Your Church is Too Small

Zondervan, 2010

Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church
Author: John H. Armstrong
Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010
ISBN: 9780310321149

First, I wish to thank the good people at Zondervan for sending me this book to review.  This book is likely the challenging book I’ve read this year.  It is a book on the unity of the church.  This book managed to touch on many issues that I have thought about over the years but needed to reflect more deeply about. Thanks John.

John Armstrong, was a church planter adjuncts at Wheaton College Graduate School, and is founder and president of ACT 3, a ministry for equipping leaders for Christ’s mission.  In ch. 2,  Armstrong explains his personal journey into catholicity, beginning with his three conversions, of which I can totally relate with.  He also relates the unity of the church as being vital to God’s mission.  For Armstrong, to best serve Christ’s mission, Christian believers must minister out of spiritual unity and be rooted in core orthodoxy. This is profound for many evangelicals but it is true.  Much of our contemporary evangelical churches have rejected tradition and anything remotely related to tradition.  We tend to view anything old and archaic as a hindrance to the growth of God’s mission in the church.   However, there is a growing trend in new evangelicals of a wind of change.   As in Armstrong,I also used to think of Christian tradition as something as old, archaic, and useless; but today, I have come to love tradition.  I believe it has a valuable part to play in the modern-day church of today.  Armstrong teaches us that we need to embrace tradition if we are to move forward as a church in Christ’s mission.

Why the title?: “Your Church is Too Small?  Armstrong says that our contemporary churches have settled for a small view of the church—divided and fractured—and it has spread like a pandemic across the world.  His thesis is that a “small” view of the church harms the mission of Christ because it spreads the seeds of sectarianism and forces us to choose our enemies and friends based on whether or not we are in complete doctrinal agreement. We need a larger view of the church. Armstrong says: “When core orthodoxy, as represented by the Apostles’ Creed, is not of primary importance, the result will always be a small view of the church” and will be driven by personalities.

Even though I agree with this, it causes me to ask the question if denominationalism is the enemy here.  Can we have denominationalism without sectarianism?  I think the author gives an affirmative answer.  He does believe that diversity is a good thing.  Relational unity is something that many post-modern evangelicals, including myself, can support. What is relational unity?  It is a unity between persons that are rooted in their relationships with one another. This kind of unity is both spiritual and visible.  A visible unity is not necessarily a structurally united church, but it is one that is united in spirit without an organic union.  It is not unanimity, uniformity, nor union.  I like Armstrong’s statement: “This Christ-centered unity is not found in man-made structures or efforts to achieve oneness.  It is the fruit of our nearness to Christ and is modeled on the unity that Christ experienced with the Father.  It is a relational unity, experienced and revealed through shared mission.” (p.64).  The 20th century ecumenical movement failed because it tried to force an agenda based on theological unity, and was even politically fuelled by socialist and liberationist ideologies, says Armstrong.  There was also an absence of evangelicals and Roman Catholics.  Relational unity does not try to unite the church based on theology but on mission.

In coming from an evangelical Reformed background, Armstrong understands that evangelicals tend to be “satisfied with informal person-to-person expressions of oneness.  Because they tend to view the church as a voluntary association, they see no need to seek unity with other churches.”  I think he is right.  Ch. 11 talks briefly about this new ecumenism.  If the future ecumenical movement is to be based on ideology, it will fail again.  The CCT-USA, which includes Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Evangelicals and Orthodox churches, is the start of a new movement that can give our ecumenical discussions a fresh start.  The World Evangelical Alliance, which gives evangelicals an identity for over 420 million evangelical Christians, can strengthen the missional thrust of evangelicals.  But evangelicals must continue to work with other denominations to further the work of the mission of Christ.

