Book Review – Church in the Present Tense

It has been some time since I last blogged on the emerging church, but this book caught my attention for a couple of reasons. First, the Kindle edition is free on, and second, it contained a couple of essays by Scot McKnight, whose blog I follow. It is a collection of two essays each by four authors who are sympathetic to the “emerging church” movement to various degrees.

Kevin Corcoran provides the introduction, giving a brief overview of the history and values held by the emerging church, before providing the opening chapter in which he argues that “commitment to ecumenical creedal formulations and to concrete Christian beliefs is in no way incompatible with or inimical to epistemic humility or other distinctive features of postmodernity prized by emerging Christians, such as the deep conviction that our grasp of reality is always partial, incomplete and provisional.” So he argues against the need to accept “anti-realism”. So far so good.

Corcoran’s second essay deals with eschatology, highlighting the strongly “kingdom now” approach of emerging – the kingdom has been inaugurated, even if it is not fully here yet. “Heaven is here and now” and future life after death is deemphasised. He discusses pluralism (the idea that God may work through people of other religions even though salvation is only through Christ) and univeralism (with hell as a possible intermediate but not final destination). I could only find myself in agreement with parts of this essay. The “kingdom now but not yet” emphasis is a helpful one, but is not unique to the emerging church in any case, with (for example) Vineyard and charismatic groups also emphasising this for many years now.

Peter Rollins provides a rather complex chapter, drawing on Nietzsche and ostensibly Bonhoeffer (“a religionless Christianity”) to describe a way of being Christian that will seem virtually unrecognisable to most evangelicals. For him Gal 3:28 contains an idea that he can press to the point of obliterating all distinctions so there is now “neither orthodox nor heretic, neither gay nor straight, neither Christian nor non-Christian”.

His second essay is more accessible, in which he points out that many of us can maintain a difference between our belief and practice so that it is not experienced as a conflict at all. Again he draws on ideas from Nietzsche and proposes an idea he calls “transformance art” in which we enact the death of God, and then the resurrection of God. It sounds radical but his only concrete example was churches meeting in pubs, coffee shops or art galleries, so it left me confused as to exactly what he was proposing. Unless I have badly misunderstood him, I would say that Peter Rollins represents the extreme end of the emerging movement that is so radical in its deconstruction that it has lost touch with orthodox Christianity.

Jason Clark is another blogger I have followed for some time, and his essays focus on liturgy. The first is on “Consumer Liturgies and their Corrosive Effects on Christian Identity”. This is a gem of a chapter with lots of food for thought.

With its demands on how we organize our lives, consumerism is a jealous god, not allowing our souls and bodies to be located in any other relationships, especially the body of Jesus, his church.

He critiques “blueprint” ecclesiologies (including several missional/emerging ones), and argues instead for “deep church”.

The future of church resides with those who, though critical, are nonetheless devoted to living within it.

His second chapter documents his journey from low church to an appreciation of a more liturgical form of worship, and describes the “flow” program his church has started although sadly there was not quite enough information to get a real feel of what exactly this involves.

Finally, Scot McKnight weighs in with two more theologically oriented essays. The first is on Scripture. He outlines five unhelpful ways in which we tend to approach the Bible, all of which evangelicals are frequently guilty of. He then discusses the limitations of language to truly communicate theological truth, which move him in the direction of the ‘apophatic‘ approach of Eastern Orthodox. I partially agree with him here, but I think he goes too far when he calls the Bible a “dim” witness to the ultimate (presently) unsayable truth of God. The logic is that if the Bible is “dim” then how much our flawed interpretations?

He moves on to describe the Bible as an ongoing series of “midrashes”, or interpretive retellings of the one Story God wants us to know and hear. There is no one fixed and final form of this story. It is the story of Moses and David and Jesus and Paul and James. To make it even just the story of Jesus and force the other stories to fit would do violence to the depth and breadth of the gospel story. The benefit of this approach is that it avoids complaining (for example) that Paul doesn’t speak of the kingdom enough, or that Jesus doesn’t speak of justification enough. We don’t need to force them together, but realise that these two tellings of the story are both needed for a fuller grasp of the big story. I found this an interesting essay, but it certainly raises some unanswered hermeneutical questions.

