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Review of Dyron B. Daughrity, To Whom Does Christianity Belong?: Current Issues in World Christianity

Dyron B. Daughrity. To Whom Does Christianity Belong?: Current Issues in World Christianity. Understanding World Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. 301 pp. $25.45.

World Christianity has emerged as an important academic discipline. Reflecting the shift in Christianity’s center of gravity from the Western world to the non-Western world, the discipline aims at exploring the global development of Christianity, with a particular focus on non-Western forms of Christianity. Over the last few decades the discipline has developed through the publication of scholarly articles and books, as well as the production of reference works and new academic journals. Dyron B. Daughrity’s To Whom Does Christianity Belong?: Current Issues in World Christianity contributes to the development of the discipline in a unique way. Previous books have attempted to explain the shift of Christianity’s center of gravity to the global South or the contours of today’s Christianity throughout the globe. Daughrity’s book goes beyond those aims: it summarizes the development of the discipline of world Christianity, and it discusses significant overarching themes that are likely to shape the future of world Christianity discourse.

Daughrity, Associate Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University, is well suited to write this book. He has already been a significant participant in the world Christianity discourse, as he has authored, among others, The Changing World of Christianity: The Global History of a Borderless Religion (2010), a useful textbook on the subject, and “Christianity is Moving from North to South: So What About the East?” (2011), a provocative article in one of the leading journals of the discipline.1 Daughrity has also taken part in the global conversations of Christians through his involvement with the World Council of Churches. With this background, Daughrity serves as the editor of a new series from Fortress Press, Understanding World Christianity, and To Whom Does Christianity Belong? is the introductory volume of the series.

The book has four parts. Part 1, “Introduction,” helps the reader quickly comprehend some of the key issues in the recent development of the world Christianity discourse. The section of chapter 1 titled “‘Global Christianity’ or ‘World Christianity’?” is particularly helpful in this regard. It discusses important and sometimes controversial issues in a well-balanced manner, referring to various perspectives offered by such scholars as Lamin Sanneh and Robert Wuthnow (9–13). The first part also sets the tone of the book by explaining why defining Christianity is a difficult task, in view of Christianity’s historical and geographical/cultural diversity. In order to analyze the complex nature of global Christianity, Daughrity examines in Part 2 certain aspects of Christianity that are theologically and phenomenologically important: the churches and their pastors, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Pentecostalism, and the afterlife. In Part 3, “The Church and the World,” the author talks about Catholics and Protestants, as well as secularization and migration. Part 4 engages the contemporary situation, discussing global issues relating to marriage and sexuality, women and gender issues, and music. Daughrity skillfully helps readers understand how people throughout the world view these issues differently.

The book has a number of strengths. First, Daughrity’s thematic treatment of world Christianity, including the discussion of contemporary themes, is fresh and perceptive. Many introductory books on world Christianity divide the content geographically. The geographical approach could potentially hinder the analysis of the transnational and transcultural nature of the issues involved in world Christianity today. Daughrity’s approach avoids such pitfalls. Readability is another strength of the book. Arguments are presented clearly and succinctly. Perhaps reflecting his extensive knowledge of church history, his experience with Christians in various parts of the globe, and his familiarity with the mindset of today’s university students, Daughrity frequently utilizes stories and mentions contemporary topics and names, from ISIS to Katy Perry. The book certainly deals with issues of scholarly interest, but the content is presented in ways readers with various backgrounds can follow easily. The book also contains fair amount of Scriptural references, which I consider part of its strength. Non-Christian readers will be able to understand how Christian claims are related to the Bible; Christian readers in the West who have less familiarity with world Christianity can learn how the use of Scriptures has been a key element in the development of Christianity in the non-western world.

Although many key issues in the world Christianity discourse are treated in the book, consideration of the polycentric paradigm is missing. As Lamin Sanneh and others have argued, part of the theoretical framework of the present world Christianity discourse is multiculturalism, which is reflected in the prevalent insistence on the polycentric nature of world Christianity. On the one hand, there has been a contextual need for the polycentric paradigm, as it has effectively put away the Eurocentric paradigm, which Daughrity appropriately characterizes as obsolete (xi). On the other hand, several scholars, such as Namsoon Kang and Charles Farhadian, have raised concerns about the polycentric paradigm, pointing out that it has the potential of fostering disconnectedness or isolationism. In light of today’s growing nationalistic or isolationist tendencies in the world, it would have been better if the book dealt with this issue and provided suggestions for overcoming isolationism and exploring connectedness.

Overall, To Whom Does Christianity Belong? is an excellent introduction to the world Christianity discourse, and it should be a welcome companion for university and seminary classes, as well as congregational Bible studies. Those who have already been engaged with the discipline can also benefit from the book, especially if they seriously consider the questions raised in the book and discover more questions to ponder.

Yukikazu Obata

PhD Candidate

Fuller Theological Seminary

Gunma, Japan

1 Dyron B. Daughrity, The Changing World of Christianity: The Global History of a Borderless Religion (New York: Peter Lang, 2010); Dyron B. Daughrity, “Christianity Is Moving from North to South: So What About the East?” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 35, no. 1 (2011): 18-22.

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We’re All Missionaries Now!

Jared Looney

A rapidly changing context presents new opportunities for evangelism, church planting, and related outreach. Christians can and must become missionaries in their hometowns and cities throughout the US.

Introduction: Beyond Past Assumptions

How do you picture the state of missions in the United States? Do you think of sharing the gospel narrative with people who have never heard the story? In my team’s experience with the growing number of citizens of non-religious America and among adherents of various world religions, this is an accurate picture. Do you think of reaching out to Muslims? The church in the United States may have an emerging consciousness when it comes to loving our Muslim neighbors. In places like New York City, where one out of ten people is a Muslim, or in cities like San Francisco, Tampa, Atlanta, Houston, or Minneapolis, encounters with Muslims are increasingly commonplace. Do images of lovely countryside chapels come to mind, or does mission in the United States—a society long considered to be eighty percent urban—conjure up images of high-rises, ethnic enclaves, and sprawling suburbs?

The changing face of the US and Canada now means that Somalis in Columbus, Arabs in Brooklyn, Sikhs in Vancouver, and Kurds in Nashville represent our newest neighbors. It may mean that the emerging leaders of the American church speak English only as a second language. In large states like Texas, California, and Florida, Hispanic/Latino populations represent a growing demographic. For instance, in California Latinos have surpassed whites as the largest group profile in the state.1 Dan Rodriguez’s work in A Future for the Latino Church documents some of the most dynamic new churches in the US, which stunningly are still not considered “mainstream.”2 While we may not think in terms of people who have never actually heard the gospel narrative before when we think of missions in the United States, between the growing number of religiously unaffiliated households and an influx of immigrants from the majority world, it is increasingly common to encounter individuals who have never heard of Jesus.

Our world is increasingly a globally connected place, and that affects the American church. The first step in addressing missions in the United States may be to move beyond our assumptions and see the dynamic, diverse harvest before us. There can be little doubt that our context for missions has been experiencing some shifts in the cultural landscape. While there are emerging challenges, we must recognize the opportunities for missions in the twenty-first century.

We must recognize the opportunities for missions in the twenty-first-century US.

Globalization & Migration

As I have discussed at length in Crossroads of the Nations: Diaspora, Globalization, and Evangelism, flows of migration, globalization, and urbanization deeply impact the context for Christian missions.3 This is especially true in the United States, as it is a top receiving country of immigrants. This reality presents opportunity. It means that the majority of American Christians can participate in cross-cultural missions without moving to another country. In some cases the most unreached nations or tribes in our world are within our own cities or neighborhoods. This global reality also entails some significant challenges. Can the American church move beyond nationalist ethnocentrism and cultural isolationism to reach out in friendship as a respectful witness to the “other”? Will leaders of evangelism and church planting efforts in the US be mindful of missions principles such as contextualization and avoid the pitfalls of syncretism? Will Christians in the US be willing to follow experienced Christian leaders who don’t sound or look like them, or will they relegate them to second class status in our leadership circles? The current realities of the American context raise numerous, pressing questions.


The United Nations has forecast that by 2050 nearly seventy percent of our planet’s population will live in metropolitan areas, and the United States is already an urban majority nation.4 Yet, the churches of the Stone-Campbell tradition, like other evangelical traditions, come from a rural background. Will we be able to overcome our origins to face the urban reality? These days, most missions leaders in the US realize the need to launch their ministry efforts in cities, but I can’t help but wonder if we are only scratching the surface of urban realism. In other words, ministries strategies will need to adjust to the changing environment impacting the task of Christian missions. With increased urbanization comes increased stresses impacting the psychology of daily life. Therefore, how do we form disciples facing increased pressures on people’s time and availability as they labor within the oppressive demands of the global economy? How do we develop grassroots leaders in markedly fragmented societies? How do we nurture families and build community despite the busyness of urban life? Are we prepared to take advantage of the missional opportunities presented by a networked society? I suspect that we have only begun to shape our ministries around the questions raised by a predominantly metropolitan existence.


While international immigration, the global economy, ongoing urbanization, and similar factors are making an impact on the cultural landscape of the US, there is another cultural current that has been steadily on the rise: a post-Christendom culture. Christendom is a context in which cultural Christianity holds the position of greatest influence and authority in a society, especially when it comes to shaping laws, influencing common values, and impacting moral expectations. In very recent years, it seems that a growing number of Christian leaders are acknowledging the demise of Christendom, exchanging it for something that we can presently only label as “post.” This leads to more questions. How do followers of Christ evangelize among groups of people who do not inherently assume the Bible speaks with authority? How do churches pursue spiritual formation among a community that is only hearing the gospel narrative for the first time? How do we approach church planting in communities that are suspicious of the church as an institution? The American church is being forced to recover its identity as aliens in a strange land.

The US church is being forced to recover its identity as aliens in a strange land.

Meeting the Challenge

When we began Global City Mission Initiative ( only a few years ago, we recognized that there is a need to address these challenges head on and to embrace the opportunities that this new world presents. We saw the need for a missions organization to work strategically to advance evangelism through the context of global cities. In our first three years, we have connected with several evangelistic contacts who have in turn shared what they are learning from the gospel to family or friends in their home country. Working locally in urban neighborhoods in the United States, we have encountered numerous Americans who have never heard the most basic stories of the gospel. We are a network of missionaries working intentionally to spark disciple-making at global intersections where local and global often overlap.

Meeting the challenge for the American church means embracing our identity as a missionary people. This is more than just a conceptual self-understanding. It means that American Christians will need to learn how to move across cultures if they want to reach their neighbors. Church planters in the United States will need to take contextualization seriously. Churches will need to earn trust rather than assume it. Many of our friends are going to be starting from different authority structures than we might have for ourselves. And it means that multitudes of Christians in the United States will have the opportunity to share the story of Jesus with those whose ears would hear it for the first time.

American Christians will need to learn how to move across cultures to reach their neighbors.

In a global world, old dichotomies of missions as “foreign” or “domestic” are not only less relevant, they may even be a hindrance. Indeed, many of the structures built to advance Christian missions were not constructed with the emerging realities of our contemporary society in mind. It wasn’t very long ago that the idea of “change” represented a religious battleground of sorts, but in an urban world change is the only constant. Adaptability is an essential ministry skill in the twenty-first century. A world once built on stability is now operating around the axes of mobility and connection. This new world might seem scary and intimidating for the American church and its leaders. However, I want to raise a rallying cry here to open our eyes to the harvest and seize the amazing and unprecedented opportunities that overshadow even the greatest challenges. Global partnerships offer new possibilities for the mission of the church, and leading theological voices from around the world can provide what we need for us all to learn together in mutual humility. Not only can American churches participate in global missions within a few square miles of their building and share the joy of the gospel with first-time hearers, but the enormity of the challenge, I believe, is actually forcing the American church to recover her true identity as a missionary people—as exiles in a foreign land.

Dr. Jared Looney is the executive director of Global City Mission Initiative ( Serving in NYC for 15 years, he has worked in evangelism, church planting, and teaching in multicultural communities, and has spent several years training new missionaries in NYC sent from multiple missions agencies. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Tampa, Florida.

1 Javier Panzar, “It’s Official: Latinos Now Outnumber Whites in California,” Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2015,

2 Daniel A. Rodriguez, A Future for the Latino Church: Models for Multilingual, Multigenerational Hispanic Congregations (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).

3 Jared Looney, Crossroads of the Nations: Diaspora, Globalization and Evangelism, Urban Ministry in the 21st Century (Portland: Urban Loft Publishers, 2015).

4 United Nations, The World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision (NY: United Nations, 2015),

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Missional Mentoring: Encouraging Emerging Leaders to Take Their Next Step toward the Mission of God

Missional mentoring is at its best when marked by three core traits: a healthy distinction, drawn on the part of the mentor, between the particulars of his or her calling and that of the younger leader; the fostering of an adventurous, risk-taking faith on the part of the protégé; and the encouragement of a fixed attentiveness to the promises and activity of God on the part of both the mentor and the protégé. This article explores the traits of missional mentoring by considering the examples of three biblical mentors as well as the author’s experiences of mentorship.

Missional mentoring is an intentional style of mentoring that encourages young leaders to embrace change and innovation in their pursuit of God’s mission. The challenge is that missional mentoring requires older leaders to confront their own instinctive resistance to change and instead encourage younger leaders to intentionally pursue God’s mission along new and unexpected paths. Charles Handy focuses on this challenge for older leaders noting, “The paradox of aging is that every generation perceives itself as justifiably different from its predecessor, but plans as if its successor generation will be the same.”1 These words are a reminder that it is one thing to initiate change and quite another to have change foisted upon us by others! Missional mentoring is at its best when marked by three core traits: a healthy distinction, drawn on the part of the mentor, between the particulars of his or her calling and that of the younger leader; the fostering of an adventurous, risk-taking faith on the part of the protégé; and the encouragement of a fixed attentiveness to the promises and activity of God on the part of both the mentor and the protégé. This article examines the examples of three often-overlooked biblical mentors who teach us to transform mere mentoring into missional encounters: Eli, Naomi, and Elizabeth. Along the way I will reflect on the intentional mentoring efforts of older leaders who have blessed my life.

