at the end of each chapter from practicing pastor-theologians, sharing their experiences in trying to live out this vision.

As this review is already way too long, I can only highlight a few salient points and offer my personal observations. In chapter 1, Strachan attempts to argue for the pastor as (in some way) inheriting the roles of prophet (ministering truth), priest (ministering grace) and king (ministering wisdom). However, while certainly, in some sense, pastor do fill these roles, they do so non-exclusively; i.e., all Christians constitute a “royal priesthood” (as he himself does acknowledge). In this sense, I cannot fully agree with him when he writes that “the pastor emulates the priest through self-sacrificial ministry of the gospel, participating in Christ’s own high-priestly ministry as his earthly delegates.” (51)  I fail to find this exclusive emphasis in the New Testament. More importantly, these roles are fulfilled in Christ, and therefore, all Christians are called to emulate them by virtue of our union with Christ).

Strachan is correct to note that throughout church history, “the pastor was a theologian” (70) and a “scholar saint” (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant; 2008). Sadly, that is rarely the case today. Part of the problem is the unbiblical expectation of the pastor as a “one man band”, responsible for doing all the teaching/preaching, administration (including budgets and buildings), counselling and visitation. The other factor is that some so-called pastors are more interested in being the CEO, the psycho-therapist, or the life coach. How to address this? First and foremost, get rid of pastors  who are clearly not qualified (they never should have been “hired” in the first place!) Secondly, spread the load amongst all the pastors/elders. Thirdly, partner with church members who demonstrate the gift of teaching and a passion for studying to form a collegial fellowship to study and reflect on biblical and theological studies. Lastly, pastors (and all Christians for that matter) need to be more intentional about how they use their time, and to let go of things that distract.

Drawing on Heidegger’s term “mood” for the way in which we experience being-in-the-world, Vanhoozer writes: Pastor-theologians exist to embody the evangelical mood, an indicative declaration (“He is risen! He is Lord!”) and a concomitant way of being that is attuned to the world as already-not-yet made new in Jesus Christ. I can certainly add my Amen! to this, except once again, this statement is equally true of ANY Christian! Why this insistence on singling out truths to apply only to pastors?!

He also encourages pastors to minister understanding by cultivating habits of knowledge acquisition:

  • Reading God’s Word: Biblical Literacy
  • Reading the World: Cultural Literacy
  • Reading Fiction: Human Literacy

Again, I wholeheartedly agree, but that should not be required of pastors only! Especially when they write, “Understanding is also practical. … Gaining understanding produces know-how, as in knowing how to act out knowledge in everyday life.” (120) Surely, such practical knowledge is of utmost interest and importance to all Christians! And clearly, Christians need to be able to learn how to discerningly apply the truth of God’s Word to their specific situations in a theologically sound and wise manner. How else can Christians get weaned off milk and become mature enough for “solid food”, as those “whose minds are trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb. 5:13-14; ISV) This seem to me to be the only scriptural, sustainable and scalable solution.

In the closing chapter, Vanhoozer writes: “For, while all Christians must bear witness to their life in Christ, it is the special privilege and responsibility of pastors to baptize and teach disciples.” (141)  Really? Where does one find this is in the pages of the NT? Further in the chapter, he writes: “Other people care for us, but the pastor cares in a special way: as one appointed to Christ to minister the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel to every person in the church.” (153)  This does not resonate with my experience at all: the person who has ministered to me the most in a special way is a dear brother who works as a janitor but serves God “full time” otherwise. He goes on to single out the pastor as Evangelist, Catechist, Liturgist, and Apologist, making pastors out to be Super Saints and a One Man Show whereas scripture focuses on the One Another approach to mutual edification and ministry.

The book concludes with 55 summary theses on the pastor as public theologian, distilling the main points discussed in the book. In thesis 18, the authors uncritically accept the rise of the monarchial bishop as a natural ecclesiastical development. In thesis 24, they rightly state that many “modern pastors … came to see their vocation as a helping profession [and therefore] lost interest in theology”. In thesis 33, they state that pastor-theologians “devote themselves to the privilege of studying, interpreting, and ministering understanding of God’s Word to others” (186). But, by the grace of God, I have had the same privilege of “privilege of studying, interpreting, and ministering understanding of God’s Word to others”, albeit with less opportunities (to share the fruits of my studying) in my current church since the pulpit is more “fenced off” than the Brethren assemblies where I spent my formative years. Does that make me as a pastor-theologian?!!

