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Perspectives on the Missio Ecclesiae: A Review Essay

Greg McKinzie

This essay reviews the perspectives presented in two recent volumes, The Mission of the Church: Five Views in Conversation and Four Views on the Church’s Mission. The author explains and critiques each author’s approach in light of the double criterion of trinitarian theology and pragmatic consequence. The essay concludes by plotting the diverse perspectives in a graphic synopsis that highlights the need for a dialectical understanding of the church’s participation in God’s mission.

The recent publication of two books on the mission of the church provokes this essay, in which I will review both volumes and suggest a synoptic view of the perspectives they present. The first book—The Mission of the Church: Five Views in Conversation, edited by Craig Ott—features chapters by Stephen B. Bevans, Darrell L. Guder, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Edward Rommen, and Ed Stetzer.1 The second book—Four Views on the Church’s Mission, edited by Jason S. Sexton—features chapters by Jonathan Leeman, Christopher J. H. Wright, John R. Franke, and Peter J. Leithart.2 Singly, each is a useful introduction to the multidimensional theological dispute about mission. Together, they complement each other, providing a fuller vision of the issues at stake. Before reviewing each work, I will briefly lay out the context of the question that both books aim to answer: What is the mission of the church?

This question has not arisen in a vacuum. Indeed, the question itself is problematic in view of the historical and theological shifts that have precipitated the current discussion. The title of this essay employs a Latin phrase that has come to symbolize the major fault line in the discussion: missio ecclesiae (the mission of the church) is distinct from missio Dei (the mission of God).3 The conceptual differentiation, which emerged in contemporary missiology from an effort to relocate the church’s mission in God’s own life and work, ironically betokens the great difficulty of articulating just how, in practice, the church’s life and work relates to God’s. For all the theological heft of the claim that the mission is God’s, churches must still give an account of what they do and, in particular, how that relates to God’s mission. In my view, the importance of this task can be measured in proportion to the church’s ability to go on doing whatever it will do in the name of its mission, regardless of any reference to God’s mission. In other words, if the claim that the mission is God’s makes no difference for what the church does in “mission”—if the church would go on doing the same things in any case—then we have yet to understand how missio ecclesiae and missio Dei truly relate.

This is a properly theological problem, not only in that missio Dei is a trinitarian doctrine but also in that whatever one might say about the mission of the church, the crux of the matter is that one must account for God’s being and act. Mission is theological all the way down; if not, “the mission of the church” ceases to be either really mission or really of the church. The criterion with which I read these essays on the mission of the church, then, is thoroughly theological. At the same time, my criterion must be practical: at the end of the day, mission is an event. Mission happens. This happening, this mission, in the life of the church must be related to God’s own mission. Yet, although I say practical, I do not say mission is a practice, or even an action. Rather, by practical I mean pragmatic, in the philosophical sense—as in, concerned with the question, “What concrete practical difference would it make if my theory were true and its rival(s) false?”4 To speak of the mission of the church is to grapple with imminent realities pertaining to God, the church, and the world and their actual interactions on the ground. With this double criterion I turn to my reviews.

The Mission of the Church

Craig Ott’s introduction to the discussion is quite useful despite its brevity (or perhaps because of it!). It provides historical context for the discussion by way of a brief overview of the Mainline Protestant/Ecumenical, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, and Eastern Orthodox perspectives to follow. These “approaches” are respectively labeled “prophetic dialogue” (Bevans—Roman Catholic), “multicultural and translational” (Guder—Mainline Protestant), “integral transformation” (Padilla DeBorst—Evangelical), “sacramental vision” (Rommen—Eastern Orthodox), and “evangelical kingdom community” (Stetzer—Evangelical). Each author addresses the others’ perspectives in short response chapters at the end of the book.

Ott does not attempt to mediate, synthesize, or extrapolate—his role is to frame the discussion and select the participants. These decisions are significant, however, as both the strengths and limitations of the book hinge on the contributors’ answers to the issue as Ott frames questions about it: “How are we to understand the mission of the church?” becomes “What precisely is the missionary nature of the church? What are those purposes for which God sends the church into the world, and how is the church to fulfill them? In what ways is the church to be an agent or sacrament of God’s redemptive purposes for the world?” (ix–x). Not only does the meaning of alternative answers arise from the particularity of the authors’ perspectives, but one’s overall view of the problem is a function of which perspectives are included and excluded. The selection of respondents sheds light from different angles, which perhaps also draws attention to the other angles that are absent in this volume (and to the benefit of reading it alongside the other volume reviewed here). It matters a great deal, for example, that Ruth Padilla DeBorst brings both a Majority World and a female perspective. Likewise, the inclusion of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox perspectives in answer to a question that has taken shape in a primarily Protestant and Evangelical context is of consequence. Space is always limited, and such decisions are never easy, precisely because we must question them once they are made. As it stands, I find the range and quality of perspectives Ott has assembled to be quite compelling.

In the first chapter, Bevans concisely articulates the prophetic dialogue approach that he has developed extensively elsewhere. Those familiar with Bevans’s work will quickly recognize that one of the book’s achievements is the distillation of extensive literature into fairly concise chapters, which in turns makes comparison on key points far more convenient. The economy of each author’s contribution does not oversimplify their perspectives but rather helps to unclutter them. Bevans is clear from the first sentence that the question is how “to think about and engage in the Triune God’s mission of salvation in creation and history” (3). Prophetic dialogue is a synthesis of mission “as participation in the life and mission of the Triune God,” “as engaging in the liberating service of the reign of God,” and “as the proclamation of Jesus Christ as universal Savior,” (4) which Bevans takes to correspond to Orthodox, Ecumenical, and Evangelical emphases. In this sense, he has already attempted to account for the major streams of thought that the other chapters will represent, even if they do not fall exactly along the lines Bevans assumes.

The greatest strength of the prophetic dialogue approach is its dialectical nature, what Bevans calls “Catholicism’s ‘both-and’ character” (5). Mission is both prophecy and dialogue but also both a way “to think about and engage in the Triune God’s mission” (3) and a way “to think about and practice mission” (5). As my trinitarian-practical criterion suggests, the ability to maintain the latter tension (God’s mission and the church’s practice) is vital. It remains to be seen just how Bevans does so. The prophecy–dialogue tension is the chapter’s main thesis, of course. Mission is “a kind of continuum with dialogue on one side and prophecy on the other. Each context determines where the emphasis will be placed as the church engages in its missionary work” (9). On one side of the continuum is dialogue: “a basic attitude, indeed a kind of spirituality that underlies every aspect of mission”—“our basic stance is openness, an attitude of respect, listening, and docility (i.e., teachableness)” (6). On the other end is prophecy: “mission is ultimately about sharing the good news of God’s reign with the peoples of the world” (7). Yet, prophecy is a holistic endeavor, both nonverbal and verbal. On the one hand, it is “incarnated in the witness” (7) of Christians, so that “church communities are signs of the already present reign of God and give testimony to the merciful, life-giving, and true God revealed in Jesus” (8). On the other hand, Christians also “speak forth a message of encouragement and hope” and “speak out in all sorts of ways against the evil in society” (8). This essential tension established, Bevans summarizes “six elements or practices of mission, each of which has a dialogical component and a prophetic one” (10). The titles of these are fairly straightforward if one keeps in mind Bevans’s Catholicism: (1) witness and proclamation; (2) liturgy, prayer, and contemplation; (3) justice, peace, and the integrity of creation; (4) interfaith, secular (and ecumenical) dialogue; (5) inculturation; and (6) reconciliation.

Bevans next turns to “Trinitarian Foundations,” followed by “Scriptural Foundations.” By his own admission, the latter—passages from Luke and Paul that Bevans takes to illustrate mission as prophetic dialogue—need further work. I will focus here on the way he unpacks the claim made under the former heading that “much more deeply, the practice of prophetic dialogue is the full participation in God’s trinitarian life and mission” (13). This turns out to be an essentially pneumatological claim. Bevans develops it in relation to the Spirit’s general presence and work in creation and history and special presence and work in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. The culmination of this line of reasoning is that the

dialogical nature of God was revealed especially in Jesus’s death and resurrection, where God’s love for the world was poured out fully and then shared abundantly with Jesus’s disciples as they are called to participate in God’s very mission through the pouring forth of God’s Spirit upon them (see the whole movement of Acts, and especially Acts 2). God’s saving and redemptive purposes in creation and history, accomplished in a creative prophetic dialogue, had been worked out in the history of Israel and in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through the Spirit, the church became God’s agent, God’s partner even, in fulfilling God’s saving purpose. (14)

The agency or partnership of the church—the church’s action in mission—relates to God’s presence and action in the word “through the Spirit.” Furthermore, this relationship is predicated on the “nature of God” revealed in Jesus, which is Bevans’s unique spin on social Trinitarianism: “God not only practices prophetic dialogue in God’s saving presence and action in creation and history; God is in God’s very self a communion of prophetic dialogue. In baptism, Christians are plunged into this communion and are called to share God’s life of dialogue and prophecy within the created world and in human history” (14–15). Participation in God’s mission through the Spirit is, then, realized sacramentally. In turn, the church itself becomes sacramental—in the words of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, “the church is ‘like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race’ ” (15).

In the second chapter, Guder lays out his multicultural and translational approach. He begins by referring to “the broadly affirmed consensus on the missio Dei as the central and comprehensive definition of the church’s purpose and action” (22). Of course, the very existence of the book to which Guder is contributing brings the claim of consensus into sharp doubt. The fact is that despite the ubiquity of reference to missio Dei among a broad field of traditions (in part because of Guder’s own work), there is no single definition of God’s mission, much less a consensus on how such a definition would clarify the church’s mission. That is precisely the problem and the book’s raison d’etre! To say, as Guder does, that “this priority of God’s mission locates the church within God’s purposes and ongoing activity in human history, and it constitutes an implicit critique of approaches to the church and its mission that make the church an end in itself” (22) falls far short of specifying what those purposes and that ongoing activity are and just how the church might be located “within” them. I do not dispute the claim that many serious mission scholars share this “sense of theological priority” (22), but as consensus goes, it is threadbare.

Fortunately, what the reader is looking for instead of a claim to consensus is what Guder ultimately has to offer: his perspective on what it means to say the church’s mission is located within God’s mission. His answer is an essentially Barthian one: “Witness is the biblical concept that draws together all the strands of the church’s purpose and action” (22). The adjectives multicultural and translational modify Guder’s conception of witness, which he also glosses as contextualization: “the vastly complex process by which the witness of the called and sent community is formed for particular cultural contexts so that the witness mandate is faithfully carried out from one cultural setting to the next” (22). The critical point, however, is that the Barthian notion of witness serves to mark an absolute hiatus between the work of God and the witness of the church. God does the work—the church merely witnesses to it. Even the act of translation is the work of the Spirit: “it is the Spirit’s empowering work to enable the articulation of the gospel in every culture, as it is translated by faithful witnesses carrying out the apostolic mission” (23). This is as close as Guder comes to discussing the mission of the church in terms that might be called a thick account of divine-human cooperation. Thus, the reader will not find in Guder’s contribution the kinds of phrases to describe the work of the church that crop up in other chapters, such as “continuing Jesus’s mission in the world” (Bevans, 15), “extension of Jesus’s ministry” (Padilla DeBorst, 44), or “manifest and advance God’s kingdom on earth” (Stetzer, 92), much less the divine-human synergism of Orthodox theosis (Rommen, 79–80). All the church does is witness, with its concomitant acts of translation.

Furthermore, the emphasis in Guder’s perspective falls on the nature and identity of the church rather than its action—he would rather say that the church is missional than that the church does mission. Hence, he characterizes the multicultural and translational approach through a missional interpretation of the Nicene marks of the church—the adjectives one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. I leave the assessment of the particulars to the reader. The upshot, in any case, is that when apostolic refers to “the apostolic mission of making the gospel known through the formation of witnessing communities” (24) and catholic refers to the “multicultural character of the missional church” (25), then “the holiness of the church is reoriented toward the actual practice of empowered missional witness” (30). The phrase “actual practice of empowered witness” might give one hope that some specification of what the church does to witness will be forthcoming. But Guder continues:

The work of the Holy Spirit from Pentecost onwards has been to equip the human and often frail company of God’s people to carry out their vocation. Their holiness then consists of all that God’s Spirit does in, with, and through them to ensure that “grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). Just as the church is not an end in itself but the divinely called instrument of God’s saving mission, the spirituality of the Christian person and the Christian community is also not an end in itself. This equipping for holiness . . . serves both the apostolicity of the missional church and its practiced catholicity by drawing the church ever more deeply and comprehensively into the service of God’s healing mission. (30)

What does the service of God’s healing mission entail? Guder does not say. Even as the discussion of holiness turns to “the discipling of the ethnicities,” (31) the discussion oddly lacks a subject. Who does the discipling and what does the activity consist of? Guder responds, “In effect, the Gospels demonstrate what discipling actually consists of: learning Jesus by living with him, listening to him, imitating his actions, and memorizing his teaching” (32). Oddly, these are all the actions of the disciple, not the discipler, as though discipleship were a do-it-yourself process, confirming again Guder’s reticence to specify what one does in apostolic mission. Indeed, he suggests that “gospel witness works itself out” through “the formation of witnessing communities” (32). The formation of communities with missional characteristics results in witness working itself out. This is ultimately in keeping with Guder’s Barthian conception of witness, but I find it striking that the formation of the church is the real work in view here—an observation that perhaps explains why Guder is so emphatic that “the church is not an end in itself but the divinely called instrument” (30). It is easy to take the church for an end in itself when the most concrete missional action in view is the formation of the church.5 Guder’s prefered metaphor for the church “within” the mission of God—instrument—is indicative of the passivity that his perspective seems to assume.

For Guder, witness is a consequence of the church’s existence as the church, and the church’s existence is missional because witness is its consequence. The only question is whether the witness of the missional church is contextualized. The multicultural and translational approach to mission entails the contextualization of the local church’s witness; the mission of the church is to be formed contextually.

In the third chapter, Padilla DeBorst advocates an integral transformation approach. Of the perspectives represented in the two volumes reviewed here, Padilla DeBorst’s is both the only female voice and the only Majority World voice. Some readers may also find it noteworthy that both Padilla DeBorst and Stetzer identify as Evangelicals. Whereas Bevans, Guder, and Rommen each represent distinct, major Christian traditions, Ott features two Evangelical alternatives. Giving integral transformation its own place correctly signals the approach’s distinctiveness, however. I will return to the contrast between Padilla Deborst’s and Stetzer’s perspectives once I have discussed both.

The chapter does a nice job of surveying the historical context of the approach’s development within the Evangelical mainstream, particularly among Latin American missiologists. The integral transformation approach challenges the “Western, dualist, socially unengaged, and otherworldly looking Christianity” (50) that twentieth-century Evangelical missions in particular promulgated. It is, above all, a holistic approach to mission, not given to the excesses of either Evangelical conversionist church planting or Latin American liberation theology. Somewhere between these two major influences, participation in God’s mission “has to do with the transformation of human life in all its dimensions, not only the individual or sacred, but also the social and secular” (52).