In its simplest form, mentoring is a relational experience in which one person empowers another by sharing God-given resources, such as knowledge, skills, tools, connections, habits, and insights.2 This type of relational connectedness does not happen accidentally. Mentoring is a voluntary relationship that is marked by intentionality, intensity, exclusivity, and persistence.3 Eli, Naomi, and Elizabeth shed light on missional postures that transform ordinary mentoring into purposeful missional relationships.

Eli, Naomi, and Elizabeth shed light on missional postures that transform ordinary mentoring.

Eli: Missional Mentoring as Fostering a Spirit of Healthy Indifference

The reader may recall the night young Samuel was awakened by a voice calling to him within the tabernacle (1 Sam 3.) Samuel awakened Eli three times, mistakenly assuming his mentor had been calling him. Eli finally instructed Samuel to respond to the voice by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”4 When the Lord next spoke, the young man found himself listening to an announcement that would prove unsettling for Eli. God revealed a message of judgment on Eli and his entire family. God had also revealed a divine determination to launch something new in the unfolding story of his mission. The function and status of Eli’s priestly family would soon be obsolete (1 Sam 3:11–14.) Later that morning Eli required that his young protégé reveal everything the Lord had spoken. Awkward!

The details of this story have much to teach older mentors about the importance of maintaining a healthy distinction between the particulars of their own calling and that of younger protégés. Without a proper sense of healthy neutrality about the particulars of the younger companion’s calling, an older mentor may unwittingly hinder the emerging leader from fulfilling his or her calling. The intention is not to foster a disregard for the protégé. It is instead to foster a spirit of neutrality: a calculated awareness that younger leaders are sometimes called to follow God in paths the mentor never imagined. It is easy for older leaders to assume that younger leaders function merely to prop up and maintain the older leader’s plans and purposes. This assumption hinders a younger leader’s ability to freely enter into a new era of missional strategy. Eli’s interactions with Samuel remind us that emerging leaders might be called by God to pursue different paths than that of their predecessors. Indeed, older leaders ought also to be reminded, however painful it might be, that God’s new steps forward may portend the end of their own ministry systems and structures.

Younger leaders are sometimes called to follow God in paths the mentor never imagined.

I suggest that Eli’s finest leadership was exhibited not in what he did but in what he did not do. Once Eli realized that it was the Lord calling Samuel, Eli took a step back and gave Samuel the necessary space to encounter God on his own.

The text reveals that visions from the Lord were rare in Eli’s days (1 Sam 3:1). Certainly Eli might have welcomed the opportunity to be present in the room when God finally chose to speak. It is highly instructive that Eli did not intrude into Samuel’s experience. Instead of returning to the room with Samuel to “help” the lad hear from God, Eli stepped back. He sent Samuel back to hear God, alone. This should remind older leaders that we are not to be the focus of our protégé’s attention. Mentoring serves to help the leader focus on God, not to focus the leader on the mentor. God is to be the sole focus! It is also instructive that Eli made no attempt to restate, inform, interpret, or control the negative intent of Samuel’s message. Even though Samuel’s emergence ultimately undermined Eli’s leadership, nothing indicates that Eli resented or resisted the new direction God’s mission took through Samuel. Eli appropriately differentiated his calling and functions from those God had assigned to Samuel. This is set before us clearly in Eli’s response to God’s judgment: “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him” (1 Sam 3:18).

Mentoring becomes missional when it prompts young leaders to pursue the next steps in God’s mission. This pursuit must be encouraged regardless of the consequences for the preexisting structures and personnel. To embrace this type of relationship, older mentors must maintain a healthy awareness of the distinctive differences in the shape and contours of the protégé’s mission and their own. Missional mentors understand that what has been true for them might not be true for the next leaders. What has worked in one generation may no longer work in the next. In order to foster this healthy spirit of neutrality, older leaders might find it helpful to reflect upon Jesus’ response when Peter inquired into the particulars of his fellow disciple’s calling. Jesus’s response to Peter was brief and to the point: “What is that to you?” (John 22:22).

Mentoring becomes missional when it prompts young leaders to pursue the next steps in God’s mission.

The mentor who in my life most clearly exhibited an ability to differentiate between his own calling and that of younger leaders under his mentorship was Bob Sloniger, the director of the Chicago District Evangelistic Association.5 Bob led a church-planting ministry that focused on the greater Chicagoland region. It was Bob who hired me straight out of seminary and assigned me the task of starting new church-planting churches in the suburbs North of Chicago. Bob served as my supervisor during my first thirteen years of ministry. My first assignment under Bob was to launch a church for unchurched people, using only unchurched people to do it. Bob, and his board, wanted to see what might happen were a new church to start without taking members out of neighboring churches. This assignment was a daunting task, and it stretched our imaginations, calling many long-held assumptions into question. Many of the methods the resulting new church utilized were unfamiliar and uncomfortable for Bob. But he faithfully provided me with the gift of a healthy indifference regarding my methods and strategies. Over the years I witnessed Bob fostering a studied willingness to allow younger leaders to try new and unproven ideas. He was not perhaps the most creative leader with whom I’ve worked, but he was one of the most open-minded and tolerant. The spirit of Bob’s indifferent perspective toward methodology was summed up one morning when he sent me home from a meeting with these words: “You just do what you’re called to do, and I’ll watch your backside.” I can’t help but wonder how many young leaders have found themselves held back by older leaders who are unable to properly differentiate between themselves and their calling, and that of the emerging leader. May God give us the ability to foster a healthy distinction between the particulars of our calling and that of emerging leaders!

Naomi: Missional Mentoring as Fostering a Spirit of Adventurous Risk-Taking.

As the story of Naomi and Ruth opens we discover that the wheels had fallen off their lives. Their husbands are dead. They are childless, penniless, homeless, and separated from family. In Naomi’s words, her life has gone from being full to being empty (Ruth 1:21). Naomi summarizes this sharp reversal of fortunes by changing her name from Naomi (meaning pleasant) to Mara (meaning bitter). Ruth faced the additional complication of being an outsider in Israelite society. She was from Moab. Upon their arrival in Bethlehem these women faced two immediate and stark challenges: they needed food and sustenance, and they needed to reestablish connection with their extended family. It was not easy for unattached women to navigate Israelite society. Fortunately, Israel’s traditions provided the possibility that a male relative might take them into his household, care for them, and perhaps even provide them an heir who could continue their husband’s lineage. To do so was to play the voluntary role of being their kinsman redeemer.

Ruth’s passionate refusal to abandon her mother-in-law (Ruth 1:16–17) reveals that a healthy mentoring relationship existed between them. Ruth felt a deep love and affection for Naomi. Ruth’s statement also reveals that her personal faith had been nurtured through Naomi’s instruction, as Ruth referred to God as “your God” (Ruth 1:16–17). But as the story unfolds the reader can witness Naomi’s mentoring advance beyond mere mentoring into missional mentoring as she encourages Ruth to take risky and adventurous steps toward securing a marital relationship with a potential kinsman redeemer.

The barley harvest had just commenced when the two women arrived in Bethlehem. The harvest offered them a lifeline. Ruth took advantage of the opportunity to secure food by venturing into the fields to glean behind the harvesters. This was risky behavior. Naomi and Boaz both confirm that gleaning alone, as a single woman, was dangerous (Ruth 2:9, 16, 22). The dangers associated with gleaning alone in the field, however, paled in comparison with the risks associated with implementing Naomi’s scheme for getting Ruth married to Boaz.

Noticing that Ruth has met Boaz, one of their potential kinsman redeemers, Naomi took it upon herself to initiate plans for Ruth to become Boaz’s wife. Naomi’s strategy was for Ruth to watch and wait until Boaz had properly celebrated the end of his harvest and had enjoyed enough wine to be in good spirits. Ruth was to note where Boaz settled down to sleep so she could later quietly approach Boaz in the dark, pull back his blankets, and settle in beside him until he awakened. After that, well—the plan was risky. Naomi instructed Ruth: “Go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do” (Ruth 3:4). Having executed Naomi’s scheme flawlessly, Ruth returned home to join Naomi as they waited to see what Boaz would do next.

This story highlights a distinction between mentoring and missional mentoring. The missional nature of Naomi’s advice can be seen in the way she fostered and encouraged Ruth’s adventurous spirit of risk-taking faith. Naomi did not attempt to hide or remove the risks she encouraged Ruth to take. Neither did Naomi attempt to artificially boost Ruth’s confidence with a façade of false bravado. She simply pointed Ruth to faint signs of God’s presence and provision. Upon a slight indication of God’s presence and activity Naomi declared that the Lord’s “kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead” (Ruth 2:20). Robert Hubbard notes that the book of Ruth “offers no awesome display of divine might” or “terrifying glimpse of the divine being” but instead depicts God as “present, though invisible to human view.”6 Naomi was spiritually sensitive, showing Ruth how to find faith and courage in dark and uncertain times. As we saw with Eli, Naomi did not presume to act in Ruth’s place. Naomi instead pointed Ruth in the right direction and stepped back to see what would happen. Naomi let her younger companion work things out herself. But she did require that Ruth embrace the adventurous steps needed to prompt Boaz into action.

Normal mentoring can happen without encouraging younger leaders to take risks. But missional mentoring will always involve risk. God’s mission is always moving forward, and those who are called upon for leadership must step out in faith as they follow God’s prompting. The mentors in my life who most fostered adventurous risk-taking faith are the leaders with whom I worked while we launched Stadia: New Church Strategies.7 As our church-planting ministry spread across North America we repeatedly found ourselves facing faith-stretching decisions. Dean Pense, Roger Gibson, Marcus Bigelow, and Dan Converse worked together and mentored me, introducing me to the prayerful process of discerning God’s direction and activity. Under their leadership I witnessed a team embracing God’s next steps forward. And even as I ventured out on my own to launch Nexus: Church Planting Leadership,8 starting churches in partnership with Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, I continued to benefit from their missional mentoring. They encouraged me to embrace the risk that is always attendant with God’s missional ventures. I often wonder how ministry might have been different had I not been encouraged to take risks, try out new ideas, and foster a playful spirit of adventurous exploration. May God give us the ability to foster an adventurous spirit of risk-taking faith in emerging leaders as they pursue the mission of God!

Missional mentoring will always involve risk. God’s mission is always moving forward.

Elizabeth: Missional Mentoring as Fostering a Fixed Attentiveness to God’s Promises and Provision

Luke tells us how John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, found herself unexpectedly mentoring her younger relative Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary’s miraculous pregnancy threatened to derail her marriage with Joseph (Matt 1:18–19). Whereas Ruth had enjoyed the benefit of Naomi’s companionship, Mary initially faced her crisis alone. Fortunately, the angel had told Mary about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy (Luke 1:36). Mary hurried to Elizabeth’s side (Luke 1:39–40), opening the door through which Elizabeth could help Mary fix her attention on the promises and provision of God.

Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary took on the traits of missional mentoring when she proclaimed Mary to be a blessed woman (Luke 1:41–42). This proclamation helped Mary place her circumstances in proper perspective. Norval Geldenhuys notes that it was not after the angel called Mary “highly favored” that she sang praises to God (Luke 1:28). Mary instead sang God’s praises only after Elizabeth, an older companion, had called her the “mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43).9 Elizabeth’s perspective helped Mary appreciate the fact that God was with her even though events were threatening to ruin her life (Luke 1:45). Missional mentoring helps younger companions perceive God’s present activity in current circumstances.

Missional mentoring helps younger companions perceive God’s present activity.

Missional mentors also help protégés sort through and clarify what they believe about God. It is likely that Elizabeth helped Mary craft the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). Luke places Mary’s song in the context of the three months she spent with Elizabeth (Luke 1:56). It is possible that they coauthored the song during their time together. A handful of manuscripts actually attribute the song to Elizabeth and not to Mary.10 As these two women compared their situations it is likely that they would have sought to discern what their surprising pregnancies revealed about God’s purposes and intentions. The Magnificat reveals an intimate knowledge of God’s word, as the lyrics are comprised almost entirely of Old Testament quotations and phrases.11 It celebrates the Mighty One who has begun to turn human society upside down, ushering in the Messianic age (Luke 1:52-53). The shared knowledge that both of their sons would serve God’s purposes in special ways may have boosted Mary’s ability to trust in God. In light of their shared experiences Elizabeth helped Mary realize, “All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Elizabeth’s mentoring was missional to the extent that it helped her protégé fix her attention solely on God’s promises and provision.

We should remember to read this story in light of the fact that Elizabeth was herself experiencing a miraculous pregnancy. Her pregnancy, at such an old age, made her the object of much attention. After so many years of being barren, Elizabeth finally had her opportunity to be the center of attention. Even so, Elizabeth focused the attention on Mary and not on herself. Instead of letting Mary fuss over her, Elizabeth fussed over Mary. Once Mary entered the scene Elizabeth’s “baby leaped in her womb,” and in a loud voice Elizabeth proclaimed Mary to be the truly blessed one (Luke 1:41–42). Instead of standing back and expecting to hear how blessed she was to have her barrenness reversed, Elizabeth firmly pronounced Mary—an unwed girl, roughly ranked as the very least in Jewish society—blessed above all women. As with Eli and Naomi, Elizabeth willingly and joyfully vacated the spotlight to focus attention on her young companion. In this vein, older leaders need to approach younger companions with a similar spirit of humility. Younger leaders cannot flourish and discern God’s presence and promises in difficult circumstances when older leaders continually seek to be the center of attention.

John the Baptist, Elizabeth’s son, might later have reflected the humility he learned from his mother when he responded to a question about Jesus’ rising popularity by stating, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). In saying this John responded to Jesus in similar fashion that his mother had responded to Mary. As Jesus observed, “everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). While we do not know the particulars of how Elizabeth trained her son, it is surely not a far reach to assume that her spirit of humility is reflected in the disposition of her son. Like his mother before him, John’s attention was fixed on the promises and provision of God. Missional mentoring turns everyone’s attention to that end.

Missional mentoring turns everyone’s attention to the promises and provision of God.

