Monday, May 25, 2009

More Than Words

Consider this post a link between the one before it (The Power of Words) and the one after it (The Power of Community). Consider this a three-part balanced presentation of how I am convinced our contemporary culture should understand and experience the Kingdom of God, before it is finally consummated with the return of Christ. The first part is meant to highlight the necessary focus on the gospel word, this second post you are currently reading is to connect the two together and make some clarifying observations, and the third part is meant to highlight the necessary focus on gospel community.

Essentially this presentation is a summary of the book Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community. I think this book has to be one of the best and most balanced treatments of this topic available. There are a lot of books - I mean a LOT - that talk about church, what is wrong with church, how we should reshape, or change, or do church in our culture, but frankly, most of them leave me seriously wanting. That is very ignorant and arrogant of me to say; ignorant because I haven’t read many of them, and arrogant because I certainly haven’t written one myself. But I have read the summaries, the table of contents, the first chapter or introduction, and parts in the middle of enough of them to see where the authors are going. And most of it is unbalanced and therefore unhelpful. Much of it is very good, and very convicting, and very true, but my conclusion is that Total Church includes all of these components (some of which I am uncomfortable with) but does it in a way without neglecting the balance, and therefore in a way that is helpful and loving for people, and honoring to God.

I don’t mean for this, or any of my posts, to sound critical or unloving. If it sounds that way, please tell me. I also don’t want to hinder the energy that is making real kingdom impact to the glory of Christ. I am sensitive to the challenge that those who say something can’t be done (or say it is being done the wrong way) shouldn’t interfere with those who are actually doing it. I don’t want to interfere in that way. What I want to do is humbly utilize my careful, analytical, teaching, and perhaps prophetic personality and gifting for the glory of God.


My concern is the classic theological error of reductionism. The problem is not that these arguments, or movements, or books say things that are themselves untrue, but they just don’t say everything the Bible says about the subject. One side makes the assumption that the gospel word (truth and mission) will be preserved and proclaimed in gospel community, so no need to stress out about the word part of it. The other side makes the assumption that gospel community will naturally result from the faithful proclamation of the gospel word, and so no need to specifically prioritize the community part of it. Both of these sides are wrong. And so these incomplete presentations of truth can quickly become unclear truth, or unhelpful truth, or worse - untruth - without anyone even knowing it. My opinion is that Total Church offers the best example of the biblical balance between the gospel word and the gospel community that Jesus Christ intends for in His Church, and that we long for in our soul.

Let me give you one example of what I am talking about. I’m reading the book The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. Let me say that it is really good and really convicting and really important for Christians to read to understand what Church should be. Emphasis on the posture of our proclamation of the Gospel was particularly helpful to me. There is a chapter titled 1700 Year Wedgie, which I also like. It is meaningful (albeit provocative). But the author would do good to be more careful with his premise. The chapter basically makes the argument that we have misinterpreted, or plain messed up, the biblical concept of church for 1700 years. Essentially everything since Constantine has been a downward spiral of unbiblical, institutionalized church that needs to be seriously rethought and modeled after the churches and incarnational communities in Acts.

To which I say: Wait a minute. I agree that Constantine screwed up the distinction that God intended between the church and secular society in a profound and devastating way. And I agree we should by all means strive to become more like the biblical model of church presented in the Book of Acts. And I agree that people are leaving, or will likely never come, to our churches. But minimizing the impact and good that the church as we know it today has done is an ignorant and offensive interpretation of church history. Millions of people have been saved, communities have been transformed, the Word of God has been proclaimed at home and around the world to the eternal salvation of souls and the temporary care of bodies, evils have been silenced, and God has been glorified in immeasurable ways during these glorious years.

Much has gone wrong, and still the name of Christ and the cause of Christianity is wrongly associated with evil and manipulation, or boredom and hypocrisy, in some cases. But God has worked mightily through Great Awakenings, giant preachers, fearless missionaries, faithful churches, selfless servants, and ordinary people to move mountains. And in most cases, this has happened through the structure of a local church by the proclamation of the gospel word. In many cases, you might say, God has worked by underground means and “Jesus movements” despite the local church. True enough.

But I’m not about to throw away the example and impact of John Calvin, John Wesley, John Owen, Jonathon Edwards, John Newton, John Knox, and some others not named John (like Charles Spurgeon, Charles Simeon, Martin Luther, Athanasius, Augustine, George Whitefield, William Tyndale, etc.) who preached, defended, and translated the Word of God in local churches in a way that saved souls, loved people, and changed the world. And in some cases they paid the ultimate price. Or people like Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, David Brainerd, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, and more, who were sent out, by local churches, for the sake of the nations, proclaiming the gospel word across the globe, some giving their lives to show that Christ is more precious.

