Your Moves Are So . . .Missional, I Got to Let You Know (a book review)

Missional Moves: 15 Tectonic Shifts that Transform Churches, Communities, and the World by Rob Wegner, Jack Magruder

One my passions and dreams in ministry is to lead a congregation to missionally engage their neighborhood and their world. I’d love to see the whole church–the whole people of God–motivated and mobilized to advance the kingdom in caring for neighbors, sharing good news and partnering with their communities. When a book comes out touting holistic missional engagement which focuses on transforming community, I get excited. Missional Moves is a book which carries such a promise. Authors Rob Wegner and Jack Macgruder both serve in ministry at Granger Community Church (in Granger, Indiana) and have put a lot of thought and energy into getting an attractional mega-church to become more missional.  This book describes some of the ‘moves’ that they’ve made in rethinking and retooling how to do ministry. They are not advocating a program but  they do bring a sensibility and outlook on mission which in translatable to a number of contexts.

The book divides into three sections. In part one Wegner and Magruder discuss the ‘paradigm shifts’ necessary for full missional engagement.  They urge a ‘shift’ towards ministry which is more holistic, comprehensive, inclusive, accommodating to both attractional and missional models and intentional about reaching those on the margins.  Wegner and Magruder want people to catch a big vision of what God is doing, his overarching story of redemption and the global scope of the Kingdom of God.

In part two, ‘Central Shifts,’ they turn their attention to activating the local church for Mission. They discuss the priority of relationships over organizational structures, the need for focus, the need to establish transformational partnerships, the movement from relief to a development model of ministry, and the movement from professional ministry (clergy) to full participation in ministry (every member).  I think this is the most important and helpful section of the book. Macgruder and Wegner talk about how Granger Community Church has changed the way they do ministry as they have sought partnerships on the margins (and among indigenous churches). By choosing a development model and forming a ‘transformational partnership,’ Granger has been able to empower those on the margins while offering appropriate assistance and resources (often in the form of training). This has helped guard against an unhealthy paternalism and dependence. If you seek to do ministry among the marginalized in your city or community, you have to wrestle with the dynamics . Granger has faced and Wegner and MacGruder are good guides here.

In the final section, they address ‘decenterized shifts’–motivating and activating all God’s people for Mission in all their various spheres of influence.  They advocate  providing a less formal leadership (they propose a ‘fractal model’ of leadership which allows creativity and initiative at all levels). They also emphasize Christianity’s potential as a movement (rather than institution) and explore how thinking ‘micro’ can help you become more missional (not small groups, but micro mission groups). Wegner and Macgruder believe that the local church can support its membership as they engage their work, their neighborhood and world. In order for a church to be ‘missional,’ members and not just leaders need to catch the vision. What Wegner and Macgruder advocate here is what happens when the church catches a vision for mission to their community.

This book doesn’t say much that is ‘new’ but it does a good job of synthesizing much of the missional conversation (Alan Hirsch, who wrote the forward, is the most often quoted or footnoted author in the text). I appreciated hearing from Wegner and Macgruder how this works out at Granger Community Church. I think that ministers, ministry teams and church planters would find a lot of useful stuff here.  However this is really a book by practitioners for practitioners. If you are interested in a theological framework for mission than this book will be disappointing. Ross Hastings’s Missional God, Missional Church (IVP 2012) or Chris Wright’s The Mission of God  (IVP, 2006) do a better job of surveying the theological conversation and Biblical material (respectively). Still this is a valuable contribution, especially for showcasing how missional concepts work out in a particular context. This book gets my recommendation.

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and  Zondervan for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Thoughts from a book you’ve never heard of on the Kingdom of God by Lesslie Newbigin

Thursday afternoon I found myself up in the library of Regent College to conduct a bit of historical research for an Evangelical Covenant class I’m taking. As Serendipity would have it, I picked up a small book which was completely unhelpful for my purposes but worthwhile anyway. The book was called Sign of the Kingdom, and its author is the late missional thinker Lesslie Newbigin.

This is a tiny little book is long out of print. It was originally published in the UK in 1980 (under a different title) and it comes from 1979 Waldenström Lectures at the Theological Seminary of the Swedish Covenant Church (at Stockholm). I really was happy to find it for several reasons. First, I have an academic and practical interest in the Missional church and love everything I read by Lesslie Newbigin. Secondly, I get annoyed at the contemporary authors and speakers who act like the kingdom of God wasn’t recovered as important theological motif until missional thinkers and NT Wright started waxing eloquent on it in the mid 1990’s. Last year I attended a workshop on the missional church where the presenter made the dubious claim that there was not one single book on the kingdom of God in the 1980’s. While I didn’t believe him, most of the titles that popped into my head, were actually from the 1970’s not the 80’s. So I’m happy to have found a book that proves him wrong (yes, I am that petty). But most importantly, this book has some great things to say about the Kingdom of God.