The mentor who best helped me learn to discern God’s promises and provision was a former seminary professor, Dr. Bill Bravard. Bill surprised me after graduation by calling each month. My surprise grew as he continued, calling each month for the next twenty-five years. I admit that I did not initially warm to Bill’s calls. I was too busy. Too focused by goals. Too captivated by accomplishments. Moreover, Bill’s calls were not designed to encourage work-focused sensitivities. He never asked about my ministry. He always asked about my wife, our children, our marriage, and what I was learning from the Lord. Bill eventually helped me realize that life consists of more than task-oriented pursuits. J. Robert Clinton points out that younger leaders often focus on their accomplishments. They should instead focus on the transformation God is accomplishing within them. This is because healthy leaders minister out of who they are, not out of what they do.12 Bill’s monthly calls weaned me from being focused on my own achievements and quietly led me to focus on the identity I have in Christ. Instead of fixating on what I was doing I learned to give attention to God’s promises and provision, and ultimately to God’s plan. Interestingly, it was not the specific content of Bill’s calls that made the difference. After twenty-five years of calls, which ended last year with Bill’s death, I am unable to recall the specifics of any particular conversation. Bill did not exert his influence in any particular thing he said, but by what he did not say, or more specifically, what he did not ask about. His missional mentoring gradually shifted my focus from my own purposes to the promises and provision of God. May God give us the ability to foster within young leaders a fixed attentiveness on the promises and provision of the God who calls them into his mission!


I have suggested that missional mentoring is an intentional style of mentoring. It is a mentoring posture that encourages emerging leaders to embrace change and innovation as they pursue God’s mission. We can glean from the examples of Eli, Naomi, and Elizabeth that missional mentoring is at its best when marked by three core traits. Eli highlights the importance of mentors maintaining a healthy distinction between the particulars of their calling and that of the younger leader’s calling. From Eli we learn that sometimes the next step in God’s mission might involve the closure of the older leader’s systems and structures. Eli also reminds us that sometimes our best leadership moment comes not in what we do but in what we permit. From Naomi we learn that older leaders best serve younger protégés when they intentionally foster within them an adventurous, risk-taking faith. The steps God wants us to take to pursue his mission will likely require faith, which in modern vernacular might be best identified as risk-taking. Finally, from Elizabeth we learn that missional mentoring involves both the mentor and the protégé meditating on the promises and provision of God.

These three missional mentors filled critical roles in the unfolding drama of Scripture. Eli and Naomi served during the transition from the period of the Judges into the Davidic monarchy. Elizabeth played a vital part as the Davidic kingdom found its ultimate fulfillment in the arrival of the Davidic Messiah. In each instance these mentors had no way of imagining how impactful the mentoring they accomplished with young and unproven leaders might prove to be. They did what they needed to do by helping the next generation do what it needed to do.

I reflect again on Charles Handy’s words: “The paradox of aging is that every generation perceives itself as justifiably different from its predecessor, but plans as if its successor generation will be the same.” Perhaps a slight alteration of his wording better captures missional mentoring: The advantage of missional mentoring is that every generation perceives itself as justifiably different from its predecessor, and makes proactive plans to ensure its successor generation does the same! May God raise up mentors who empower the next generation to passionately pursue the mission of God!

Dr. Philip Claycomb is the director of Nexus: Church Planting Leadership ( Nexus starts churches through collaborative partnerships between Independent Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and other like-minded congregations. Nexus is based in Texas but currently works in fifteen states throughout the central portion of the US. Phil and Barb have been married thirty years and have invested their energies in starting new churches. They spent their first thirteen years of ministry starting four new churches in Chicago. They then worked with Stadia: New Church Strategies for five years (during which time Stadia started seventy-two churches.) Since starting Nexus in 2006 they’ve been blessed to see forty-three new churches launched. Phil spends most of his time mentoring emerging leaders, creating church-planting partnerships, coaching churches and networks, and teaching leadership and spiritual formation courses at Cincinnati Christian University.

1 Charles Handy, The Age of Paradox (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1994), 37.

2 Paul D. Stanley and J. Robert Clinton, Connecting: The Mentoring Relationships You Need to Succeed in Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1992), 33.

3 Walter C. Wright, Jr., Relational Leadership: A Biblical Model for Leadership Service (London: Paternoster Press, 2000), 44.

4 Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

5 The C.D.E.A. (Chicago District Evangelistic Association) is today known as Ignite Church Planting. See

6 Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., The Book of Ruth, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 69.

7 See I was with the initial Stadia team as we launched our national initiative, starting 72 churches in 54 months. My role was to oversee the training and coaching/mentoring provided for these emerging leaders.

8 See Nexus is a North American missions agency that starts churches through collaborative efforts of Churches of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and other like-minded congregations.

9 Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 84.

10 Geldenhuys, 87. Although, the textual evidence strongly supports Mary as the author.

11 Ibid., 84.

12 J. Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988), 32.

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The Redeeming Repast

For all people, food plays a role in everyday life. While some who are busy may see food as simply a means of subsistence, meals have a deeper meaning in most cultures, including those found in the Bible. Meals can be associated with issues like a deep concern for the poor and the value of community sharing amongst followers of Christ. Another biblical aspect is the use of meals for the purpose of missions. With so much time spent on the repast, it is not a surprise that Jesus used the mealtime—in addition to communion with believers—to transfer the gospel message to unbelievers. Meals are a good way to do evangelism.

Meals are woven into the fabric of life. Every tribe, tongue, and culture dines, with many taking great pride in their native fare. Regardless of national pride, a great amount of time is spent in the shopping, preparing, cooking, eating, and washing of the mealtime experience. If the average person eats three meals a day for a year, that amounts to 1,095 meals per person, and if, hypothetically, the average is one hour of time spent per meal, almost forty-six days of time is devoted in a year just to the event of consumption.

Meals bridge every civilization, offering any individual an instant cultural experience. A meal as a tool of evangelism bridges any cultural gap. While foreigners may not easily share in the customs, celebrations, mores, and language of a new land, they can always share in its food. Since Jesus used the mealtime as a significant aspect of his time on earth,1 a study of his meals proves fruitful to applied missiological studies. John Koenig writes, “Well before the origin of our Christian Eucharist, Jesus used a meal setting to inspire a vocation for outreach in his followers.”2 Koenig continues, “My guess—in fact my conviction—is that we have seriously undervalued our church meals, both ritual and informal, as opportunities for missionary discernment, planning, and outreach.”3

In particular, the writer of Luke records many of Jesus’s meals—nineteen total and thirteen that are specific to the Gospel.4 Jesus uses the mealtime as a significant aspect of fulfilling his purpose on earth. Robert Karris writes, “There is considerable truth in what one wag said about Luke’s Gospel: Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.”5 Markus Barth writes, “In approximately one-fifth of the sentences in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts, meals play a conspicuous role.”6 With Jesus’s overall purpose, as stated by Luke, being that he came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), the significant attention to Lucan meals would signal a substantial tool in fulfilling this purpose. Whether it was communal sharing, fellowship with believers, discipleship, training, or evangelism/mission, Jesus was very purposeful during the repast. Karris pushes further: “The extent, though, of Luke’s use of the theme of food is appreciated only when the reader realizes that the aroma of food issues forth from each and every chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Food is definitely an important theme and, as such, draws the reader into Luke’s faith-inspiring kerygmatic story. It is a theme which, because of its elemental nature, resonates at the depths of our contingent being.”7

Jesus was very purposeful during the repast.

Thus, while other helpful resources look at the meaning of Jesus’s meals as a whole, this article will focus on Luke 5:27–32 as a paradigm for making meals a means of evangelism.8 First, we will note secular research on meals.

Non-Ecclesial Research on Meals

Secular studies demonstrate that meals have a deeper meaning to various groups and cultures. David Bell and Gill Valentine state, “the history of any nation’s diet is the history of the nation itself, with food, fashion, fads and fancies mapping episodes of colonialism and migration, trade and exploration, cultural exchange and boundary-marking.”9 Food choices driven by culture and forms of consumption ultimately came to be grasped as “distinguishing” citizens and nations.10 Pamela Kittler and Kathryn Sucher write, “Eating, like dressing in traditional clothing or speaking in a native language, is a daily reaffirmation of cultural identity.”11 Catherine Palmer adds, “Rituals and practices relating to food consumption are often used to define and maintain boundaries of identity; boundaries that serve to define the identity of a minority ethnic community from the dominant core identity of the nation with which it resides.”12

Secular studies have shown that this thought persists today. Bell and Valentine find that food is a mode of communication that “articulates notions of inclusion and exclusion, of national pride and xenophobia.”13 According to Palmer, “it is the embodiment of such notions in the foods themselves and in the uses to which these foods are put that enables food to act as a boundary-marker between one identity and another.”14 Paul Fieldhouse finds that “food habits are an integral part of cultural behavior and are often closely identified with particular groups – sometimes in a derogatory or mocking way. So the French are ‘Frogs,’ and the German’s are ‘Krauts,’ the Italians are ‘spaghetti eaters.’ . . . The word ‘Eskimo’ is an Indian word meaning ‘eaters of raw flesh,’ and was originally used to express the revulsion of one group toward the food habits of another.”15

Meals’ Deeper Biblical Concept

Eating together is more than just filling up on food; in Biblical times, it represented an association and acceptance of the individual(s) with whom one was dining. Dennis E. Smith adds: “Table fellowship is a symbol of community fellowship. The table designates a special relationship between those who sit at the same table. Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors (Luke 5:27–32; 7:34; 15:2). He goes to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–9). The table is for the oppressed, handicapped and disenfranchised (Luke 7:22; 14:12–14).”16

The table designates a special relationship between those who sit at the same table.

According to Jeremias:

In Judaism . . . table-fellowship means fellowship before God, for the eating of a piece of broken bread by everyone who shares in the meal brings out the fact that they all have a share in the blessing which the master of the house had spoken over the unbroken bread. Thus, Jesus’ meals with the publicans and sinners . . . are not only events on a social level but had an even deeper significance. . . . The inclusion of sinners into the community of salvation, achieved in table-fellowship, is the most meaningful expression of the message of the redeeming love of God.17

Meals carry a deeper meaning than just repast consumption. The Scriptures communicate a social, spiritual, and communal dimension. Reta Halteman Finger especially emphasizes the intense communal sharing of goods as a significant aspect of biblical meal and argues that much of this has been lost in interpretations of texts like Acts 2:42–47.18 Finger adds, “Luke’s description is so simple in Acts 2:42–47. The believers were united spiritually and shared material possessions so that none were in need, and they ate together every day with joy. . . . Faith, work, family relationships—Luke presents a seamless whole in the daily lives of people in a subsistence economy struggling to keep themselves and each other alive and thriving.”19 Finger’s research portrays the biblical meal as not just a time of sustenance but of community survival and sharing in which each member looked at another as part of a community that lived and depended on one another. Yet, Fingers is realistic when applying the meal of the New Testament times to today: “Anyone with historical and cultural sensitivity knows that social practices cannot be imported whole from an earlier time and place to our present modern and postmodern societies. . . . Even if this practice was tried with great effort, the theological meaning of those meals might change or look forced.”20

Though the intense communal meal and sharing aspects of Finger’s research may not be easy to apply to today’s situations, using the meal as a tool for evangelism will be. The rest of the article will focus on how Jesus used the meal as a means to add people to this fellowship of communal sharing.

Luke 5:27–32: Meals as a Means of Evangelism

One of the best examples of Jesus using meals as a means for missions is the story of his disciple Levi, also known as Matthew (Luke 6:15). When Luke introduces this character, he makes it clear that Levi is a “tax collector” and not a disciple of Jesus. His conversion does not occur until Jesus approaches him and says simply: “follow me.” At this request, the text reads that Levi left his tax booth, leaving behind his vocation to follow Jesus, becoming his disciple. According to Morris, “Matthew must have been the richest of the apostles. . . . When Levi walked out of his job he was through. They would surely never take back a man who had simply abandoned his tax office. His following Jesus was a final commitment.”21

The next scene is Levi holding a banquet for Jesus in his home.22 The guests are highlighted. Though Jesus’s disciples are present,23 they are not the invitees who are emphasized. Joel Green adds, “In this pericope . . . the disciples of Jesus are again present, but they are only indirectly developed. . . . At this juncture they remain only stage props, so to speak.”24

The crowd is fellow tax collectors and “others” who the Pharisees later designate as “sinners.” These guests of Levi, with whom Jesus is dining, are scandalous in the eyes of the religious leaders.

The Pharisees, mentioning tax collectors and sinners together, are in fact communicating that these two groups are conceptually unified.25 Tax collector would be another way of identifying a sinner. Robert Stein writes, “ Tax collectors . . . were dishonest and practiced distortion (cf. Luke 5:32). Note the advice of John the Baptist to them in 3:12–13, which assumes dishonesty, and Zacchaeus’s behavior in 19:8–9.”26 Therefore, tax collector and sinner would be one unified concept.

Jesus eating with such a group communicates to the Pharisees that Jesus accepts them as people but in no way endorses their lifestyle; it is clear Jesus’s purpose is mission. According to Darrell Bock, “Jesus reclines with them in meal fellowship. In doing so, he is carrying out his ministry to the spiritually needy. At the same time, Jesus offends the separatism of the Pharisees, who would have never shared a meal with such rabble.”27 Bock goes on to write:

The problem in their view is not mere contact with sinners, but table fellowship that seeks out and welcomes these people. As Jesus’ reply in 5:32 makes clear . . . sinners . . . refers to a wide group of people, including the potentially impious, like tax collectors. In other words, it refers to any who need to be healed and not only to the worst sinners in the harshest possible sense. . . . The Pharisees regard the disciples and Jesus’ association with such people as inappropriate for any religious leader.28

Conflict arises between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding his associations. Jesus knows, just as the Pharisees that he dines with “sinners” but it is precisely their state that makes them a priority to associate with. Jesus can free the sinner with the gospel message.29 Jesus makes his intentions clear in 5:31–32: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (ESV). Luke develops the issue of repentance more deeply than either Mark or Matthew with the understanding that repentance is “leaving all and following Jesus.”30 Jesus’s eating a meal with Levi’s guests is his way of trying to reach them with the message of the kingdom, and uses the mealtime as an opportunity to communicate the gospel to those who are “sick.” Jesus knows that during the meal there will be opportunities to talk and given the fact that news about Jesus began to spread (see Luke 5:15), those dining with him could possess knowledge that he could be Messiah and ask him questions related to his messianic position.