Armstrong does not seem very sympathetic to church splits but I’m a bit more sympathetic.  Due to the hardness of our hearts to accept diversity, these movements and church splits were necessary and healthy; but this is my own view and not that of the author.  Sometimes, the harder we try to hold onto our own doctrine, the weaker the unity becomes.  Our unwillingness to diversify is why we had a Reformation in the 16th century, and the last three great awakenings, and the charismatic movement this century.  Throughout history, the Western Church has blamed the Eastern Church; Roman Catholics have blamed the Reformation; the Church of the Reformation has blamed the Mennonites; Evangelicals have blamed Pentecostals and Charismatics.  Due to the unwillingness to make room for differing views, I believe that some church splits were inevitable and were even necessary to the health of the church.  Today, God can still redeem the church and unite us.

Due to church growth through church-planting, evangelical and pentecostal-charismatic churches remain very much distinct in their diverse denominations.  However, I believe that their distinctiveness have been a natural outcome of growth in evangelical and charismatic churches.  Armstrong sees the pluriform of denominations as a negative thing because he sees no biblical basis for this way of thinking. Well, it may not be biblical but it might have been what actually happened in the first century church.  Church-planting via intentional church splits may have produced some of the largest churches in the world; but the real problem, he says, is that sectarianism creates an attitude of exclusivity.  I would agree with him but I think that church-splits are not the real problem. When this happens, it may also be a symptom of a deeper problem—the problem of not allowing a plurality of theological beliefs, as I mentioned earlier.

I am glad to see the author’s support for catholic diversity.  He states: “I do not believe we have to give up our theological distinctions to pursue unity.  In fact, any pursuit of unity that denies our uniqueness and diversity is not positive…But I believe there is a better way—the pursuit of catholic diversity, a diversity that fosters vitality.” (p. 93).  Catholic diversity: I like this term and he does try to flesh this out a little more in ch.10.  He describes what it is not by describing what sectarianism is.

The ecumenical movement of the 70s and 80s had died, but with Armstrong’s passionate writing in this area, I have learned that perhaps a new ecumenism is arising.  The idea of church unity within young evangelicals might kick-start this.  If what Armstrong suggests is true and “the influence of the fiercest forms of separatism seems to have waned in the last two decades in America” and that younger Christians are tired of it (156), then there is possibly a place for this new ecumenism.  The author sounds optimistic that this is the case and he would suggest that the answer to our ambivalence regarding this possible new direction is to recover classical Christianity in all of its paleo-orthodox forms and that this recovery of classical Christianity must proceed in the context of missional-ecumenism.

This book has been challenging and I am sure it will be so for all readers.  You may get angry and put it down because it can be a bit much for the average evangelical; but if you’re into ecumenism, you will love it and say “amen” to much of what Armstrong has to say.  I am sure that most readers will enjoy this book and gain a bigger view of the larger church.  Our church has been too small for too long.

It is available through: CBD, Amazon, and Zondervan in various formats: electronic, hardcover, and audio

What will the next evangelicalism look like?

I’ve finished reading  The Next Evangelicalism (InterVarsity Press, 2009), authored by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah.  As an Asian Christian reading a book written by another Asian Christian, I can say that I’ve been having a very tough time digesting it. I was almost scared to keep reading because Rah goes direct and head-on, no holds-barred, with the issue that drives the thesis of his book. Yep, there’s no beating around the bush with him.  By the time I got to chapter five, things got so warm I had to remove my sweater, unbutton my shirt, and turn on the fan.

As I read, I have wondered if Rah’s methodology might be considered racist by some, and if he is using the race card in order to compensate for injustices?  Or is he making a legitimate argument about the injustices that the evangelical church needs to deal with?  If his arguments are legitimate, it may be a difficult pill to swallow for many evangelicals because we tend to think that we hold the moral high ground.  This is a book that brings out tough controversial issues concerning the greater evangelical church and it is extremely challenging.    In chapter 5, Rah also addresses the emerging church, in stating:

“I personally find the use of the term “emerging church” to be offensive. I believe that the real emerging church is the church in Africa, Asia and Latin America that continues to grow by leaps and bounds. I believe that the real emerging church is the hip-hop church, the English-speaking Latino congregation, the second-generation Asian American church, the Haitian immigrant church, the Spanish-speaking store-front churches and so forth. For the small group of white Americans to usurp the term “emerging” reflects the significant arrogance. Is there recognition of the reality of the changing demographics of American Christianity? Is there a willingness to move beyond the Western, white captivity of the church to a more multiethnic leadership?” (p. 124)

Wait, but there’s more. Rah states:

“The Babylon that must fall is not merely modernity (as the “emerging” church might contend), but rather, the Babylon that must fall is white cultural captivity. The fall of Babylon, therefore, requires the tearing down of the white dominance of American evangelicalism.”