This is a really short (70 pages) booklet but it packs a serious punch. I think one of the interesting things about Newbigin, is while he certainly wrote for his context, a lot of what he says has real import for today.  In three parts Newbigin explores the theme of Kingdom and its relationship to mission. Part one addresses the historic perspective, part two, the biblical perspective and part three sketches the importance for today (which would be 1980). While all three sections have sections worth pondering, part two is the section I keep rereading.  Newbigin makes five basic points about ‘the time being fulfilled and the Kingdom of God being at hand’ which are worth pondering:

  1. This is the announcement of a happening. It is news!
  2. The subject of this happening is the malkuth Yahweh, the Kingdom of the God of Israel. This is public news not restricted to the religious sphere and ‘private sector’ but cosmic in its scope. While Yahweh’s kingship is not exactly ‘news,’ with this announcement, God’s sovereignty has become a present reality with which one has to come to terms.
  3. The announcement is linked to the call to repent (“repent now and believe in the gospel”). The call to repent, means that the entire nation is turned the wrong way looking for salvation in the wrong direction. Until they turn, the Kingdom of God is hidden from view.
  4. The response will be–not open vision–but faith (i.e. we understand the reign of God is a present reality though faith) This faith is not a human decision but is a gift of God to those who are called.
  5. This call begins immediately (all five of these points are cribbed or completely quoted from pages 24-26).

Newbigin also says several other things which I will quote at length (most of the rest of this post is quotes). I just think these selections capture wonderfully what the Kingdom is, or experience of it and what it is all about:

Jesus did indeed preach the  kingdom, but the only thing that made his preaching news was the kingdom was present in himself. Faithfulness to the mission and message of Jesus absolutely required that the early Church should have Jesus as the centre of their gospel. If they had simply preached about the kingdom of God there would have been no gospel. The news is that ‘the kingdom of God’ is no longer merely a theological phrase. There is now a name and a human face. This is why there is a gospel: the reign of God has drawn near, and we can speak of what we have seen and heard and handled (32-33).

Newbigin reflects on the disciples question about when the Kingdom comes in fullness and asks can we expect the manifest reign of God now? He offers a two part answer. First addressing the ways in which ‘the Kingdom of God’ is a warning:

The answer of Jesus is in the double form of warning and promise. It is first of all warning: it is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. The kingdom is simply, the reign of God. This is so fundamental that is is constantly forgotten. We are not dealing here with a programme, a campaign, a promotional ‘drive’ for which the techniques of high pressure salesmanship or military planning would be appropriate.  Nor are we engaged in the support of a ‘good cause’ of which it is possible to optimistic or pessimistic. . . .It is not possible to be optimistic or pessimistic about the sovereignty of God! It is simply a fact. The question about which everyone has to inquire is the question: am I living in total faithfulness, trust and loving obedience to him who is sovereign? The sharp words of Jesus have to be heeded in every situation–whether the temptation to worldly optimism or pessimism. Our attention is directed to God himself. He alone is king. What is called for in us is total trust which–whether in success or in failure–simply places all its hope in him; which accepts the promise: Fear not, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

I think this is a warning to be heeded as we take the theme of the kingdom as a clue for missionary thinking. There is a very easy but fatal shift that can take place by which the language of the Bible, which always points to the personal presence and action of God, is converted into language which points to programmes of our own. . . .The biblical language is centered in the reality of the living God–his faithfulness and kindness. The other kind of language leads quickly into an ideology which is centered entirely in one’s expectations about the possibilities of political action. The biblical language has been for so long (and especially in our western culture)  interpreted in a purely private and pietistic sense divorced from the realities and obligations of political life, that a correction was urgently needed.  But in making this correction it is important that one does not lose that which is central to the biblical witness–the formidable reality of God who alone is the sovereign of his kingdom (34-36).

But Newbigin also points us to the ways in which the Kingdom of God is recieved from God as a promise and a gift:

The answer of Jesus to the question of the disciples is, in the second place, a promise. ‘You will recieve power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses. . .’ The first point to be noted is that it is a promise, not a command. Witness is not a burden laid upon the Church. It is not part of the law. It is gospel, gift, promise. We misinterpret the whole thrust of the New Testament when we convert this into a law, a burden laid upon the consciences of Christians. There is a profound inner necessity which leads Christians to bear witness of Jesus and Paul’s letters bear ample evidence of this. But neither Paul nor any of the other New Testament writers can be found laying the duty of witness as a burden upon the consciences of their readers. Failure to observe this point, I think, has had grievous consequences for the life of the Church. What is given here is not a command but a promise.