But Jesus’s decision to share meals goes deeper than ministry efficiency—he also is making a theological point. He is modeling the need to share meals with the “sinners,” for it is clear that the religious leaders of the day discouraged meals with “sinners”. Finger writes, “Rather than excluding people, Jesus especially welcomed those who could not or did not meet Pharisaic regulations. This strongly suggests that Jesus’s open table fellowship was a strategy used to challenge social and religious exclusivism wherever it was officially sanctioned or accepted as normal.”31 Jesus models to the religious leaders and those present that dining with those who need repentance is crucial. Because meals are such an important aspect of every culture, Jesus’s example is crucial for people in his day and today to follow.

Because meals are such an important aspect of every culture, Jesus’s example is crucial.


With such a heavy emphasis on meals in Luke, it is clear that the writer is trying to communicate that the mealtime can be used for the purpose of seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10). Luke 5:27–32 shows that meals communicate the worth and acceptance of a person as an individual by spending time with them over food, allowing a chance to communicate the gospel of the kingdom of God. Since Jesus used mealtime so purposefully, the church should take the meal as a means of evangelism. Meals offer a time of relaxation, enjoyment, and instant cultural engagement, an ideal milieu for discussing spiritual topics, particularly the gospel. Jesus clearly had this as one of his goals for dining with unbelieving people and Luke 5:27–32 offers one such glimpse in how he did it.

Michael Chung has taught New Testament and Christian Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary–Texas, Biblical and Theological Studies at Houston Baptist University, and is visiting faculty to Calvary Theological Seminary in Indonesia. He was a missionary to Asia and served CRU from 1997 to 2005. He has published in journals from North America, Europe, and Asia and is the author of the forthcoming book The Last King of Israel: Lessons from Jesus’s Final Ten Days.

1 A good overview of Jesus’s acts and sayings related to meals, see John Koenig, New Testament Hospitality: Partnership with Strangers as Promise and Mission (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 15–51.

2 John Koenig, Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation (Harrisburg, NY: Church Publishing, 2007), 7.

3 Ibid., 9.

4 Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 158. See also Jerome H. Neyrey, “Ceremonies in Luke-Acts: The Case of Meals and Table Fellowship,” in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models of Interpretation, ed. Jerome H. Neyrey (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 361–87; Robert L. Kelley, “Meals with Jesus in Luke’s Gospel,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 17 (1995):123–31; Dennis E. Smith, “Table Fellowship as a Literary Motif in the Gospel of Luke,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 4 (December 1987): 613–38.

5 Robert J. Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian: Luke’s Passion Account as Literature (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1985), 47.

6 Markus Barth, Rediscovering The Lord’s Supper (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 71.

7 Karris, 47.

8 Meal scenes with missiological aspects are found in Luke 7:36–50; 9:10–17; 14:1–24; 19:1–10. Jesus also used meals for discipleship, see: Luke 10:38–42; 11:37–54; 22:7–38; 24:13–35; 24:36–53.

9 David Bell and Gill Valentine, Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat (London: Routledge, 1997), 168.

10 So is the premise of Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Random House, 1988).

11 Pamela Goyan Kittler and Kathryn P. Sucher, Food and Culture in America (New York: Van Rostrand Reinhold, 1989), 5. See also Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and The Cooked, vol. 1 of Mythologiques, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

12 Catherine Palmer, “From Theory to Practice: Experiencing the Nation in Everyday Life,” Journal of Material Culture 3, no. 2 (July 1998): 194. Her thoughts have been a good guide to the secular aspect of meals as deeper than just consumption for sustenance.

13 Bell and Valentine, 168.

14 Palmer, 195.

15 Paul Fieldhouse, Food and Nutrition: Customs and Culture (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 41.

16 Smith, 614.

17 Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus (New York: Scribner’s, 1971), 115–16. Also, David W. Pao, “Waiters or Preachers: Acts 6:1–7 and The Lukan Table Fellowship Motif,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 1, (Spring 2011): 133, writes, “In the Greco-Roman world, banquet and symposium are often instruments through which fictive-kinship groups are defined; for Jews, rules surrounding meals are particularly important in delineating God’s people from the Gentiles.”

18 Reta Halteman Finger, Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1–47.

19 Ibid., 48.

20 Ibid., 280.

21 Leon L. Morris, Luke, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 139–40.

22 For other Lukan dinner scenes, see: 7:36; 9:12 ff.; 10:38 ff.; 11:37; 14:1; 19:7; 22:14; 24:30, 41 ff.; and Morris, 140.

23 At this point, all of the twelve disciples have not been announced. It is uncertain whether the disciples mentioned here are the twelve, who are not listed until Luke 6:12–16 or just Peter, James, and John mentioned in Luke 5:1–11. Chronology was not very important in ancient writings so this could very well be a reference to the twelve.

24 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 245.

25 Robert H. Stein, Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 1992), 182.

26 Ibid. Also, Green, 247, adds, “In the hands of the Pharisees, ‘sinner’ demarcates those who associate with toll collectors as persons living outside faithfulness to God. By means of vituperative apposition, then, toll collectors are dismissed, along with sinners.” In Greek, the definite article in 5:30 modifies both tax collectors and sinners (τῶν τελωνῶν καὶ ἁμαρτωλῶν). Granville Sharp’s rule of the definite article would state that this communicates conceptual unity because the definite article τῶν modifies both τελωνῶν and ἁμαρτωλῶν. See C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 109–10, and Maximilian Zerwick, Biblical Greek: Illustrated by Examples, trans. Joseph Smith (Rome: Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1963), 184–85. Though, Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 278, challenges grammarians’ usage of Sharp’s rule to plural substantives, he does state on p. 280 that this above example would fall under the classification of the “first group subset of second.” Though the reference is Matthew 9:11 in Wallace, it is the exact same words used in Luke 5:30. Wallace, 270, writes, “In Greek, when two nouns are connected by καὶ and the article precedes only the first noun, there is a close connection between the two. That connection always indicates at least some sort of unity. At a higher level, it may connote equality. At the highest level it may indicate identity.”

27 Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 495.

28 Ibid., 496.

29 See also Dwayne H. Adams, The Sinner in Luke, Evangelical Theological Society Monograph Series 8 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2008), 133–34.

30 Stein, 183. μετάνοια appears in Luke 3:3, 8; 5:32; 15:7; 24:47; as well as six times in Acts. The verb form appears in Luke 10:13; 11:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7, 10; 16:30; and 17:3, 4. Smith, 636, argues that although “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” appears in all three Synoptic traditions, Luke expands the theme beyond the other two Synoptics.

31 Finger, 184.

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Comparative Review: “Which Kingdom is Coming Near?: Contemporary Discussions in Kingdom Theology”

Comparative Review

Reggie McNeal. Kingdom Come: Why We Must Give Up on our Obsessions with Fixing the Church—and What We Should Do Instead. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2015. 224 pp. Paperback. $11.95.

Scot McKnight. Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014. 304 pp. Paperback. $15.16.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17). Jesus inaugurates his ministry in Galilee with these words. After Pentecost, Jesus’s followers began preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God throughout the Roman empire. For the early church, the gospel of Jesus was intertwined with the kingdom. But how should we understand the kingdom of God? What does the kingdom mean for us living in the twenty-first century? How do we, individually as Christians and corporately as church, participate in this kingdom?

Typically, responses to these questions fall into two distinct categories. Some see the kingdom as political and social action, working for justice and equity in our world on behalf of the oppressed. Others define the kingdom as the church itself, with its worship, service, activities, and teachings. Two recent books written by Scot McKnight and Reggie McNeal help illustrate these different approaches to the kingdom of God. Although they discuss similar themes—the identity of and participation in the kingdom of God—they come to different missiological conclusions due to their differences in ecclesiology and soteriology.

In his book Kingdom Come, Reggie McNeal contends that the American church has become so enamored with doing church and fixing the church that they have missed out on the kingdom of God. Churches spend the vast majority of their assets (time, money, energy, attention, and people) on what happens during the assembly on Sunday, but they fail to make a difference in the communities that surround them. The church scorecard is measured in terms of “celebrated church activities on church property led by church people for other church people” (McNeal, 3). In McNeal’s eyes, the church has spent so much time trying to get the message right that it has forgotten about mission. That mission is what he wants the church to recover.

At its core, McNeal’s book contends that the kingdom is not synonymous with the church.1 Jesus did not come to establish the church but to expand the kingdom. The key to this mission is found in John 10:10—“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Evil and sin are anything that destroys or diminishes life, whether from intentional and immediate actions or consequences of actions done long ago. This sin affects our relationships with God, one another, and all of creation. The kingdom is working systematically to restore abundant life to those affected by sin. These efforts can include anything from feeding the hungry to teaching newly released prisoners to raising money for a local charity to creating art and music. Anything that involves “people helping people to experience life as God intends it” is a manifestation of the kingdom of God (McNeal, 41). Jesus’s ministry was characterized by healing the sick, driving out demons, and feeding the hungry; adherents of the kingdom are those who do the same.

McNeal also argues that the kingdom of God is bigger than those who claim allegiance to its king. For McNeal, “whenever and wherever God’s character and will are displayed, the Kingdom is made evident” (McNeal, 25). Any initiative that demonstrates love, mercy, compassion, and justice, among other godly attributes, is a manifestation of the kingdom. Those that participate in these actions, whether believers and followers of Christ or not, are part of the kingdom of God. Those who follow Jesus should look for the initiatives where God is at work and collaborate with those who are doing them, whether or not they claim Christ as their motivation.

McNeal’s desire for the church is a shift from self-orientation to kingdom-orientation. For church-centric thinkers, the church’s practices of worship, sacraments, and teaching are the reason for its existence. But McNeal wants the church to recover its identity as a kingdom of priests sent out to bless the world. As he contends, “The church was created on purpose, for a purpose—to partner with God in his redemptive mission here on earth” (McNeal, 90). Church is more about a way of being in which every aspect of life is an organic and incarnational manifestation of faith (McNeal, 8–9).

For McNeal, this does not mean that the church is irrelevant. Indeed, he directs his book to current church leaders and those who are involved in church but yearning for something more relevant. His overarching desire is for the church to speak and work prophetically in the culture, looking for ways in which God is already at work confronting the effects of sin and partnering with those who are participating in God’s redemptive work. The church must begin to work to transform culture, both the culture in the surrounding community and, more importantly, the culture of the church itself. The priorities of the church must shift from activities that built up the organization to kingdom-focused initiatives.2

In his book Kingdom Conspiracy, Scot McKnight calls views of the kingdom like McNeal’s the “skinny jeans kingdom.” According to adherents of this position, “Kingdom means good deeds done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good” (McKnight, 8–9). The kingdom, then, boils down to anything done in the world that helps better the human life or experience. The other extreme, according to McKnight, is the “the pleated pants kingdom.” Adherents of this position focus on understanding the nature of the kingdom and the timing of its arrival, specifically through the lens of personal redemption. The kingdom is boiled down to those who are personally “saved” from sin and those who are not. This kingdom is about those who believe and those who do not, and the kingdom only exists as a “not yet” because not everyone believes. For these, the kingdom will only be fully realized at the eschaton (McKnight, 9–13).

McKnight contends that both understandings of kingdom run counter to the biblical concept. When the Bible talks about a “kingdom,” it always has in mind a group of people in a physical place under the rule of a king. Thus, the kingdom of God is where “there is a king (Jesus), a rule (by Jesus as Lord), a people (the church), a land (wherever Jesus’s kingdom people are present), and a law (following Jesus through the power of the Spirit . . .)” (McKnight, 99). For McKnight, the biblical narrative is about more than just creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Rather, the biblical story describes how God is at work extending his rule throughout time and space through Jesus the Messiah, the Lord and King (McKnight, 23–35).

For McKnight, the kingdom cannot be divorced from the church. Throughout history, God has always chosen to work through a people, regardless of how messy and broken they were (and still are.) The church of today is the group of people who accept the lordship of Jesus Christ, even though it might seem marred and distorted at times. Indeed, McKnight says “the church now is the church gathered in broken leadership, broken fellowship, broken holiness, broken love, broken justice, and broken peace” (McKnight, 94). But the church now is leading toward the “church not yet,” the eschatological realization of all that the church (and the kingdom) are meant to be. There is an integral overlap between the kingdom and the church of today in that “they are the same people governed by the same king living out the same law under the same kingdom redemptive powers” (McKnight, 95–96).3

For McKnight, salvation is multidimensional, involving salvation from sin, Satan, and systemic evil. Sin is the “Adamic condition” of rebellion against God, and redemption means a return to right relationship with God through his sacrifice on our behalf. Salvation also rescues us from the dominion of the evil one, which entraps us in death and distortion. Finally, redemption fights against the effects of systemic evil by “principalities and powers,” both demonic and political. The church is made up of individuals who have accepted the redemption of God through the lordship of Christ and practice a cruciform lifestyle of righteousness living and loving service. The church is working to establish redemption through “kingdom community in the here and now,” while realizing that the kingdom can only be partially experienced in the present (McKnight, 157). For the church, this means offering holistic salvation that addresses the spiritual, physical, emotional, and social needs of the world.

For McKnight, the key is recognizing the integral connection between the church and the kingdom. The kingdom does not exist apart from the church, and the mission of the kingdom cannot be realized outside of the participation of the church. While McNeal and other missional church advocates would state that any work that brings “life” is a manifestation of the kingdom, McKnight would not call these expressions of kingdom mission. These benevolent actions are done for the common good, but when they have no impact on the local church nor lead to people accepting the kingship of Christ they are not kingdom endeavors. Indeed, McKnight contends that social activism becomes idolatry when it replaces the church (McKnight, 121–22). But if the church is truly following Jesus as its king, it will engage in a mission of extending justice, equity, peace, and redemption into the world, confronting the effects of sin, Satan, and systemic evil. “Any kingdom mission that does not offer this kind of redemption is not kingdom mission” (McKnight, 158).

While McKnight and McNeal make different assertions through their books in regard to salvation and mission, their desire is the same: they call the church to truly be the church on mission in the world. For McNeal, this means realizing that following God is about more than just what occurs on Sundays. Kingdom participation is not just about showing up on Sundays and “doing church” but is also about participating with God in what he is doing in the world to bring light into darkness. McKnight wants to caution against the millennial mindset that the church is outdated and unimportant, and that kingdom work must often be done outside of the local church. Instead, kingdom work is about building up and edifying the local congregation as it participates in the mission of God.