Theologically, Padilla DeBorst contends that her approach’s “grounding is trinitarian, having to do with God’s kingdom, Jesus’s life and ministry, and the ever-present work of the Spirit” (44). Thus, “mission lived as an extension of Jesus’s ministry” (44) has a trinitarian structure: “mission is carried out by all the people of God who recognize they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus in living into the kingdom of God in their everyday lives” (61). “Prophetic embodiment of the gospel” (58) is the phrase that perhaps best captures this vision of imitating Jesus’s participation in God’s mission, by the power of the Spirit, by “being, doing, and saying” (44) expressions of God’s reign. The integral transformation approach puts flesh on the bones of Guder’s contextualized witness, insisting that “through the work of the Spirit, the church is called to prophetically embody the good news today” (59).

Ultimately, God’s mission is “integral redemption: that all people may enjoy the life in abundance that God intends through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit” (52). To say, then, that “the vocation of the church in history is derived from God’s mission (missio Dei)” is to say that the church’s mission is to be, do, and say what “carries out” that integral transformation—by the power of the Holy Spirit. In my analysis, this is a usefully practical expression of what the church does in mission. Furthermore, it is appropriately qualified by a trinitarian framing. Nonetheless, the burden of the trinitarian qualification falls on the church’s imitation of Jesus, so it is not evident how a truly trinitarian theology animates the integral transformation account of the church’s mission. How is the ongoing missio Dei conceived, and how does the church’s being, doing, and saying relate? Bevans’s attention to God’s triune life and the church’s union with God is an illuminating contrast.

In the fourth chapter, Edward Rommen lays out a sacramental vision approach from the Eastern Orthodox perspective. Appropriately named, sacrament—especially the Eucharist—is at the heart of this perspective, but it is a vision of sacrament rooted in an understanding of salvation as theosis—“becoming increasingly and finally completely like God in his personhood and character” (71). “We understand the primary task of mission,” says Rommen, “to be personally introducing Christ to those who do not yet know him so that they, through faith, can enter into communion with him and begin the journey to salvation” (69). In short, communion leads to salvation, so the mission of the church is to be the place where communion is made possible.

Mission is profoundly church-centered from this perspective, in the sense that the sacraments are administered in the assembly of the church. Although church members are “dismissed into the world as witness of what they have seen,” the invitation to “come and see” is the essential paradigm of mission (77). Positively, the sacramental vision approach prioritizes relationship over information in evangelism: “Whatever else it might be, the mission of the church involves the facilitation of a personal encounter with the Lord of life, Jesus Christ” (78). This sacramental encounter, however, can only happen in the context of the church’s authorized celebration of the Eucharist. There is a significant tension here: on the one hand, those to whom the presence of Christ is mediated through the Eucharist can “extend the liturgy into the non-ecclesial or pre-ecclesial world around them,” but on the other hand, the real saving encounter with Jesus only takes place “in the eucharistic assembly” (81).

The upshot of this construal is that church planting is extremely important, but only those with the apostolic authority to administer the Eucharist can plant legitimate churches. That is, “ecclesial authority or legitimacy” (87) is a matter of apostolic succession. This stricture seems to be what typically causes Protestant missiology to screen out Eastern Orthodoxy more even than it does Catholicism. The concern for both apostolic legitimacy and sacramental encounter—Rommen usefully coins the phrase “ecclesio-sacramental integrity” (84)—certainly characterizes the sacramental vision’s unique approach to mission.

Yet, the chapter’s more interesting distinctive, in my view, is the place of theosis. It constitutes a major addition to the book for two reasons. First, Rommen’s discussion of theosis relies more substantively on a trinitarian theology than any other perspective. Here, the social trinitarianism of John Zizioulas plays a major role. Regardless of the conflict between classical and social views of the Trinity (fueled in part by Zizioulas’s work), Rommen foregrounds the potential of trinitarian theology for fleshing out one’s view of the church’s mission.

Second, the chapter reveals how the sacramental vision puts limits on the missional implications of theosis.6 For Rommen, theosis is an understanding of the consequence of mission (i.e., salvation), not an understanding of mission itself. Rommen explains the distinction with reference to the Eucharist. If sacrament is not rightly administered, “the special manifestation of Christ is not present” (84), without which theosis is not sustained. The special presence—Christ himself available in the Eucharist—that nourishes theosis is, in other words, precisely what is lacking outside the context of ecclesio-sacramental integrity. In contrast, the theology of missio Dei typically conceives of mission as, in some way, attending to the saving presence of God in the world beyond the church assembly. Thus, the presence/absence binary in the sacramental vision approach marks the key difference between theosis as salvation and theosis as mission. Rommen almost finds a mediating position in his discussion of the maturity (i.e., progress in theosis) necessary to “introduce Christ to someone else”:

It is only the mature believer who is in a position to initiate communion in a field of human-human presence by being fully present to others. The very act of inviting becomes a form of humble service, an unmistakable expression of love, given and received in complete freedom. It includes the ability to challenge another person’s beliefs while at the same time showing oneself to be a servant; the ability to direct attention to Christ’s presence in the witness’s own life without focusing on the self; and the ability to call the other to an abandonment of self-love while demonstrating a self-emptying love of other. (86)

The presence of the witness allows the witness to direct the other’s attention to Christ’s presence in the witness’s life. This comes close to a claim that Christ is present in the missional encounter with the other, but inviting-to-assembly is still the operative paradigm. How could it be otherwise, when the presence of Christ in the witness’s life is only derivative of Christ’s special Eucharistic presence? The implications of theosis as union with Christ still need to be worked out missiologically, and the inclusion of the sacramental vision approach greatly enlivens that possibility.

In the fifth chapter, Ed Stetzer articulates the evangelical kingdom community approach. Stetzer, the Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, undoubtedly represents the American mainstream Evangelical understanding of the church’s mission: “God’s people are to participate in the divine mission to manifest and advance God’s kingdom on earth through the means of sharing and showing the gospel of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ” (92). The crux of this definition is its notion of the divine mission: manifestation and advancement of the kingdom. Thus, although Stetzer begins with the same ecumenical missio Dei concept from which Guder works, God’s mission is essentially an objective task, not a trinitarian reality. Notwithstanding Stetzer’s assertion that “sending is part of [God’s] very nature,” his emphasis falls squarely on the idea that “God has a mission”—a “purpose,” “agenda,” and “plan” (97–99). This to-do is what the church undertakes when it participates in God’s mission.

The accent falls, therefore, on the agency of the church. Indeed, this is an intentional, corrective move: “While evangelicals have been helped by recognizing that, by and large, mission belongs to God, they have not forgotten that God calls the church to be the primary agent in his mission” (92). There is a pneumatology at work that softens this claim: “The church is born as a result of the Spirit’s mission, and the Spirit empowers the church for its mission as it participates in God’s mission” (105). Nonetheless, “God’s mission is to advance his kingdom” (100), and “Scripture bears witness that God advances his kingdom in this age through the lives of people” (103). The role of the church as the primary agent of the kingdom is the key distinctive of Stetzer’s perspective.

How, then, does the church know it is fulfilling God’s purpose? As with Padilla DeBorst’s approach, imitation is key. Stetzer characterizes imitation as “joining in Jesus’s mission,” which includes saving and serving. Saving refers to personal evangelism and church planting. Serving refers to works of justice and acts of mercy. While this might look like the holism that Padilla Deborst wants, the approach aims to correct the tendency of ecumenical missio Dei theology to be overpowered by modernist ideologies (capitalism, Marxism, etc.), to which Stetzer adds “the social gospel, liberation theology, and solidarity with the poor.” He adds, “These movements all but supplanted mission with social action by defining kingdom—and how kingdom is bigger than the church—primarily as societal transformation” (106). His warning demonstrates the extent to which mainstream Evangelicalism, in contrast to that represented by Padilla DeBorst, is still reacting to the perceived threats of theological liberalism, even to the extent that Stetzer would identify “solidarity with the poor” as a movement that supplants mission.

Assuming my trinitarian-practical criterion, the obvious strength of Stetzer’s perspective is its ability to satisfy the practical dimension. By objectifying mission as God’s agenda, the evangelical kingdom community understanding of mission has no problem specifying what the church does in mission. Unfortunately, by the same token, it obscures God’s triune agency and reduces participation in God’s mission to “advancing the kingdom,” however Evangelicals might define that work. A useful contrast arises from setting the evangelical kingdom community approach alongside the others in this volume: the church’s agency may be conceptualized in relation to God’s purpose or in relation to God’s being. Focusing on the former tends to obscure God’s own agency. A stronger focus on God’s being tends to foreground God’s agency and thereby problematizes the church’s mission in the way that missio Dei theology should—particularly for those traditions that have frequently engaged in a kind of kingdom building that retrospectively looks like imperialism. Stetzer, who is aware of this tendency, ends the chapter by appealing to Newbigin’s “sign and instrument” language. It is not clear to me that the passivity of this rhetoric does justice to the strong agency the rest of the chapter portrays or that it is sufficient to counterbalance the reality of Evangelical missions that the chapter accurately represents.

The brief response chapters that follow extend the discussion in inconsistently useful ways. Some of the responses are a masterclass in ecumenical dialogue, demonstrating both graciousness and critical engagement. At the same time, there is a significant amount of reiteration. At other points, the authors make productive additions. Bevans, for example, goes into further discussion of the Trinity. Padilla DeBorst makes more of the uniqueness of her perspective as a Latina. And Stetzer makes clearer that, in his view, holism does indeed lead to the neglect of evangelism. Overall, I was satisfied with both the quality and selection of the approaches in The Mission of the Church. There were, however, some gaps in the discussion that the next book helps fill.

Four Views on the Church’s Mission

Typical of a volume in Zondervan’s Counterpoints Series, the scope of Four Views on the Church’s Mission is narrower than the preceding work. Sexton calls it “an intra-evangelical conversation seeking to bring mission and church more closely together” (12). Hence, the book bears out the observation—already signaled by the two Evangelical authors and the Evangelical editor of the former work—that the debate about mission is nowhere livelier and more diverse than among Evangelicals. Perhaps surprisingly, the Evangelical approaches in Four Views map onto the gamut of approaches already discussed. Rather than overloading the Evangelical corner of the table with nuance, Sexton hosts a conversation that demonstrates how Evangelicals fall along the entire spectrum and fill it out.

Sexton’s introduction specifies the major problematic dimensions of Evangelical missions (corporatism and colonialism), identifies the main theological problem (the gap between the being of the church and the doing of mission), and summarizes the key to the whole discussion (“whether mission is an expansive thing or a reduced thing” [13]). The four views are respectively labeled “soteriological mission” (Leeman), “participatory mission” (Wright), “contextual mission” (Franke), and “sacramental mission” (Leithart). Each contribution is followed by short responses by the other three authors.

In the first chapter, Leeman represents the soteriological mission view that contends “the threat of God’s eternal wrath is the most urgent matter of all” (30). It is “probably fair to label me the book’s fundamentalist,” he says, though the chapter is full of finesse. Leeman parses “narrow mission” and “broad mission,” making a place for both. “In a phrase, the broad mission is to be disciples or citizens, and the narrow mission is to make disciples or citizens” (20). He characterizes this distinction as two separate biblical storylines, the kingly and the priestly. “The kingly story suggests that the church possesses a broad mission: to image God in everything; to live as just and righteous dominion-enjoying sons of the king” (26). Here there is room for justice and mercy in mission. In the priestly story, “God has authorized churches to mediate his judgments in the declaration of salvation and in the separation of a people unto himself in spite of all their sins and rebellion. Narrowly speaking, then, the mission of the church, in some sense of that word, is to make disciples by declaring or mediating God’s judgments, which it does through gospel proclamation, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and instruction” (29). Narrow mission, therefore, is evangelism and church work.

It is a relief to see such nuance, but ultimately Leeman’s is an exercise in prioritization. The issue is urgency: “At this moment of redemptive history, what does humanity most urgently need to be saved from?” (21). The point is that “our answer will impact what we think the church is sent to do” (22), and the holistic answer is wrong. The need to be saved “physically, politically, economically, and socially” is not as urgent as the need to be saved from God’s wrath. Leeman gives this prioritization an eschatological explanation: “the local church was uniquely designed and established for this stage of redemptive history to do ‘elevator work,’ ” which entails lifting kingly callings (vocational image-bearing) from the old-creation timeline that ends with the second coming of Christ to the new-creation timeline that continues into eternity. Regenerate kingly callings thus become broad mission through the “elevator work” of priestly narrow mission. In other words, there can be no broad mission without narrow mission first; the church must make disciples if anyone is to be disciples.

In order to see what Leeman is doing, it is vital to understand the implications of his eschatological model. Unregenerate kingly callings cease with the second coming—and with them, logically, the suffering and injustice caused by human sin. God will deal with those problems when the time comes. In the meantime—in this stage of redemptive history—the church’s priority is to get people on the elevator and up to the regenerate life that continues beyond the second coming. Hence, “the church’s goal is not to transform the world but to live together as a transformed world, and to invite the nations in word and deed to the Transformer” (43). This scheme makes me think that when Leeman complains about the “holistic camp” creating a strawman of a disembodied view of the afterlife (23), he protests too much. The issue for missional holists is not whether dualists believe in bodily resurrection but whether their eschatology makes priestly “elevator” ministry essentially an exercise in escapism.

Evaluating the practical dimension, the soteriological view delineates quite specifically what the church is to do in mission—in fact, that is its sole concern. It is, however, theologically blinkered. The triune mission simply is not in view, and this results in an inability to see how the church might participate in God’s ongoing redemptive and transformative work in the world. I commend Leeman’s more balanced approach to matters of justice and mercy and his understanding of discipleship as, in some sense, mission. These strengths point toward a deeper and wider vision of the church’s participation in God’s mission. And, given the sheer number of Evangelicals who engage the church’s mission on the terms Leeman articulates, our array of perspectives on the church’s mission would have been badly incomplete without this chapter.

In the second chapter, Wright’s participatory mission view condenses his influential characterization of the church’s mission through a narrative biblical theology. He explains: “If we are to understand the mission of the church, then, we must understand the overarching biblical narrative within which the church participates as, on the one hand, the people of God in the present era between the first and second coming of Christ and, on the other hand, the people of God in spiritual and theological continuity with Old Testament Israel: in short, as those in Christ and thereby also in Abraham” (65). To this end, Wright deploys a narrative hermeneutical strategy that has become well-known and widely accepted among Evangelicals—the portrayal of the biblical stories as a drama that unfolds in discrete acts. By foregrounding the theme of mission in each act, he develops “a fully biblical understanding of the mission of God’s people” (73). In the current act, therefore, the church is “to live within the Bible’s own story and participate in its great unfolding drama. Mission is not merely a matter of obeying God’s commands (such as, for example, the Great Commission—vitally important as that is), but of knowing the story we are in and living accordingly, bearing witness to the mighty acts of God (past and future)” (77). This insistence on a thick biblical account of mission has been a major missing element to this point.

