The Missional Grace of Together: a book review

Missional is one of those plastic terms and it can mean anything depending on who’s saying it (the way Emergent used to mean that people had couches and candles in their megachurch-GenX-service). So when I picked up Larry Duggins’s Together: Community As a Means of GraceI wasn’t sure what I would get. I mean, I knew it was part of the “Missional Wisdom Library,” and that Duggins was the Executive Director of the Missional Wisdom Foundation. I also knew that Duggins was an elder in the United Methodist Church. But I felt like these facts didn’t tell me all that much. I hadn’t heard of the Missional Wisdom Foundation and Methodists are all over the map.

9781532613050What did Missional mean when Duggins said it? Was it just a strategy or a formula for outreach? Was it a “whole new way of ministry?” Did it just mean pub church and community gardens? Or was Duggins pointing to a more robust theological understanding of what it means to be missional?

Duggins does like community gardens but there is, indeed, rich theological reflection here. Duggins sets to work casting a vision in which to root mission. He does this through the concept of community.

In chapter 1, Duggins discusses the  perichoretic community of the Triune God—and the relational dance of God. Chapter 2 explores the nature of humanity. Duggins posits that humans were created with a need for community. Genesis 1:27 describes the mutual Divine image bearing of female and male persons(9), whereas Genesis 2 underscores how it was “not good” for man to be alone:

It is noteworthy that the first thing that God points out as “not good” is the lack of community, not original sin! God sees that humans need other humans to be “good” as God intended (10).

So, Duggins argues, community with other people is an integral part of what it means for us to be human.

In Chapter 3, tells the story of Grace— human fallenness (beginning in Genesis 3) and God’s loving action and presence in effecting our deliverance (culminating in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection). However, using a Wesleyan understanding of ‘means of grace,’ Duggins describes the ways Jesus lived in concert with God’s grace in daily life, commending Christ’s example to us (18-22).

At the close of chapter 3, Duggins describes  John Wesley’s understanding of prudential “means of grace” as activities, that is activities that bring us deeper into communion with God’s grace but “are not drawn directly from the life of Christ” (22). For Wesley, these were class and band meetings, love feasts, and covenant renewal movements. In chapter 4, Duggins digs deeper into Wesleyan’s communal examples of prudential grace and suggests implications for mission today:

Imagine Christians joined with others in communities that are important to people of this day and age, living as followers of Christ ready to be the hands and feet of Christ in the lives of those who do not yet know how to express their “spiritual but not religious feelings. Christians sharing their stories and experiences with people who are truly their friends, not to push them into conversion or membership, but because, as a friend, they want to share what is important to them. Christian people who model love & inclusion in community. Christians who are willing to help others see the presence of Christ in their midst.” (30-31)

In the remainder of the book, Duggins connects these theological understandings of community (community rooted in Trinity, the Imago-Dei, and Wesleyan Spirituality) and describes the variety of ways communities form today. Duggins doesn’t indicate a particular strategy or format(so no push for pub-church in particular) but he gives examples of theological-rooted communities in: traditional church contexts, in workplace communities, in communities that are centered around food, children’s schools or various affinity groups, and  he commends creative re-imagining discipleship and evangelism.

While I appreciated this latter part of the book, and Duggins’s refusal to prescribe just one form of community but instead describe the variety and experience of communities he’s known, for me, it is the theological visioning stuff at the front that I really liked. I found as I read on, I underlined less and less; yet, it is the latter half where we hear contemporary stories of missional community today and the practical outworking of theology.

This is a short book, less than 90 pages, without a lot of footnotes and extraneous references. It is accessible enough for lay leaders. This is the kind of book that a church leadership team or elder board could read together without feeling bogged down in anything too heady. While it starts with a Trinitarian, biblical, and theological reflections on community and means of grace, this is, in reality, for only 30 odd pages. The rest of the book gives practical examples of what this may look like in different contexts. This could be good fodder for discussion. I give this book four stars. – ★★★★

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

Diversity as Missio Dei: a book review

Leroy Barber is my friend and mentor. I trust his voice when it comes to urban ministry and community. So when I saw that his new book was out, Red Brown Yellow Black White Who’s more Precious in God’s Sight?: A call for diversity in Christian missions and ministryI was eager to read it. I knew it would be a game changer.

 But it was much more than that. Red Brown Yellow Black White (RBYBW) is a summons for those of us who ‘say’ we care about reconciliation and justice to quit playing a it; it calls us to get on with working for real change in how we minister across the racial divide. In these pages, Barber opens up about his sometimes painful journey in the urban ministry world, how discrimination from fellow leaders and boards, locked him and fellow minorities out of key leadership positions. Because Barber is such a great relational leader, he sets his story alongside friends and co-conspirators.

In RBYRW, Barber grounds missions in the Missio Dei–the mission of God (God’s larger purpose for his people and his world and the end He is leading us toward).  But the history of missions, at different points, bears little resemblance to the Missio Dei.  Often white Europeans blended their efforts to spread the gospel with imperialism, colonialism and paternalism. Missionaries came to new cultures to minister, but seldom included indigenous leadership in their mission. Fast forward to the modern era and you find that missions organizations and missionary boards are still predominantly white.

Barber is an African American leader called to urban mission who launched his own non-profit and has led national and international missions organizations (he is currently the global executive director of Word Made Flesh). His heart burns for more diversity in mission and he has led ministries (like Mission Year) and counseled others to be more thoughtful about how to promote diversity in their organizations. Barber doesn’t  tells stories of not-for-profit organizations which have labored to change the culture and are working to promote diversity. While reconciliation is a difficult journey, real diversity is possible. And when it happens, we reveal the Kingdom of God to the watching world.

For us white Evangelicals, this means we share power! Barber observes how even justice-minded, white evangelicals fail to include African Americans in decision making,  and fundraising. He also relays several stories from the field, where leaders of color were deemed unqualified by short-term, white teams even though they had years of experience and understanding that these teams lacked.  Unfortunately these racial attitudes can still poison the well of real diversity in mission. Leaders of color bring different histories and gifts to the realm of mission and leadership. We are impoverished in our missional attempts when we fail to make space at the table and include people of color. For when we do, they can help shape our mission to the wider community in beautiful ways.

RBYBW is challenging for me. I love and respect Leroy and am grateful for the ways he has invested in my growth (and countless others). I am captivated by his vision of diversity in mission. And yet this book highlights how much work is still to be done. I have recently become pastor at a mostly white church that does care about racial justice and reconciliation. We are making an impact on our city but I still have a lot to learn about doing mission well. Barber highlights the racial  and socio-economic dimensions of urban mission for me and helps me pay attention to the dynamics. This book is a goldmine!

I highly recommend this book. Anyone interested in the mission of God (which should include Christians everywhere) will gain insight on how to engage in mission in ways that are sensitive to race and culture.  For white evangelicals (like me), we can be ‘color blind’ in a way that demeans the challenges that people of color face. We can also fail to value the gifts that people of color bring to our organizations and leadership.  I give this book five stars and think that this book should be required reading for pastors, non-profit directors and missionaries. ★★★★★