The Midwives of Mission: a book review

When I picked up To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth our CommunitiesI was already a Michael Frost fan, having read several of his books on the missional church and incarnational community. I was less familiar with his co-author, Christiana Rice; however, as a missional practitioner, church planting coach and trainer for thresholds, she brings keen insights to what it means to partner with God in the birthing of New Creation for neighborhoods and communities. Together, they crafted a book that is both helpful and awakens my imagination for mission.

4137Frost and Rice’s book is about transforming communities and neighborhoods, as its title, To Alter Your World, implies. Yet, I think this is one book where the subtitle, Partnering with God to Rebirth our Communities, is a more apt description of the book and its contents. The first half of the book (chapters 1 to 6) rests on images and metaphors of birth: labor, birthing, midwifery. The latter half of the book describes the dynamics of bringing social and spiritual change to neighborhood and place.

In chapter 1, Rice & Frost describe how God groaned like a woman in labor (Isa 42:14) awaiting Israel’s rebirth—their return from exile and captivity (14). They connect Israel’s experience to the Church’s role in welcoming the Kingdom of God into our broken world. In both cases, it is God who does the (re)birthing of communities, and not our frenetic religious or political activity.  Nevertheless, we are invited to partner with God in his restorative work. “Only this one—the Ancient of Days—can change our world, and those of us who have heard God’s groans and responded in faith are invited to serve God in this empire-shattering work” (28).

In chapter 2 and 3, Rice and Frost address the types of things which stand in the way of partnering in the New Creation,  God is bringing (e.g. the church’s disengagement from secular life, colonizing methodologies,  and big-box rootless churches, disconnected from the places and communities they inhabit). Frost and Rice articulate an invitation to churches and missional communities to be a disruptive presence by heeding God’s restorative purposes for communities.

In Chapters 4 through 6, Midwives to the Birth of the New Creation, Rice and Frost describe five Midwife practices. These practices are:

  1. – Releasing our Agendas.
  2. – Shaping the Environment
  3. – Holding the Space for Birth
  4. – Being Flexible and Fearless
  5. – Living Out a New Narrative

The metaphor of midwifery is an alternative metaphor to the sort of militaristic ‘band-of-brothers’—let’s take this city for Christ!—metaphor for mission. Midwives don’t deliver babies, they attend births, hold the space, help open doors, and nurture the birthing process. Frost and Rice draw the parallels between midwives attending birth children and leading pioneering missional movements which transform communities. Missional leaders attend to the New Creation God is birthing in their neighborhood context. Rice draws parallels between the midwife’s role at the birth of her children, and she and Frost point to stories of similar dynamics, as missional communities and churches partnered with what God was birthing in their communities.

In chapter 7 they present the Emory Social Change Model, which describes social change at the level of (1) the individual, (2)interpersonal relationships, (3) community, (4) institutional and (5) structural levels. While all levels are necessary and are encompassed by concentric circles, most churches operate at the individual and interpersonal levels, “encouraging personal self-awareness, congruence, and commitment” (124). However, Frost and Rice argue that to “catalyze social change there needs to be more work done on the three higher tiers” (124). By focusing on community and societal transformation, missional communities cast a bigger vision for what social transformation may look like in their contexts.

Chapter 8 demolishes the old clergy/laity divide, describing a more inclusive vision of work and vocation for community/church members. Chapter 9 explores how to change the world through place crafting (the church working with-in and in-with the wider community to bring about mutual flourishing). In chapters 10 and 11, Frost and Rice describe how the road towards social change, is also a road of mutual life with those communities. Missional communities do not just work to change others, they too are changed.  Missional communities do not just do just ‘take the city for Christ’ but are invited into a lifestyle of suffering and greater vulnerability as they seek the good of the city (or neighborhood) they are planted in.

Frost and Rice have given some helpful and heartfelt instruction to those of us who long to see the Kingdom more fully revealed in our midst.  Through stories and the midwife metaphor, they make vivid a vision of mission. On a personal level, I found the ‘midwife/birthing’ chapters the most compelling part of this book, because it describes the missional vocation as actively partnering in the process of bringing about new creation (the Kingdom of God/the fall of empire/social change) without turning the minister into ‘the one who makes it all happens.’ The role of the midwife is not passive, but responsive, not manipulative but attentive and nurturing. This seems fundamentally right to me.

The sections on social change, place-crafting and ‘work as vocation’ are helpful. I underlined a lot of things and I think Frost and Rice say things well (and give lots of examples from their lives or from fellow missional practitioners). These sections weren’t new to me, in the sense that every missional author I respect says something similar, but they did flesh out a few of the ways we can enlarge our vision of what social change and put it into practice. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

Mission is Habit Forming: a ★★★★★ book review.

As I write this review we are a week into 2016. Many people have already had their resolutions wrecked on the reef where good intentions and harsh reality meet. Most of these New Year’s resolutions are about personal development: losing weight, exercising more, mastering a new skill, etc. What about making habitual changes that will make you a more compelling force for God’s Kingdom mission in the world? Can we pursue the sort of life change which will impact others?

4115blqt1al-_sx430_Enter Michael Frost. A popular author, speaker and cofounder of the Forge Mission Training Network presents the five habits of highly missional people and a simple plan of how to incorporate them into your life. Surprise the World! exhorts us to live questionable lives–“the kind of lives that evoke questions from [] friends,  then opportunities for sharing faith abound, and the chances for the gifted evangelists to boldly proclaim are increased” (5). Frost argues that we are not all gifted evangelists, but we support the work of evangelism as we live the sort of lives that invite questions from our neighbors and friends.