All these men did not proclaim the gospel word only as if community was irrelevant. Their radical Christian service demonstrated the gospel in a way that created and sustained authentic community. But they did proclaim the gospel word. I'd like to suggest that the greater problem today is not that the church has become institutionalized and therefore destroyed the biblical model of gospel community (though it has); but that it has become less clear in its proclamation of the gospel word and therefore been missing the power that God intended for it to have.

I get so frustrated when this presentation is made about going back to the church of Acts because of the bad that the institutional church has done (which is true) while completely ignoring the good it has done. As if God has not been sovereign, in control, and honored the whole time. We need more balance. In the ancient church portrayed in Acts the missional, incarnational, counterculture, and communal experience of gospel community (which was and is central) would have had no impact without the understanding and proclamation of the gospel word (which was and is central). We should move forward with all the energy and passion that is driving those who want to throw away the institutional church – because they are right about what the church is and should be (namely a gospel community, not a building). But we should do it embracing and protecting the aspects of the institutional church (namely the faithful proclamation of the gospel word, through preaching and mission) that have been the vehicle of God’s mighty and sovereign hand for seventeen hundred years.


I was further relieved and convicted of my heart in this matter after I read Mark Driscoll’s article on the Fox News website. Responding to the recent article in Newsweek about the Decline of Christian America, which I have posted on already, Driscoll indicates that there is a distinction that needs to be made between Christian America (comprised of those people who have had a truly transforming experience with Jesus Christ and are living new lives as practicing Christians), and Christendom America (comprised of those people who have not had a truly transforming experience with Jesus Christ and are living lives virtually indistinguishable from those who are non-Christians, but who may still profess Christ). The latter is declining and the former is growing. Praise God.

To look at the damage Christendom America has caused, and to look at its resulting decline, is much less important than looking at the strength of Christian America, and to acknowledge its roots. We should embrace and even participate in the decline of Christendom America, in part because it identifies the faith and evangelicalism primarily with politics. But we should encourage and continue the advance of Christian America, and the role of the local church in that advance. This advance did not begin with the house church or emerging movements. It has been building for 1700 years in local churches, and it needs our passion for and commitment to the gospel – word and community. It always has been, and needs to continue to be, on the margins of society living as a counterculture for the common good. To challenge the institutionalized model of Christendom America is not a new idea, and gospel-centered preachers and local churches have been doing it for centuries. We need to continue it, with all the passion from the emerging and community-minded type, and all the faithfulness of the truth-saturated, gospel-centered and word-minded type.

There are obviously examples on the other side of the coin of books or arguments or movements who are mega-defensive when you say anything bad about the institutional church as if you just uttered damnable blasphemy, and who prioritize the gospel word only. These examples portray so much arrogance, so much pride, so much religion, and ultimately so much biblical ignorance, that they are hardly worth mentioning. They make the assumption that community is expendable and that Jesus Christ doesn’t care as long as you get your doctrine right and have a successful church service. Silliness. I get it. I try desperately every day not to drift into this category.

So if you are waiting for that list of books I was going to give you to read along with me so you could intelligently participate in this dialogue about the Church (was there anybody that was willing to do this?), keep waiting. In the meantime, pick up Total Church, alongside your Bible, and I think you’ll understand the topic and have a great resource to approach it with balance. And please let me know when you do so you can add to and help my imperfect, and hopefully humble, and hopefully balanced, interpretation.


Samuel said...

Wow Joey. I'm probably going to have to hug this one out on the phone with you. A lot to process. Without any additional reading, I would suggest one thing, people who do not know Jesus (maybe including this Christendom America) can't tell the difference between Christian and Christendom America, so when one attacks the other, I think we just confuse everyone.

Joey Elliott said...


I of course would prefer a hug in person!

To be honest, I'm not completely sure what you were trying to say in your comment, so I don't want to say too much and end up responding to what you weren't saying. But I might anyway.

Were you implying that I was attacking one side, and that this was confusing to people who don't know Jesus? If so, I certainly did not mean to. My goal is clarity, not confusion (blog subtitle).

Do you agree with the definitions and reality of Christian vs. Christendom America? Part of my point was that two segments of the contemporary church (word-centered people and community-centered people) are both "attacking" or challenging the Christendom model. But some are doing it in a way that almost neglects the current resurgence of Christian America, and the center of that resurgence.

I think it is important to make the distinction because people who don't know Jesus should know that following Jesus and salvation in Jesus is not about what political party you are in or the religion of the culture (Christendom), but about authentic gospel community centered around the person and work of Jesus Christ evidenced in holy living and love (Christian). And that the latter is in good shape, despite what Newsweek says, assuming it maintains gospel word and gospel community as its center (which it will, per the Bible).

Then I was saying that some are helping this confusion by focusing on gospel community only (emerging church, house church movement), and some are helping it by focusing on gospel word only (reformed, traditional churches), and I am convicted of the importance of bringing the balance. Hopefully my next post (part 3) will clear things up more.

Thanks for your participation in the dialogue. And I know, we need to chat on the phone - I'm sorry for droping the ball there.