There are parts of each book that also miss the mark. While McNeal argues that the book is written to help the church be the church, it often feels more like a guide on community activism devoid of the church entirely. His treatment of sin is relatively light, as well, addressing only the ways in which sin “damages life” in social and economic parameters. Anything that enhances beauty or “restores life,” including classical music, are seen as redemptive manifestations of the kingdom. McKnight’s view seems to negate the possibility that God is at work in ways outside of the church. Kingdom mission and advancement is solely the responsibility of the church, yet that is out of step with other biblical examples (e.g., Cyrus being God’s “anointed” to return the people from Exile; the work of the Holy Spirit in the world convicting the world of sin.) The church is called to join God in what he is already doing in the world, which also means participating with others who are engaged in kingdom initiatives. While McKnight reminds us of the primacy of the church, his contention that the kingdom is restricted to the church’s actions is overstated.

Both of these books add to the ongoing conversation about the way in which the church participates in the mission of God to extend his lordship over all of creation. McNeal reminds us that we are not called simply to be “churchy” but to be redeemed people participating actively in redemption. McKnight reminds us that this redemption should not be separated from the life and mission of the church because the church is God’s chosen instrument. When read in conversation with one another, McNeal and McKnight call us to a deeper understanding of the kingdom and the mission of God than we may have considered before.

Daniel McGraw


West University Church of Christ

Houston, TX, USA

1 McNeal makes a point of capitalizing kingdom throughout his book while keeping church lowercase. This is his way of emphasizing what is most important in his missional theology.

2 These shifts includes changes in priorities, vocabulary, leadership, and evaluation. See pp. 134–59.

3 For McKnight, the kingdom and the church are inseparable, but it is also unfair to compare the church today (in its brokenness and imperfection) with the perfection of God’s kingdom. Yet, he argues, the kingdom and the people of God (i.e., the church) are one and the same, and the kingdom is present in the work of God’s people today.

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Review of Jared Looney, Crossroads of the Nations: Diaspora, Globalization, and Evangelism

Jared Looney. Crossroads of the Nations: Diaspora, Globalization, and Evangelism. Urban Ministry in the 21st Century. Portland: Urban Loft Publishers, 2015. 330 pp. Paperback. $16.99.

Jared Looney is the executive director of Global City Mission Initiative (, a nonprofit organization that equips churches and evangelists for ministry among immigrant communities in major urban centers. He writes Crossroads of the Nations, the first book in the Urban Ministry in the 21st Century series (Urban Loft Publishers), encouraging dominant culture churches of North America to take advantage of the opportunities for mission now at our doorstep thanks to the twin forces of urbanization and international migration. For clergy and lay persons desiring a well-informed introduction to the changing face of urban ministry that does not bog down in scholarly minutiae, Crossroads of the Nations is a great place to start.

After an adulatory foreword by diaspora missiologist Enoch Wan, Looney’s first chapter opens with a number of poignant anecdotes on the ways that globalization and migration are transforming North American cities. His use of stories and real-life examples strengthens the book, lending to its accessibility and readability. Chapter one summarizes the book’s major themes and arguments—the central argument being that urban centers ought to be the focus of missiological thinking and strategy. Chapter two furthers this argument by exploring the strategic importance of cities in a world of transnational social networks, which, among other things, give Western churches unprecedented access to many unreached people groups.

Chapter three, the most impassioned chapter of the book, addresses anti-immigrant sentiments within the dominant culture, arguing that hospitality toward the migrant is the biblical standard. Chapter four then revisits the missional opportunities afforded by diaspora networks in order to challenge churches to reimagine church multiplication strategies, cross-denominational partnerships, and adaptive community structures that better reflect society’s growing mobility. With the decline of the church in the West and the rise of Christianity in the global South and East, Looney repeatedly points to the influx of Christian immigrants, the growth of ethnic churches, and their potential missionary force as signs for hope.

Chapters five and six turn to the topic of how to equip churches for evangelism among diaspora communities. Here, the author maintains that our evangelism and church planting must be relational, reproducible, and easily contextualized. Looney concludes chapter six with a particularly insightful discussion of ways that churches can take advantage of diaspora networks to make short-term mission trips more strategic and relational. The final chapter challenges congregations to reclaim their missionary identity, to train their congregants for cross-cultural ministry, and to intentionally build relationships outside their usual sociocultural circles. He closes by highlighting the importance of hospitality and of creating safe and welcoming spaces outside of church buildings for engaging unreached migrants.

Reflection questions at the end of each chapter facilitate the use of this text in small group settings (which likely explains some of the book’s repetitiveness). Lay readers will benefit from the many practical examples of how churches can get involved in mission among migrants. This book is a timely read in this controversy-ridden election year, as it represents a challenge to the large population of majority-group Christians in our country who have too often been fertile soil for anti-immigrant sentiment. Looney calls Christians to think missionally about the immigrant among us, and I long for that day when our conversations on immigration sound less like Trump and more like Looney. I long for the day when we stop seeing immigrants as threats to national security and instead welcome them as partners in global mission. I long for the day when we no longer see them as drains on our economy but as “bringers of blessings” (71) for the work of global mission.

Looney locates his book within the field of “diaspora missiology” and draws heavily on the research of major proponents Enoch Wan, Sadiri Joy Tira, and J. D. Payne. Unfortunately, much of their research unintentionally characterizes immigrants (two-thirds of whom are Christians!1) as objects of missionary outreach in need of help, training, and mobilization from Western sources and thus falls short of fully grasping the significance of non-Western initiatives and movements for the future of the global church. Thankfully, Crossroads of the Nations is more balanced in portraying Christian migrants not only as objects of mission but also as agents of mission whose dynamic faith and evangelistic zeal are contributing significantly to the revitalization of the church in the West. The inclusion of more research on ways that migrants and their congregations are already shaping the American religious landscape would have strengthened this excellent text. At its core, Crossroads of the Nations is the fervent appeal of a well-informed practitioner for Western churches to embrace our missionary identity, and my hope is that Looney’s book will spark many long-overdue conversations among majority-culture churches throughout North America.

Martin Rodriguez

PhD Student

School of Intercultural Studies

Fuller Theological Seminary

Pasadena, CA

1 Phillip Connor, et al., Faith on the Move: The Religious Affiliation of International Migrants, Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2012), 51–53,

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Review of Dean Flemming, Why Mission?

Dean Flemming. Why Mission? Reframing New Testament Theology. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. 184 pp. Kindle ed. $14.99.

The dichotomy between theory and practice is, as Kevin Vanhoozer has put it, “a mortal fault line that runs through the academy and church alike.”1 Missiology has often stood across the chasm from theology, mission being stereotypically the realm of practitioners with little patience for the abstractions of academic theology. Yet, advocates of missional hermeneutics have begun exploring a space in which textual hermeneutics, ecclesial commitments, missional practices, biblical studies, and constructive theology converge. Even in missional hermeneutics, however, the theory/practice dichotomy tends to manifest in articles and books that discuss interpretive theory without practicing exemplary exegesis.

In this context, Dean Flemming’s slender volume Why Mission? is a welcome contribution. Aware that, to date, “no other study engages in a missional reading of a range of New Testament books within one volume” (Kindle loc. 177), Flemming showcases the application of a missional hermeneutic to a variety of New Testament texts. The book’s six chapters undertake missional readings of Matthew, Luke-Acts, John, Philippians, 1 Peter, and Revelation. Following closely on the heels of Michael Gorman’s watershed missional interpretation of various Pauline writings,2 Why Mission? widens the scope of the current discussion considerably.

As the fourth volume in the Reframing New Testament Theology series (ed. Joel B. Green), the book participates in the contemporary shakeup of the biblical theology movement. This “reframing” is driven by “a keen sense that scripture has in the past and should in the present instruct and shape the church’s faith and life”—challenging the theory/practice dichotomy from another angle.3 Flemming, who holds a PhD in New Testament Exegesis from the University of Aberdeen, is specially qualified to take up the question of mission’s particular contribution to this churchly engagement with the biblical text. He was a missionary for the Church of the Nazarene from 1987 to 2011 and is now Professor of New Testament and Missions at MidAmerica Nazarene University. By itself, the rarity of a New Testament scholar with long-term missions experience makes Flemming’s work an exciting addition to both the reframing of New Testament theology and to the missional hermeneutics movement.

The introduction briefly explains the premise of Flemming’s intention “to read scripture in light of God’s comprehensive mission” (Kindle loc. 189). He asserts: “Perhaps we can speak of two essential dimensions of a missional hermeneutic. One has to do with what the Bible is about. The other concerns what the Bible does. The former sees the Bible as a witness, the latter as an instrument” (Kindle locs. 204–6). Flemming accordingly structures subsequent chapters by examining each biblical text as both “a witness to God’s mission” and “an instrument of God’s mission”—the assumption being that every New Testament book can help answer “two foundational questions: ‘What is God up to in the world?’ and ‘What is the church’s role in what God is doing?’” (Kindle loc. 274). In this way, he clearly addresses the series’s concern with both New Testament theology (producing a multifaceted theology of mission rooted in whole books rather than proof texts) and the church’s life and faith (consistently highlighting the ways these texts send and shape the church in mission).

The exegesis itself is uncomplicated by technical issues and relatively readable—very accessible for seminary students and trained church leaders but probably heavy going for the average lay reader. Flemming works in broad strokes, connecting major themes to his guiding missional questions. Although every chapter deals with its biblical text’s role as witness and instrument, each one is different. The chapter on Matthew, for example, plays with the theological notion of recapitulation, whereas the chapter on 1 Peter deals narratively with the concept of identity. Occasionally, Flemming engages a scholarly dispute, such as J. Todd Billings’s critique of the term incarnational or Brian Peterson’s denial of the Philippians’ practice of verbal evangelism, characteristically taking a moderating position. More commonly, Flemming simply traces the missional contours of a body of mainstream biblical scholarship that has emerged in recent decades, providing ample footnotes for the studious reader. These missional readings, in other words, solidly represent critically engaged New Testament scholarship. They are concise, insightful, and well worth the price of the book.

The book’s primary weakness is that it gives priority to the “text itself” (Kindle loc. 203), as though the text alone, if read correctly, yields understanding of and participation in God’s mission. To his credit, Flemming’s epilogue states that “at the end of the day, we can only read scripture faithfully as communities of people who are actively engaged in God’s mission, in our various contexts and cultures, just as the original authors and readers of the New Testament were caught up in the missio Dei” (Kindle locs. 3415–17). Yet, his conclusion on this basis is that “a missional reading of scripture, then, seeks to bring about not only a clearer understanding of scripture but also a better grasp of what it means to live as a missional people today (Kindle locs. 3418–19). His hermeneutic still runs in one direction, from text to understanding to active engagement. This approach assumes that the bridge across the theory/practice divide is built from one side. Missional hermeneutics, however, cannot afford to ignore the interpretive implications of practice. Certainly, Scripture shapes the participation of the missional church, but if, in turn, participation in God’s mission shapes the reading church, then practice is not merely a result of the text’s formative influence. It is also a hermeneutical key.

Greg McKinzie

PhD Student

Fuller Theological Seminary

Pasadena, CA

1 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 13.

2 Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

3 Joel B. Green, foreword to Why Mission?, by Dean Flemming, Reframing New Testament Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), Kindle loc. 104.

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Review of Dan McVey, Confronting the Hubris of Hope: A Christian Reflection in an Islamic Mirror

DAN MCVEY. Confronting the Hubris of Hope: A Christian Reflection in an Islamic Mirror. San Bernardino: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014. 184 pp. $9.99.

Dan McVey serves in an adjunct role with Abilene Christian University, primarily with the International Studies Department in the Study Abroad programs. He is also adjunct with Heritage Christian University in Accra, Ghana, and the University of South China, Hengyang, Hunan Province, China. McVey tries to spend his time building bridges between Christians and Muslims, especially in Europe and Africa, where his work quite often takes him. Due to his experience both as a missionary and a teacher in primarily Muslim contexts, McVey is well equipped to address and reflect on this topic.

Confronting the Hubris of Hope is a challenging text in which McVey asks difficult questions about both Christianity and Islam. For example, McVey asks, “How can any religion contain all that is good, true, virtuous, and honorable?” (157). According to McVey, such a religion does not exist. Rather, all of our religious traditions are simply human attempts at explaining divine revelation. It is impossible to place ourselves in the historical contexts of those who originally received the Scriptures (i.e., the Bible and the Qur’an). McVey challenges both Christians and Muslims to speak out for each other on common concerns, and to rush to defend one another whenever possible. He questions Christians’ reliance on creedal definitions (e.g., the development of the title “Son of God”) that are restrictive for cross-cultural communication. Likewise, McVey asks Muslims to be more open-minded regarding shared theological conversation (e.g., regarding the role of Jesus).

The “Hubris of Hope” is the strongest chapter, in my opinion. For McVey, a cursory glance at religious history reveals that both Christians and Muslims have done unspeakable things in the name of God, Allah, or their respective religions. Rather than meeting each other as equals, Christianity and Islam have often met due to conquest, oppression, and violence towards one another. We must not let the hubris of our hope in our respective religions (e.g., Christianity and Islam) blind or prevent us from respecting and loving one another. This hubris deceives people into believing that their religious tradition has a monopoly on absolute truth. For Christians, the hubris of certainty regarding God leads to aberrations of the teaching of Jesus. As McVey writes, “Certainty seeks no partners” (126). McVey cautions against equating the authority of God with our own authoritarian tendencies. When we speak of God, we always speak from limited knowledge. There is a measure of ambiguity in the Scriptures, as humans must interpret them. Rather than confusing our limited understandings of God with Truth, McVey encourages Christians and Muslims to allow the ambiguity to “make room not only for tolerance in mercy that reflects God’s own character, but also for dialog” (135).

The book seems unorganized in places. However, McVey does provide a qualification at the beginning of the book, writing, “I am by nature and experience a practitioner rather than a theoretician or academic, so please excuse the clumsiness of thought” (7). Yet, where the book lacks in organization, it certainly makes up for it in content. The reader will not discover a detailed bibliography or footnotes but will learn from McVey’s personal experiences and reflections following years of living in primarily Muslim contexts. These reflections from an experienced cross-cultural practitioner are valuable and challenging—both to the lay and academic reader.

