Friday, March 19, 2010

Your Church is Too Small - A Blog Tour Review

It's an honor to be a part of this blog tour hosted by Zondervan on John Armstrong's new book Your Church is Too Small.  Thanks to Zondervan for the advanced reading copy. 

When I was at Trinity I had the pleasure of having Carl Henry for a class. One day he told us that we need to think in terms which will “move Christendom.” I thought “I’ll put that on my calendar. ‘Take final exam in Henry’s class. Move Christendom.’” Well, I passed the final exam but have not done anything that I would consider worthy enough of moving Christendom.

As I was reading John Armstrong’s book, Your Church is Too Small, it occurred to me “This guy is thinking in terms which could move Christendom!” But let’s clarify one important point: this book is not about growing church membership. John has a bigger vision than simply transforming a small church into a mega church. No. Your church is not simply the little white church with a steeple on Little Church Ave. It is part of the church which Christ prayed for in John 17 and spans the globe. This church includes Catholics, Evangelicals, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostals, Reformed, Wesleyans and more. We begin with Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23.

John notes that some have focused on what the prayer does not mean rather than on what it does mean. (42) When pressed they usually adopt an interpretation which appeals to something along the lines of the invisible church. But this can’t work since Jesus would be praying for something we already possess. The invisible church is united! Rather, Jesus is speaking of a “relational unity” or a “unity between persons that is rooted in their relationships with one another.” (43) I think John is supported here by Paul in Romans 15:5 where he prays that God will give to them “the same attitude of mind toward each other that Jesus had.” Doug Moo observes in his commentary “Paul’s concern is not, at least primarily, that the believers in Rome all hold the same opinion of these ‘matters indifferent’; but that they remain united in their devotion to the Lord Jesus and to his service in the world.” (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 871) It is this very unity which John says has been undermined by divisions and fractions in the church. “We must” he says “cultivate a holy discontent about our unholy divisions.” (63) At the root of these divisions is sectarianism. He defines sectarianism as “mutual exclusivity, an exclusivity that thrives when people and groups believe they have a superior claim to truth. Sectarians believe their church/denomination/tradition can best ‘represent the body of Christ, to the exclusion or minimization of other genuinely Christian groups.” (92) It is here I think John shows some careful thinking because he reminds us often that we should not give up what makes us distinctive. “I agree that everyone should believe that the church they embrace is the ‘right’ one. Problems often arise, though, when Christians and churches believe that their brand of Christianity is entirely right—a way of thinking rooted in the notion that I am one who believes the truth and you believe a lie.” (93) There is a tightrope which John walks and he keeps his readers aware of the dangers of going to either extreme. One example of the extremes to be avoided are between uniformity and deviance. “When uniformity goes too far, we oppress and suppress those who disagree with us; when deviance goes too far, we allow almost anything that our age deems appropriate. Unity in Christ and the truth must be our pattern.” (138) This is a big dream and John knows it will take work. He says, “I am sure on one thing: idealistic dreams of unity will not bring about unity itself.” (89)

The pattern for our unity is also seen in the Trinity. In the Trinity we see three persons in perfect union and harmony. But we are fragmented and divided. The solution John says “is for Christians to first cultivate a love for catholicity and then prayerfully reach across our divisions, challenging each other to embrace the mission of Christ together.” (104) We have to stop thinking of ourselves as simply Methodists or Baptists or Lutherans. Together we are the people of God. We could say the Methodists, Baptists and Lutherans (and others but you get the point) of Grand Rapids are the Church at Grand Rapids. (See the chart on page 109.) There is much more that ties us together than divides us. John cites the Apostle’s creed as a prime example of something which unifies us. “We find no other document in early church history, apart from the Bible, that served a greater purpose in uniting Christians in their common faith. The creed was confessed in one’s baptism, affirmed regularly by the whole gathered church, and openly used to express the kind of essential Christianity that united believers.” (78)

John’s term of preference is missional-ecumenism. The back of the book contains a helpful glossary and there we find this definition of missional-ecumenism: “I wish to stress these two truths: (1) God is both a unity in himself and as such a sending God, and (2) God’s revealed desire is that we would be (relationally) one with him in this sending and sent (mission) process—thus the term missional-ecumenism.” (203)

I resonate with a lot of what John says. His early start on this path was triggered by meeting Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Slowly his defenses came down and he realized his fears were “negatively impacting his spiritual life and bringing with it deep anxiety.” (31) Eventually he “discovered a wonderful liberty in letting go of the need to always be right!” (39) In my job here at Baker on the Church Relations Team I’ve been to dozens of wonderful churches. I’ve met Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, and plenty of Reformed folk who I’ve learned so much from and value all their friendships. John says that he still has some “misgivings about parts of the ecumenical movement.” (170) He does not elaborate much on this point. (I suppose too much of that would be counter to his intent.) I have some concerns of my own as I read the book. I’ll simply enumerate them here.