McKnight’s second contribution is on atonement and he takes Reformed believers to task for making the “gospel” about soteriology. We focus on “penal substitution” and “double imputation” and “propitiation”, and therefore the gospel is about my guilt and how it is solved through the gift of righteousness, and about God’s wrath and how it is solved through the substitution of Jesus. Without outright rejecting these ideas, McKnight suggests that the verses supporting imputation are at least ambiguous, and in any case, a survey of the apostolic teaching in the book of Acts reveals that their presentation of the gospel does not revolve around these concepts. I suspect that the material here summarises McKnight’s book “The King Jesus Gospel“, which I would very much like to read. What drives the sermons in Acts is the OT story finding its solution in Jesus’s story, and they focus very strongly on the resurrection, with the climax being that Jesus is Messiah of Israel and Lord of all. So the “problems” that the apostolic gospel addresses are death and the world’s need for a king, and the “solutions” are the resurrection and the Lordship of Christ. Overall I would agree with McKnight that where we make the “gospel” merely about soteriology, we have truncated the much fuller apostolic message.

In summary, I would say that this collection of essays is interesting in places, and concerning in places. If you have a kindle, it is worth getting even if just to read Jason Clark’s first essay and the two Scot McKnight essays.

TOAM 2011

I managed to get down as a day visitor to Brighton for the final newfrontiers Together on a Mission conference on Wednesday. Though I never get to go for the whole week, attending the conference is always one of the highlights of the year for me. I have to commend newfrontiers for making the talks available for free allowing everyone to benefit from the teaching.

Session 1 – Matt Hatch – A Culture of Discipleship in the Local Church

I have always found Matt Hatch very helpful and provocative on the subject of accountability and developing a culture of discipleship within the church since I first heard him at TOAM a few years ago. This time he took us through John 4, highlighting the importance of communicating the acceptance of Jesus and moving people to a place of delighting in Jesus. Some of his church resources on accountability are available here, and his seminar certainly provoked some thought about being more proactive in seeking to disciple the men in my cell group.

Session 2 – Dave Stroud

Then came Dave Stroud with a main session in which he outlined some of the future plans for newfrontiers in the UK, which it seems will consist of several distinct “apostolic spheres” working together under his guidance. He picked out five challenges for courageous leadership. First was, everything leadership, which essentially is a call for the church to broaden her horizons and have a more holistic vision of the mission of God. Second, missional leadership, by which he means churches that are deliberately engaged with the communities they are located in. Third, affirming leadership, in which he reminded us that, though newfrontiers remains theologically complementarian, there needs to be a firm commitment to creating environments that are equally liberating for both women and men. Fourth, embracing leadership, in which he expressed the desire for newfrontiers to take up a more central role within evangelicalism, rather than watching from the sidelines. I found this very interesting, and perhaps more controversial than his third point in some ways. It will be interesting to see what comes of this. Finally, he called for naturally supernatural leadership, which seemed to be a gentle rebuke aimed in the direction of those who seem to assume that the mark of spirituality is strange behaviour.

Session 3 – Terry Virgo

In the afternoon, Terry Virgo spoke on Heb 12. As always, his amazing gift for teaching was a joy to receive. He spoke on the Lord’s discipline, and particularly applied his message to people struggling with bitterness. Adrian Warnock notes are here.


Worship was led by Kate Simmonds and Simon Brading. There was the usual mix of new songs along with well-loved classics. I love the atmosphere at TOAM – thousands of people, passionate about God and hungry to meet with him. It draws you in, even if you are feeling tired (which I was).

Session 4 – PJ Smyth on Sickness, Suffering and Healing

Finally, in the evening it was PJ Smyth. I must confess I wasn’t impressed at all with PJ Smyth when I first heard him at TOAM 2006, which with hindsight I realise was more a reflection of my own arrogance than any faults with PJ. In any case I have warmed to him over the years, and the message he brought was one of the most outstanding I have heard on the the subject of suffering, bringing a faith-filled, thoroughly biblical perspective to bear on the trial he has gone through in the last year as he has battled cancer.