The text is particularly relevant for Christians seeking to engage with Muslims. However, this book will be challenging for the reader who has a limited scope for what McVey defines as hope. McVey believes, “hope is a mellowing influence upon faith, an admission of the incomplete nature of religious allegiance in that recognition by all humble believers that whenever we speak about God, we always speak in incomplete knowledge and terminology” (124). Likewise, an unobservant reader might accuse McVey of pluralism. However, McVey is simply calling for an end to religious fundamentalism. A Christian approach can, historically, range from crusade to colonialism, and from triumphalism to hubristic intolerance. Because of this, McVey hopes that it will be our goal to be Christlike rather than Christian. For McVey, the Way of Jesus is not a set of beliefs. Rather, “the brilliance of Jesus is seen in the fact that his prescription that we should love our enemies in fact requires us to get to know our enemies” (158). We ought to humbly acknowledge our incomplete understandings of the divine, apologize for our failures that have hurt others, and seek to work together in our pursuit of truth.

Brady Kal Cox

Graduate Student

Graduate School of Theology

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, TX, USA

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Ecosystems of Grace: An Old Vision for the New Church

What will it take for Americans to come to know God for who God really is? In the face of the epidemic distractions presented by American culture, this question invites a more pointed question: What way of life centered in God has the capacity to capture and hold the attention of people in our time? With focused attention such a rare commodity, much discussion of mission, discipleship, and love as a lifestyle remains hypothetical. The concrete acts of love that undergird the way of Jesus can happen only sporadically at best. We are simply too busy and distracted to be available for the attention and discernment love requires. This paper reviews the nature of our contemporary distractions, then explores an ancient understanding of church as a way to reclaim our attention and re-engage the mission of God more deeply. A concluding section offers specific research-based guidance for joining God in mission in our context.

Stolen Attention: Naming the Challenge

What will it take for North Americans to come to know God for who God really is? The way we answer this question has profound implications for how we think about and engage the mission of God in our place and time.

I begin with four observations and a question. I assume we can agree on the first two observations, and I present evidence in support of the next two. They are:

  1. God is love.
  2. We are made in the image of God to be lovers.1
  3. Love requires attention.
  4. Our attention has been stolen—but if we really want to, we can get it back.

Love Requires Attention

In the English language, to love includes both the desire to share and the actual act of giving. Love enacted is the sharing of some gift by one person for the joy of another. The Greek language offers intriguing insight on this relationship between love, giving, joy and gratitude. Three words with the Greek root for joy—char—are instructive:


Charis—a gift or grace (that which brings joy)

Eucharistia—gratitude (joy returned)

Lovers want to bless their beloved by sharing good gifts with them. When the lover takes action and gives a gift, this brings joy to the receiver. The gift also brings joy to the giver, as the comment attributed to Jesus suggests, “it is better to give than to receive.” The beloved then extends the process by expressing gratitude—literally returning joy to the giver.

This simple process, giving a gift to bless another, is therefore self-reinforcing. Love is regenerative.

This may sound simple, but in reality such enacted love requires careful attention. We cannot truly love what we do not know. Only the attentive lover knows the need of the beloved clearly enough to offer a gift that brings blessing and joy. Without paying attention, I may offer you water when what you needed was information, or I may not notice you at all. Furthermore, only the carefully attentive know themselves well enough to know what they actually have to offer.

Our Attention Has Been Stolen

The essential role of attention in love underscores the depth of our current challenge: our attention has been stolen. While it is also true that we give our attention away, my emphasis here is that from infancy our attention has been taken from us. The culture we have inherited virtually ensures we will have little room for love in our lives.

Our attention has been stolen.

In the presence of epidemic distraction, with focused attention such a rare commodity, most discussion of mission, discipleship, and love as a lifestyle remains hypothetical. The concrete acts of love that undergird the way of Jesus can happen only sporadically at best. We are simply too busy and distracted to be available for the attention and discernment love requires.

Consider these five areas that illustrate this epidemic of distraction:

  1. The average American now spends nearly eleven hours per day in screen time, with five hours of that dedicated to television.2 Without even getting into the pros and cons of what we are seeing and experiencing, what do we lose in our capacity to love when the vast majority of our attention is habitually directed toward screens? How might other use of our time and attention impact our capacity to live and love well?
  2. In 1985, researchers learned that one person in ten did not know anyone with whom they felt safe to be themselves—a true friend. By 2004 that number had risen to one person in four. Since then, one of the greatest attention magnets of all time, Facebook, has come to claim over 1.5 billion user “friends,” and during these years research shows that average measures of human empathy have plummeted.3 What if there were ways to develop true community in our time, where deep friendship and compassionate shared life were not the exception?
  3. The average American family spends thirty-five percent of its lifetime earnings on interest. Given the uneven earnings typical in most households, that thirty-five percent represents nearly the full-time attention of one adult.4 What this means is that almost half of each family’s adult working hours go to enrich banks and other financial institutions. What do we lose in our capacity to love with this loss of adult-parental-neighborly attention? What plausible alternatives exist?
  4. Sixty-five years ago the average American family spent thirty percent of its income on food and five percent on health care.5 With the rise of industrial agriculture came cheaper food. Now Americans enjoy some of the least expensive food in the world. At the same time the annual cost of health care for a typical American family of 4 has now risen above $25,000.6 The result is that we are spending at least as much on food and health care, but in significant ways we are losing our health—and undermining the health of our planet in the process.7 How is our attention being compromised over a lifetime by these changes? What saner ways exist to meet the nutritional needs of present and future generations?
  5. In his book Church Refugees, social scientist Josh Packard reports extensive research documenting a group he calls the “Dones,” sixty-five million American adults, nearly a third of the total population, who have left their churches behind. In subsequent research he has learned that another seven million present church-goers are “almost done.”8 Church, as Americans have been practicing it, seems to have a dwindling capacity to capture and hold the attention of people—even those who have spent a lifetime attending church. And contrary to what we might expect, according to Packard, the people leaving church are often people who have been holding primary leadership roles and continue to have a deep commitment to their faith.

Examples of our massive distraction are abundant. These five areas alone suggest that Americans have had much of their attention stolen: a serious challenge for people committed to a life of love. If true, we can now ask our initial question with more precision: How will ordinary Americans be able to reclaim their attention to the extent that their life is caught up in the life of God—the life of love? We might be inclined to dismiss this vision as a utopian dream, were it not for the confident statement of Jesus, “You must love each other as I have loved you. All people will know you are my disciples if you love each other” (John 13:34-35).9

A Vision for Shared Love in the Ancient Church: Ecosystems of Grace

The disciples who heard Jesus state that love would distinguish them proceeded to embody a way of life that, despite enormous opposition over the next three centuries, came to permeate the known world. That way of life, long known to scholars of ancient Mediterranean history, is largely invisible to contemporary readers because it represents a reality with which we rarely have experience.

The ancient Mediterranean world was a world of households. Everyone—rich or poor, Roman or Jew—was part of an extended family. Those without a household were in deep trouble, because that community was the basis for economic and social well-being. This household, or oikos, provided the livelihood wherein people found work in the family business—fishing, farming, or ruling a region. This was the community with whom daily meals and life were shared, that provided social standing in life and security in senior years.10

Jesus called the first disciples into a new family—a new household—partly because he knew that many who followed him would lose their natural families. When people made it known to their biological household, whether Jewish or Gentile, that they had decided to follow Jesus, the reaction was often the same: You have denied the true religion, you have dishonored our family, you have endangered our business—you are no longer a part of this family.

Knowing this, Jesus said, “And all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or farms to follow me will get much more than they left, and they will have life forever” (Matt 19:29). These new, vibrant families of Jesus were tangible, local good news in the Mediterranean neighborhoods of the first three centuries. And ultimately they permeated every corner of the Roman Empire. As New Testament scholar J. H. Elliott observes, “Households thus constituted the focus, locus and nucleus of the ministry and mission of the Christian movement.”11

These new, vibrant families of Jesus were tangible, local good news.

This might all appear to us an interesting historical footnote, largely irrelevant in the radically different context of twenty-first century Western culture. However, in what follows I want to consider a reading of early Christian thought that seems to suggest just the opposite.


The earliest Christians understood this new household—the oikos family of which Jesus spoke—to be the means by which God’s ultimate purposes would be fulfilled. This understanding runs right through early Christian writings, but it is given special expression in the letter to the Ephesians. Here, the writer elevates the household system to cosmic significance.

Though the common transliteration of oikonomia is economy, the English word economy normally carries the connotation of financial systems.12 A more accurate translation of oikonomia in our time may be the word ecosystem, which carries the idea of an interdependent community of shared resources. For the household-dominated ancient Mediterranean culture, this translation comes much closer to conveying the fullness of shared life borne by the word oikonomia.13

In Ephesians this oikonomia of God is the pre-ordained system for the summing up of all things into God by way of Christ. This theme is introduced in chapter one: “making known to us the mystery of his will, in accordance with his good pleasure that he purposed in himself, leading to the ecosystem of the fullness of times, to head up all things in Christ—the things in heaven and the things on the earth” (Eph 1:9–10).14

This ecosystem is the object of God’s self-purposed pleasure, something revealed in the fullness of times, what has been a mystery but has now been made known. These ideas are taken up and developed more in chapter three:

To me, less than the least of all saints, was this grace given: to announce to the non-Jewish peoples the boundless riches of Christ and to enlighten all that they may see what the ecosystem of the mystery is, which throughout the ages has been hidden in God, who created all things, so that now, to the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies the multifaceted wisdom of God might be made known through the ekklesia. This aligns with the eternal purpose which God made in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Eph 3:8–11)

Here it is as the ekklesia—the gathered people of God—that God reveals this finally-disclosed “ecosystem of the fullness of time.” The ekklesia is the divinely appointed means of displaying God’s multifaceted wisdom to the heavenly powers.

The ekklesia is an ecosystem of grace that reveals God’s multifaceted wisdom.

An Ecosystem of Grace

What makes this an ecosystem of grace that reveals God’s multifaceted wisdom is that each person in this community is a gift, a grace of God freely offered in love on behalf of the household. The case is summarized in the next chapter of Ephesians:

To each one of us a grace has been distributed as a gift of Christ (4:7).

From Christ the whole body is joined and held together . . . by means of the distributed divine energy of every single growing part of the body working to build up his body in love (4:16).

God’s divine energy is distributed to each growing part of the body according to the distinct grace each one bears. The exercise of that grace by each one under the headship of Christ builds up the body of Christ, the ekklesia. And that completed person—the Bride of Christ—fully reveals God’s multifaceted wisdom.15

Ecosystems of Grace for the 21st Century

How could this understanding of an ecosystem of grace—an extended family wherein each person has a vital role in giving, receiving, and displaying God’s love and wisdom—take form now? How might a more richly shared life be possible?

In 2013, two ACU colleagues and I conducted research on eleven intentional communities across North America.16 Over the course of three months we conducted dozens of interviews exploring the dynamics of communities that share resources to an uncommon degree. We began with a working definition of intentional Christian community:

A group that practices an uncommon sharing of assets in order to follow Jesus together.

“An uncommon sharing of assets,” or resources, was a key in our analysis. It became clear that the love that characterizes these communities is a tangible love. It involves sharing—and this sharing is across a whole range of gifts or assets that individuals and communities possess. In these communities it was often obvious that the time and attention necessary for loving God and neighbor was present to an uncommon degree.

As the study continued it also became clear that across this spectrum of assets all Christian communities make decisions, either intentionally or unintentionally, about the degree to which they share each asset. By paying attention to this reality, every Christian community can map where it currently is with respect to the depth or “thickness” of its sharing.17 For those who so choose, with this insight they can also make intentional decisions to change the ways they share their gifts.

Together the eight assets we identified form a typology by which communities can take inventory along a spectrum of sharing from thin to thick.18 A question about each asset provides a starting point from which to explore that asset:


PurposeHow would you describe your community’s purpose? In communities with a strong, thickly shared purpose, people across the community could describe why they were where they were, doing what they were doing. They might say, “We are living in this neighborhood of San Francisco to be the family of Jesus among and for our neighbors.”

PeopleHow do you identify and engage community members’ unique gifts? Whether a person is 9 or 89, male or female, regardless of ethnicity or wealth, healthy intentional communities act to understand and call out each member’s gifts. In an ecosystem of grace, every gift is honored and every voice is carefully heard.

PlaceHow does the community’s social/cultural/physical location influence the community? Extended families that are attending carefully to the gift of their place reflect the distinctives of that setting in ways that are profoundly unique and effective. Should we expect suburban and urban or African and Asian churches to be the same in practice and culture?

ProductionWhat is the community’s approach to shared and individual work? In every healthy family there is work to be done. Healthy intentional communities are proactive in seeing that each member has meaningful work that contributes to their shared life and purpose.

ProcessHow are community decisions made and implemented? Families that honor Jesus as Lord discover ways to discern a path forward together. Beyond authoritarianism or majority rule, healthy intentional communities work out a means to discern and govern that takes seriously God’s present guidance among God’s people.

PreparationHow do newcomers become community members? Research and personal experience make it clear that unless communities are intentional in the ways they include new people into their ongoing practices, people are unlikely to stay.19 This is true of people who grow up in the community, as well as newcomers.

PossessionsHow are material goods shared? What was true in the first century remains true today—people who love one another as family find ways to share what they have with each other “so that there are no needy among them.” This is true whether the asset in question is money, cars, homes, or fields. Sharing of these assets, in particular, impacts not only the quality of our attention, but also the quantity available. People who can live well on half the financial resources through simplicity and sharing may have twice the time for loving.20

Play – How does this community renew its life in joyful re-creation? A key marker of the love of God embodied in a community is that community members find joy in playful sharing together. While this may take many forms, play together seems to be a steady characteristic of healthy families.

Each of these eight community assets presents an arena to explore a more richly shared life, to take decisive steps to love more deeply.21 Every community can find in these shared resources opportunity for growth in love.

If We Really Want To, We Can Get Our Attention Back

We struggle to live according to our design as lovers in large measure because our attention has been stolen. Our distraction results in lack of attention to the beautiful, glorious God of love. Our distraction also results in failure to give attention to the grace we bear in and for an ecosystem of grace. The outcome for many is that we find ourselves weary, wasting our lives in lonely, trivial pursuits.

Our distraction results in lack of attention to the beautiful, glorious God of love.