Furthermore, as the lead architect of the Cape Town Commitment (the major document that emerged from the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization), Wright’s perspective significantly supplements Padilla DeBorst’s and Stetzer’s. Both place a great deal of the burden of discerning the practical meaning of participating in God’s mission on imitation of Jesus’s life and ministry. Wright broadens the basis of this discernment considerably, in that “how we are to live, and what we are mandated to do as God’s people in the world, are constantly rooted in the facts of who God is and what God has done” (65–66)—meaning, the whole story of God’s being and doing revealed in the biblical narrative (although, a major critique of Wright is that he starts with Abraham rather than reading from Gen 1 forward). This broadening also entails an unequivocal evangelical holism in common with Padilla DeBorst and in contrast with Stetzer (and, of course, Leeman). Wright distills “a truly holistic and integrated understanding of mission” into three domains:

  1. Cultivating the church through evangelism and teaching, colaboring with Christ to see people brought to repentance, faith, and maturity as disciples of Jesus Christ.
  2. Engaging society through compassion and justice, in response to Jesus’s commands and example, to love and serve, to be salt and light, to be “doers of good.”
  3. Caring for creation through the godly use of the resources of creation in economic work along with ecological concern and action. (81)

The strength of Wright’s corrective to dualism is that it is based neither on proof-texting nor on ideological imposition but on a carefully, openly argued interpretation of the trajectory of the whole Bible.

The problem that Wright’s approach presents is that participation in God’s mission is clearly participation in the drama, not participation in the triune missio. Therefore, Wright sees participation in mission as essentially a function of the church’s identity as God’s people by virtue of their place in the narrative: “God has called into existence a people, in the midst of all the nations of the earth, to participate with God in his purposes for the world—‘coworkers with God,’ as Paul put it. This does not mean that we do everything God does. God is God, we are not. But it does mean that our understanding and practice of mission must reflect in some way, however imperfectly and provisionally, the comprehensiveness of God’s biblically revealed actions, concerns, commands, promises, and intentions” (90). In this view, being coworkers with God proceeds on a distinction between what God does and what the church does rather than a notion of participation in that divine action. The phrase “reflect in some way” is key. The church’s mission is some sort of reflection of God’s mission. Wright’s vision of God’s being and doing is big and rich because it is robustly biblical, but the concept of the church’s participation in God’s mission is, once again, reductively imitative. A more trinitarian approach is needed to push beyond this limitation. In my view, however, Wright has advanced the conversation by clarifying the problem: we need a narrative biblical approach to a trinitarian account of participation in God’s mission or a trinitarian interpretation of a narrative biblical account of participation in God’s mission—or both at once.

In the third chapter, Franke offers a contextual mission perspective in many ways continuous with that of Guder, his colleague in the Gospel and Our Culture Network. Franke’s focus is also contextual witness, though in a less Barthian key. Newbigin’s voice echoes loudest, culminating in Franke’s explanation of what it means that the church “is sent into the world by the triune God for the purpose of bearing witness to the gospel as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God” (118). Appropriate to Newbigin’s legacy, this chapter is attuned to the cultural and sociological (hence contextual) dimensions of participation in God’s mission but also to the trinitarian dimensions. Indeed, of all the authors reviewed in this essay, Franke goes the farthest toward identifying and confronting the theological dilemma head-on: the problem with the “consensus” on the missio Dei “is that, while it served to inseparably link the mission of the church with participation in the mission of God, it did not lead to specification with regard to the precise nature of the church’s participation in that mission” (108).

Furthermore, he develops the problem by reference to contextual complications:

In keeping with the pattern of this sending, the mission of the church is intimately connected with the mission of God in the sending of Jesus and the Spirit. The church is called to be the image of God, the body of Christ, and the dwelling place of the Spirit in the world as it represents and extends the good news of God’s love for the world as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God. However, given the local and particular nature of the church in its various manifestations throughout history, culture, time, place, the expression of this mission is always contextual and situated in keeping with the commission to bear witness to the ends of earth. (112)

Thus, when Franke says the mission of God is, in short, “love and salvation,” he is suggesting that “the salvific mission is rooted in the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of God expressed in the eternal Trinitarian fellowship and made known in the created order through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (114). To participate in love and salvation is to participate in the trinitarian fellowship—the missio Dei—further expressed in the world through the sending of the church. Franke therefore develops the metaphors of sign, instrument, and foretaste in terms of the image of God, the body of Christ, and the dwelling place of the Spirit, which is to say, as christological and pneumatological conceptualizations of participation in the triune life. In regard to the image of God, Franke is attentive to the New Testament notion of being “in Christ,” which he discusses in connection with “following the pattern of Jesus” (119–21). As the body of Christ, “the church is sent into the world and called to continue the mission of Jesus in the power of the Spirit” (121), which is particularly “to participate in the temporal, here-and-now activity of liberation” (123). And as for being the dwelling place of the Spirit, Franke highlights the eschatological peace that characterizes the community of the Spirit and its worship. Though all of these could be developed further biblically and theologically, Franke points to the potential of such development for clarifying in trinitarian terms just what participation in God’s mission might be and how attempting to do so without reference to context is futile.

Frustratingly, the primary weakness of Franke’s approach is precisely its ambiguity about what contextualization is. “All are called,” concludes Franke, “to do their part in the mission of God in accordance with the particular social and historical circumstances in which they are situated and the gifting of the Spirit” (133). It is disappointing that none of the authors in The Mission of the Church represent the tremendous missiological resources that have developed out of the imperative to contextualize mission work. It is almost bizzare that the one author in Four Views on the Church’s Mission who makes much of context also ignores those resources.7 This is a significant failure to meet the practical dimension of my criterion.

In chapter four, Leithart’s sacramental mission perspective casts the church’s mission in sacramental terms. A major premise of this argument is that discussions of mission routinely ignore the importance of the sacraments for mission. Footnote 10, which begins, “Not all writers on mission neglect the sacraments” (156), goes on to undermine this premise to a great extent. Nonetheless, Leithart’s viewpoint is a valuable, if peculiar, contribution to the overall discussion.

Humanity’s problem as Leithart reads the biblical story is that, after Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden, “human beings no longer had access to the presence of God” so that although they continued to rule, “they no longer ruled as the companions of their Creator” (159). “That is the setting in which God set out on his mission to restore humanity, and his goal was to restore humanity to fellowship that would produce godly dominion” (160). Like Wright, then, Leithart takes the biblical story to construe “mission” as the goal of God. In this scheme, he casts Abrahamic “flesh-cutting [i.e., circumcision] and altar-building [i.e., sacrifice]” (162) and the Mosaic “rhythm of life and liturgy” (163) as sacramental—having to do with drawing near to the presence of God. Following the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper both proclaim and effect the restoration of humanity. Moreover, the baptized “who feast on the body and blood of Jesus are empowered by the Spirit as witnesses” (164). The conclusion toward which this construal drives is that “purification and meal, baptism and the Supper, have been centerpieces of the mission of God and the life of the people of God since the beginning. . . . God’s mission is to restore the original harmony of liturgy and life, and . . . this intention comes to a focus in the Christian sacraments” (165).

There are strong connections between Leithart’s Protestant sacramental mission approach and Rommen’s Orthodox sacramental vision approach. Indeed, Leithart provides another important pathway to an understanding of theosis in relation to mission. Both sacraments entail “union with Christ” and “participation in Christ” in theologically profound ways (166–67).

Leithart’s contribution also pushes the discussion toward an overtly political theology that has been largely lacking in the discussion so far. In his view, the reunion of humankind in Christ is at the heart of the church’s mission: “she is sent to the world to disciple all people groups by baptizing them, teaching them the commandments of Jesus, and welcoming them to the table of the Lord. In this, the church is God’s instrument to fulfill his mission to reunite the human race” (168). But this unity is of overtly political significance; it constitutes a political body: “Unity is a goal of the mission of the church. We proclaim the gospel to gather people from every tribe and nation into one new humanity that is the church. But pursuit is also a dimension of the political activity of mission. By maintaining unity or reestablishing broken fellowship, the church comes to visibility as the contrast society, as a unified humanity in a world of fragmentation and coerced unity” (174). In my view, missional ecclesiology literature encompasses two prominent political bents, the separatist and the activist. Leithart’s notion of a contrast society leans toward the separatist. This balances his earlier conception of the basic human problem in terms of dominion, though in the end he discusses political leaders discipled by the church, as well as a broad cultural mission, all of which leans toward the activist bent. A complete discussion of the church’s mission would be better served by a strongly activist viewpoint and a strongly separatist viewpoint, but Leithart at least raises the issue.

Sexton offers a brief concluding chapter that recasts the discussion retrospectively in terms of “being and acting.” The limited viewpoints of four Anglophile males with British PhDs, as well as the authors’ ecclesial traditions, come into view momentarily. The primary concern, however, is how the question “What is church?” relates to what the church does in mission. Sexton points toward the issue but offers little in response. I will pass over the response sections of each chapter in order to offer a concluding synopsis. However, I note that although no author makes a major shift in response to another, the discussion is not inconsequential, and the multiple responses makes for a livelier discussion than the format of The Mission of the Church manages to generate.

A Synoptic View of the Nine Perspectives

A side-by-side comparison of such a diverse set of perspectives is difficult for a number of reasons. The most difficult problem is that any comparison is dealing in limited, subjective representations rather than proportionate scales of difference. Nonetheless, I offer below a taxonomy of the approaches as one (admittedly impressionistic) way to advance the conversation these books have curated. Limited as these viewpoints are to primarily white, Western males, another difficulty is that there is no way to compare for socio-cultural variables. How do the diverse perspectives (minority, feminist, majority-world, etc.) that have become so important for contemporary theological method conceive of the church’s mission? Here I can only note the problem. A third difficulty is that each perspective brings some unique contribution to the table, which can only be evaluated in comparison with other perspectives in terms of its absence. For example, the sacramental perspectives make a sort of absolute addition to a discussion that otherwise ignores the sacraments, but it is not particularly useful for evaluating other positions that may simply take for granted the importance of the sacraments for the formation of the missional church (as is likely the case for Bevans, a Roman Catholic). More pointedly, the perspectives that attend to contextualization make a major missiological contribution, which one might consider especially relevant for defining the mission of the church. Still, others might take contextualization to be a matter of method rather than theological substance or just an inevitable process; this makes it hard to determine whether one is more contextual than another. I will limit my taxonomy, therefore, to only two dimensions, in keeping with the criterion I layed out initially: the theological and the practical.

Instead of reducing these dimensions to binaries (theological/not-theological or practical/not-practical), I want to construe them as dialectic axes whose poles are equally good. The poles of the theological axis are Trinitarian–biblical, and the poles of the practical axis are being–doing, represented as follows:

Figure 1: Plotting Perspectives on the Church’s Mission

The purpose of organizing these dialectics visually in this way is, principally, to represent the desired bullseye. A perspective with an equal focus on a trinitarian and a biblical understanding of the missio Dei and an equal focus on the practical aspects of being a missional church and acting in mission would be plotted dead-center, at the intersection of the two axes. The point is not that if one is less trinitarian, then one is more biblical (by no means!), or that if one is more concerned with the being of the church, then one is less concerned with the action of the church. To be as extremely trinitarian and extremely biblical as possible would still put one at the center of the axis. These dialectics are tensive, however, which means that the common tendency is to let one pole overpower the other. I believe this is born out in the chapters I have reviewed, and in the theology of mission generally, but here I can only make the assertion. Again, my plotting of the nine perspectives is hardly objective, but I have read each chapter for the purpose of locating it fairly. While landing at the center of the graph is conceptually ideal, emphasizing any of the poles is good, therefore I intend this exercise to be descriptive far more than critical.

Assuming my plotting is in the ballpark, a few tendencies are evident. Some tend to emphasize a trinitarian/being view of the church’s mission, and some tend to emphasize a biblical/doing view of the church’s mission. Leithart is an oddity in that he emphasizes the being of the church through a strongly biblical approach to the sacraments but is minimally trinitarian in his construal of mission. Generally, the biblical/doing view tends to be more recognizably Evangelical. None, in my reading, do a great job of holding both dialectics in strong tension. No one emphasizes a trinitarian/doing view of mission, which is evidently another expression of the established problem: it is exceedingly difficult to conceptualize mission in a way that makes much of both the actio Dei and the actio ecclesiae. Again, though, landing in the trinitarian/action quadrant is no better than landing in any other. The nexus of the two axes is the ideal tension, in my view, because the biblical and being poles are also important. In this sense, one can see how Leithart is doing overtly corrective work—just not the kind that addresses the question I have prioritized throughout the review.

Certainly, had the authors been aware of the scheme into which I have fitted their perspectives, they might have highlighted other aspects of their understandings. My graphic synopsis is little more than a heuristic device. The really valuable work is that of the authors. If nothing else, it should be all the more evident why reading them together is the best way toward a well-rounded or properly tensive understanding of the church’s mission. We can be thankful for the many perspectives available to the church as we strive to participate in God’s mission.

Greg McKinzie is a PhD candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary and the executive editor of Missio Dei. From 2008 to 2015, he served in Arequipa, Peru, as a partner in holistic evangelism with Team Arequipa ( and The Christian Urban Development Association ( Greg holds an MDiv from Harding School of Theology and an MA in missions from Harding University.

1 Craig Ott, ed., The Mission of the Church: Five Views in Conversation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

2 Jason S. Sexton, ed., Four Views on the Church’s Mission, Counterpoints Bible and Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).

3 This distinction has been a part of the contemporary discussion since Karl Hartenstein first introduced missio Dei terminology in his interpretation of the 1952 Willingen document “A Statement on the Missionary Calling of the Church.” He says, “In a second section, the missionary obligation of the church is comprehensively established. The mission is not a matter of human activity or organization; ‘its source is the Triune God Himself.’ The sending of the Son for the reconciliation of the universe through the power of the Spirit is the cause and purpose of mission. From the ‘missio Dei’ alone comes the ‘missio ecclesiae.’ Thus, the mission is placed in the widest possible framework of salvation history and God’s plan of salvation.” Karl Hartenstein, “Theologische Besinnung,” in Mission zwischen Gestern und Morgen, ed. Walter Freytag (Stuttgart: Evangelischer Missionsverlag, 1952), 62; my translation.

4 Douglas McDermid, “Pragmatism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource,

5 This reading is confirmed by the list of nine “trajectories” in the final section of the chapter, all of which are practices internal to the church. I do not doubt that Guder would approve of concrete actions in “the service of God’s healing mission,” but in terms of analyzing the chapter and its implications alongside other construals of the church’s mission, it is evident that not specifying such actions is a dimension of his answer to the question Ott has framed.

6 In particular, this provides an informative contrast with Michael Gorman’s recent appropriation of theosis in relation to the missio Dei in Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

7 See A. Scott Moreau, Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012), for a recent overview.

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Review of Leonard Allen, Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God

Leonard Allen. Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God. Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2018. 208 pp. Paperback. $16.99.

