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Third Title in Skye Jethani’s “Serious” Series

Christian Book Shop Talk readers: I occasionally include reviews here which appeared on my other blog, even if there is no specific Canadian element. This is such a review.

Book Review: What if Jesus Was Serious About the Church?: A Visual Guide to Becoming the Community Jesus Intended (Moody Publishers, 2022)

Two years ago I was able to review the first book in what we now know has become a series, What if Jesus Was Serious? At the time, I mentioned that the use of “napkin doodles” therein was foreshadowed in one of Skye Jethani’s older books, With. I was unable to get a review copy of the follow-up, What if Jesus Was Serious About Prayer? but when the subject-at-hand for the third book was the modern church, I knew I wanted in, and despite the publisher’s great reluctance to grant review copies, was able to request one.

The reason I wanted to own this one in my personal collection is because this is a theme on which Skye is most outspoken when talking to Phil Vischer or interviewing guests weekly on The Holy Post Podcast. As a former pastor himself, and a former writer for over a decade with Christianity Today, Skye is able to articulate the challenges faced by the capital “C” Church worldwide, the small “c” church locally, and those whose vocational employment is church-related.

The podcast for which he is quite well known fails (in my view) in one respect, in that it is far too American-oriented. If you’re reading this review in the UK, or Australia, or Canada, and you’ve sensed that as well, you’ll be happy to know that the book casts a wider perspective beyond the U.S. I promise you’ll only roll your eyes once or twice.

So for those who need to play catch-up, as with the first two books, this one consists of short — never more than four page — chapters, each of which commences with a little drawing which might be a chart, or a diagram, or a cartoon, or a meme. It’s hard to describe them. Hence the reference to “napkin doodles.” The thing you would draw on a napkin (or blank paper place-mat) in a coffee shop when trying to explain an idea. (Again, the book With is must-reading to see how the concept evolved.)

This one has 51 such chapters, grouped in five sections; The Family Reunion, The Family Meal, The Family Gathering, The Family Business, and The Family Servants.

I immediately shared the second part with my wife. I find that I can never read enough about the Eucharist, Last Supper, or Communion Service, and our need to keep its centrality in the modern worship service. It and the third part, about the manner in which we worship are the longest two groupings in the book and include subjects that are important to the author.

Skye Jethani is so forthright and authoritative on these subjects, and I feel he is a voice that everyone in Evangelicalism needs to be hearing.

Because I tend to gush about the books I review — I choose them and don’t get books sent automatically — I do have a couple of criticisms. One is that for those who obsess over page counts, the 232 pages in this one include about 45 which are essentially blank. That’s a product of the way the book is formatted, and in balance, one needs to also consider this digest-sized paperback uses color process throughout.

The other thing was the ending. For me, there wasn’t one. The 51st article ended abruptly, which I expected given the concision that Skye employs throughout. But then I turned the page looking for a conclusion; something that would tie everything altogether, and there wasn’t one. No closing statement. Perhaps, as with the podcast for which he is known, there is a bonus chapter only available to Patreon supporters.

Those complaints aside, I encourage you to consider this. It’s fairly quick reading, and if you or someone in your family is employed in ministry, it contains a number of great conversation starters. If you simply care about where modern Evangelicalism is headed, it contains even more topics to provoke discussion.

McMaster Professor’s Timely Message

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Ps. 137:4

Book Review: The Church in Exile

Although I worked for InterVarsity Press briefly several lifetimes ago, and have covered other IVP books here before, this is the first time I’ve attempted to review anything from the IVP Academic imprint. So let me say at the outset that perhaps I have no business considering scholarly titles here; however there is a personal connection that had me wanting to read this book, and that resulted in my wanting to give it some visibility here.

Lee Beach was our pastor for nearly ten years, and one year of that overlapped a staff position I held at the church as director of worship. He came to us after serving as an associate pastor and then interim pastor of a church just 45 minutes north. He was young, passionate and everyone just called him Lee.

Today, years later, when mentioning him to students in his university community, the honorific is always used, it’s Dr. Beach at McMaster Divinity School in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada where he serves as assistant professor of Christian ministry, director of ministry formation and teaches courses on pastoral ministry, mission, the church in culture and spirituality.

The Church in Exile - Lee BeachThe Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom is made more accessible to those of us who are non-academics because of its timeliness. Because of immigration, the rise of secularism, and a decline in church membership and attendance, Christianity is losing both numbers and the influence that those metrics bring. In some communities already, Christians are no longer the majority stakeholders.

From his vantage point in Canada where religious pluralism has been normative now for several decades, Dr. Beach has a clear view of where the U.S. is heading. From his background as a Christian & Missionary Alliance pastor, he also has a heightened awareness as to the status afforded Christianity in other parts of the world.

The book is divided into two sections. The first begins in the Old Testament with a focus on those times God’s people lived in exile, or were scattered, particularly the narratives concerning Esther, Jonah, Daniel, and what’s termed the Second Temple period, where the community of the faithful seems to be diminished; a shadow of its former self. (Sound familiar?) From there, the book moves to the New Testament with particular attention to I Peter.

In the foreword, Walter Brueggemann points out that while exiles may have a sense that the present situation is temporary, the Jewish Diaspora brought with it no expectation of returning home. In other words, their placement was what we would call today ‘the new normal.’ That so well describes the church in 2015. There is no reasonable anticipation that things will go back to the way they were.

The second section builds on the theological framework of the first to turn our thoughts to the more practical concerns of being the church in the margins. How does one lead, and offer hope in such a period of decline? How does our present context govern or even shape our theological framework? How does a vast religious mosaic affect evangelism, or one’s eligibility for inclusion or participation in church life? How do followers of Christ maintain a distinct identity?

To that last question, the term used is ‘engaged nonconformity’ wherein

Exilic holiness is fully engaged with culture while not fully conforming to it. Living as a Christian exile in Western culture calls the church to live its life constructively embedded within society while not being enslaved to all of its norms and ideals. p. 183

It should come as no surprise that some of this section cites practitioners of what has been termed the missional church movement.

“But wait;” some might say, “We were here first.” While that may not be exactly true, the spirit of it is well entrenched, and early on we’re reminded that you can experience the consequences of exile even in your own homeland. You don’t have to sell your house to feel you’ve been displaced, and that’s the reality that will impact North American Christians if it hasn’t touched some already.

In the post-Christian revolution, it is fair to say that the church is one of those former power brokers who once enjoyed a place of influence at the cultural table but has been chased away from its place of privilege and is now seeking to find where it belongs amid the ever changing dynamics of contemporary culture. p. 46

In the end, despite my misgivings about wading into academic literature, I read every word of The Church in Exile, and I believe that others like me will find this achievable also, simply because this topic is so vital and our expectation of and preparedness for the changes taking place are so necessary.