 

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The authors of this book are co-founders of the Center for Pastor Theologians and co-pastors of a church just outside of Chicago. Their zeal for restoring theological acumen to the pastorate is commendable and their book largely succeeds in arguing their case in an engaging manner.

The title of the book’s opening chapter summarizes and signals the thesis of the book: Pastor or Theologian? A Division of Labor, a Crisis of Identity, or as they state it plainly: “to help resurrect a once-thriving but now-deceased vision of the pastor, namely, the pastor theologian” (10). In surveying the landscape of modern Christian culture, it is hard not to disagree with their observation that “pastors no longer traffic in ideas” (11). At best, pastors see themselves as “intellectual middle management” who broker theological truths from professional theologians/scholars to the laity. At worst, some pastors are ignorantly indifferent to theology, and are satisfied with feeding psycho-babble pablum to their unwitting congregations.

The resulting bifurcation of the pastorate into pastors as separate from theologians has serious consequences: “theology has become ecclesially anemic, and the church theologically anemic” (13). One need only peruse some of the obtuse titles of scholarly monographs and journal articles to ascertain the immense gap between academic theologians perched in their proverbial ivory towers and Jane Christian struggling to make sense of the recent loss of her five-year old son to cancer. Theologians: “ecclesially anemic”. Conversely, it is tragic and troubling that some pastors are so theologically illiterate and ill-informed. One need only undertake a random sampling of sermons (readily available thanks to the Internet) to affirm this sad state of affairs. Pastors: “theologically anemic.”

After establishing the problem, Hiestand and Wilson take the reader on a historical tour covering 5 periods, beginning with the apostolic Fathers and concluding with the Enlightenment. Some of the figures who are lifted up as exemplars of their pastor-theologian vision include: “Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Anselm, Calvin, Edwards, Wesley, etc.” (22) While I found the historical survey brief but interesting, there is no critique of the post-biblical ecclesiastical developments that (at least partially) underwrite their vision, e.g., the rise of the mono-episcopate and the ensuing curtailing of the “charismatic” and participatory nature of church gatherings, to name but two. More fundamentally, how did the term pastor (used only once in the NT to refer to those who shepherd the church) get differentiated from and elevated above the synonymous terms elder and overseer?

They argue that the demise of the pastor theologian was due to the seismic shifts brought on by the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. The shift from church to the university as the intellectual center, followed by the rise of divinity schools in response to the increasing secularization of the universities finally led to the separation of pastor and theologian from what “was once viewed as a single occupation” into “two distinct —and mutually exclusive—vocations” (42).

In chapter 4, the authors examine the “theological amnesia of the church” and assert that “the moral laxity of evangelicalism” is at least partly due to “a failure of belief” (54).  Drawing from Augustine’s ordo voluntatis, they note that our actions are motivated by our desires, i.e., what we love. However, love “does not arise in a vacuum”, but rather, from our beliefs, whether right or wrong. God has given us a mind “to understand what is true and to love what is good” (City of God, 22.24), and it is because of this that theology is so vitally important for our Christian formation. On this point, one encounters the sentiments of your average Christians (including some pastors!) that run counter to this, viz., that theology is irrelevant and boring, and offers nothing of practical value to their life. Such is the current sad state of affairs.

However, theology is nothing less than learning to think and “say right things about God, ourselves, and our world in ways that shape true belief and orient human beings toward their proper purpose.” (55)  Or, in the other words of Puritan theologian William Ames, theologia est scientia vivendo Deo. Casting theology as impractical and a waste of time betrays a mind that has already been swayed and held captive by competing messages from our fallen world, as well as our experiences and habits. Indeed, it is deep theological analysis and critical reflection that can unveil the false assumptions (consciously and unconsciously held) and distorted beliefs and desires that animate our actions and shape our imaginations. This is in fact what James K.A. Smith seeks to explore and expound in his Cultural Liturgies project, of which the third volume is about to be published.