Leonard Allen, Dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University, has written a beautiful book describing the interrelatedness of a theology of the Holy Spirit and the mission of God. It is a contribution to studies in both pneumatology and missional theology. Though the footnotes of the book point to the best scholarship in both fields, it is a clearly written and accessible presentation that will serve both church and academy well. I have already required Poured Out as a graduate level text and recommended it to a variety of church leaders.

For traditions like Allen’s own Churches of Christ and others shaped by modern, Enlightenment sensibilities, Allen extends an invitation to consider in new ways how giving attention to the Holy Spirit makes a practical difference in the life of congregations, opening up the full range of possibilities for churches living in the Spirit’s power. His insistence, on the other hand, that the Holy Spirit’s work be understood as ecclesial, embodied in structures and practices, also invites those traditions borne of the modern Pentecostal movement to consider again what it means to be a people of the Holy Spirit. Here he adds his voice to those of Pentecostal scholars like Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen and Amos Yong, who are among those Allen characterizes as more “self-critical” (24). Taken together, Allen’s treatment of the Holy Spirit is orienting, full of both adventurous challenge and reassuring wisdom.

In the missional church literature, little has been written so focused on pneumatology. While trinitarian themes are prominent in the missional literature, this has yet to translate into much focus on the Holy Spirit. Craig Van Gelder’s The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Baker, 2007) is a notable exception, but Allen’s book distinguishes itself in terms of its more comprehensive treatment of pneumatology and in the way it ties the developments of a renewed interest in the Holy Spirit with the emergence of a post-Christendom missional theology. These side-by-side developments form the thesis of the book. As Allen states it in the opening chapter, “The diminishment of mission and the Spirit’s work in the Christendom centuries went hand in hand; so it is that after (neo-)Christendom the recovery of mission and of the Spirit go hand in hand” (28; italics original). Allen continues, “The Spirit of God empowers and guides the mission of God. In this book I want to show how one relates to the other” (29).

Allen does this primarily by focusing on pneumatology, highlighting different aspects of the Spirit’s identity and work, making sure to note the connections to the mission of God. Along the way, the reader is treated to pictures of the Holy Spirit as an empowering presence, as a gift giver, as a community builder, and as a life bringer. These pictures are anchored in the significant theological categories of the Triune God, a cruciform christology, and the eschatological theme of the kingdom of God.

Allen is adept at enumerating complex topics in digestible points. Time and again, he guides the reader with helpful summaries: Five reasons pneumatology and mission have resurfaced simultaneously as themes (24–28), three phases of the Spirit’s imparting to Jesus (67–68), four dimensions of the Spirit’s work in prophetic/eschatological perspective (87–88), three ways the New Testament refers to the work of the Spirit (89–90), and the list could go on. These lists have a wonderful way of orienting the reader to Allen’s argument, even if they’ve lost the line somewhere along the way in the prose. This adds to the impression that, while the book is a learned treatment, Allen is writing for a broad audience, which places certain limitations on the depth of the argument.

Given the nature of the book, I was left wanting more in a few places. I’ll note only two. I agree for the most part with Allen’s historical analysis of Christendom and the way it restricted categories like mission, eschatology, and the Holy Spirit. The heroes in this telling are not the reformers Luther and Calvin but members of the radical tradition of “baptists,” who emphasize the church as a “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” and “expected the preaching of the gospel to produce visibly reformed congregations” (42–43). Later in the book, Allen describes the church “on mission” as “God’s contrast society, an alternative community modeling a new humanity and called to be a ‘light to the nations’ ” (174), a view of the church very much in keeping with the “radical tradition.” There are those, however, who find the church “on mission” not first as a “contrast community,” but as more directly world engaging, precisely on pneumatological grounds—because the Spirit always precedes the church in the world and may be discovered beyond and outside of the confines of a contrast community. These are often Roman Catholic liberation movements who see the church formed by praxis with the Spirit at the margins. This is not an either/or distinction, as Allen demonstrates, but may be an important primary/secondary distinction, or even a methodological one. At any rate, I wanted more discussion along these lines.

On a more positive note, I was struck by Allen’s discussion of Jesus’s dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was not a self-possessing, autonomous actor but was precisely the “exact imprint” of God as a person imbued with the Holy Spirit—a porous self, a person constituted in relation to another. This has immediate implications for theological anthropology, blurring the lines between the individual and the communal, changing our understandings of being filled with the Spirit, making greater sense of the participatory language related to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and on and on.

A good book has you scribbling in the margins, sparking the imagination, because there is a surplus of meaning. This is a very good book.

Mark Love

Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry

Rochester College

Rochester Hills, MI, USA

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Review of James L. Gorman, Among the Early Evangelicals: The Transatlantic Origins of the Stone-Campbell Movement

JAMES L. GORMAN. Among the Early Evangelicals: The Transatlantic Origins of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2017. 240 pp. $22.99.

James Gorman’s thesis is that the eighteenth-century transatlantic evangelical missions movement furnished the ideological and theological commitments that compelled the Campbell tributary of what became the Stone-Campbell Movement (SCM). Whereas historians often explain Thomas and Alexander Campbell against the contours of American democracy and freedom, or against European rhetorical or Reformation theological backgrounds, Gorman proposes to revise this historiography by proving their indebtedness to “earlier evangelical missions” rather than “anything uniquely American” (23). He seeks to recover how Thomas and Alexander Campbell understood a vital missionary imperative to be a raison d’être for their ministry. He further demonstrates that Thomas Campbell modeled the Christian Association of Washington, PA, on his earlier work on behalf of English and Irish missionary societies. Whatever shape the Campbell reform movement took once it was underway on the Western Reserve, it began as a conscious outgrowth and transplant of the ideals of the transatlantic evangelical missionary movement.

Gorman marshals evidence to warrant his revision by carefully defining and then describing the transatlantic evangelical missionary movement. Historically, these evangelicals are Protestants formed by English Puritanism, Scottish Presbyterianism, high-church Anglicanism, and continental Pietism (17–18). Theologically, they are committed to biblicism, conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism (18). That these evangelicals sought to propagate their commitments through missionary means and methods is obvious. Gorman, however, scrutinizes how these evangelicals formed and were formed by a certain kind of interdenominational and cross-confessional culture of propagating the Christian gospel. That is, they were mission-minded in a certain way and manifested distinguishable and traceable habits and practices. Gorman systematically narrates how this theological rationale and methodological program constituted the culture’s defining habits and rituals. They cooperated across denominational lines; they were committed to advancing the “simple” or “primitive” gospel ahead of sectarian distinctives; they widely used methods such as itinerant preaching, voluntary associations, and meetings; and they made ample use of printing technology to supplement the spoken word.

Gorman reviews the formation, rituals, and activities of the London Missionary Society, how it was the “sister society” (22) of the Ulster group, and how in his leadership of this group Thomas Campbell was censured by his Synod. The contours of this story and Thomas’s ministry at Ahorey, which Gorman recounts in detail, frame Thomas Campbell’s Pennsylvania ministry and Alexander Campbell’s developing convictions. He also places the leading personalities Alexander encountered in Glasgow in 1808–1809 within the contexts of the missionary movement. In each of these aspects Gorman describes how the Campbells’ evangelical missionary activity in western Pennsylvania and the upper Ohio Valley was nested within a transatlantic context with roots in Ahorey, Glasgow, and London.

Gorman demonstrates first how primitivism, restoration, unity, millennialism, and mission interlocked within the program of the missionary movement and then how they cohered in the thought and actions of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, specifically in the Declaration and Address. He argues that the Christian Association of Washington manifests all these themes in its operation as a trans-congregational (and theoretically trans-denominational) voluntary missionary association. This contexture is chronologically and theologically prior to, first, Alexander’s movement within Baptist circles, and second, his subsequent critique of the excesses and abuses of American evangelical missionary societies. This, Gorman argues, ought to frame any understanding of Campbell’s anti-society polemic in Christian Baptist.

Gorman moves beyond the upstream influences to describe how this polemic impacted Campbell’s contemporaries and heirs. As Alexander Campbell rose to prominence, he subsumed his earlier indebtedness to the missionary culture, and in this historians followed Campbell’s lead when explaining his posture toward societies. Gorman brings the study full circle to his proposed revision of the two-Campbell historiography, which portrays Campbell’s 1820s polemic over against the moderation he espoused before assuming the presidency of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1849. Gorman argues that this model ignores the true “first” Campbell. He contends there are “three” Campbells, and the first is rooted firmly in the interlocking web of cultural habits and animating theological visions of the transatlantic missionary movement.

Future historians will have to account for Gorman’s research and how it reframes a common historiographical approach. This book will become essential reading for any who propose to teach SCM history. It will be useful for university and seminary students. Missio Dei readers will appreciate Gorman’s concluding reflections, which have import for those who want to understand that missions was not an afterthought or a secondary concern in the earliest formative moments of the Campbells’ ministry. Indeed, missions was not merely part of but constituted the warp and woof of their ministry. Any who would fashion a theology of SCM missions will want to inform their work first with Gorman’s historiographical nuance and also with his detailed and thorough research. In a similar fashion ministers will benefit from Gorman’s study of how the Campbells conducted their ministry of the word.

Gorman argues throughout from primary sources, both archival and print, bringing them into critical dialogue with a range of scholarship. Stylistically, he proceeds steadily, with purpose and clarity and without unnecessary repetition. He does not stray from his argument; each chapter is laid out plainly and each section builds his argument in sequence. While careful readers will appreciate his footnotes, they will also wish for a thorough index.

McGarvey Ice

Director of Special Collections and Archives

Assistant Professor of Library Science

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas, USA

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Global Shifts and Practical Implications for Mission

The seismic shifts in the landscape of missional engagement are often discussed in dramatic terms in conferences, academic journals, and boardrooms. Rethinking our approaches to forming missional workers in an urban-world-in-motion is overdue. This paper highlights four megatrends that are impacting the cultural terrain of mission theory and practice and focuses on the implications for the missionary tasks of evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and especially the training and preparation of missionary candidates in relation to educational institutions and sending organizations.

In the history of humankind on this planet, the idea of change should not be a surprising concept. Regular adaptation has been consistent throughout history. The first agricultural settlements leading to inevitable urbanization, naval navigation, the printing press, the nation-state, the industrial revolution, the internet: we could, of course, go on and on. Nevertheless, even if expected, it is notable that major shifts in the landscape of contemporary societies are sending ripple effects around the globe, and consequently, the impact upon the contexts of global missions must be considered.

For several years, I have served as a missionary, a trainer of missionaries, and a teacher of missions—often concurrently. Serving in a leading world-class city (NYC), I have had the terrifying privilege of a front-row view of the religious and cultural landscape emerging beyond the church pew. The need to creatively explore our mission landscape is very real and increasingly urgent.

In this paper, I am highlighting four megatrends that are impacting the cultural terrain of mission theory and practice. I will briefly highlight these societal shifts; however, my primary purpose will be to discuss the implications for the missionary tasks of evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and especially the training and preparation of missionary candidates in relation to our educational institutions and sending organizations.


Lots of ink has been spilled over the reality of increasing urbanization in recent decades. It is now quite clear that the twentieth century shaped up to be, among other things, the century of the city. At the start of the twentieth century, the planet was 86% rural.1 By the conclusion of the century, one-fifth of the population of the world lived in cities of more than one million residents.2 The twenty-first century is continuing the push towards becoming a planet of cities. Current United Nations projections estimate that by 2050 our world population will be 65% city dwellers.3 Urbanization has been a reality since the earliest Mesopotamian, Chinese, and pre-Columbian empires; however, the major shift now occurring is the rapid acceleration of urbanization. City life has hit a tipping point. It is now the normative experience of most of humanity.

Often highly urbanized contexts involve contradictory processes occurring simultaneously. In addition, the characteristics of subcultures are often intensified,4 and intercultural interactions may lead to varying degrees of hybridization. This dynamic is likely to challenge one-size-fits-all approaches to ministry methods and will increase the importance of creating adaptable structures and developing equally adaptable leaders.


Globalization is not new either. Some historians argue that the beginning of globalization can be dated at 1492.5 This assertion, of course, appears to be more than a little Eurocentric in perspective. Such viewpoints fail to take into consideration early trade routes between peoples—most famously the ancient Silk Road linking empires, worldviews, and religions across vast geographic regions and continents. Indeed, I would argue that globalization is a standard trajectory of human civilization. What has changed is the pace and scale as new technologies forge new pathways and connections in real time.

As the result of new information technologies and advanced transportation systems, globalization is a force racing ahead with increasing speed in tandem with urbanization. While some states or cultures may react negatively to this phenomenon, these are likely only interruptions in a natural human trajectory of exchange, connection, and conflict. Today, economic, cultural, or social processes are taking place through a global network, and the strongest links are between urban centers that act as nodes in this network. As a result, peoples around the world are more connected—whether locally, regionally, or globally—than ever before, and they are more mobile than at any point in history.


Migration is multidirectional and global. There is not a single story but an anthology of migrants’ stories chronicling chapters of dynamic entrepreneurship as well as immeasurable pain. In 2010, the global diaspora numbered over 850 million representing more than 320 distinct peoples.6 For the church serving in economically developed cities in North America or Western Europe, migration on a global scale is a major factor transforming the ministry context of numerous local communities. As a result, local ministry will often imply cross-cultural ministry. Often our neighbors down the street may be from a “closed” country or unreached people. Simultaneously, as church growth continues to surge in the majority world, many majority world Christians are migrating to European or North American cities. It seems odd to discuss world missions without giving attention to the vast and dynamic flows of both regional and international migration occurring around the globe.


Over the past couple of decades, conversations seeking to unpack postmodernity have not been in short supply. While the implications of postmodernism began to quake in the shifting landscape of North American ministry settings, postcolonial perspectives in the majority world have emerged as the other side of the proverbial coin. Along with these changes, the global shift of Christianity’s center has hit a tipping point now that the majority church comes from communities in the majority world. And again, during the same period, missional leaders in the West, from Stuart Murray to Alan Hirsch, have pointed to an emerging post-Christendom context challenging existing ministry paradigms. We do not know what else to call our current epoch except post—post-something, post-everything. We simply know that seismic shifts are taking place, and big changes spell new challenges (and opportunities) for the church and its mission.

In our team, Global City Mission Initiative, we have encountered individuals embodying post on a regular basis: post-Islamic or -Buddhist, post-Christian or -atheist, post-secular and New Age. And within the rising tide of the religiously unaffiliated, a common self-description is to say, “I am spiritual but not religious.”7 In whatever way we might want to interpret such a statement, it has meaning for the person saying it. With trust in traditional institutions seemingly continuing to erode and exposure to a vast array of differing worldviews and ideas in a globalized and urban society, fresh missionary engagement is essential for the church to thrive in this new world.


These mega-trends are increasingly obvious even to the casual observer. The fundamental purpose of this article is to emphasize implications for on-the-ground ministry in urban contexts. The shifts in ministry application listed here are not exhaustive, but they may be essential for embracing the emerging challenges and opportunities facing the church.