So what are the five habits of highly missional people? Frost proposes the acronym BELLS:

  • Bless— Words of affirmation, acts of kindness or gifts for at least three people per week (at least one who isn’t in your church).
  • Eat–Eating with at least three people (at least one who is not in the church).
  • Listen–Setting aside at least one period of time per week to listen to the Spirit in silence and solitude.
  • Learn–Spending time each week learning Christ through the gospels, the Bible, movies and film, good books, etc.
  • Sent–Journaling throughout the week about ways you have alerted others of ‘the universal reign of God through Christ.’

Conventional wisdom tells us it takes about six weeks to form and solidify  a habit. At least that is what a lot of sermons tell us. Frost thinks otherwise. Drawing on the insights of Jeremy Dean (author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits), Frost suggests  significant life change takes months of intentional practice (101). So he suggests structures of accountability he calls DNA groups (for Discipleship, Nurture, Accountability) which will hold each other accountable and encourage these missional habits for participants.

The gift of this book is its simplicity. Books on missional theology and ministry often present many fine ideas about what it means to be missional, often from a big-picture perspective. This book is super practical. It gives you a simple plan,–Bless, Eat, Listen, Learn, Sent–which is sufficiently challenging to live out.

For me, to intentionally eat with and bless people in and out of church each week, plus set aside time to listen to the Spirit, Learn Christ, and journal through my experience in sharing God’s reign would mean major changes and greater intentionality in mission (and I like mission already).  There is enough  structure and flexibility in how to live these habits out that it adaptable to whatever context. I  also really appreciate the structure of DNA groups. I have little patience for accountability groups that focus solely on sin (as though that is the only thing important we have in common). Discipleship and nurture are essential as well for supporting the kind of life change that Frost suggests here.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to live missional lives. This is a fantastic goal for 2016. However I would suggest, don’t read these book alone. Read it with a friend, read it in a group, read it with those who will disciple you, nurture you and call you to account as you pursue the goal of living a questionable life. Five stars:★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of Surprise the World! from the Tyndale Blog Network. I was asked for an honest review.

Beyond Disembodiment: a book review.

Excarnation denotes the ancient practice of removing flesh and organs from the dead. Author Michael Frost uses this term to connote a set of practices in late modernity which cause us to life ‘disembodied lives.’ This is evident in the  problem of Internet pornography or a contemporary fascination with Zombies, but it is more widespread than even these phenomena. Our lives are increasingly transitory, screen-mediated and morally disengaged from community. We objectify others through our language (saying ‘action will be required’ rather than ‘let’s act’). Richard Sennett has claimed that the primary architectural symbol of contemporary life is the airport departure lounge–a bland, liminal space full of people who belong and long for somewhere else (15-16). There is no sense of shared community in an airport lounge!  People spend hours staring at a screen (either overhead or their own personal devices) and consciously minimize their interaction with those around them. Zygmunt Bauman says that the primary metaphor for modern living is tourism. We are marked by mobility, impermanence and loose ties with others and therefore are endlessly sampling experiences but have little firm commitments to ideology or beliefs (17).

Unfortunately the Church–the community formed around the Incarnate One–is to often shaped by our modern excarnate tendencies.  A hyper-dualistic theology which focuses on eternal reward (great pie-in-the-sky when you die) impacts our practice. We know more about God than our actions demonstrate. Our worship focuses on our private heart experience. We close our eyes, oblivious to those around us, and sing sometimes indecipherable lyrics. Ethically, our involvement with those on the margins is increasingly mediated. We give to missions organizations and charities. We engage in click-activism by signing online petitions. Yet our daily lives are disengaged from those who are suffering and we know little of what it means to give our lives sacrificially to a cause for the good of the community.

This problem is the focus of Frost’s new book, Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement.  Frost, whose previous books include Exiles and The Shaping of Things to Come is an Aussie missional guru and one of my go-to guys when I want to read something which tells me how to live a compelling, creative, missional life. Here he offers an incisive analysis of our current Western context and draws on the insights of the likes of  Charles Taylor, N.T. Wright and James A. K. Smith and a number of thoughtful missional practitioners. I read and underlined a lot, flagging many quotations and references to research further.

But the impact of this book is what Frost says for what our lives should be like. What does it mean that we follow an Incarnate Christ? What are the implications for the church’s mission? Frost suggests and prods us to a more embodied approach to life and ministry through out this book and has profound things to say about the character of our mission, the formative nature of our communal practices, and reflective re-engagement with our communities. It is clear that Frost sees the church as an alternative to our dualistic, excarnate culture. But this does not drive us remove ourselves from culture. It gives us a framework for holistic mission that infiltrates every aspect of the wider culture with an embodied spirituality which calls us all to abundant life.

As I was reading this book, I wondered if Frost was overstating the current church’s ‘hyper-dualism.’ Certainly the church culture I grew up in was guilty of the sort of theological, anthropological and religious dualism he warns of, but I feel like the conversation has changed and holistic mission is much more ‘mainstream.’ Yet dualism still pervades many contexts (and certainly the wider culture). I set this book alongside similar critiques (such as Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). Frost has lots to teach us, and writes compellingly about how excarnate we’ve become and what we need to change if we are to walk in the way of Jesus. I am still processing this book but I recommend it highly to anyone who cares about what it means for us to be in the world and not of it. Frost will help you do both! I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to IVP for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.