Furthermore, there are grave consequences to such theological anemia: “evangelicals are floundering ethically because we are floundering theologically” (56). To this I would heartily agree and grieve with them at the theological poverty that characterizes most churches today. Hiestand and Wilson then go on to say that “pastors bear the day-to-day burden of teaching and leading God’s people” (57). Let us consider this statement carefully. First of all, it is signally not true that pastors have a “day-to-day” impact on the average congregational member, for which the Sunday morning sermon is the only instructional intake they receive for an entire week. The stark reality is that the messages they daily receive from our media-saturated world is what is more determinative of their spiritual formation (cf. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies books mentioned above).

Even if we consider the messages that are putatively Christian ones, there is no guarantee of discerning sound doctrine unless they have been taught to think theologically. Realizing the didactic limitations of the Sunday sermon, most churches supplement with Sunday School / Bible study classes and small groups during the week. However, depending on whether there are any biblically astute people in these classes or groups, often the result is “pooled ignorance”. Far too often, the scripture passage under consideration serves only as a launching pad for people’s own opinions, as hermeneutical principles are trampled underfoot in the mad rush to squeeze something practical and useful out of God’s Word. Now granted, in an evangelical setting, most of the discussion, however misguided, are usually not heretical. However, the teaching and discussion is certainly not as “nutritious” as it could be, and over the long haul, our Christian walk will become anemic.

Secondly, in smaller churches, the burden of preaching the Sunday sermon usually falls to a single person, which is less than ideal in the best case, and absolutely frightening in the worse case. The short of it is that from pedagogical, practical and logistical perspectives, placing the “day-to-day burden of teaching” upon one person is unrealistic (and sub-biblical, I would also argue) no matter how gifted and energetic that person is. What passes for biblical instruction in your typical sermon is often anemic and lacking theological awareness and biblical substance. Part of the problem is that we have exalted the sermon far too high and placed too much expectation on the sermon as the only means of nurturing believers. Though he still insists on the primacy and centrality of preaching, Jonathan Griffiths concurs that:

Preaching is necessary and vital – but not all-sufficient – for the nourishment and edification of the local church. All God’s people are ministers of his word, and a healthy church will be a church where all kinds of word ministries (formal and informal) flourish and abound.

Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Study (New Studies in Biblical Theology; InterVarsity Press, 2017).

Finally, the authors assume that there are no autodidacts in the congregation who are passionate about studying the Word and growing in theological maturity. Granted, this would constitute a very small minority in most churches. Nonetheless, some of these theology geeks and nerds can often have more breadth and depth of knowledge, if for no other reason than the simple reality that pastors are torn in so many directions, with hours sucked away by administrative duties and countless meetings. Therefore, pastors need to partner with those in their congregation who have the capacity, passion and burden for serious theological engagement, and work together with them if this vision (of “theological integrity”, p. 58) is to be realized in your average church. With much concern for the Church, I sadly echo David Wells: “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy” (writing in the introduction of his seminal work, No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?).

The authors go on to propound a taxonomy of the “pastor theologian”:

  • local theologian: here, they have in mind “a theologically astute pastor who ably services the theological needs of a local church” (81)
  • popular theologian: this is a local (pastor) theologian who expands his influence by a writing ministry that popularizes academic theology for the masses
  • ecclesial theologian: here, they have in mind a pastor who provides theological leadership (almost on par with academic theologians in their scholarly aptitude) to the larger church on issues that professional academic theologians have ignored or have done so without taking the ecclesial context in mind

With respect to being called to be an ecclesial theologian, I doubt there are many pastors who would be able to fill those shoes in this busy day and age, but all power to those who can (like the authors!). Hiestand and Wilson acknowledge that “[n]ot every pastor is gifted or called to be an ecclesial theologian, of course”, but they do assert that “evangelicalism’s future vision of the pastor theologian must include that of the ecclesial theologian” (101). Amen! God knows we need more theological leadership in our churches!