I won’t attempt to outline his talk, because Adrian Warnock has already blogged a detailed outline, and you can download notes and listen to it online. But suffice to say, this is one well worth your time. It is the best treatment of the subject I have come across since I read Mark Stibbe’s Fire and Blood.

Another very powerful moment that evening was when John Groves got up to lead us in a kind of corporate promise-making ceremony (the day after I blogged about how little we emphasise promises in our movement). We rededicated ourselves as a movement to fulfilling the key prophetic exhortations that have shaped newfrontiers over the years. It was a holy moment as we answered “we will” to the various charges to remember. I would love to hear that cry of “we will” resound throughout all the individual churches too – it is not just the leaders, but every member who must play a part in seeing these promises come to fulfilment.

Book Review – Breakout (Mark Stibbe & Andrew Williams)

This book tells the story of how St Andrews Church in Chorleywood transitioned from meeting weekly as a whole church in their building, to becoming a collection of “mid-sized communities” (MSCs, later rebranded “mission-shaped communities”), meeting at various locations in the community, and only gathering as a whole church once a month.

The reason that they got started on this venture was that their church building was due to be refurbished, so they would need to move out for a period of time. What started as an idea for the interim, became so successful that they continued the model once back in the church.

The authors take it in turns to write a chapter, and the story itself is a very interesting one, particularly due to their reliance on prophetic words as they decided what to do. Their vision could be described as changing the church from being a cruise ship into a fleet of lifeboats. The church needed to change from an attractional (come to us) model to a missional one (“go to them”).

Their church websites describes the MSCs in the following way:

Each MSC has a name, a clear mission purpose and is no larger than fifty adult members. Led by teams from the church family, MSCs are bringing the Father’s love to the lost and the poor in diverse and creative ways. We have MSCs that are serving neighbourhoods, children, the elderly, the deaf community, prisoners, young people, adults with special learning needs and the homeless.
MSCs meet out in the community in a variety of venues across an increasing geographical area. Most meet on Sundays but others meet during the week. Everyone gathers at St Andrew’s on the fourth Sunday of the month for a celebration service.

Whilst the story is interesting enough in its own right, I imagine that many readers of this book are asking two questions – “how exactly do these MSCs work?” and “could this be implemented in my local context?”.

In answer to the first question, the book was good at giving examples of the sorts of things that these MSCs got up to. Some met in coffee shops, some worked with the homeless, while others formed out of pre-existing groups within the church such as those working with mothers and toddlers. They also explained that the groups needed to be vision-led by lay-leaders. These small gatherings allowed a much greater variety of people to exercise preaching and worship-leading ministry, and develop their giftings. When the church gathered as a whole once a month, they watched short video clips of what was happening in the MSCs.

One question that I felt went unanswered was how, if at all, this related to cell / home groups. Many churches already have these small communities in place, and they were not mentioned, so I am assuming that MSCs served as a replacement for cell groups. In many ways it makes sense. I am not sure there would be the time and energy available for churches to simply add MSCs on top of existing small groups. It also takes the pressure off finding quite so many people willing to lead, as the group sizes are three-four times larger. Interestingly they do seem to have drawn inspiration from St Thomas’ Crookes in Sheffield, who do make use of three levels – cells, clusters (MSCs) and celebrations. I expect Mike Breen’s new book “Clusters” will shed further light on this.

As for the question, “could this work in my context?”, that also is unclear in my mind. For one thing, the simple fact that their church building was unavailable was probably an important factor in helping people to be willing to give it a try. Also, Mark Stibbe is an outstanding Bible teacher. It is clear that he produced copious amounts of training material for MSC leaders as well as provided outlines for the preachers in the MSCs on Sundays. I don’t imagine every church will be quite so well positioned to resource their small group leaders.