From Traditional Societies to Pluralistic Contexts

In previous decades, preparation for missions to a particular people meant we gained an understanding of a culture that at least to some degree seemed fairly monolithic. Change occurred, but we had a general sense of what to expect. We learned the history, the customs, the worldview, the family structure, and various other elements within the new cultural context. Traditional societies are just that. They are built on a sense of history and tradition with the intention of preserving that history by passing on customs and shared narratives to another generation. However, in a world that is on the move—especially as we increasingly labor in cities—we are encountering cultural and religious pluralism. Even within a shared socio-religious context, there is likely micro-diversity as individuals and families encounter different ideas, and cultural hybridization emerges.

In recent decades many corners of the church have struggled with evangelism as a concept and especially as a Christian practice. It seems we have been stuck with a binary choice of insensitive evangelism or none at all. However, there is a need to revive evangelistic practices both as the Western church loses ground and as disciples of Christ encounter a diverse assortment of neighbors from around the world. But how do we respond in the face of such dizzying cultural and religious pluralism? Believers serving Christ in the city will need to recover practices of peaceable evangelism. Urban Christians should feel no shame in being bold in their communication of good news and simultaneously ought to feel unhindered in their ability to befriend those who hold different, if not opposing, sets of beliefs or experiences. Overcoming historical dichotomies, Western Christians need to learn to flex multiple muscles simultaneously.

From Predictability to Adaptability

As many cross-cultural missionaries are forced to shift from traditionally rural societies to urban centers and from somewhat homogenous settings to increasing pluralism, new skill sets are needed. If I am speaking to a young professional originally from Tehran, I may encounter a more traditional Islamic worldview, but I also may encounter a secular Marxist. I may plant a church in a Spanish-Caribbean community in the Northeast or Central Florida and find that some community members are highly secularized, while others are open to religious change, and still others are clinging to their socio-religious identity stronger than ever before. In an urban society, change is the one constant. In addition, cultural pluralism makes it difficult to predict individual worldviews. Cross-cultural ministry requires ethnographic questioning, keen listening, and adaptable ministry practices. Indeed, adaptability is a key ministry skill for the twenty-first century. The crucial question for teachers of mission is: how do we develop adaptability in cross-cultural ministers?

From Stability to Mobility

In some of my earliest efforts at church planting, my team was attempting to plant a neighborhood church; however, within our first year, the membership of our small church plant represented three counties. Extended family networks in the same community still exist, but they are less common than they once may have been. People are regularly on the move; therefore, missionary strategies invested in local people need to consider the potential for regular disruption. One of our early lessons as urban church planters oriented us towards widespread societal mobility, which led us to consider how planting the seed of the gospel in people’s lives can have a far-reaching impact as they carry this living seed with them both near and far. For our team, while we want converts and new churches, the most refined understanding of our strategy is to form disciples who can initiate a discipleship community wherever they go. Assumptions around stability will lead to new challenges, but ministry strategies that take into account the challenges and opportunities of potential transience and mobility may lead to new and creative possibilities for spreading the gospel through diverse communities.

From Localism to Connectedness

Ministry in specific localities should continue. Christian mission is best embodied through an incarnational witness. The rise of urbanization makes the concept of place more critical rather than less so. If cities are hubs of global connectedness, then they are, in kind, hubs for global mission engagement. Ministry in a local context will most often characterize Christian mission; however, local ministry may include connections that transcend that local space. Local places are nodes of connection in a broader network bridging communities, cities, and regions. As a result, missional activity in a local context can potentially have an impact beyond traditional boundaries. Differences between distinct places will continue, but local and global applications may overlap in creative and sometimes complicated ways.

From Imagined Theory to Integrated Apprenticeships

Anecdotally speaking, it seems to be a common pastime for cross-cultural ministers to speak—sometimes jokingly and sometimes expressing grief—of how seminary did not prepare them for ministry as they now know it. The status quo of previous eras for how we form cross-cultural leaders, however, appears to prevail. For the past several years, I have been deeply involved in on-the-job training for cross-cultural urban missionaries, and one of my constant mantras to new missions candidates is that many of the practices they are learning are “more art than science.” It is helpful to study art but to become an artist one must practice the craft.

If we are serious about making an impact in contemporary contexts for missions, training models will need to restore integrated apprenticeships not as the exception but as our primary strategy to prepare leaders for the present and emerging contexts for world missions. Apprenticeship models should not be divorced from the academy but rather integrate theory learned while in practice. Such experiential approaches give flesh to theory and ground concepts in critical reality. Experiential training models also give rise to routinely testing our theories in real time as change continues to be a constant. An integrated approach will bring together specialists across a spectrum of ministry disciplines—missiologists, spiritual directors, pastors, theologians, and others—to contribute to the formation of missionary pioneers for a new world, a world that has already arrived. Dichotomies between practice and theory are not helpful. Missionary apprenticeship should be integrated. The role of the academy is essential to encouraging theological reflection, but reflection exercised in a world-in-motion should be rooted in contemporary contexts. Those training in context may be our forecasters of new and emerging realities.


The seismic shifts in the landscape for missional engagement are discussed in dramatic terms in conferences, academic journals, and boardrooms. Rethinking our approaches to forming missional workers in an urban-world-in-motion is overdue. Accreditation regulations based on ministry models of yesteryear or financial incentives that sacrifice investment in the missionary vocation should be challenged consistently and passionately. If mission-minded leaders do not adapt training models to the contextual realities emerging on a global scale, we are likely to perpetuate our current frustrations and stand together decades from now scratching our heads and wondering how we got here.

Dr. Jared Looney is the executive director of Global City Mission Initiative ( Serving in missions for more than 20 years, he has worked cross-culturally in Houston, New York City, and Tampa. He has worked in evangelism, church planting, and teaching in multicultural communities, and has been involved in training new missionary candidates from multiple missions agencies. Jared is the author of Crossroads of the Nations: Diaspora, Globalization, and Evangelism (Urban Loft, 2015), named a top 15 mission studies text of 2015, and co-author (with Seth Bouchelle) of Mosaic: A Ministry Handbook for a Globalizing World (Urban Loft, 2017). He lives with his wife and daughter in Tampa, Florida.

Adapted from a paper presented at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 6–8, 2018.

1 J. John Palen, The Urban World, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), 3.

2 David Clark, Urban World/Global City, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2003), 27–28.

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

4 Claude S. Fischer, The Urban Experience, 2nd ed. (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 35–41.

5 Thomas Friedman, “It’s a Flat World, After All,” The New York Times Magazine, April 3, 2005,

6 Todd M. Johnson, Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission (South Hamilton, MA: Center for the Study of Global Christianity, 2013), 82.

7 Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Linda Mercadante, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

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Not Far From the Kingdom of Heaven: Monastic Ecclesiology for Non-Monastics

Most Christians do not heed the call to the monastic or neo-monastic life, and many others do for only intermittent periods. Can the wisdom of the monastic tradition take substantive hold in the lives of non-(neo-)monastics? Reflecting on the visions of monastic life for the world in Paul Evdokimov and Thomas Merton, I argue that the authentic exercise of monastic spirituality in the world requires creative and practical reconceptualization of what ascetic discipline looks like adapted to the crises and limits of life in the world, as well as a notion of holy space inaugurated by this transfigured ascetic discipline. I propose the church, conceived around the idea of a “monastic ecclesiology,” be seen as a robust form of holy space. I conclude with a reflection on a monastic ecclesiology for Churches of Christ.


In the opening chapter of the spiritual classic Ladder of Divine Ascent, John Climacus presents his thoughts on the character of non-monastic piety to his monastic audience. He writes:

Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me: “We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?” I replied to them: “Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate anyone; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness, and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.”1

At first glance this appears to be general counsel geared toward the kinds of social concerns one might have while “living carelessly in the world.” Yet just prior to this thought, Climacus remarks on the difficulty of spiritual growth in the midst of worldly affairs saying, “It is possible to walk even when tied with the fetters of worldly affairs and iron cares, but only with difficulty.” Doubling down on the chain metaphor, Climacus likens the unmarried man to someone bound by the hands alone, so “when he wishes to hasten to the monastic life, he has nothing to hinder him. But the married man is like one who is bound hand and foot.”2 For Climacus the quest for spiritual growth puts one on the road to the monastery, which calls into question what he meant by the mystifying phrase “you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.” Derwas Chitty argues that this statement reflects Climacus’s broadening perspective on the spiritual life in the face of socio-religious shifts in the East, granting legitimacy to the sanctifying life found in the saeculum.3 But read in context, it could be argued that this phrase has a more literal meaning: those who behave in such a way have started on a road that leads away from the world and toward the monastery, which Climacus describes as “an angelic state and order achieved in earthly and soiled bodies.”4

In these thoughts Climacus follows a principle basic to the monastic life: the relationship between spiritual growth and separation from the world. The first three chapters of The Ladder—(1) On Renunciation; (2) On Detachment; (3) On Exile—concretize the logic of this break, emphasizing the necessary space that the monastery provides for spiritual growth. Climacus writes, for instance:

It is worth investigating why those who live in the world and spend their life in vigils, fasts, labors and hardships, when they withdraw from the world and begin the monastic life, as if at some trial or on the practicing ground, no longer continue the discipline of their former spurious and sham asceticism. I have seen how in the world they planted many different plants of the virtues, which were watered by vainglory as by an underground sewage pipe, and were hoed by ostentation, and for manure were heaped with praise. But when transplanted to a desert soil, inaccessible to people of the world and so not manured with the foul-smelling water of vanity, they withered at once. For water-loving plants are not such as to produce fruit in hard and arid training fields.”5

In one sense Climacus lends credence to his former advice for those in the world. Instead of practicing a “spurious and sham asceticism,” aim to achieve what is possible and peaceable amid an abundance of social cares. At the same time, he offers one example of how the monastic “soil”—holy spaces separated both physically and spiritually—cultivates growth in the spiritual life in ways that ordinary life does not.

This sense of the necessity of monastic separation is key for discernment in the present, as monastic spirituality has become a major influence on modern piety. This ressourcement manifests directly in neo-monastic and other missional or vocational communities such as Catholic Worker homes or Bruderhof Communities. Even these communities, which seek a deeper integration with mainstream society are premised upon various commitments and structures that require both a conceptual and physical separation at some basic level in order to cultivate fruitful and faithful engagement with the world in which they live and serve. Yet, Climacus’s insight suggests that imitation of monastic discipline ripped from spiritual manuals or diluted to suit a busy schedule of life in the world may create more inner problems than it solves or warp entirely into a Weberian inner-worldly asceticism in which ascetic discipline is enlisted in pursuit of economic and social advantage.6

Ascetic theorist Richard Valantasis argues that asceticism is “any performance resistant to an externally projected or subjectively experienced dominant social or religious context . . . in order to inaugurate a new and alternative subjectivity.”7 As opposed to an utilitarian theory of asceticism, in which ascetic acts are a temporary means to an end, asceticism names those performances which simultaneously resist a dominant context and constitute the modes of living proper to a new context. “Asceticism initiates the practitioner into the new culture and initiates the practitioner into the social and psychological systems that activate the culture.”8 Monasticism by this definition is a new culture constructed through the exercise of renunciatory vows. In that respect, monastic separation is not a prerequisite of spiritual growth but the result. Just as Climacus implies, those who seek a virtuous life in the world will inevitably be drawn out of it, “near to the Kingdom of Heaven”—whether this be the monastery or some alternative holy space. Climacus’s notion of proper non-monastic life highlights the kinds of performances that resist the nature of ordinary human life “in the world” and imply conceptual and social separation from it.

It is straightforward enough how the monastic impulse manifests in formal monastic orders or in neo-monastic, missional, intentional communities. It is less evident how monastic spirituality can translate meaningfully for people whose lives do not involve the strict forms of separation as these monastic communities. I argue that the authentic exercise of monastic spirituality in the world requires creative and practical reconceptualization of what ascetic discipline looks like adapted to the crises and limits of life in the world, as well as a notion of holy space inaugurated by this transfigured ascetic discipline. I propose that the church conceived around the idea of a “monastic ecclesiology” is a robust form of that holy space.


Climacus was writing to monks and so seems happy to leave the non-monastic life at a distance. Many modern spiritual writers, however, have taken up a constructive task of rethinking monastic spirituality beyond the cloister. I have chosen to focus on two of those voices: Paul Evdokimov and Thomas Merton. Their rich and substantive conceptualizations of how monastic spirituality may be appropriated for non-monastic life offers a robust basis for further reflection on the kinds of holy spaces that monastic spirituality cultivates in the world.

Paul Evdokimov and Interiorized Monasticism

The Orthodox lay-theologian Paul Evdokimov begins his seminal work Ages of the Spiritual Life with an analysis and critique of the spiritual conditions of mid-twentieth-century Western civilization. On the one hand stands the atheism that purports to reduce religion to its ideological underpinnings and places in its stead a “serious and truly tragic” extreme subjectivism in dialectical materialism or totalitarian Marxism. Evdokimov sees in this atheism a sincerity that responds primarily to shallow expressions of Christian or otherwise religious faith. Evdokimov writes, “There is a considerable obstacle that comes from Christianity itself. It is the latent atheism of ordinary believers, drowsy in their own inspired good conscience, which out of thrift, avoids conversion of the heart. . . . It is time for the religiosity of Christians to cease being as easy for them as atheism is difficult for atheists.”9 On the other hand stands this “latent atheism of ordinary believers” in which “anything religious provokes in sincere souls immediate responses of boredom, with services and ceremonies performed in an archaic language, or with childish hymns proclaiming a joy devoid of meaning.”10 Such boredom is not the undisciplined restlessness of modern people who spend too much time on their phones but rather the kind of existential boredom as shallow experiences that used to tantalize begin to wear thin. Evdokimov concludes with an air of repugnance: “There is the mediocrity of ‘the faithful,’ who take themselves far too seriously and impose on others their own mentality, formed by edifying discourses and sermons characterized by empty formulas and verbal excess. A religious life that has been domesticated, socialized, democratized, has the least attractive appearance.”11

The starting point of Evdokimov’s construction of the spiritual life is a critique of or perhaps a disenchantment with the world in both its atheistic and religious manifestations. These critiques are reminiscent of the monastic critiques of a worldly “spurious and sham asceticism.” Yet Evdokimov’s solution differs from that of Climacus. Instead of calling the seeker out to the monastery, he reimagines what asceticism might look like in the world. He writes, “Christian asceticism is only a method in the service of life, and it will seek to adapt itself to the new needs. In the desert of the Thebaid, extreme fasts and constraints were imposed. Today the combat is not the same. We no longer need added pain. Hair shirts, chains and flagellation would risk uselessly breaking us.”12

Evdokimov rejects a facsimile appropriation of the monastic life. He implies agreement with Climacus that the one who lives in the world ought not to become preoccupied with penitential disciplines or overburdening rituals. For Evdokimov, the asceticism of the desert fathers and mothers was not a universalizable norm but a period of ontological catharsis and purification effective for humanity as a whole. “When humanity had sunk below itself, monastic asceticism raised it above its own nature.”13 Evdokimov holds together a dialectical view of history with the work of God who stands both within and outside history directing it. Monastic spirituality inaugurates holy spaces that bear witness to this presence and work of God in humanity and all of creation.14 In this age, however, the work and witness of monasticism must be found in what Evdokimov calls “interiorized monasticism,” in which the monastic vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty are worked out in relation to life in the world. “Poverty frees from the ascendancy of the material. . . . Chastity frees from the ascendancy of the carnal. . . . Obedience frees from the idolatry of the ego.”15