Ouch!!  This may sound demeaning to white evangelicals but it’s actually not as harsh as it sounds…I hope.  Upon reading this, one’s first inclination might be to label him as an angry liberal but the thing is that  I don’t think he is a liberal, just fed up… that’s all.  He hold conservative theology and knows the greater evangelical church very well. I believe he is a well-meaning evangelical who desires to see change within the church.  I don’t think Rah’s arguments are based only on subjective feelings, but he does offer some examples of the state of the evangelical church’s spiritual condition.  If what he says is correct, then what may be on the line is the unity of the evangelical church. Rah asks a potentially and very poignant question:

“Is the white dominant emergent community willing to lay down their power for the sake of unity that needs to emerge out of the diversity in the next evangelicalism?”

Here are some questions that we could address:

A loaded question here: Rah feels that the evangelical church in the west need to be set free from western cultural captivity?  Does Rah’s question itself imply there is racism in the evangelical church?

Should the evangelical church be dealing with social justice issues, or is that just political activism?  Are the two terms “social justice” and “evangelicals” misnomers, or can they go together?

Is the entire evangelical church united, or in disunity?

Reading: The Shack by William P. Young

I have been reading the best-selling Christian novel, The Shack, authored by William P. Young (2007).  I am just about done reading it and I’m finding it extremely engaging and stimulating.  I heard much about the book before but never ventured to get into it until recently.  I heard the author speak at a conference I attended this winter and was impressed by his approach to spirituality.  I have been challenged to view God in a more dynamic and engaging way than before.   We tend to have a static God—a God who never changes. But the God that this portrayed in The Shack is different from the way we traditional Christians have often viewed God.  It actually does theology in an extremely readable way that anyone can digest; however, it’s like a slow digestion taken in small bites. Some might find his portrayal of the personhoods of God as very unconventional–even bordering on the heretical.

Just bought some new books to read

I already have a bookshelf full of unread books.  I don’t know why, but tonight, I went to browse around the bookstore and was driven to pick up a few more to add to my collection of unread books.  I hope I can justify my purchase.  Here’s what I bought and why I got them:

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible by Bart Ehrman (HarperOne, 2009)

  • I’ve been listening to some of Ehrman’s debates he’s had with evangelical scholars.  He does make an interesting case for the gospel’s discrepancies. I’ve heard from some that reading this book may cause you to lose your grip on the inerrancy of the bible. My New Testament text in seminary was written by Ehrman so I’m prepared to test the deeper waters of critical scholarship a little further to see if I fall off the deep-end. (Already in my collection of unread books are titles written by Spong, Pagels, and Crossan). I may need to carry a life-preserver before I jump into this one. 😉

The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity by Soong-Chan Rah (IVP, 2009)

  • I’ve read a little of The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins and really liked it.  I suspect this book’s thrust is along similar lines so I anticipate this book to challenge traditional perspectives of western Christianity.

Life After Church: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians by Brian Sanders (IVP, 2007)

  • This book was completely unknown to me but I want to begin reaching out to the disenfranchised generations of unchurched people and I’m not sure how and where to begin.  Understanding their cultural worldview, and why they’ve been turned off by church and/or Christians is crucial to doing effective ministry in our postmodern age.

Was Jesus’ persecution extraordinary?