In chapter 8, the authors lay out 10 strategies on how to be an ecclesial theologian in a local church setting, and also provide brief profiles of pastors who are attempting to follow such a path. In the book’s concluding chapter, “The Future of a Movement, the Renewal of the Church” they write: “for the sake of the church, it is high time to hold out the historic ideal of the pastor as ecclesial theologian.” (p. 123)  Though I am still somewhat skeptical that the movement will become pervasive, I do sympathize with their diagnosis and heartily agree that “theologically passive pastors only perpetuate the perception that theological acumen is largely an ‘academic’ concern.” (124)

In conclusion, though I have quibbles with their view of ministry (which in fairness is the majority view), I do believe the authors have done an admirable job of arguing their case and I join with them in praying that the vision of the “pastor theologian” might be widely realized. I’ll let Hiestand and Wilson have the last word:

The church needs pastors who are capable of connecting—with robust intellectual integrity—the deep truths of God and our contemporary context. We need pastors who are able to assess the underlying assumptions of our culture and who are able to offer, on behalf of the larger church, cogent responses to that culture. (127)

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Dr. D.A. Carson, one of evangelicalism’s most respected scholars, started out as chemist, but in the course of “helping a young minister with his Sunday school in a fledgling work … where he was trying to plant a church” (p. 79), it gave him pause as to whether he had more to offer God than as a chemist (not that he was dismissing the importance of one’s vocation as a means of glorifying God and reaching people).

For Carson, the decision to leave behind his career as a chemist was sealed when he heard a missionary speak on Eze. 22:30. After obtaining his M.Div., Carson pastored a church while also occasionally filling in at the local Baptist college. At some point, he was offered a full-time position in the college, but declined; however, he did “wonder if [he] should get more training” (p. 80). In the end, he resigned from the church and began pursuing his Ph.D. at Cambridge.

Like Piper, Carson’s father was a preacher, which surely was a large influence on each of them. So, even while pursuing his scholarly studies, it was not surprising that Carson took opportunities to preach and teach in an ecclesial setting. After getting his Ph.D., Carson returned to take a post at that same Baptist college that he turned down earlier, while also helping to plant a church. The scholar as pastor.

In 1978, Carson accepted a position at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), where he has remained ever since, where he is Research Professor of NT. Like Piper, Carson has chosen to resist moving about, choosing instead to stay put at TEDS. He does admit that the “most serious temptation” (p. 81) to leaving TEDS has been to “return to full-time pastoral ministry”, but was firmly advised not to by Carl Henry and Kenneth Kantzer. We can be grateful that Carson heeded their advice.

On this note, as one who has benefited greatly from Carson’s scholarship, I have sometimes wondered why he has not written more rigorously academic books (he certainly is more than capable of doing so). For example, he has authored a few commentaries, but I was always hoping he might have contributed more substantively—perhaps to the NIGTC (New International Greek Testament Commentary) series, for example. I think this just reinforces Carson’s pastoral heart; indeed, almost everything he writes has been geared towards a wider audience rather than to the scholarly community specifically. Indeed, one of the points he makes is to “never forget people”.

In conclusion, while I certainly concur that pastors should be more theologically astute, and that scholars should be more engaged in sharing their knowledge to the church in a manner that the average Christian can understand (not an easy task given that many Christians are not ready for solid food, Heb. 5:11-14), I remain skeptical that things will change in any significant measure. There are a number of reasons for this, but first I would submit the following observations (regarding pastors as scholars):

  1. The insistence of many churches to have a single out one teaching/preaching pastor is unnecessarily rigid: what if there are other gifted men (or women) in the church?
  2. Churches have adopted a tradition of distinguishing pastors from elders, whereas the NT seems to use the terms pastor/shepherd, elder, and overseer/bishop synonymously
  3. In the NT, a local church is guided by a plurality of co-equal elders; there is no notion of primus inter pares nor any distinction between “ordained”/professional and “lay” elders
  4. Elders are to be “able to teach”, yet some are appointed even if they fail to meet this criteria
  5. Other gifted brothers (and sisters) should also be allowed to teach/preach, since the NT church gatherings were informal and participatory

The reality is that today’s pastor is inundated and overloaded with so many tasks and expectations, that for them to even remember some of the basics of what they learned in seminary is a challenge. Indeed, within a few years, it has been my observation that many will have forgotten how to exegete a passage in Greek or Hebrew and will be guilty of breaking some hermeneutical principles. To expect busy pastors caught up in institutional bureaucracy and such, to be able to stay abreast of current scholarship (which is increasingly specialized and sophisticated), is unrealistic, to say the least.

David Mathis, one of the co-editors of the book, tries to build credibility for his case by anachronistically calling Jesus the “truest pastor-scholar”. Really?! Seriously?!