What does the holy spaces of interiorized monasticism look like? In an important passage, Evdokimov provides a sketch of these spaces:

Today mortification would be liberation from every kind of addiction—speed, noise, alcohol, and all kinds of stimulants. Asceticism would be necessary rest, the discipline of regular periods of calm and silence, when one could regain the ability to stop for prayer and contemplation, even in the heart of all the noise of the world, and above all then to listen to the presence of others. Fasting, instead of doing violence to the flesh, could be our renunciation of the superfluous, our sharing with the poor and a joyful balance in all things.16

It is important to see how this description clarifies what Evdokimov means by “interiorized monasticism.” It does not imply, for instance, an individualistic definition in which spirituality is focused primarily on the self and only accidentally on the social domain. Nor does it imply a formal break with the world, at least at a physical or social level. Instead, interiorization rethinks the renunciatory impulse of monasticism relative to the spiritual needs, or crises, of the age. Interiorized monks are formed in resistance to the dominating ideological impulses of modern societies. These holy spaces are characterized by attention to the conditions of humanity in modern life—the creation of holy spaces within society by resistance to the temptations toward self- and social-destruction, and the cultivation of habits that bring healing, sanity, justice, and flourishing. Rather than withdrawing from the world and then initiating this practice, the break with the world is made through the exercise of these interiorized monastic vows. For Evdokimov, monastic spirituality must be reimagined to attend to the contours of life in the world. The practices of formal monastic communities cannot be transplanted into ordinary life, but they can be transfigured or reimagined in order to effect the breaks and resistances necessary for the cultivation of holy spaces in the world.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton’s writings offer another robust vision of monastic spirituality in and for the world. Nothing is more central to Merton’s vision of monastic appropriation in the world than the notion of the saint as one who has come to terms with personal weaknesses, fragilities, imperfections, and limits. Merton writes: “Until we realize that before a man can become a saint he must first of all be a man in all the humanity and fragility of man’s actual condition, we will never be able to understand the meaning of the word “saint.” . . . Hence sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human than other men. This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.”17 The spiritual life is a stumbling block for humanity. At whatever point we might seek, or be forced, to face ourselves, we experience the impulse to fix our mistakes, nullify our sins, cauterize our wounds, or even transcend our finitude altogether. The irony is that these impulses undermine the spiritual life in their fear of vulnerability and thirst for security and power. Merton suggests that “the mere fact that men are frightened and insecure, that they grasp at optimistic slogans, run more frequently to Church, and seek to pacify their troubled souls by cheerful and humanitarian maxims, is surely no indication that our society is becoming ‘religious.’ In fact, it may be a symptom of our spiritual sickness. It is certainly a good thing to be aware of our symptoms, but that does not justify our palliating them with quack medicines.”18 Even the flight toward the monastery, or the desire to appropriate monastic discipline, can reflect a kind of spiritual sickness—a moral nausea brought on by a sense of one’s own weakness and failures that manifests in a need to attain self-mastery and a rather imaginative notion of perfection.

Merton defines the saint not as one who has successfully mediated their weakness but as one who has come to terms with it, even embraced weakness and vice as a fact of their condition qua human being. In this way sanctity is a gift, a quality proper to God alone, in which a person participates by becoming transparent to themselves and to God. “We must not only see ourselves as we are, in all our nothingness and insignificance; we must not only learn to love and appreciate our own emptiness, but we must accept completely the reality of our life as it is, because it is the very reality which Christ wills to take to himself, which he transforms and sanctifies in his own image and likeness.”19 This notion of sainthood does not imply utter passivity or apathy. “There is no spiritual life without persistent struggle and interior conflict.”20 Rather sainthood is marked by a resistance that, on the one hand, makes one increasingly conscious of, if not conscientious about, one’s imperfections and, on the other hand, is marked by a tragic sense struggle that is necessary but never sufficient for perfection. In the words of Joan Chittister, “The God of mercy knows what we are and revels in weakness that tries.”21 The holiness of the saint is not found in the transcendence of finitude but in coming to terms with one’s weakness and limits before God.

This notion of sainthood has important implications for what it means to appropriate monastic spirituality in the world. First, it resists the valorization of monastic rigor. Merton reserves his critiques of asceticism for those who would seek to use it as a technique to bend their minds and bodies to their will.22 This kind of asceticism Merton suggests is more destructive than many forms of unfettered indulgence. Second, it resists the impulse to romanticize monasticism as an uncompromising and untainted existence. If the saint is one who does not purify herself of all moral weakness but rather accepts such conditions as a mode of opening up to the holiness of God, then even the cloistered life entails a good bit of temptation, pettiness, ego battles, and other moral failures one would also find, perhaps to a greater degree, in ordinary life. “Sometimes very holy men have been very exasperating people and tiresome to live with.”23 It is a mistake to see in monastic spirituality a means to freedom from passion. What is found in monastic separation is a means by which passion might be unearthed and navigated and slowly transfigured more by God’s grace than by human will. Third, Merton’s concept of sainthood chiefly consists in an attention to God that results in modes of being that build deeper and stronger connections to people, society, and all of creation. This is the aim of the spiritual life in general and applies to monastics and non-monastics alike but manifests in different ways according to the conditions in which one lives.

Merton’s redefinition of the saint bridges the monastic and non-monastic worlds. What constitutes sanctification is the cooperation of ascetic struggle and divine grace. The ascetic discipline of the monastery is not something to replicate in secular life. Instead the saint acquires holiness through the contemplation of God in the conditions of “the ordinary temperance, justice, and charity which every Christian must practice,” which “are sanctifying in the same way as the virginity and poverty of the nun.”24 For instance, in his reflections on marital life Merton states, “The married life is a truly spiritual vocation. . . . It is certainly tragic that married Christians should imagine themselves somehow debarred from lives of holiness and perfection just because they find it difficult or impossible to imitate the austerities, the devotions, and the spiritual practices of [monks]. On the contrary, they should rejoice in the fact that the Church has left them free in all these matters to find what suits their own needs best.”25 For Merton, ascetic struggle is just as apparent in vows of marriage as it is in monastic vows of chastity. In this way not just marriage but a secular existence characterized by temperance, justice, and charity becomes a means by which we may both learn of our need for God and, as God satisfies that need in the gift of holiness, find authentic paths toward loving the rest of what God loves.


The visions of monastic spirituality in ordinary life in both Evdokimov and Merton, however robust, still leave us “not far from the kingdom of Heaven.” That is, Evdokimov’s interiorized monk and Merton’s saint name a set of performances difficult to reconcile with the rhythms of the atomized and autonomous nature of life in the world. They represent another kind of space, a new kind of person that creates new kinds of social relationships incommensurate at some basic level with the realities of ordinary life. Monastic spirituality in ordinary life is not just a matter of adding in twenty minutes of meditation in the morning or a regular fast on Wednesdays and then proceeding with life as usual. Contemplation is not a way of finding peace amid the stresses of work and relationships. The latent ascetic resistance of the sustained exercise of monastic spirituality seeks to transform these dynamics. At a fundamental level these transformations are not just abstract or interior, invisible to all but God. Rather they manifest in the creation of actual holy spaces in the form of both the exercise of disciplines and the creation of communities in which these disciplines become sustainable and their meaning becomes clarified and enriched.

The thesis advanced about monastic spirituality in any context in this essay is that the “break with the world” is the result of the exercise of the values, virtues, and practices themselves, and not the other way around. Monasticism is not separation from the world out of antipathy to the world, or a spiritual nausea at the thought of complicity in the evils of society, or a sense of superiority to the frailties and hypocrisies and compromises and mediocrities of life in the world. This attempt to integrate monastic spirituality by retreating from the world first end up imitating monasticism only at a superficial level.

For instance, Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option argues that the monastery provides a compelling model for life outside the cloister and, on the basis of philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s cry for a “no doubt very different Benedict,” calls for Christians to cloister together in robust sub-cultures in order to create stable countercultures in the midst of the cacophony and fluidity of modernity.26 This is not the separation of the monastery that follows a vocational call; nor is it the fluid separations exercised in neo-monastic “marks” that enable them to attend to the needs of their community in a way that is economically and spiritually enriching.27 Rather, objections notwithstanding, it is a community’s break for its own sake: seeking to stabilize an existing culture through homogeneous communal thought and practice (and in all likelihood racial and sexual homogeneity as well). This clumsy and often uncritical appropriation of monasticism does not so much appropriate the spirituality of monasticism as the stability, conformity, and orthodoxy that it wrongly imagines the monastery to offer.

It is possible that there are many more legitimate kinds of holy spaces that monastic spirituality might inaugurate in ordinary life, but an obvious place to look is the church. I have in mind the notion of a monastic ecclesiology in which the church as both a community of people and physical or geographic space is conceived as the manifestation of holy space generated through the work of monastic spirituality adapted to the circumstances of ordinary life. A full explication of this notion would require more space, time, and discernment (both personal and communal), so I will sketch the outlines of this monastic ecclesiology with reference to Evdokimov’s and Merton’s visions.

First, a monastic ecclesiology is constituted by a set of mundane and ordinary practices. What is often conceived as monastic is any number of spiritual disciplines like fasting or centering prayer which can be practiced by non-monastics. What Evdokimov and Merton both emphasize, however, is that while such discipline might be helpful, a more genuine adaptation of monastic spirituality would be found in the acts of charity, temperance, and justice for which the world offers an abundance of opportunity. Such things as contemplative prayer, silence and solitude, or fasting are legitimate insofar as they can assist with that work and can be integrated in a healthy way. What is truly monastic in ordinary life, however, is not as often esoteric disciplines as it is mundane practices of simplicity, generosity, and care habituated in resistance to the dominant ideological pressures in the world.

Second, monastic ecclesiology is work toward individual and social integration in the life of God as interdependent goals. In that sense, monastic ecclesiology is work toward justice that draws relational connections between inner spiritual growth and social equity, well-being, and the creation of holy social spaces. Both Evdokimov and Merton argue that interiorized monasticism or the holiness of the saint has no meaning if it is not of any use to the rest of humanity. For Evdokimov the asceticism of the present age looks more like resistance to evils with an essentially social element, like substance abuse or economic inequality. For Merton the saint is not just someone who exercises atomized good works at a distance from the objects of his pity.

The Christian is not worthy of his name unless he gives from his possessions, his time, or at least his concern in order to help those less fortunate than himself. The sacrifice must be real, not just a gesture of lordly paternalism, which inflates his own ego while patronizing “the poor.” The sharing of material goods must also be a sharing of the heart, a recognition of common misery and poverty and of brotherhood in Christ. . . . Moreover, a shortsighted and perverse notion of charity leads Christians simply to perform token acts of mercy, merely symbolic acts expressing good will. This kind of charity has no real effect in helping the poor: all it does is tacitly to condone social injustice and to help to keep conditions as they are—to help keep people poor.28

Applied to the concept of an ecclesiology, this notion of ascetic resistance for the sake of justice entails that the community of faith witness to the conditions of the interdependence between personal and social wholeness, or justice. In the present age, this means especially that monastic spirituality manifests in reconciliatory practices in which histories of oppression and injustice can be brought into the light, where the community bears witness to the damage and trauma of these histories, forgiveness can be asked and given, and healing toward equity can realistically occur.29 Conceived in this way, monastic ecclesiology names the church as the communal life of its members, as a holy space in which justice can occur even when it does occur in society as a whole and which works constructively toward justice in the world. In that respect a church premised on monastic ecclesiology must be committed to discernment in its communal life between the boundaries and renunciations that free humanity from oppressive structures, and those false boundaries and renunciations that only exacerbate debilitating and dehumanizing injustices that rot the individual and society from the inside. This discernment is particularly important on questions of race, economic inequality, environmental care, and sexuality.

Third, a monastic ecclesiology is constituted by intentional, ordered, and communal work. One should notice that the mundane nature of monastic spirituality in the world describes practices and activities that happen on a regular basis by people of all faiths or non-faiths. On one level, this is the point. It is not as if only monastics have been living according to God’s will for centuries and people in the world are just now discovering their secrets. On another level, however, one mark that distinguishes what might be properly called “monastic,” especially relative to the discussions above, is that this mundane work is ordered; bound to a rhythm in life; performed regularly, routinely, and intentionally; and worked out in community. Part of the reason for this is practical. The kind of new person that ascetic resistance creates is not sustainable without habituated practice and communal support. Another reason, however, attends to the formative process that occurs in these habituated and communal structures. Monastic spirituality does not so much proceed with the fixed goal of a new subject and community in mind—it does not define holy space prima facie. Rather, monastic spirituality seeks a deeper internalization of ascetic resistance through the habituating and formative effect of ordered, communal practice.

Fourth, a monastic ecclesiology is constituted by liturgical work. Monastic practices adapted to the world, ordered and made habitual and communal, inaugurate a new world, a holy space within a person and in the midst of a community. Richard Valantasis, cited above, described this process as the creation of an alternative culture, summoning anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture as “the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their action,” and “an ordered system of meaning and symbols in terms of which social interaction takes place.”30 Put simply, a holy space is a new culture with its own “fabric of meaning” that includes not just a set of values, virtues, and practices but stories, art, language, tradition, and history. Monastic practices resist the dominant context and simultaneously inaugurate this new culture, not just through the force of will or communal habituation but through the the liturgical elements of the church. The elements of the liturgy witness to this new world, these holy spaces. In the words of Alexander Schmemann, “The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity and the moment of truth: here we see the world in Christ, as it really is, and not from our particular and therefore limited and partial points of view.”31 The holy spaces in which a community habituates monastic spirituality seek through liturgical ritual the construction and participation in the symbolic universe, a “fabric of meaning,” to which monastic spirituality bears witness.

At this point in the outline we have built up a sense of what monastic practices adapted for the world look like and the kinds of commitment (habituation, community, liturgy) in which these practices find coherence. A monastic ecclesiology as I have developed it here conceives of the church as a holy space constituted by monastic work adapted to the contours and crises of life in the world. Moreover, the church is conceived as a holy space in which these practices become habituated in the rhythms of communal life and sublimated in liturgical rituals. In practical terms, monastic ecclesiology does not entail the kinds of commitments of formal monastic orders or neo-monastic communities, but it still entails commitment to a community of faith that is realized in habituated communal rhythms.