But it is not inevitable that we should live distracted, debt-driven, lonely lives—even though we have inherited the isolating cultural structures of our society.22 In noticing and naming what steals our attention, we are empowered to make other choices. We are freed to re-envision our own lives in an ecosystem of grace. Over time, such communities have the capacity to address the kinds of crippling distractions that hold our attention captive: debt, poor health, addictions, and loneliness.

For many of us, the pathway to reclaiming our stolen attention will require a deep reconsideration of the way of life embodied by Jesus and his earliest followers. This invites concrete decisions to share life at a level uncommon in America today, a willingness to face the fears this evokes for people acculturated to radical independence and distraction, and a choice to acknowledge that we are in fact designed for life in an ecosystem of grace.

No simple formula can be constructed for the formation of such communities. Attention to the God who gathers people into new families is all that can ensure the distinctive expression of God’s life in each place.23

Wherever such communities show up in our neighborhoods, not only will they hold our attention, but they will also capture the attention of the people around us who long for life as it was meant to be lived. The lifestyle of love in God is the one reality strong enough, beautiful enough to capture and hold the attention of people in our time. What it takes for people to know God for who God really is has not changed: ecosystems of grace that display the compelling love and multifaceted wisdom of God.

Dr. Kent Smith is CHARIS Professor at Abilene Christian University and has taught there in the Graduate School of Theology since 1991. His teaching and research focus has been in the area of spiritual nurture systems, especially as they relate to new expressions of church. He directs ACU’s graduate internship in missional leadership and has been a trainer for international mission teams over twenty-five years with ACU’s Halbert Institute for Missions. Kent and his wife Karen are founding members of the Eden Community. He can be contacted at

Adapted from a presentation at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 8–10, 2016.

1 James K. A. Smith reviews the case for this understanding of humanity helpfully in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 37–88.

2 See, for example: Jacqueline Howard, “Americans Devote More Than 10 Hours a Day to Screen Time, and Growing,” CNN, Health,

3 Kay Toombs, Changing Our Minds (Elm Mott, Texas: Colloquium Press, 2014), 60–61.

4 See Michael F. Thompson, “Earnings of a Lifetime: Comparing Women and Men with College and Graduate Degrees,” In Context 10, no. 2 (March–April 2009),

5 See, for example, Derek Thompson, “How America Spends Money: 100 Years in the Life of the Family Budget,” The Atlantic, April 5, 2012,

6 Christopher S. Girod, Scott A. Weltz, Susan K. Hart, “The Milliman Medical Index,” Milliman, Thompson, “How America Spends Money,” states: “In short, health care costs are squeezing Americans. But the details of this squeeze elude [a graph]. We are paying for health care with taxes, borrowing, and compensation that goes to health benefits, rather than wages.”

7 For an overview of the issues here, see Union of Concerned Scientists, “Industrial Agriculture: The Outdated, Unsustainable System That Dominates US Food Production,” Food and Agriculture,

8 Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are DONE with Church but Not Their Faith (Colorado Springs: Group Publishing, 2015); Josh Packard, Exodus of the Religious Dones: Research Reveals the Size, Makeup, and Motivations of the Formerly Churched Population (Colorado Springs: Group Publishing, 2015).

9 Scripture quotations are from the New Century Version unless noted otherwise.

10 See, for example, David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000).

11 John H. Elliot, A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 188.

12 I, too, have made use of the common transliteration. See Kent Smith, “Economy of Grace: An Early Christian Take on Vulnerable Mission,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 1 (February 2013),

13 For a broad overview of the use of oikonomia in the earliest Christian centuries, see G. W. H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 940–43.

14 Translations of Ephesians are by the author.

15 Descriptions of the church in Ephesians 1–4 are dominated by the cognates of oikos: God’s house, temple, and household, as well as God’s body. See, e.g., 2:19–22. In 5:23–32 the mystery is further disclosed: this body is Jesus’s Bride.

16 Dr. Monty Lynn of the College of Business, and Brandon Young, architect and design professor, were my co-researchers in this study. Some of our findings are available at:

17 Broadly speaking, the move from thin to thick sharing in each of these assets entails an increase in both awareness of the need to share that asset and the embodiment of that awareness in changing practice. For a helpful introduction to contemporary expressions of thicker community, see Charles Moore, Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People (Walden, New York: Plough, 2016).

18 Although the study began with seven identified assets, the recurring importance of play in the research led to its addition to the list.

19 See, for example, Karl Olav Sandness, A New Family: Conversion and Ecclesiology in the Early Church with Cross-Cultural Comparisons (New York: Lang, 1994).

20 Examples can be found throughout the affluent, developed world of communities voluntarily halving their cost of living. We need not look to intentional Christian communities like Reba Fellowship or the Bruderhof—a walk through a college dorm or retirement village can illustrate the point. Meanwhile, across the majority world and throughout history most people have lived interdependently on far less by necessity.

21 CARA, the Community Asset Review and Assessment is an instrument we have developed to help teams and groups assess their current status as an ecosystem of grace and to plan a path into deeper community. For more information see

22 Each of the attention-draining examples described above are inherently isolating and reinforce our physical isolation from one another. For a brief review of the relationship between friendship, community, and housing, see David Roberts, “How Our Housing Choices Make Adult Friendships More Difficult,”

23 A number of examples of such communities can be found in the groups we profiled in our 2013 study of intentional communities (along with some who made clear they were not explicitly Christian). See footnote 16 above. Diverse as these groups were, however, they cannot begin to span the diversity of ecosystems of God’s grace in our time—which in each case will be a distinctive expression of God’s love, appropriate for that people and place.

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Hospitality As Witness and Power: The Role of Hospitality in Congregational Engagement and Embrace in a Culture of Displacement

In American Christianity, hospitality has not only lost its moral dimensions, it no longer plays an integral role in informing a church’s missiology or ecclesiology. Hospitality has been reduced to cozy dinners with friends or associates who closely resemble the socio-economic status and socio-political worldviews of their hosts. Perhaps more detrimental, hospitality has been relegated as one of many Christian practices from which Christians can choose, a practice most generally situated around various forms of table fellowship. In this paper, I hope to offer a more robust theological framework, one that extends back to the creation narrative, through the Israelite narrative, and is both epitomized in and central to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Hospitality understood in this way necessarily becomes the primal posture of Christian witness in a post-Christian culture and promotes a missiological impulse powerful enough to reorient a congregation to engage holistically and embrace those suffering social displacement due to homelessness, mental illness, and intellectual disability.

Today when our society speaks of hospitality, we do not normally think of a love for strangers, which is the meaning of philoxenia, the biblical Greek word usually translated hospitality. Instead, hospitality arouses images of what Henri Nouwen described as “tea parties, bland conversations and an atmosphere of coziness.”1 A culture of xenophobia pushes back against the impulse to make room for strangers with a welcoming embrace. In a post 9/11 world, fear has cast out love (1 John 4:18), thus relegating Christian hospitality to a romanticized ideal consigned to one of many possible Christian practices rather than an alternative way of being in society. Christine Pohl argues that hospitality has become an industry of business and a practice of relational networking in our upward-mobility-driven system. Yet, this was not the view of hospitality in the early church. The early mothers and fathers of the Christian faith practiced a way of being that welcomed others with relational embrace, including strangers and those incapable of reciprocity.2

They believed that transcending socio-economic and ethnic boundaries by sharing meals, homes, and worship with people of different backgrounds was a significant identity-marker of the Christian faith.3 They extended hospitality to strangers and those incapable of reciprocity by welcoming them into their homes and sharing their resources as a covering of friendship. Early Christian hospitality bore witness to the legitimacy of the Christian faith powerful enough to capture the attention of onlookers.4 This is evident in the comments of the fourth century Roman emperor Julian when he instructed the high priest of the Hellenistic faith to emulate Christianity’s practice of hospitality, and asked, “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?” He commanded that a new government sponsored program be established to distribute food to the poor and that hostels be established in every city for strangers. He wrote: “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.”5

Hospitality was, more than just a practice, a way of being for the early Church. It encompassed the whole person as it addressed the social, emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual dimensions of personhood. To early Christian writers hospitality was a moral obligation brought forth by the inbreaking of God’s kingdom and was a fundamental expression of the gospel and vital for faithful Christian witness.6

For the people of ancient Israel, understanding themselves as strangers and sojourners, with responsibility to care for the vulnerable strangers in their midst, was a significant part of what it meant to be the people of God. Jesus, who was dependent on the hospitality of others during much of his earthly sojourn, also served as the gracious host in his words and in his actions. Those who turned to him found welcome and rest and the promise of reception into the Kingdom. Jesus urged his human hosts to open their banquets and dinner tables to more than family and friends who could return the favor, to give generous welcome to the poor and sick who had little to offer in return. Jesus promised that welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry person, and visiting the sick were acts of personal kindness to the Son of man Himself.7

When the early church extended gracious hospitality to others they were affirming a common humanity brought forth in the reign of grace. We see this taught in Paul’s letters as he urges the Christian community to welcome one another as Christ had welcomed them (Romans 12:13; 15:7). This is the hospitality modeled by his incarnation and is central to the gospel. Therefore, it is essential in our understanding of witness, leadership, and power.

A critical aspect of missional renewal in a post-Christian culture is the recovery of hospitality as an essential ecclesial posture. Taking the incarnation as a theological paradigm, I argue that hospitality is a holistic congregational engagement in witness, homemaking, and leadership. After discussing each dimension of hospitality, I consider barriers to embracing this robust practice of hospitality. Finally, I provide one example of overcoming those barriers.

A critical aspect of missional renewal…is the recovery of hospitality as an essential ecclesial posture.

A Theology of Hospitality

Hospitality begins in creation. In the Genesis narrative we see God making room in his infinite and omnipresent life for a finite and limited creation, including us.8 He did so, not stoically or out of obligation, but in love and out of desire. He embraced us from the moment he first thought of us. As a “homemaking God who creates a world for inhabitation,” he welcomes us into his life to share in all that he is and all that he has, including his good creation.9 Our God is a homemaking, hospitable God, and hospitality is central to his triune being.

Our God is a homemaking, hospitable God, and hospitality is central to his triune being.

Later in the Genesis narrative, the Lord comes to Abraham and Sarah as “three strangers,” and they welcome them to dinner (Gen 18:1–8). In a simple reading of this text one might conclude that Abraham and Sarah extended hospitality. But read in light of the creation narrative, God extends hospitality. All of creation is his, yet he chooses to come and dine with them. The welcome and embrace of God is concrete and particular, as particular as his incarnation, revealed to the world through a Jewish man named Jesus, born in a small town called Bethlehem of a woman named Mary. In the incarnation we see what humanity-affirming, dignity-restoring, homemaking hospitality looks like; we see the hospitality of God.

Matthew wants to be sure we know God’s intention with Jesus from the beginning: he is Immanuel, God with us (Matt 1:23). John tells us that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was both with God and was God. This Word, the divine logic of God, became flesh and took up residence among us. In Jesus the living Word, God, “came to His own,” yet they did not respond as Abraham and Sarah. Jesus was not welcomed. Despite God’s hospitality and willingness to make room for humanity in his life, there was a stubborn refusal to make room for him. Humanity was inhospitable to its hospitable Creator (John 1:1–14).

After pronouncing that God’s kingdom will welcome all who repent and believe, he gathers blue-collar workers as his first apprentices. He invites them to learn the way of God’s welcome alongside him as he teaches the worshippers in synagogues, heals unclean tormented people, journeys through Galilean neighborhoods, touches lepers with his own hand, shows compassion to the vulnerable, and shares a table with sinners (Mark 1:14–20, 23, 27, 29–41; 2:15–17). Jesus challenges the narrow definitions of hospitality and inclusion as he presses his hearers to move outward to the margins of society and welcome those with whom they least desire to have connections, especially those incapable of reciprocity (Luke 14:7–23, Matt 25:31–46). He teaches us not to view people marginalized and displaced by socio-cultural or socio-economic realities as a projects to fix or problems to be solved. Rather, they are to be joined with and welcomed into the presence of a friend, because friendships and places of welcome are where human flourishing takes place. As a friend of sinners Jesus is found in the presence of liars, thieves, prostitutes, and those who do not believe; the rich, the poor, the powerless, and the divorced; the widow, the child, the religious elite, and those left out; the murderer, the immigrant, the racist, and unrepentant. By welcoming and embracing sinners Jesus reveals that contrary to the prevalent religious narratives of exclusion and hospitality, God is willing to make room in his life to welcome all. Home, that is, human flourishing, is found in the welcoming presence of God along with all others who welcome Jesus as Lord. The early Christian writers bear witness to this and summon all others who have received the gospel to do the same. This should affect how we understand and implement the gospel.

Hospitality As Witness

Today we must rediscover the formative nature of Christian witness and move beyond an understanding of witness as mere observation. Witnesses are actively involved in making someone or something known to everyone around them. It is a participatory role, one that presupposes an experience, which in turn necessitates a proclamation or demonstration of that experience for the benefit of others. As we experience God’s welcoming embrace despite our brokenness and ungratefulness, we are compelled to bear witness to this experience by extending his welcome to others where together we make our home with God. As the apostle Paul has said, we welcome one another as Christ welcomed us to the glory of God so that our way of being in the world will overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit working within, between, and among us (Rom 15:7, 13).

Self-serving agendas and strategies to get them “coming to” church are relinquished because the church has formed a different imagination and understanding of witness. A theology of hospitality offers a different way of seeing, which when embraced by a congregation, adequately upholds the prophetic witness of Christ’s church. A witness formed by hospitality subverts the narrativized systems of anxiety, coercion, scarcity and exclusivism. It disrupts the status quo as it tears down walls of division, closes the gaps between between proximity and neighborliness, and makes reconciliation between all people possible.

A witness formed by hospitality…closes the gaps between between proximity and neighborliness.

The church whose posture is formed by hospitality reorganizes her life for the practice of presence with others, trusting that the Spirit of Jesus is mysteriously at work within, between, and among them. As the congregation catches a glimpse of the Spirit’s work it will humbly, boldly, and lovingly bear witness to his work and invite others to see and hear what God is doing and saying. When gathered as a people, the church serves both as gracious host to God and the other while simultaneously receiving the hospitality of God; they make room in their communal life for the other with a welcoming embrace.