How is the promise related to the question? The question is about the Kingdom, the promise is about that which is the foretaste, the first-fruit- the arrabon of the Kingdom–namely the gift of the Spirit. The word arrabon which is (I am told) still used in colloquial Arabic, expresses vividly what is otherwise expressed in such metaphors as ‘foretaste’ and ‘firstfruit.’ An arrabon is a payment which is, on the one hand, solid cash which can be spent like any other money, and, on the other hand, is a sign and pledge of full payment to come.  It is not a verbal promise. It is real cash. Yet its significance is far more than its actual cash value; it is the assurance of more to come. The Holy Spirit is such an arrabon of the Kingdom. It is, on the one hand, a real foretaste of the love and joy and peace which are the very substance of God’s rule. But–on the other hand–it is not yet the fulness of these things. It is the solid pledge which gives assurance that the fulness is coming. And this what constitutes witness. It is not the lantern which a traveller in the dark carries in his hand; it is the glow on his face which reflects the coming dawn. It is pure gift. It is not an accomplishment of the one who bears witness but rather a gift which comes from beyond him and so directs men’s attention away from the bearer to the source of the gift–to the light in the eastern sky. In this sense one must say that the Church is not the author of the witness; it is not that the Church bears witness and the Spirit helps the Church to do so. This kind of language completely misses the point.  The point is that the Church is the place where the Spirit is present as witness. The witness is not thus an accomplishment of the Church but a promise to the church. (36-38)

Finally, Newbigin closes this chapter with these words:

. . .apart from the living community in which there is already a foretaste of the reality of the Kingdom, a present experience of its joy and freedom, the preaching of the kingdom becomes mere ideology. We have seen this happen in the past when ‘kingdom’ has been separated from ‘church’  in missionary thinking. When abstract nouns replace the biblical language about God’s just and loving rule, this is what happens–and the sane us trye wgetger these nouns are such as were popular fifty years ago (‘social progress’, ‘civilisation’, etc.) or such as are popular now (‘liberation’, ‘justice’, etc.). The content of the preaching of the Kingdom can never be any such concepts; it can only be Jesus himself, incarnate, crucified, and risen. The hermeneutic can only be the living reality of a community which the first fruits of the Kingdom are already being enjoyed and shared. This will be a community which shares fully in solidarity with the suffering of the oppressed and therefore shares the secret of Christ’s vicotry over death and the hope of the completion of that victory over death and the hope of the completion of that victory at the end. The whole of the eighth chapter of Romans is a picture of such a community sharing in the trubulation of Jesus and therefore sharing also in the assurance, hope, and joy of his victory. Such a community will be the living hermeneutic of the message of the Kingdom which it preaches. There can be no other (42-3).

It is a shame, that this little book hasn’t been more widely read. Seriously good stuff!

First Rule of Fight Club. . .a book review

One of my passions and interests is to help people grow as disciples of Christ. I also really like the gospel. So when I saw a book called Gospel Centered Discipleship coming down the pike, I just knew I had to review it. Jonathan Dodson, pastor of Austin City Life Church (located conveniently in Austin) has written a thought provoking book addressing what discipleship properly centered on the gospel is. In part 1 he defines discipleship, in part 2 he addresses the motivation and power behind discipleship, and part 3 he addresses practical aspects of how we live it out.

Sharing vulnerably about his own steps and missteps as a disciple, Dodson demonstrates the ways that our discipleship models sometimes miss the point. Some disciples emphasize piety at the expense of mission (spiritual disciplines, instead of social justice or Evangelism). Others emphasize missional activism but fail to help people grow in holiness. The desire to provide accountability, sometimes gives way to legalism, while other discipleship groups err on the side of cheap grace by providing license for believers to sin. Dodson doesn’t want you to emphasize piety at the expense of grace or vise-versa; both vertical and horizontal dimensions of discipleship are important. What he wants us to live into the reality that Jesus is Lord and follow him in his mission and piety.

Along the way, he invites us to experience confession and community, stoke our religious affections and commune with the Holy Spirit to help us mature as disciples. His focus on the ‘three conversions’ (conversion to Christ as Lord and Savior, conversion to the Body of Christ, and Conversion to Christ’s mission) ensures that his own model of discipleship is fairly holistic and communal. His model is rooted in church practice rather than individual disciplines.

The last section of the book, talks about how we can practically live out this model of discipleship. Dodson writes about ‘fight clubs’ which are his name for a three person small group where participants meet to encourage one another to fight the good fight in living for Jesus (fighting sin in our lives, fighting to keep Christ at the center of our heart, fighting to extend his mission). Admittedly, I find the name is cheesy and a little gimmicky, but I like the concept. At any rate, Dodson’s description of fight clubs can be modified. This is just one example of how you can live out gospel-centered discipleship.

There is so much I like about this book. I really appreciated the way Dodson critiques some versions of discipleship which I have found unhelpful (i.e. how accountability groups can promote legalism). His model of discipleship is Biblically and theologically informed (mostly from a Reformed Evangelical bent). While I may disagree in minor points of emphasis, on the whole this seemed like a helpful and thoughtful book. I really appreciated the richness of sources he cited.

[Edit 5-09-2012: The earlier edition of this review criticized this book for having a subject and scriptural index which did not actually belong to this book (a printing error from the publisher). Crossway has just sent me a corrected copy where this error has been fixed.]

As a whole I would recommend this book to someone looking for an accessible guide to discipleship for those who want the truth of the gospel and Jesus’ Lordship (his kingship and leadership) to penetrate every part of our lives.

Thank you to Crossway books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this fair and rather friendly review.