Overall, I would say that this book is a fascinating read for anyone who is looking for some fresh ideas for how they can reinvigorate small groups and create a better missional presence in the local community. It doesn’t provide a blueprint, but it does provide some inspiring examples and some honesty about mistakes that were made along the way. It also continually emphasises the need to be led by the Spirit, rather than to look for the next “technique” that will usher in a new phase of church growth.

Church Sell-By Date

Al Shaw posed an interesting question on his blog recently. He was picking up on some quotes from John Wimber and Steve Timmis, both of whom suggested that a local church has a “sell-by” date, and after about 20 years or so, it needs to undergo substantial change so that in effect it becomes a new church. Here’s Steve’s quote:

Every church is ‘designed’ for a specific culture & generation. It has a ‘sell-by’ date which, if ignored, leads into institutionalism.

To explore this, I want to change the question slightly, and ask, “What would it mean if your church was currently doing things exactly the same way as 20 years ago?

No doubt some churches are doing just that, and interpreting this as a sign of their uncompromising gospel faithfulness. As is made abundantly clear throughout the New Testament, the gospel is not up for re-invention, or re-imagination. Our job is to faithfully proclaim what God has already revealed.

So point one is, the gospel doesn’t have a sell-by date.

Slightly more contentious would be the question of what elements of church polity and practice are timeless? This will depend on whether we view these things as being directly mandated by Scripture or not. These kind of questions include whether a church has elders or a “leadership team”, whether they have small groups or only meet as a whole church, whether the pastor or a “worship leader” chooses the songs and so on. Reformed churches have a tendency to see a biblical mandate behind almost everything they do, which can make them more resistant to change than most. And then there is the element of tradition – the longer a church has been going the more “traditions” it picks up, and the more resistance to changing them.

But even granting that Scripture does give us some guidance on the practicalities of organizing and running a church, I still think we have a remarkable degree of latitude given to us concerning the details of what form the meetings and ministries of a local church should take.

So my second observation is, we need to make a clear distinction between those things Scripture commands with regards to the local church, and the things that it allows us flexibility on.

If I look back 20 years, I see many societal changes, all of which the church needs to respond to in some way. There are technological advances. We used to sell audio tapes of sermons, but most people under 30 have nothing to play them on. There are changes in the sociological makeup of an area, due to factors such as immigration, or changes in the local employment prospects. The ‘outreach’ events from 20 years ago may no longer be relevant for the majority of the local population. There are cultural changes, such as the style of music people listen to and how they dress. I’m sure we have all cringed in churches where the music and attire seem to be stuck in the 1950s. There are moral changes, with Christian ethics being undermined in many ways, which the church cannot ignore, but needs to engage with and address. There are lifestyle changes, such as the way people spend their money and free time. Some of these will provide fresh opportunities for evangelism, others will require the church to be provocative by living out a distinctive counter-culture.

Check out the list of methods of evangelism I compiled here and ask yourself how many would actually be appropriate in your local context.

Which brings me to my final point, culture changes rapidly, and so a church that contextualised itself successfully in the past, will only reduce in evangelistic effectiveness if they refuse to make any changes to the way they operate.

Newfrontiers Future Directions

I have been thinking for some time about what the key influences on the newfrontiers group of churches are. What are the trends that will shape the future of our churches? I had hoped to post these thoughts a few months ago while Dave and Phil were posting about strengths and weaknesses of newfrontiers (see here, here, here and here), but things were a bit to busy.

So without further ado, here are what I consider to be the key four influences affecting newfrontiers, and the wider new church movement. Most churches I have come across are heading in one of these four directions.

1. Church Growth – (Bill Hybels, Hillsong, Rick Warren)

By “church growth”, I mean deliberately shaping your church around the intentionality to grow. Great music such as at Hillsong, and teaching that is seeker-sensitive and full of practical wisdom such as modelled by Bill Hybels have proven highly effective in building large congregations. These churches are not so well known for their doctrinal distinctives as for the excellence with which they do their Sunday morning service. Rick Warren (author of the Purpose Driven Church) would be another prime example of someone who has built a very large church with a non-denominational feel.