Hospitality as witness helps a congregation contextualize the gospel. In listening and being present with others, the church gives up settling for abstract propositions that are disembodied from real life but labeled as gospel. Rather, it will hear where the bad news is felt and known—where the reign of sin and death is clearly having its way in the lives of the socially displaced and marginalized—and bear witness to good news in a way that offers a new vision of life and love where all can be welcomed and at home with God through Jesus Christ as Lord.

Hospitality as Homemaking among the Socially Displaced

Over and again in the biblical corpus God is seen as a gracious and generous homemaker whose hospitality is connected to his sovereign presence and provision.10 From the wilderness of the Exodus to Galilee, God provides sustenance to the hungry and often ungrateful. Like Israel our identity with God includes being displaced foreigners and strangers who are wholly dependent upon his welcome and provision. No longer estranged he has adopted us and called us his children (Gal 4:4–6; Eph 1:4–6). No longer displaced, he has naturalized us as citizens of his kingdom (Eph 2:12–19). If we are like Israel, then our displacement and estrangement also makes us accountable for our treatment of the displaced and estranged. As a people who find ourselves at home with God we are called as a community of hospitality to become homemakers.

Cultivating a culture of hospitality in the congregational context is particularly important in a post-Christian culture of social displacement. A community which embodies hospitality contradicts contemporary messages and systems of coercion and exclusion that tell us who is valuable and invaluable, significant and insignificant, worthy and unworthy. Such a community becomes a sign of hope that proves self-giving love is possible. The church becomes a community where all are included, where the world is not irreversibly categorized between classes, races, genders, sexual preferences, or other identity markers.11 This kind of relentless hope found in communities organized around hospitality as witness allows all people, guests and hosts, to flourish in challenging and transformative ways. The homeless can find a home with a community of hospitality. The mentally ill and intellectually disabled can find importance in a community of hospitality. In such communities, the power center of society has been redetermined, and all are welcomed into a life of cruciform power, because all that we have can be leveraged for the good another as together we make our home with God. If, however, hospitality is to become a fundamental expression of congregational witness, it must become the fundamental expression of congregational leadership.

The homeless can find a home with a community of hospitality.

Hospitality As Leadership

As Jesus came to the end of his earthly ministry he entrusted his work to twelve apprentices. In his practice of hospitality, he taught them that if they were to lead others in and to the kingdom, they must receive hospitality as a way of being. Perhaps this lesson in leadership is most evident when Jesus washes their feet in John 13. I believe the message of this text is much deeper than mere servitude. I suggest it is a text on hospitality as leadership. For the sake of space, I will highlight what I believe is a pivotal phrase that turns us toward considering hospitality as leadership: “And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself” (John 13:3–4).12 Jesus was fully aware of his place, authority, influence, and power. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Instead of leveraging his power to be served, to receive embrace, he leveraged it for the good of everyone else. In this practice of hospitality reserved for a house slave, Jesus made himself vulnerable as their slave by washing their feet. As the incarnation of God, Jesus’s posture was one of hospitality, so it makes sense that his leadership would be grounded in the same. To make sure his apprentices understood what happened, Jesus told them to go and do likewise. Later they would learn that power is cruciformity.

In today’s Christian leadership culture, influence, authority, or power is often referred to as servant leadership. At first this sounds noble, even biblical. We lead by serving. So why doesn’t this work? Why do our notions of servant leadership fail to play out in such a way that it reflects what we see in Jesus? Is it solely based upon hierarchical structures prevalent in the North American Church, or is there more to it? I suggest that, among other implications, this kind of leadership can subtly abrade our innocence and original intentions to serve others, especially in hierarchical leadership structures. The preoccupation to influence others toward a predetermined goal results in a disordered love that gives birth to disordered hospitality. In essence servant leadership easily comes to be about receiving hospitality (by being followed) and less about extending it (by being present to mutually discern the Spirit’s work).

Hospitality as leadership moves beyond serving others. It is less about self-preoccupation and more about self-giving love. It is about making room for others to flourish based upon giftedness. Hospitality as leadership shifts from leading and facilitating projects to facilitating presence. It is leadership as cruciform power. As Jesus washed the disciples feet, death was working in him so that life could work in them. He demonstrates that when leaders view their interaction with others through the cross they seek to place themselves in postures of vulnerability rather than in positions of power. Therefore hospitality as leadership understands things this way: presence first, participation second, proclamation or bearing witness third. Practically speaking, hospitality as leadership is about listening, learning, loving, and only then leading.

Hospitality as leadership shifts from leading and facilitating projects to facilitating presence.

Congregational Barriers to Hospitality and Home-making

Churches both have cultures and are cultures.13 If a congregation is to embrace hospitality as witness as a homemaking community for the socially displaced, it must confront significant barriers to hospitality and homemaking, including authorizing narratives and plausibility structures at work in the culture of the congregation. Authorizing narratives are the shared experiences or stories that possess authority in the life of the congregation.14 On another level, plausibility structures are culturally shared realities, or systems of meaning, that determine what a given society will accept as plausible—whether or not it is believable or makes any sense—in terms of beliefs and behaviors.15 Each play a role in creating the practices and values that form the church’s common life and missional orientation. In some cases these practices and values result in structures (i.e., programs and institutional commitments) that obstruct hospitality from becoming an ecclesial posture.

Like people, most congregations are unaware of their culture until it is challenged, until they experience a new one, or until it is made explicit. In my experience, nothing challenges congregational cultures more than the socially displaced and marginalized. Listening is a key practice for leaders who wish to open themselves to this challenge. Listening allows the congregation’s leadership to learn the unobservable and observable elements of culture. Listening also helps the leadership learn how to lovingly navigate the consequences of extending the welcoming embrace to the socially displaced and marginalized. This requires the congregation’s leadership to constantly push back against the default impulse of vision casting and persuasion from a top-down approach. Then the hard work of facilitating a culture of listening—whereby the Spirit can be discerned through the voices, concerns, fears, and excitement of his people—can begin. There are several listening practices a congregation’s leadership can employ, such as ethnography and Appreciative Inquiry, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss them.

Nothing challenges congregational cultures more than the socially displaced and marginalized.

Ultimately, if the socially displaced and marginalized are to be welcomed and embraced by the church, a reorganization of priorities will be necessary as the congregation shifts from program-centered practices to the practice of faithful presence. When hospitality becomes the posture of the church and forms the congregation into a homemaking community, a new kind of Spirit-birthed power will overflow from within. Just as the gospel was born on the margins of the Galilean society, so too the church is reborn at the margins of its own society. Hospitality as witness and leadership leads the church to shine the light of Christ throughout its city as a prophetic witness of the inbreaking kingdom of God, and the dominant categories and systems within a culture of displacement will be subverted.

Williamsburg Christian Church and 3e Restoration Incorporated

The journey toward hospitality and homemaking began for Williamsburg Christian Church (Williamsburg, VA) six years ago, one year after my arrival to serve as a pastor. At the time, it was a program-centered church in steady decline, deep in financial debt, but unwaveringly committed to loving one another. They were what some might call a “country church.” The church was in need of new life—of missional renewal.

After I asked the congregation to join me and my wife in walking from homelessness to holistic sufficiency with a set of grandparents, a daughter, and her infant son, we began experiencing missional renewal as a church. Men and women within the congregation began exploring how their vocation could be leveraged to equip this family toward holistic sufficiency. Others were simply seeking to be present with the family over lunches and dinners, while others offered transportation to various places or to help them take the necessary steps in the transition from homeless to housed. Challenges and conflict from within the church developed as underlying assumptions, taken-for-granted values, and stereotypes were uncovered. The culture of our church was becoming observable we began shifting away from facilitating programs to facilitating presence. A shared leadership approach was formed as we learned new listening practices to navigate the change in mutually submissive ways. Old authorizing narratives and plausibility structures resistant to change were confronted as new narratives created new movements that allowed us to establish new plausibility structures. Missional renewal was taking place, and it was happening from the margins. Consequently, men and women living through homelessness heard they could find a home with us, and so they have. This includes two group homes of mentally ill and intellectually disabled adults that were recently asked to leave two different local churches, making them socially displaced in a unique way. Now they have a home with us.

Word of what God was doing in Williamsburg Christian Church went out into the city, not only in the wooded areas, hotels, and under bridges where the socially displaced dwell, but into the business community and other faith communities. As Williamsburg Christian Church continued soliciting local businesses to provide various professional services and resources at free or discounted rates for our friends living through homelessness, a network of professional coaches developed. Christians and non-Christians alike began asking how they could leverage their vocational expertise to alleviate homelessness. Financial advisors, dentists, therapists, attorneys, job-training specialists, and other professional services necessary for the socially displaced to find healing on all human dimensions joined us in this Spirit-led work of hospitality and homemaking. A Restoration Process was eventually formed to guide our socially displaced friends living through this particular journey toward holistic sufficiency.

After walking with a few families out of homelessness and bearing witness to God’s restorative work among us, a twenty-church interfaith collaborative approached Williamsburg Christian Church to learn about our approach. They wanted us to equip each member church to walk with people living through homelessness to holistic sufficiency. So we did. Our collaboration led to the formation of a nonprofit organization called 3e Restoration Incorporated, which equips, empowers, and encourages local churches to walk in relationship with friends and families in need as they transition from homelessness to holistic sufficiency. Our work facilitates presence as a people of hospitality and homemaking rather than a program-driven approach. Hospitality in the name of Jesus is a dignity-restoring, homemaking practice that can begin healing the whole person—socially, emotionally, cognitively, physically, and spiritually.

Hospitality in the name of Jesus is a dignity-restoring, homemaking practice.

Only three years old, 3e Restoration is staffed by two full-time employees working to actively equip seven local churches spanning four denominations in Williamsburg, Virginia, to become communities of hospitality and homemaking for the socially displaced. 3e Restoration’s work now extends to Dallas, Texas, and Fredericksburg, Virginia, where three local churches spanning two denominations are learning to become communities of hospitality and homemaking.

Our little congregation called Williamsburg Christian Church is still learning and growing. We are the mentally ill, the intellectually disabled, the homeless, the formerly homeless, the addicted, the recovering, the wealthy, the poor, the widows, the married, the never-been-married, and the divorced; we are the working, the unemployed, the young, and the old; we are private citizens, public servants, the “from-here’s” and the “come-here’s”; we are the wandering, the confused, the certain, the abused, the abandoned, and the hopeful; we are the struggling, the privileged, the prideful, the humble, the entitled, and the forgotten. But above all we are learning how to be loved by the Lord of heaven and earth and are discovering that our identity is in something greater than these labels most often ascribed to us. We know that we have been broken and bruised by sin, but we also know that in Jesus we have been given new life by the holy Breath of God. So we’ve decided to live as a committed family of witnesses to God’s gracious hospitality, and together we find our home with him as we proclaim with our lips and lives that Jesus is Lord.

Fred Liggin is a multi-vocational pastor at Williamsburg Christian Church, founder and president of 3e Restoration Inc., and a mission specialist for church renewal with Mission Alive. He is currently pursuing a DMin in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary.

Adapted from a presentation at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 8–10, 2016.

1 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1975), 66.

2 Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 4.

3 Ibid.

4 See Aristides, Apology 15, and Justin Martyr, First Apology of Justin 67.

5 Julian, The Works of the Emperor Julian, Vol. 3, trans. Wilmer C. Wright, Loeb Classical Library 157 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913), 67–71.

6 Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 8:8–10. See also John Chrysostom, Homily 45 on Acts; Homily 14 on 1 Timothy; and Homily 66 on Matthew.

7 Pohl, 5.

8 The following is my own reading, though others have also argued that creation is a divine act of hospitality. See, e.g., Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to Christian Spiritual Life, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 135; and Veli-Matti Karkkainen, A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, vol. 3, Creation and Humanity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 73.

9 Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 14. I owe the language of “homemaking God” to the authors of this insightful work.

10 God’s sovereign presence and provision is especially evident in Gen 18:9–15, 1 Kgs 17–18, and 2 Kgs 4 where the practice of hospitality led to a tangible sign of God’s redemptive activity, resulting in a blessing for all involved.

11 Pohl, 10–11.

12 Scripture quotations are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

13 By culture, I refer to the underlying assumptions, collective memories built upon shared experiences, taken-for-granted values, definitions and languages, expectations, conscious norms, rituals and symbols, artifacts, and explicit behaviors that shape the common life both embraced and pursued by the congregation. See Kim S. Cameron and Robert E. Quinn, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 2011), 14–21. In particular, the language of “taken-for-granted values” and “conscious norms” is based upon The Competing Values Framework proposed by the authors.

14 I first heard the term authorizing narratives from Dr. Mark Love throughout various lectureships at Rochester College. However, my understanding of how authorizing narratives work in congregational formation builds upon systems thinking, a contextualized variation of Murray Bowen’s eight concepts of family systems theory in Michael E. Kerr, One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory (Washington, DC: The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, 2000) and Appreciative Inquiry as set forth by Frank J. Barrett and Ronald E. Fry, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity (Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos Institute, 2005) and Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). Performing ethnography as pastoral practice with these three theories in view uncovers a unified interest between meaning-making and power, social relations, and the interactions between humans and institutional processes, thereby forming a unique socio-cultural anthropology for congregational life. I believe there is a distinction between social imaginary and authorizing narrative. Alan J. Roxburgh, in his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, brilliantly applies social imaginaries to congregational formation and demonstrates how they shape the congregation’s imagination for mission. For Roxburgh social imaginaries “create a taken-for-granted set of common assumptions about our normal expectations and common understandings around how things work and how we’re supposed to act in the world” (59). My view is that authorizing narratives play a significant role in the construction and deconstruction of a congregation’s social imaginary and will serve to either stabilize or destabilize plausibility structures.

15 My understanding of plausibility structures has been largely shaped by the work of Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, NY: Random House, 1990) and Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989) who, when read together, offer a more robust understanding for cultural change strategies. Where Berger falls short in analyzing the role of the institutional frameworks (not institutionalization arising from habitualization) by leaning principally upon the role discourse analysis, Newbigin fills the gaps. However, where Newbigin falls short on the role of discourse analysis, Berger fills the gaps. When the two are read together in light of socio-cultural analysis, the interplay between discourse, habitualization, communal practices, and institutional frameworks coalesce into a broader understanding of why a congregation resists or submits to change.