From the perspective of the church, monastic ecclesiology means developing a sense of habituated communal practice centered around the kinds of monastic spirituality adapted for the world outlined here. It also entails openness to the kinds of transformation of conceptual, physical, and relational holy spaces that monastic spirituality inaugurates. From the perspective of the individual, monastic ecclesiology means making the commitments and sacrifices in one’s life that are necessary to be a part of such a community of habituated practice. Monastic spirituality is not found in the individual’s clumsy imitation of practices ripped from ancient ascetic manuals. At a certain point the non-monastic must come to terms with the fact that they are not called to the monastic life (and that the monastic life is not as enticing or transcendent as it often appears from the outside). The idea of a monastic ecclesiology, however, seeks to attend to what is common between monastic and non-monastic life and to what extent monastic spirituality is concerned with humanity as a whole. In this respect, we are seeking a more genuine imitation in which monastic spirituality adapted to the world becomes an ascetic resistance to all within society that disfigures, numbs, or destroys the image of God within humanity. Monastic ecclesiology is the creation of holy spaces ever-nearer to the kingdom of heaven.


I will conclude by reflecting on the notion of a monastic ecclesiology for Churches of Christ as a tradition steeped in the legacy of the American Restoration Movement of the nineteenth century. In an important respect the idea of a monastic ecclesiology is not bound by any particular denominational structure. There are certain advantages that many ecclesial traditions have over Churches of Christ, however. The kinds of institutional life cultivated in formal denominations, expressed in shared liturgical and lectionary calendars, customs, creeds, and ritual language go a long way toward the “habituated, communal” practices that create holy spaces. Moreover, the rich liturgical traditions not just found in the high church liturgies of Mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy but in many low church liturgies of denominations such as Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal offshoots effectively shape the symbolic universe of their communities. Because Churches of Christ lack institutional structures and emphasis on liturgical development, some elements of a monastic ecclesiology may be harder to cultivate.

There are ways in which the restorationist legacy of Churches of Christ lends itself toward a monastic ecclesiology. Alden Bass offers compelling evidence in another essay in this issue of many of the practical and substantive elements latent in Churches of Christ that lend themselves toward missional communities.32 In addition to Bass’s argument, I offer an interpretation of restorationism as premised on an ascetic impulse and limit my reflections on monastic ecclesiology in Churches of Christ to the legacy of that ascetic impulse.

The Restoration Movement was steeped in the logical world of Enlightenment rationalism, which is often taken as the major premise that leads the primitivist hermeneutics of Stone and Campbell into hermeneutical circularity. “Each of these primitivist groups saw everyone outside its clearing in the woods as being colored by its assumptions. The restorationists simply did not see and would not recognize that they also brought their own.”33 This may be the problematic result of the general implications of Enlightenment rationalism on Stone, Campbell, and others. But Stone and Campbell applied their rationalist assumptions about the Bible and its common-sense simplicity and accessibility as a means of resisting the hermeneutical hegemony of learned elites in universities and denominational boards. The common-sense rationalism of these Restorationists undermined the liberal rationalism they saw at the heart of denominational accretion and the disunity it concretized. The Bible was freed from one version of Enlightenment rationalism by another version of the same. Importantly, however, the primitivist hermeneutics of the Restorationists enabled them to see in the Bible principles that resisted the liberal rationalism that made unity all but impossible, not on the grounds of abstract argument but in terms of spiritual and cultural corruption. Stone writes, for instance:

A preacher who has a large church and a large salary, could not easily deny himself of it, nor rejoice to see his people forsake him, reject their Creed and party name, and flow together in Christ, taking his word alone for their creed, and his name alone for their name. . . . A preacher in great esteem and honor among his party, would feel it a cross too heavy for nature to bear, to deny himself for truth’s sake of the honor and friendship of the world, and to submit to be despised and rejected by his party, his friends and relatives. Yet this must be done by preachers and people before the parties can unite. A preacher in wealth and honor and ease is the farthest, in human view, from reformation and union. . . . To make religion wealthy, and honorable in the view of the world, and to confer on it worldly ease and comfort, were among the first causes of its ruin and fall; and while these things are sought after, it will never rise.34

Although the primitivist hermeneutics of the early Restorationists were still grounded in common-sense rationalism, in an odd way they radicalized their Enlightenment legacy by finding their most compelling arguments not in appeals to reason as such but in using common-sense reason to demonstrate the ascetic principles at the heart of biblical religion and exposing the kinds of rationalist ploys that sought to circumvent such renunciations.

The lasting error of the Restorationists, however, was to domesticate the Bible in their own way. The high view of Scripture found in Restorationists like Stone freed Christians from the doctrinal binds of creeds and confessions only to enslave Christians in their own, often competing, versions of what the Bible really says. This did not solve the problem of disunity and doctrine so much as shift the goal posts. The Restorationists may not have debated “doctrine” like those they criticized such, but they debated biblical views just as vehemently and frequently.

What I have tried to demonstrate in general terms is not just an ascetic reading of the New Testament in figures like Stone but the ascetic impulse latent in primitivist hermeneutics, which creates holy spaces of Christian unity through subversive, democratized readings of the Bible. Churches of Christ need not be committed to the fatal flaws in common-sense rationalism, at least as they were manifest in the early restorationists, in order to maintain that subversive edge. The problem with the high view of Scripture in primitivist hermeneutics was that it was not high enough. The basis for unity for the Restorationists was conformity to their own reading of the Bible. Today the basis for unity is a commitment to Scripture as witness to the kinds of holy spaces that monastic spirituality attempts to tap into and cultivate. Unity is not premised on homogenous readings of the Bible or doctrine, nor is it premised on commitment to a missional community or monastic ecclesiology. Rather, it is manifest in these holy spaces; and this fundamental sense of the unity of all things is extended as a principle of service and care for society. Buried deep, perhaps very deep these days, within the religious DNA of Churches of Christ is an ascetic impulse in which Scripture stands over against all human attempts to control or domesticate Scripture itself or the spiritual life in general. A monastic ecclesiology for Churches of Christ requires that we to tap into the spiritual roots of our primitivism, in which what is restored is not the early church as an institution but as a holy space in which the Spirit of God is at work transforming the image of God into the likeness of God.

Brandon Pierce is the Senior Minister of the Stamford Church of Christ in Stamford, CT.

1 John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery Press, 1978), 1.21.

2 Ibid., 1.20.

3 See Derwas J. Chitty, The Desert A City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999), 173.

4 Climacus, 1.4.

5 Ibid., 2.6. Cf. 2.9; 3.24.

6 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with Other writings on the Rise of the West, 4th ed., trans. Stephen Kalberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); see also the development of this notion of asceticism in idem, The Sociology of Religion, trans. Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).

7 Richard Valantasis, The Making of the Self: Ancient and Modern Asceticism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008), 101–2.

8 Ibid., 13.

9 Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life, trans. Michael B. Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 45.

10 Ibid., 17.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., 64.

13 Ibid., 134; cf. 115–18.

14 See John Zizioulas, “Ecological Asceticism: A Cultural Revolution,” Sourozh 67 (1997): 22–25; John Chryssavgis and Bruce V. Foltz, eds., Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

15 Evdokimov, 139.

16 Ibid., 64.

17 Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness (New York: Image Books, 1963), 24; emphasis original.

18 Ibid., 19.

19 Ibid., 68.

20 Ibid., 116.

21 Joan Chittister, The Rule of St. Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2014), 66.

22 Merton, Life and Holiness, 25, 113.

23 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1961), 59.

24 Merton, Life and Holiness, 14.

25 Ibid., 110.

26 See Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017).

27 Rutba House, ed., School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2005).

28 Merton, Life and Holiness, 90.

29 See, for example, James W. McCarty III, “The Spirit of Reconciliation,” Leaven 22, no. 3 (2014):

30 Quoted in Valantasis, 10.

31 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 44.

32 Alden Bass, “Radical and Restorationist: Stone-Campbell Resources for Christian Intentional Community,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 9, no. 2 (Summer–Fall 2018):

33 Martin E. Marty, “Introduction,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 7.

34 Barton W. Stone, “An Humble Address to the Various Denominations of Christians in America. No. III,” The Christian Messenger 2, no. 3 (1828): 50–51.

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‘Other Ways of Doing Life’: Exploring Christian Intentional Communities

Having grown up in Churches of Christ, the author valued the vision of the church portrayed in the second chapter of Acts. Though such community was lacking in the life of the local church, other experiences of community set her in search of a new direction. Upon discovering the movement described as new monasticism, she set out to explore these alternative ways of life. This article describes experiences from her two-year journey around the US observing and participating in a variety of intentional communities.

All my life, I’ve been attracted to the community that forms when people live and work together. I found it attending the small, close-knit Columbia Christian College in Portland, Oregon, and its short-lived successor, Cascade College. I found it as a kid at church camp, and again as an adult, counseling at Wisconsin Christian Youth Camp. And I found it in secular places, too: in university dorms and crewing tall ships on the Pacific coast.

Where I didn’t find it was the church I grew up in. I was told so many times that the Churches of Christ were the direct descendants of the communitarian, resource-sharing collective described in the second chapter of Acts, but the differences seemed quite obvious to me: we didn’t meet together daily or share our homes and resources in the way that book describes. I’m sure someone at some point did sell their valuables to help those in need, but it certainly wasn’t common practice. I didn’t know whether to wish for that level of connectedness or not; I certainly didn’t want to see anyone drop dead because, like Ananias and Sapphira, they’d held back some resources. For better or worse, it seemed like my congregation emulated the early church to the degree that it was practical and comfortable to do so.

At a low point in my adult life, while praying for new direction, I read Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. I was touched and inspired by what he wrote about his community in the chapter titled, “Another Way of Doing Life.” He and his friends had purchased a house in a run-down neighborhood of Philadelphia and set out to share the gospel with their neighbors—not by preaching to them and giving them money, but by opening their lives to them. They mowed lawns, set up after-school programs, organized street parades, and found ways to look after their neighbors like good Samaritans. They chose to forego practical, comfortable, middle-class lives in order to live and work side by side with those in poverty. They struggled and laughed and prayed together, and Claiborne was honest about the challenges of life in community, confessing that he and his companions “never learned the secret to not hurting each other.”1 They called their home “The Simple Way.”

Claiborne invited his readers to come and witness the work for themselves, which I thought sounded wonderful. But when I investigated the possibility, I found the Simple Way deluged with requests to visit. Claiborne’s book had become a bestseller in the evangelical world, and the response to his invitation to “come and see” had overwhelmed the small community. However, The Irresistible Revolution included an appendix listing several other communities who were doing something similar, living out this “new monasticism” in different ways. My search for more information turned up hundreds of communities in dozens of categories: communes and collectives, co-housing and housing co-ops, monasteries and ashrams, ecovillages, punk houses, sanctuaries, retreat centers, and more. I was astounded. How had these alternative ways of life, some just across town, escaped my attention all this time?

I had my new direction. I spent the next two years traveling around the country, visiting many different kinds of communities, religious and secular, to observe and participate in the different ways people were working, sharing, and living together. It was an impractical and uncomfortable journey which challenged me to see the world in new ways, and it left me wanting to share what I’d found with others. Here, I’ll describe the communities I visited that were shaped and inspired by the mission of the gospel.

Jesus People USA

Born out of the Jesus Movement in 1972, Jesus People USA is an intentional community of over 150 members, cheerfully crammed into one-room apartments in a Chicago high-rise. They share their building with elderly low-income retirees, providing them with three hot meals a day. JPUSA is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church and recently renovated a separate building to accommodate greater attendance at worship services.

In its heyday, JPUSA had over 450 members, published Cornerstone magazine, and organized the annual Cornerstone Festival of Christian rock music. It is still home to Christian rock label Grrr Records, though it gets most of its income from a roofing supply company operated by its members. It is the only religious community I visited that did not rely upon donations or support from an organized denomination to survive. Its members operate a large and much-needed homeless shelter in the neighborhood.

In the months I spent at JPUSA, I met people of diverse ages, races, abilities, and personalities who were excited about doing God’s work in the world, and I was enthusiastically welcomed to join them in these efforts: serving meals to elderly residents of the building, staffing the reception desk, helping in the kitchen, and organizing clothing donations at their vast free store for the homeless.

The Catholic Worker Movement

Despite the name, Catholic Worker houses have no official affiliation to the Roman Catholic church, though they often include Catholic members. Founded by social activists Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day in 1933, the Catholic Worker movement ( emphasizes hospitality to those in need, while living in solidarity with the poor rather than accumulating wealth. Catholic Workers practice activism for peace and justice in a multitude of ways. The United States is home to over 200 independent Catholic Worker houses, each uniquely adapted to the needs of its community.

One such place I visited was the Open Door Community in Atlanta, a large house that offered essential services such as meals, health care, and clothing to many homeless people. Working side by side with community members, I helped serve meals, hand out clothing, and even give pedicures to those in need. I listened as a young black man, a member of the community, spoke tearfully about how it would be an honor to be arrested for activism in a just cause, and I was challenged to reconsider my own assumptions about the law and justice. After decades of service, the Open Door is, sadly, now closed; its leadership was ready to retire, and no one stepped forward to replace them.

In Indiana, I stayed briefly at the Bloomington Catholic Worker (, comprised of a group of young families in three small adjacent houses. Each house has its own room reserved for hospitality, and these rooms are primarily occupied by people transitioning out of homelessness. Members work outside jobs and share about half their income with the community. I joined them in morning worship, organic gardening projects, and conversing with people at the local homeless shelter, and I was impressed by how they wove sustainability into their plans and processes.

In Salinas, California, I visited the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra, a former Catholic Worker that is now interfaith. Its small membership—Christian, Buddhist, Vedic (Hindu), and agnostic—operates an organization known as Dorothy’s Place ( This facility includes a daytime shelter, a women’s night shelter, and a halfway house for formerly homeless women called The House of Peace. In this place, when I was mistaken for a homeless person, I realized for the first time how illusionary the line between myself and “the poor” really is.

Retreat Centers

Christian retreat centers can be found scattered across the continent (and globe). They frequently rely on volunteer labor, which makes it easy to set up a low-cost working visit. I volunteered at two Christian retreat centers in the scenic Cascade range of central Washington: Holden Village and the Grünewald Guild.

Holden Village ( is notable for its remoteness: it can only be reached by a boat journey up Lake Chelan or by hiking in over the mountains. A former mining outpost, it’s now owned by the Lutheran church (ELCA) and operates year-round as a popular family retreat. Its isolation from cellular, television, and radio signals leaves it to create its own culture, which is homespun, participatory, and laced with “holy hilarity.” The entire village—hundreds in summer, dozens in winter—meets daily for worship and benefits from frequent visits by guest lecturers, teachers, and artists in residence. I was amazed and humbled by the natural beauty of this place and the warmth of the welcome I received there; staff gather to applaud the arrival of every bus-load of guests.

About 30 miles away as the crow flies, Holden’s sister community, the Grünewald Guild (, perches on the banks of the tumultuous Wenatchee River. This ecumenical retreat center is sometimes described as “a school for art and faith.” The Guild offers a rich summer program of classes in a wide array of artist media, from watercolor and enamel to digital art and songwriting. Its five to eight full-time members host group retreats in its beautiful facilities during the remainder of the year. Volunteers, interns, and artists in residence share the burden of cleaning, cooking, and garden tending. The community gathers over morning and evening prayer services, as well as shared meals. For myself and so many others, the Grünewald Guild is a place of creative expression and sacred self-discovery.


