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
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.