I will offer what I feel is a more feasible and realistic model after I finish reviewing a few more of the other books mentioned in the previous post, but for now, I’ll just say that we should not add another burden to the already unrealistic expectations that local churches place upon “the pastor”.

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I have four related books on my reading list that I am hoping to finish soon so I can make some summary remarks on, with specific reference to my current ecclesial context.

The book by John Piper and Don Carson is based on talks given by them at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on April 23, 2009. Piper began his career in the academy, earning his doctorate in theology before eventually discovering that his passion was preaching; Carson, on the other hand, began pastoral work in humble circumstances in my hometown, before he was asked to fill a vacancy at a local Baptist college, which led him to pursue a Ph.D. in NT studies at Cambridge.

In describing his journey, Piper came to the realization in junior high that he “would never be a preacher” (p. 26) like his father, because of his deep-seated anxiety (he calls it “physical impossibility”) in speaking in front of others. Through his schooling, he did develop an appreciation and ability for “painstaking observation” and “precise thinking”. One might think then that Piper would be ideally suited to following a scholarly path — were it not that Piper confesses to be a “painfully slow” reader. After obtaining a major in literature, Piper wondered if he “should teach English literature as a vocation”. (p. 35)

But that changed after hearing two of evangelicalism’s elder statesmen (Ockenga and Stott) speak in the mid-sixties, which led him to pursue studies at Fuller Seminary. After graduation, Piper was unclear what to do next, so he heeded the advice he was given to pursue a doctorate while he was still able to. Despite Piper’s handicap of being a slow reader, he nevertheless obtained his doctorate in 1974, after which he accepted a teaching position at Bethel University and Seminary. A sabbatical in 1979 resulted in The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23 (Baker, 1983; rev. ed., 1993), but Piper realized his teaching and scholarly days were over. In 1980, Piper was called to Bethlehem Baptist Church and remained there until he preached his last message in 2013.

It was during his Fuller days that Piper encountered Jonathan Edwards and the resulting epiphany that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” (Christian Hedonism as he would later dub it) would be the signature emphasis of his entire ministry. For him, rigorous reading of the Bible and the attendant demand to follow the lines of argumentation is what he now considers as “scholarship”. He remarks that:

If I am scholarly, it is not in any sense because I try to stay on the cutting edge in the discipline of biblical and theological studies. I am far too limited for that. What “scholarly” would mean for me is that the greatest object of knowledge is God and that he has revealed himself authoritatively in a book; and that I should work with all my might and all my heart and all my soul and all my mind to know and enjoy him and make him known for the joy of others.

What can we learn from this look at Piper’s journey? First of all, despite what appeared to an initial obstacle, God helped him overcome his paralyzing fear of public speaking. Is Piper an “effective” communicator? One could argue that he is more passionate than he is eloquent, but I suppose that’s subjective.

One point bears mentioning and that is that Moses and Jeremiah did not see themselves as competent speakers, and it also seems some of the Corinthians were judging Paul for his lack of eloquence and oratorical skills (1 Cor. 2, passim; 2 Cor. 11:6), but obviously God used them nevertheless. Sometimes I fear that Christians place too much emphasis on whether a preacher is articulate or eloquent, without paying much attention to the character of the man or the content of the message. Often, the preacher may be a very charming and competent communicator but his message can be sub-biblical and/or lacking “meat”.

Secondly, with respect to Piper’s preaching, given his academic beginnings, I am a bit disappointed that he chooses to minimize his interactions with current scholarship when preparing his messages (insofar as I can tell). However, Piper also a very active writing ministry, and for me personally, this is where I appreciate him the most.

Finally, it is encouraging that Piper is not a “careerist” pastor, but has faithfully served one church for over 30 years. Too many clergy view the pastorate as just another career and hop from one church to another in the hopes of landing a more lucrative position. I do have some concerns where a church depends primarily on a single pastor for the bulk of its teaching, but that will be addressed later.

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Google’s recent firing of one of its software engineers, James Damore, has predictably stirred up a maelstrom of controversy. While the issue in question is not unrelated to evangelical debates on the role of women in the church, I instead wish to comment on the “ideological echo chamber” which Damore claims Google is guilty of.