1) How is the gospel defined in an ecumenically acceptable way? John mentions the problem of the “gospel wars” which are “accompanied by huge debates, conferences, and books.” (161) But, he says, “When we reduce the gospel to manageable ideas, we demonize other Christians who do not preach the gospel as we do. A favorite text can be Galatians 1:6-9, where Paul warns about false gospels. (Rarely do those who use this text pay careful attention to the context or its social setting; instead it becomes another proof text for attacking Christians!)” (162) John says he used to engage in these kinds of debates and that it was “not totally wrong.” He says we need truth and “without truth there is no real Christianity.” (162) “But,” he says “I am now firmly convinced that without a serious commitment to missional-ecumenism, we will never get the proper balance needed for modern reformation.” (162) What does it mean to have a gospel that is not a “manageable idea?” To me a manageable idea is something that I can adequately understand enough to clearly communicate it to someone else. Clearly, this is not what John is talking about. Perhaps he has in mind that the gospel is not something which I can wield at whim or use for my own purposes (for fame or fortune?). I would certainly agree with that. But he ends this discussion with no clear definition of what the gospel is. The huge debates, conferences and books exist because people disagree about what that message is and I’m not ready to say it is all just pointless debate.

2) Questions on defining a Christian. By asking this question I open myself to being charged with being sectarian. I say this because John says when he “held tenaciously to sectarianism” he would wrestle with this question. (146) Can someone wrestle with this question and not be sectarian? I hope so because I’m wrestling with some of what John said and I don’t mean to be narrow-minded or parochial. I agree that a Christian has the Spirit of Christ. On that we agree. But why do we stop with Romans 8:9? He says he gave up asking the question because he doesn’t know who has the Spirit and who doesn’t. From here he was free to be more concerned with his own faith and attitudes. (149) He says the role of judging who is a real Christian or not is a church matter and not a private one. (150) It is a “type of ministry . . . done well by wise leaders who earnestly labor in such demanding work (see Matthew 7:1-6).” (150) But the appeal to Matthew 7 seems to indicate that there is a certain observable behavior which these wise leaders may use in their judgment. Is it only the ever-judging Christian who sits in judgment of a professing believer who shows not fruit in their life or can’t it be a sign of love, care and compassion which moves a brother or sister who is deeply troubled by what may be a self-deluded person and therefore confronts (with the appropriate grace and humility which is so often missing) the contradiction in that person's life?

3) I appreciate the appeal to the early creeds as a way of emphasizing our unity. But creeds arose not only as a formulation of what we believe but also in response to heresy. How far back and which creeds do we accept as “ecumenical?” The Reformed church does not accept all of the seven ecumenical councils in part due to some of the rulings on icons.

I don’t mean for my questions to take away from the good I see in what John is arguing for. Perhaps it is the latent sectarian in me. I would like to think it’s just some honest questions.  The book is full of sound wisdom and I often found my questions were answered as I kept reading.  There are numerous charts which help clarify parts of John's argument.  Some I found extemely helpful such as "The Dangers of Losing the Catholicity of Denominationalism" on page 142  Others I found less helpful and problematic such as "Comparison of Attractional and Incarnational Approaches" on p. 176.  John is well aware of the mine fields that surround a position like his but he shows courage in his move forward.  Indeed, he's not afraid to caution his readers with words as if from a returning troop from the front lines: "Those who recognize God's desire for unity and begin to obey his commands will also need to learn how to forgive others, since every effort at unity involves misunderstandings among sinful people.  You are guaranteed to get hurt!  We simply cannot undertake this kind of praying and teaching without the Holy Spirit's grace and power."  (83) 

We created an ecumenical calendar that we sell in the store which features the church calendar with significant dates of importance to Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Messianic Jews. We did this to foster within our church relations team an appreciation for the larger church of which we are part. I can say that those of us who worked on this learned a lot and we developed valuable relationships with members of each of those communities as we put it together. I pray that John’s work and vision will grow. We may be witnesses to a move in Christendom. 

10 comments:

Andrew said...

Thanks for posting this thoughtful review! Missional-ecumenism is indeed a tightrope, but perhaps it's one well worth walking.

Best!
AR

Louis said...

Andrew,

You're welcome. I think it is worth it. My only regret is that I didn't start sooner. I've added a picture of the calender that you helped us develop while you were still with us.

Andrew said...

I've got that calendar hanging in my office. You know, books like "Your Church is Too Small" and projects like the calendar have, at the very least, got me thinking about the church more broadly. For that I'm very grateful.

Paul said...

Outstanding review and important "concerns" that you raise. I suspect (perhaps because I know you so well) that your "latent sectarian" issues have only to do with knowing and loving the truth of the Gospel, which finally and wholly sets us apart from everything and everyone.

Without a clear longing for and declaration of the essential Gospel, every person naming the name of Christ is reduced to something less than Christianity in se. I doubt the Apostle's Creed captures en toto "essential Christianity." Without reading Armstrong's book, this sounds like a "lowest common denominator" approach.

Do I sound like a sectarian?

Nauvoo Pastor said...