The strengths of this approach are the desire to take seriously the need to fulfil the great commission. Weaknesses include the danger of only appealing to the middle class (or worse still, to Christians from other churches), and the watering down of doctrine to make for a safe lowest common denominator (though to be fair, these churches tend to retain an evangelical commitment to the Bible at least in principle).

2. Reformissional – (Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll)

Though Terry Virgo is reformed in doctrine, newfrontiers perhaps hasn’t always had very strong ties with the rest of the reformed world due to their suspicion of all things charismatic. However, the combination of reformed doctrine with a missional emphasis such as that of Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller, have deeply influenced many leaders within newfrontiers.

In additional to the reformed plus missional folk, there are also those such as C J Mahaney and Wayne Grudem who show a way to be reformed and charismatic. This has resulted in a stronger belief than ever that we can build churches that are biblically sound and doctrinally robust, while at the same time retaining our charismatic distinctives an taking on a more missional emphasis.

3. Neo-Pentecostal – (Rob Rufus, Todd Bentley)

I wasn’t quite sure what to call this, but what I mean by “Neo-pentecostal” is a very strong emphasis on the miraculous, including a confident expectation of healings. A good example would be Rob Rufus, who has twice spoken at the newfrontiers Brighton conference. There was also great excitement about the “Lakeland Revival” amongst many in newfrontiers circles, while others remained guarded about it.

This direction tends to be quite polarising, and in some ways is in conflict with the reformissional direction, although perhaps people like Sam Storms can show how those two emphases could be combined. It is not a tension easily held together though, as those who follow the direction set by the New Mystics will find themselves increasingly at odds with those of a more reformed persuasion.

4. Emerging Church (Rob Bell)

The final direction may seem surprising. In fact, few if any newfrontiers churches are following this path, although many of the other “restorationist” new church movements have done so. The emerging church is in many ways a critique of evangelicalism, including the charismatic movement. It emerges as “post-evangelical”, and “post-charismatic”.

While emerging leaders such as Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke do not have many sympathisers within newfrontiers, due to some controversial theology, figures such as Rob Bell are less polarizing (possibly Shane Claiborne too). Emerging churches are passionate about the environment, social justice and the poor, and downplay the importance of many things that conservative evangelicals would consider central. This can offer a refreshing change to those disillusioned with whatever branch of evangelicalism they find themselves in.

It would be nice to think that we adopt some of the positive aspects of the emerging movement without needing to compromise theologically. I have written about how I think that can be done here. Phil Whittall is the best example I can think of as a newfrontiers pastor who has taken on board some of the emerging church concerns of the environment, living simply and social justice.

Your Thoughts?

I would be interested to hear your feedback if you are part of newfrontiers (or if you are just interested). Do you agree with my analysis? Have I missed a direction? And which of these directions would you consider most fruitful? Personally I am most positive about the reformissional direction, and more cautious regarding the other three.

Book Review – Bind Us Together (John Fleming)

The full title of this book is “Bind us Together … to be the church Jesus really wants”, and is subtitled “The restoration movement and its message for the church”. It grabbed my attention for two reasons. First, it offers a history of the Restoration movement in the UK, something that few other books have done (Andrew Walker’s “Restoring the Kingdom” being the most notable exception. And second, the author is from Southampton, where I live, so I was able to visit him to buy my copy and talk about it with him. John Fleming is a member of New Community Church in Southampton, a church which had its roots in the restoration movement in the seventies.

The book is broken into three main sections. The first offers a history of restoration in the UK, and although briefer than Andrew Walker’s book, it is perhaps broader, mentioning a wider variety of new church groups that have come out of this movement. He talks about the original desire not to create a new denomination but that restoration would become a focal point for unity amongst believers.

He traces the differences of opinion between restoration and “renewal” (mainly to do with ecclesiology) and quite perceptively draws out the key emphases of the early movement as well as those issues that became contentious.