Accompanying my prodigal return to the fold has been my (inevitable) return to biblical and theological studies. There were of course, the comfortable familiarity of “old friends” and treasured volumes that my brothers in Christ generously gave back to me.  Of course, I also naturally picked up from where I left off, delving deeper and exploring broad swathes through the contemporary terrain of academic scholarship. In particular, I have sought to escape the narrow confines of evangelicalism by intentionally engaging a diverse set of interlocutors with viewpoints that differ from mine: feminist theologians, postmodern Continental philosophers and Orthodox patristic scholars, to cite just a few.

But then, in your typical church, questioning leadership, taking a dissenting position during a church business meeting, knowing too much, and not conforming to the church’s traditions is frowned upon and those who are guilty of such are labeled rebellious, disobedient, naysayer, troublemaker. Controversy is to be avoided at all costs and irenic dialogue is not an option. Basically, if you aren’t toeing the party line, dissenting views will be shut down. In this way, churches too operate in echo chamber mode.

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JR Woodward and Dan White, Jr., The Church as Movement: Starting and Sustaining Missional-Incarnational Communities (IVP; 2016)

During lunch a few days ago, one of my Christian colleagues shared his frustration in trying to find a suitable church home for him and his family. He was looking for a community of believers who were serious about discipleship and the pursuit of godly living. As he further shared his burden with us, I (half) jokingly said to him that it looks like he’d have to go and plant a church from scratch. At this point, when it became apparent that this might indeed be a path he may have to take by the grace of God, I suggested that he read some of the missional literature; in particular, I mentioned two books that I had read / am reading.

Earlier, I had posted a brief blurb on Michael Frost’s book, and in this post I will give an overview of The Church as Movement, which I just finished reading yesterday.

move

This theologically-grounded but practical book is divided into four sections (themes), each with two chapters, thus giving rise to 8 missional competencies:

  • Part 1: Distributing
    1. Movement Intelligence
    2. Polycentric Leadership
  • Part 2: Discipling
    1. Being Disciples
    2. Making Disciples
  • Part 3: Designing
    1. Missional Theology
    2. Ecclesial Architecture
  • Part 4: Doing
    1. Community Formation
    2. Incarnational Practices

These four sections are bookended by an Introduction and an Epilogue, and at 240 pages, this book is not a long-winded treatise, but in keeping with its subject matter, the pace is brisk without feeling rushed.

The Foreword by Alan Hirsch begins with an epigraph by business guru Peter Drucker: “People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete— the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.” It is sad that some things are so sacrosanct that even when they become a hindrance to the advancement of the gospel or church life, Christians refuse to let go of them. As Hirsch notes, “most churches operate out of a largely obsolete understanding of the church that was developed in a completely different age and for a completely different set of cultural and social conditions— largely that of European Christendom.” Hirsch and others have proposed an alternative model of church for the new millennium, and Woodward and White have done a church a huge service in presenting this new paradigm in a fresh and appealing manner in their book. Both write as practitioners who have been through the ups and downs of planting missional-incarnational communities, so this is not a case of hopping on the missional bandwagon and spouting off theories: no, what they write is borne from the fires of failure and boots on the ground experiences. It would be apt to let the authors introduce the rationale for yet another “missional” book:

This book is an attempt to help people plant the kind of churches that reflect the viral movement of the early New Testament, fuelled by the values of tight-knit community, life-forming discipleship, locally rooted presence and boundary-crossing mission. This is “church as movement.”

At the heart of the book is a concern to return to the centrality of discipleship within a communal context. Indeed, I sighed with frustration and sadness when they write in the Introduction: “This book is best used with a group of four to twelve people. … It is important to work through this material with others, since it was designed for a group rather than to be digested alone.” Well, heck, I don’t have even three other people I know who could be part of what they call a “discipleship core”. So sad! It means that my learning from the book will be shortchanged and I will not fully benefit from the formational learning aspects (meta-learning, reflective learning, and experiential learning) that require communal participation. Sigh …

The first theme is “Distributing” which I take to be a shift from a hierarchical and centralized focus to pluriform gifts and polycentric leadership — i.e., a distributed and relational approach.  They begin by describing the Church as the “Christian-industrial complex”, at least those churches that are held up as models of success:

In our American imagination success means growing bigger, collecting more resources, consolidating power, creating strong hierarchical structures and growing rapidly.

American church leaders’ imaginations and metrics for success are increasingly shaped by the things they can count. But, as Albert Einstein said, “That which counts is often the most difficult to count.”

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