Dr. Craig A. Evans is the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College of Acadia University (Nova Scotia, Canada).  Dr. Evans believes that Jesus’ punishment at the hands of the Roman soldiers who mockingly ridiculed him as a “king of the Jews” was actually nothing out of the ordinary.  In his opinion, in those days, political insurrectionist whose aim was to usurp the power of its territorial rules were routinely tried and convicted in court by regional governors, such as Pilate.  Jesus was only one of many rebels across the expanse of the Empire who was found guilty of this type of crime against the State.

If anyone was found guilty of causing political insurrection and unrest, they would be handed over to the Roman soldiers who would in turn have their way with them. In a display of homage and jest, they would poke fun at them, dawn upon them a purple robe, construct them a crown of thorns, bow down to them, and hail them as a king of the Jews. Well, if this treatment of Jesus as a political insurrectionist was merely routine for Roman soldiers, then why do we pay so much attention to his punishment and crucifixion on the cross, especially during this time of Easter? Are we putting too much emphasis on Jesus’ suffering?

Dr. Evan’s most recent works include: Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened (By Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright. Louisville: WKJ Press, 2009). Mark 1:1-8:26 (WBC volume 34a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson) is in preparation.

Do we need a simple spirituality?

I’ve just finished reading Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World (IVP, 2008), written by Christopher L. Heuertz.  I heard Heuertz speak last month at the MissionsFest 2010 Conference in Edmonton, Canada.  After listening to him speak, I was impressed by his spirituality and found myself wanting to learn more from him so I bought the book to learn about what Heuertz calls Lifestyle Celebrations.

I was very much challenged by Heuertz in the area of humbling myself before God so that I may see the poor and care for them, living more simply, and submitting to respond to my neighbor’s needs, and being a broken person inside so that I can be used by God to bring healing and redemption to a broken world. To get to this place, I need to practice a disciplined and self-conscious spiritual formation. What’s this? One thing that I have found absent in our North American church is that we don’t practice spiritual discipline.  Our excuse is that it is too hard, or that it is too oriented around law. Our theological has held us captive to our own sense of what is right and good. The protestant church needs a change of heart.

The stories of Heuertz’s experience from India are extremely gut-wrenching.  Heuertz draws from the his experience of working in South India with Mother Theresa. They are very vivid and if you are emotionally weak-kneed or faint of heart, you will melt. If you are unemotional, you will crack.  Either way, a reader will be moved one way or another.  The pain and suffering that happens amongst the Missionaries of Charity can be extreme-to-the-max.

A stronger sense of community is something that we also need take more seriously. Most protestants, and evangelicals especially, do not have a strong sense of community.  Heuertz states:

The faith of the North American church has become very exclusive.  If someone does not fit the social and economic mold of our churches, they may have a tough time being accepted by the Christians there.  How many of us wouldn’t stare if someone who prostitutes walked into the sanctuary on Sunday morning—would not wonder why he or she was there, would not judge and criticize him or her in our hearts and minds?  Those who prostituted in first century Palestine felt as if they could spend time with Jesus—why can’t they feel the same way with his followers?

That’s a good point.  We may preach about Jesus drawing the line in the sand and saving the adulteress from stoning, but we would also demand that she repent quickly–the minute she walks into the church (or if she would actually walk into a church, that is).  In our self-righteous piety, we sure don’t make sinners feel very welcome in our churches.  Maybe something does need to change–starting with us, otherwise, how will they hear the gospel and make a change in their life?  Heuertz makes a good point.  He says:

If we don’t embrace a meaningful humility, community, simplicity, submission and brokenness as part of faith, such wounds may simply become more and more infected. We can’t simply proclaim God’s love and sing about it.  We need to simply live it.

Number of books to read for 2010

I was just doing a little inventory of how many books I managed to read since completing seminary in November 2008. From then until the end of 2009, my count of theological books read is 25. This was more than I had thought so I have to be happy with that.

My goal for this year of 2010 is to aim for 20 books. If I can manage 20, I’ll be happy, considering family and work is keeping me quite busy. How many books to you get to read in a year? What is your goal for 2010?