After reviewing the various new church “streams” that have emerged from restorationism, a fairly lengthy chapter tells the personal story of the author, in particular focusing on three churches he was part of. The first was George Tarleton’s church “the Cong” in Chilford. The second was Kendal Avenue Pentecostal in Southampton. The main focus though is on the third – Community Church, also in Southampton. This section will be of particular interest to all those who like myself know this church and have lived in Southampton.

He goes on to examine the decline of many restorationist groups, due to disillusionment in some cases, and the vision becoming blurred in others. He notes that the emerging church takes a very different approach to ecclesiology, favouring being ‘experimental’ as opposed to the belief that churches can be built according to a New Testament “pattern”. He notes that many restorationist churches have embraced the idea of “cell church” but are actually becoming more “program based” in practice.

Part 2 of the book is entitled “What is the church?” In it he examines the Alpha course teaching on the church, before embarking on a tour of the Bible, starting in the Old Testament, moving on to Jesus, and then the book of Acts. In many ways, this section is almost like a second book. In places it felt like little more than a retelling of the story of Acts, but he did try to develop a model for church leadership based on the example of the early church.

The third part of the book is called “the way ahead”. Fleming asks “how is the church doing”? In particular his concern is that the New Testament teaches that there should not be many churches in a locality, but that there is just one church in a locality. Clearly we are a long way from this ideal. Even “churches together” initiatives are often little more than Christians “holding hands over the fences”, without any real desire to see those fences come down.

While he is generally very complementary about restorationist groups of churches such as newfrontiers, he is disappointed at their lack of vision to work with other local churches. For example, they would rather plant a new church into an area, than send people to join an existing church there. Much of the latter stages of the book could be described almost as John Fleming thinking out loud about the challenges associated with Christians joining together with all other believers in their locality to be the “church together”, not just “churches together”.

As an appendix to the book there is an essay from 1971 by George Tarleton entitled “glory in the church”, setting forth a restorationist vision of what the church should be.

It is hard to evaluate a book with three distinct parts. Section one is a great read for anyone interested in the story of the UK restorationist movement. Section two is useful perhaps as an introductory level overview of the Bible teaching and story of the development of the church. And section three is provocative in that the challenge for local churches to join together that is rarely heard amongst evangelicals, who tend to be pragmatic rather than idealistic with regards to ecumenism. The book is written in an informal, almost conversational style, and perhaps would have benefited from the second section being condensed considerably (or published separately). But despite having read over a dozen books on the church in the last year, this one managed to find some ground that had not been covered by the more prominent authors on ecclesiology.

It is not necessarily that easy to get hold of a copy. I can give you the author’s email address if you ask in the comments.

I Have a Dream

Bruce Milne closes his book, Dynamic Diversity, with a vision of a gloriously diverse church:

I have a dream – a dream of a congregation where people of all colours and from every ethnic identity find welcome, warmth, dignity and a sense of belonging; I have a dream of a church where men and women worship the triune God, and serve together as equally valuable in the sight of God, and equal in their capacity to honour him. I have a dream of a Christian community where children, youth middle-aged and seniors, boomers, busters, generation-Xers and millennials learn to respect and love and discover their profound need for each other; where people from all wealth and power indexes can live and relate and laugh together.

I have a dream of a family where singles and marrieds, and marrieds with families, and single parents and divorcees are all affirmed in their worth before God and his people; a family where poor and rich, sophisticated and unsophisticated, the physically and mentally strong and the physically and mentally challenged have learned to walk together in love, and to appreciate and affirm each other.

I have a dream of a people of God where differences of personality and huge diversities of spiritual stories and spiritual journeys, or the lack of them, are no barrier to acceptance.

I have a dream of all that many-splendoured, multi-textured humanity uniting under the conscious, blessed rule of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ through his living, liberating, energizing Word, joining in wondering communion in their worship, along with saints and angels – I have a dream.

