Book Review – What on Earth is the Church For? (Dave Devenish)

I’ve been reading a variety of books on the subject of the church recently, and this one comes from firmly within the group of churches I am part of – newfrontiers. This group of churches came out of the “house church movement” in the 70s and 80s in the UK, also known as restorationism. It had a big vision for what the church could and should be like, and many left the “old wineskins” of the traditional denominations to be part of the new thing that God was doing. So 20 years on, how will the question “what on earth is the church for” be answered?

Basically, Dave Devenish outlines a vision for the church to be the agent of the kingdom of God. He explains what the kingdom is, and urges us not to be cynical about the future of the church, but to believe that God has plans for a glorious end-time church – a city set on a hill, even though there may also be increased persecution to be faced. Early on in the book he points out that social action – bringing practical love to people in need – is an indespensible aspect of the kingdom. The kingdom is about more than “my personal salvation”. The book also includes an explanation of the “now and not yet” nature of the kingdom.

He moves on to talk about being missional – that mission is not just for the few, but that all believers are caught up in God’s mission. We don’t need “missionary societies” because that is what the church is supposed to be. Sanctification is to be understood as being set apart for God’s mission, rather than a retreat from the world.

After laying the foundations, there are some chapters on the practical outworkings of this. He stresses the importance of church planting, an makes the case for modern-day apostles to play a part in this. He gives examples of social action projects and discusses the practical issues of being “missional” in the workplace and as cell groups. There are a few more chapters devoted to fleshing out the concept of the kingdom, including a helpful look at some of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom.

The final chapters of the book explore the concept of the church as “one new man in Christ” – a community made up of people from diverse cultural backgrounds. In these chapters he looks particularly at non-Western cultures, such as Muslim culture, and the issues of reaching out to such people, including them in a church, and what a church plant in such a culture would look like. There is an honest assessment of the real dangers that will be faced by those who seek to reach such people, and a call to be willing to hear the commission of the Lord to go.

I feel this could be an important book for a group of churches such as my own. It builds on the “restorationist” vision, but with a more prominent emphasis on being “missional” along with the social action aspects of the kingdom, which I think are both necessary. Though people who have read books on the kingdom and missional church will not find anything they have not read before, this book does a great job of introducing those topics to those who are new to it. I also appreciated the way that his look at cultural contextualisation was looking at non-Western cultures, rather than rehashing the huge amount of material discussing the cultural shift from modernism to postmodernism in our own society.

If I were to criticise this book in any way, I would suggest that he sets up the “pastoral / discipling” church as bad in contrast to the “missional” church. Although I know what he is getting at, I think that if a church is not serious about the “pastoral” side of caring for people, then we will not create a loving community that attracts anyone. And equally if we are not serious about the need to “disciple” Christians, then we will not expect many of our church members to catch the vision of being a missional people. And this is what I feel that is needed most after reading a book like this. We need thousands of ordinary Christians to get the “big picture” of what it means for God’s kingdom to come on the earth, and to be so captivated by this vision that they will give themselves wholeheartedly to it. I hope this book gets read by many preachers and small group leaders who will be infectious with its message to those they influence.

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