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.

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.

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!