And I have a dream of that same exuberant, multi-colour family, swept along by the Holy Spirit, streaming forth from the worship place into the community around them – to throw their arms around it, and hug it to their hearts; offering to all who have need the practical ministries of love – to the poor and the homeless, single parents and street kids, HIV / Aids sufferers and the addicted; and sharing too the joyous good news of Jesus and his great salvation – with the lost and lonely, the affluent and the power-brokers, the cynics and the seekers, the young and the aged, the followers of other faith traditions and the followers of none, local residents and those from every corner of the globe; lifting high the world’s only Saviour, and doing so in a way that his holy, all-embracing transforming love is reflected and authenticated in the dynamic diversity of their life together … I have a dream.

It’s a compelling dream, but is it perhaps too easy for us in our consumeristic society to settle for second best, and to get comfortable in churches where we can enjoy being with lots of "people like me"? Are we willing to fight for churches marked by unity in diversity?

Book Review – Dynamic Diversity (Bruce Milne)

Subtitled, "the new humanity church for today and tomorrow", the central thesis of this book is that God intends for the church to display his glory through the unity in diversity of its members, and that therefore local churches should be actively seeking to promote diversity.

Bruce Milne begins his case by reminding us that already there is a great "worship wave" made up of people from all kinds of diverse cultures and backgrounds as each Sunday, Christians from every part of the planet meet together for worship. But he is not content for this staggering diversity to remain true only of the universal church – it must also be demonstrated in the local church.  He argues that if we can create a "new humanity" church, uniting people of all backgrounds, then this will have tremendous missional attractiveness.

The assertion of this book is that all Christian congregations, everywhere, are called to be … bridging-places, centres of reconciliation, where all the major diversities which separate human beings are overcome through the supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit.

It becomes apparent early on that this is not some kind of "politically correct" manifesto, but that Milne wants to root his message in Scripture. Racial diversity is a key theme in the book, but he sees many other diversities as equally important. He is careful to point out that it is not an unprincipled diversity though – we don’t blindly accept unbiblical doctrine or behaviour just in the name of "diversity".

In the early parts of the book, he sets out to make a solid biblical case for the importance of diversity within our local churches, and emphasises that this is a doctrine whose "time has come" as we live in increasingly culturally diverse communities. Churches therefore need to self-consciously set out to reflect the diversities of their surrounding communities.

… the calling of every local church, everywhere, if it is to be faithful to its New Testament roots, is, among other things, to be a community of reconciliation in which all the primary divisions and polarities of its surrounding culture are confronted and find resolution under the gracious reign of the Lord Jesus Christ.

He shows from the example of Jesus’ welcoming of women, children, and Gentiles that his intention was to create a new humanity that embraced those marginalised or considered disreputable. The Pentecost event shows the Spirit bridging racial,  gender and generational diversity.

We have no mandate to gather Christian communities, claiming Jesus’ name, that are surrounded by walls of exclusivity, whether or race, colour or ethnicity, gender, age or generation, social or economic status, mental and physical well-being; or communities entirely confined to those who come with impeccable histories of moral and spiritual propriety.

He warns against not just racial prejudices but cultural and class prejudices. "To reject a fellow believer is to reject Christ." The principle of diversity in unity is not simply a nice idea, but is a reflection of the very nature of the Triune God who is diversity in unity.

A few of chapters deal with some of the practical implications of building diverse churches, which are scattered with stories from his own culturally diverse church in Canada.

He is strongly critical of mono-cultural churches, and advocates involving a wide diversity of people within the worship service. Even when there are immigrant communities who do not speak the local language well, he encourages making a concerted effort to include and help them so that all can join together for worship. He even insists that where small groups structures are used, these too should be stratified, and also encourages a greater use of one-to-one discipleship, especially of new converts.

Sociologists claim that homogenous groups are stronger than diverse ones, and therefore are able to grow better, but Milne says that despite this, it is essential that we adopt a biblical rather than a pragmatic model. Ultimately, the only way we can make this succeed is if we can love one another with "grace-love" (agape), which itself requires a supernatural work of God and a death to ourselves.