Great post and I like the calendar. Wonder if they have something like that for church tradition?

John said...

Louis, your review is not only thoughtful but very engaging and critical in the best sense of the word. I am frankly honored by it. In most instances where you wonder what I mean or attempt to work out something that might not be fully worked out in such a small book you make correct assumptions about where I would land.

As for defining the gospel I think it is defined in the creeds. I also think it is defined in, are people ready to think about this, in the four Gospels. By creating formula's of the gospel, little outlines rooted in a few favorite Pauline texts, and then telling ourselves we have managed to get the gospel clearly down in short form we are, I humbly submit, mistaken.

BTW, 1 Cor. 15:3-5 is a gospel text and reads like an early creedal affirmation, which many scholars believe it is and was. If any Pauline text tells us the Gospel (narrative and its content) in outline this has to be it. I would add Philippians 2:5-11 as well. There are some "creed like" simple statements in the NT that help us like this. Add Romans 10:9-10, often used and abused by we evangelical Protestants.

So, yes we must be clear about the gospel. I simply think we can debate the application of the grace of God more widely, thus the Reformation, and not reject all other Christians as outside the gospel message per se. I am a Protestant, as you know, but not a flaming hot-Protestant who thinks the last and final word is found in the Reformers. I wish more modern neo-Reformed people would actually read the Reformers and I think they would see how my view lines up with theirs in many (not all) ways.

Your review is one of the better ones I have read so far. I am grateful you devoted so much thought to my book and hope readers will be moved to embrace other Christians in relationships by reading it. Such a movement, I believe, would be a Spirit-led renewal in the wider church.

A. Amos Love said...

Unity. Hmmm?

Sometimes good and some times, er, not so good?

Just wondering…

What if God is the author of our
disagreements and separations?
“And all things are of God…”
2 Cor 5:18, Rom 11:36, Col 1:16-17, etc.

Are we working for “Unity?”
And NOW working against God?

Didn’t God confuse man’s language once before?
Aren’t those things that happened to others,
written for us to learn from?
1 Cor 10:11, Rom 15:4.

Didn’t God intervene when “man was in unity”
with their own devices, their own plans,
trying to build something themselves,
to reach heaven and “make a name for themselves?”

Could that be the ekklesia’s problem today also?
Doing their own thing – NOT God’s thing?

**Man trying to build something?
(Movements? Denominations? Church Planting?)
**And make a name for themselves?
(“Titles” on buildings, schools, websites, books, etc.)
**Being in unity they could accomplish anything?

wikipedia lists many, Nay – 1,000’s, of Denominations. Everyone with a name.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations

…let us build us a city and a tower,
whose top may reach unto heaven;
and let us make us a name…
Gen 11:4

Gen 11:6-8
et us go down, and there **confound their language,**
that they may**not understand one another’s speech**
(Hmmm? Sound familiar?)
Baptist, Pentecostal, Reformed, Calvinist, Egalitarian, Mercy Lord…

Hmmm? Just wondering…
What if God is the author of our
disagreements and separations?

Then what…???

Are we working for Unity?
And NOW - working against God?

John said...

Amos,

You need to abide by some form of etiquette. I have discovered that you are posting the same exact comments, as a cut and paste technique, on various sites now. I responded to you elsewhere and what you are doing here is neither helpful nor entirely fair. Bloggers will, and rightly should, begin to ban such comments that are simply pasted onto reviews over and over again across the net.

I responded to your comments kindly and fairly. I now urge you to stop this practice since it does no service to readers who are interested in real dialogue via the means of serious Christian blogging.

Louis said...

Paul,

I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "lowest common demoninator" approach. I may have thought that a time or two as I read but John helpfully balances much of what he says at various places throughout the book. We could always wish for more but it would probably seriously reduce the readership if it got much larger. Hence the value in something like a blog tour.

John,

Thank you for your kind comments and I'm glad you sensed my concerns for what they were and in the spirit I intended. I thought you might. In saying you think the gospel is defined in the creeds you are probably defining the gospel in a broader manner than I would. But then again maybe not. I've tried to break myself of the habit of thinking in formulaic ways. A formula has the advantage of being relatively simple to remember and easy to communicate. The disadvantage is it can give the impression that this is the only way it can be presented as you stated. For me I find some kind of definition is helpful in that I know where the parameters or boundaries are which then helps me to know how fluid we can be in our various formulations. I think the creeds are helpful in this regard for our theology in general. I value the discussion and think the spirit of unity your book offers is a model for all of us to emulate.

A. Amos Love said...

Sorry John.

I apologize for offending you
and ask your forgiveness.

You write...
"I now urge you to stop this practice
since it does no service to readers"

I have stopped as per your request.
There is quite a few out there already.

I did enjoy meeting you and
I would like to discuss this further if you care to.

If not, I'll understand.

Conflict often has a benefit.

In His Service. By His Grace.

A. Amos Love.

lovefaith101@gmail.com

Go in peace and serve the Lord.