As far as Milne is concerned, diversity is not optional for the local church. He ends the book with a stunning "dream" of a church that is a loving and accepting community made up of people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds. There is no denying that such a community would bring great glory to God, but it is hard work, and it is perhaps too easy for us to settle for the somewhat easier option of building church out of "people like me".

This book comes as a timely prophetic call to the church to be intentional about welcoming into the church all kinds of people. It provides theological foundations with very practical and down-to-earth application, and most of all builds faith and stirs a vision for the local church as the place people look to for unity amidst diversity in their local context.

Book Review – Stop Dating the Church (Joshua Harris)

This book has to win the prize for the most innovative title of all the books I have read so far on the subject of church. Joshua Harris made his name with a book entitled “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” which argues for “biblical courtship” over against the custom of “dating”. In this book, he uses “dating” as a metaphor for the approach that many Christians have to church – ‘trying out’ churches, but without any intention of commitment. In other words, we have a consumer mentality towards the Church. The point of this book is to challenge Christians to stop dating the Church and “fall in love with the family of God”.

The church is earth’s single best place – God’s specially designed place – to start over, to grow and to change for the glory of God

He makes it particularly clear that he is talking about commitment to a local church. It is not enough to claim to be a part of the universal church if we have no vital connection with other Christians.

If you and I identify with and love the idea of church, we must consider how we can identify with and love an actual church

He reminds us that the Church is “the bride of Christ”. Jesus loves his Church, and we should do the same. He explains from Ephesians 3 that the gospel is not just about reconciliation with God, but with one another. He does not view the existence of many denominations as being a incompatible with unity, but calls us to reject a denominational spirit.

The strongest argument I know for why you and I should love and care about the Church is that Jesus does. The greatest motivation we could ever find for being passionately committed to the Church is that Jesus is passionately committed to the Church.

He explains why we need to be part of a local church. He cites John Piper who says “Sanctification is a community project”. He warns against the sins of selfishness, pride and a critical spirit that can keep us from community. We should see our church’s faults as an opportunity to love and serve. “Stop complaining about the faults of the church, and become part of the solution.”

We’ve believed the lie that we’ll be happier the less we sacrifice or give of ourselves and or time. But the more we clutch our time, money, and comfort and selfishly refuse to give to our church, the less we receive back.

He then goes on to list the ten most important considerations when choosing a church. He strongly emphasises faithful teaching of the Word and proclamation of the gospel. He also looks for a commitment to evangelism, serving, discipline and community. The omission that many of my friends have noted is that of the charismatic element. Maybe he was trying to be non-controversial and reach a broader audience with his message (and this message certainly does deserve a broad audience), but nonetheless it is a little disappointing that nothing was mentioned of the importance of an openness to the work and gifts of the Spirit.

There is a chapter devoted to Sunday, in which he calls on us to prepare ourselves before the Sunday meeting, because we should place a high priority on the gathering together. These days we are so attuned to the danger of “legalism”, that perhaps what he says in this chapter (for example, going to bed earlier on Saturday night) might be rejected without due consideration. That would be a shame. We might see more of the gifts of the Spirit in our meetings, if we arrived ready and prepared to meet with God, rather than barely awake because we watched television into the early hours of the morning. We also need to stop judging the quality of the worship and preacher, and be ready to receive what God has to say to us.

Most of the books I have read on the subject of church have been aimed primarily at leaders, and those affecting the direction of their churches, but this one is aimed squarely at ‘ordinary’ Christians. Its seven short chapters could be read in about 10 minutes each, so it should not be intimidating towards those who are not used to reading a lot. Joshua Harris has written a compelling book, and giving a copy to someone who is on the fringe of their church, or is church-hopping, may prove very beneficial to them.

Check out this video about the book here.

Ecclesiology Course

Things have been a bit quiet on this blog at the moment, mainly due to a Saturday Morning Theology course I am running at the moment, on the subject of Ecclesiology – the doctrine of the church. If you are interested in seeing our notes and PowerPoint presentations, have a look here. Unfortunately, we have not been able to record any of the sessions so far.