I couldn’t pursue the “new monasticism” without a look at the old monasticism. While not all monasteries accept curious visitors, I found the Benedictine monastic tradition (, with its emphasis on hospitality, to be very approachable. At Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton, North Dakota, I found a small group of nuns who had been practicing The Rule of St. Benedict for many decades. This 1500-year-old text provides very specific guidance for living together in a monastic setting: in other words, in an intentional community of faith. While organizing their library, I enjoyed learning about the lives of these women, many of whom had been schoolteachers before retiring. All of them still kept quite busy caring for one another and maintaining the expansive facility that was their home. They were part of an older, dwindling generation of monasteries, but thriving centers of monasticism still remain.

. . . And So Many More

There are so many other communities, large and small, that I haven’t visited yet. A few worth noting here:

L’Arche International ( is an ecumenical network focusing on the needs of members with intellectual disabilities, as they live and work in community with neurotypical members. L’Arche grew out of a decision by its founder, Jean Vanier, to invite two men with developmental disabilities to live in his house. His book Community and Growth: Our Pilgrimage Together has inspired and guided many communities. Today, 145 L’Arche communities span 35 countries on five continents.

The Bruderhof ( is a network of Anabaptist communities in the US, UK, Australia, Germany, and Paraguay; its members practice simplicity and nonviolence, share all resources, and hold hospitality among their core values.

Koinonia Farm (, founded in 1942 in rural Georgia as a “demonstration plot for the kingdom of God,” became the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity. Its mission today includes hospitality, teaching, and demonstrating sustainable farming practices. Its sister community, Jubilee Partners (, offers hospitality and education to refugees.

This list barely scratches the surface of the world of Christian intentional communities. Each one represents a different approach to living out the gospel in partnership with others. If you are curious and have the ability, I urge you to seek out some communities and experience these “other ways of doing life” for yourself. You may find them impractical and uncomfortable, and you may be challenged to see the world in new, transformative ways.

Lindsey Hoffman was part of the first graduating class of Cascade College and served as Librarian there for eight and a half years. She lives and works at Twin Oaks Community, a secular egalitarian commune in rural Virginia, and is taking a sabbatical in order to complete a book about intentional communities. You can read more of her work at

1 Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 79.

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Toward Community and Intentionality: A Personal Story

This personal reflection narrates the author’s experiences in Christian intentional community in multiple contexts. Brief book reviews are woven into the narrative. The article ends with a word of caution about experimenting with intentional community.

The First Experiment

As a sophomore in college, one of my best friends told me about a crazy idea he and a few others were hatching. I knew immediately I wanted in. Thankfully, this idea had much better intentions than many of those invented by college students in their spare time. Still, it benefitted from being conceived in the minds of college-aged males, not because we had unique knowledge or special character traits but because we lacked the inhibition of more rational humans and could, therefore, put our plan to action with little getting in the way.

“What if,” the idea went, “we tried to live like Jesus would if he were living today in Abilene, Texas?” As we dreamed and prayed, our imaginations lit up. Jesus would live among the poor! He would live simply and pray often. He would welcome others to his house! No, wait—he’d invite himself to others’ houses!

As I heard and helped to shape this idea, I had a feeling that I was made for this. The challenge to choose a poor community as my neighborhood played to my memories of my dad Kenny’s Lubbock Christian University Encounter classes, in which participants in an elaborate simulation were tempted to quit playing their “successful” game characters and join the “loser” in the corner of the room. The exploration of God’s kingdom outside of church walls reminded me of when, as a teenager, I sat at the feet of youth ministers like Tim Henderson, who impressed on me that the Christian life is not so much about getting to Heaven but that “eternal life starts now.” For one raised in Churches of Christ culture, what could be more “Restorationist” than adopting the practice of the early church in Acts 4, sharing our possessions in common? With my background, all I needed was a little of Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution, and I was ready to dive headfirst into this thing called intentional community.

In the fall of 2009, we moved “down the hill” from our Christian university bubble, surrounding ourselves with neighbors who were different than us in just about every way. I feel a need to remind readers that “intentional” means “conscious” or “deliberate,” and not “knows what one is getting into.” For us, intentionality meant we were willing to experiment, and God turned that into something beautiful. In the years that followed, we had seasons with long-term houseguests and seasons with frequent kids’ club nights (in which we and a few volunteers ate, played, painted and sang with the neighborhood kids who were curious about why we lived there). For several Decembers, we also helped bring to life the dream of a long-time neighborhood pastor who wanted to see a Christmas party give children the simple pleasure of opening a gift.

In every season, we ate. Wow, did we eat! My favorite memories of those years are the cross-sections of people gathered around a common table. Neighbors, college students, some with rough pasts, some with advanced degrees, some with years of life’s wisdom, others still learning how to be adults. All had something to offer; all had something to gain.

One thing we did very little of was evangelizing—at least in the traditional sense. Now there were spontaneous worship sessions and readings through a book of Common Prayer, but when it came to beliefs, hardly any of our neighbors needed an introduction to faith. In fact, many neighbors had a faith that I craved, one shaped by decades of hardship and utter dependence on God. Before long I realized we were not there to “be” Jesus but to find him. Our willingness to experiment, to ask “What if we tried this?” did not lead us to bring Jesus into a neighborhood but to position ourselves so we could better see where God was already at work.

A Book suggestion

One of the most formative books during this season of life was School(s) for Conversion: Twelve Marks of a New Monasticism.1 This collection of essays edited by a community called the Rutba House describes some common characteristics between intentional communities across North America and the monastic traditions that helped shape them. Among these “marks” are some you might expect to be associated with monks: commitment to spiritual disciplines, a shared rule of life, and hospitality to the stranger. The book also outlines other aspects of “old” monasticism that Christian communities are finding relevant and timely for following Jesus in America: racial reconciliation, care for creation, and relocation into abandoned places.


Living down the hill in Abilene was the first iteration of intentional community in my life. We were spirited and idealistic. We witnessed miracles. Groceries came to our door as we talked about how we could host a neighborhood meal. People took steps toward sobriety while staying in our home. Privileged do-gooders shut up and listened to others’ vastly different stories. Those were miracles. What started as four young guys expanded into a collection of men, women and married couples living in three neighborhood houses, plus many friends living elsewhere who were just as much a part of the action.

In the long term, however, our young group lacked stability. We took jobs or spouses and moved across town or across the country. Since then, others have come and gone with similar vision, willing to experiment, listen, and learn. And, as we found out, others had lived out the experiment in the same neighborhood decades before us. We knew God had been there long before we arrived, and we trusted that God would be at work on those streets long after we were around to see it.

Another Experiment

In the years after I left the neighborhood, my family and I continued to live as intentional neighbors, but we never could shake the desire to live in closer community with other Christians. You could say that communal living ruined us for nuclear family life. This fall, another set of what-ifs led us to make another move. What if we shared a house with people who inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves? What if we shared both a spiritual rhythm and the necessary tasks of life? What logistical and spiritual benefits might come from a “village” lifestyle? A desire to ask those questions is why we moved our family across the country to share a house with friends who are interested in the same questions. Our families’ rhythms are not strict and our sense of mission is still largely underdeveloped. In fact, I’m not even sure if I would call what we have now an intentional community in the truest sense. Instead, we are simply two families who have given each other permission to share in the daily mundanity of meals and dishes, and the permission to encourage each other to become better people of faith who strive to be the best parents, neighbors, and citizens we can be.

The benefits of shared life are felt in many ways. We pay less rent than we would as single families with our own places. Each of us cooks less while enjoying more home-cooked meals. Our best babysitters live down the hall. I pray and study Scripture more now than I have in years (not because I want to, but because I made a commitment to my housemates—kind of like having a gym buddy). However, in my opinion, the best thing that intentional community has to offer the church is the permission to experiment. Many Christians, especially young Christians raised going to church, want to know what ramifications following Jesus has for their daily lives beyond a rulebook of dos and don’ts. There is power in a group of people who are willing to dream and ask the what-ifs.

Another Book Suggestion

Author Mark Scandrette has several practical suggestions for communities looking for ways to be more intentional in his book Practicing the Way of Jesus. His approach is couched in experimentation and practice, rather than signing up for lifelong commitments. What if we downsized our closets? What if we ate less meat so we could afford to support local farmers with our grocery budget? What if we committed to playing in the front yard instead of the back to be more visible to our neighbors? Now, sure, you could do any of these experiments by yourself. But if you’re like me, you need the extra motivation of co-followers alongside you and—if at all possible—the encouragement and example of folks who have been doing this a little longer. Scandrette offers a metaphor he sees in a popular extracurricular location: the karate studio. A community of Christians can serve as an arena of practice sort of like martial arts has the dojo. Meaning “place of the way,” a dojo is a hall or room meant for common practice and active learning. “So a Jesus dojo,” Scandrette writes, “is a space where a group of people wrestles with how to apply the teachings of Jesus to everyday life through shared actions and practices.”2

A Word of Caution

It should not come as any surprise, but the two necessary ingredients for intentional community are community and intentionality—a willingness to experiment and folks to experiment with. You need a group of co-followers who are willing to think through the implications of Jesus’s teachings and creatively experiment with ways to apply those teachings. A word of caution is needed though! These what-ifs and experiments have a way of changing one’s outlook on life and faith permanently. You might give away half of everything in your closet. You might lose a sense of comfort in compartmentalized religion. You might find yourself in messy relationships with people who look, believe, or smell different than anyone you’ve known before. You might join a protest. You might share. You might move. Best of all, you might find Jesus.

Aaron Shaver graduated from Abilene Christian University and has been experimenting with intentional community for about ten years. He currently lives in Lawrence, New Jersey, with his wife and two children, plus two close friends and their child. The seven of them share a house, meals, childcare, a church, and a desire to encourage each other to follow Jesus more closely.

1 The Rutba House, ed., School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2005).

2 Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011), 16.

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Whatever Love Requires and Human Frailty Demands

From his perspective as a participant in new monastic communities for almost a decade, the author elaborates two implications of René Descartes’s famous dictum “I think, therefore I am.” Reflections on imagination and individualism suggest what love requires and human frailty demands in the context of intentional community.

“I think, therefore I am” –René Descartes

As a place to start reflecting on the movement called new monasticism, I admit that this quote is as strange as it sounds. It’s not obvious what Descartes has to do with intentional communities. It’s not immediately apparent what this quote has to do, for example, with simplicity, social justice, and relocation. Yet, nearly ten years of living in new-monastic community has taught me two very important things that relate to Descartes’s foundational modernist claim. First, imagination shapes our participation in the life of the world. Second, we must relearn what it means to share this place with other people.

The first observation relates to Descartes’s famous reflection because it’s both a description of and an imagination for the reality in which we live. His starting place is “I” or the individual self. We Westerners have used this starting place to great effect in the creation of the modern world. Positively, we live in a time in which individuals are thought of as having inalienable rights. We see each person with a sort of divine or mystic dignity. Such a stance makes possible the kind of imagination necessary to see all humans as ontological equals. There are no kings and queens among us. Each person has a right to their individual life, prosperity, and freedom. Within the bounds of the law, we have the right to pursue these things as we each see fit. Each individual matters.

Negatively, the individualized imagination at the heart of the modern project has also caused a few problems. Processes of ecological devastation, and robust systems of race and poverty have all been direct products of this imagination as well. The egocentrism present in the quote above incubates and gives birth to consumerism, individualism, objectification of people and the environment, and finally cultures of accumulation and colonization. In short, Plato put the earth at the center of the universe, Copernicus claimed it was the sun, but Descartes said reality revolves around me. Each of us is the center of reality. “I think, therefore I am” imagines a world that revolves around my individual consciousness. I am my individual, conscious self. I am the subject of reality, and everything else is an object. Worst of all, this worldview can lead to the conclusion that anything that’s not “me” isn’t human.

Therefore, Descartes’s dictum is also relevant because we must now unlearn the imagination of the self-centered universe if we hope to survive the ecological and political issues of our time. Now more than ever, we have a dire need to cultivate an imagination that shares this world with those around us, to see the stranger and the other as human beings and co-inhabitants of the world. We must learn what it means for many members to belong to a single body. Monastic community has taught me that.

I’ve seen a handful of legitimate miracles in my life. My mother was healed from a degenerative muscle disease when I was twelve years old. I saw a leg grow out right before my eyes at a healing service. I’ve seen the deaf receive their hearing and the blind their sight, but the most amazing miracles I’ve ever witnessed happen around a kitchen table. Monastic community has a way of creating intense moments of vulnerability between people from different backgrounds, families, and tribes. This can be good or bad. It’s bad when there’s no safety to be honest. I consider this to be a sign of an unhealthy monastic community. But it’s good when that safety has been cultivated and embraced. When it’s safe to be vulnerable, when it’s treasured and handled with tender care, miraculous things happen in human relationship. When we see ourselves not merely as individuals but as different parts of a single body, a miracle happens: we are truly seen and heard.

Monastic community has taught me to love my neighbor as myself. While modern life has all but completely insulated us from one another, the sharing of space and rhythms of life has forced those who live in monastic community to relearn what it means to wade through the murky waters of conflict and reconciliation as a normal part of daily life. Most Americans will likely only experience this kind of relationship as part of their daily life with a spouse, and even those relationships can be short lived. But in monastic community, this level of mutual self-disclosure happens in a community much broader than the confines of marriage and family, and when it does it can be a revelation of God’s heart. To see two people unrelated by blood, background, or even culture who have hurt one another share their hearts, their fears, and their hopes and then to see them fully embrace one another is the greatest miracle I’ve ever witnessed. It’s almost mystical. It’s like looking into the very face of God. Such a miracle exemplifies that love is the strongest force in the universe. You might even say it’s the center around which all reality gravitates. But this kind of love doesn’t happen overnight.

The lifestyle described above requires the wisdom of doing what love requires of us on a near constant basis, but it also requires that which human frailty demands. Love can require a lot, and sometimes we forget that it requires us to know our own limitations. In loving others well we come to understand the need to love ourselves in the same way. This commitment to doing love well is the hardest part, because it pushes against that rugged and heroic individualism of the self-centric universe. Accepting our limitations really gets at the root of our egocentric impulses, and that can be a frustrating process because our unhealthy desire to be heroes often goes hand in hand with our desire to do good. What the world needs is a movement of people who desire the good that the world needs without the vanity of being its hero or savior.

The work of the modern project has so alienated us that we must now relearn what it means to belong to one another. The very systems of our society are designed to reinforce that obstacle. Google, YouTube, and social media have brought the whole world to our fingertips, but we remain as isolated and divided as ever. Monastic community is an education, and for the most part it’s an education acquired through failure. But there are some valuable resources out there, and you don’t have to learn everything the hard way. If you are interested in reclaiming the vulnerability of human relationships, if you want to relearn what it means to share this world with other people, if you need a new imagination for the center of reality, then I suggest visiting a local new monastic community. Or check out some of the literature on the topic. For further reading, I suggest Schools of Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism by Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, Missional. Mainline. Monastic. by Elaine A. Heath and Larry Duggins, and The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. Another world is possible for us. We can weather the storm of current political and ecological events, but it’s going to require a new imagination; it’s going to require a new way of life. If there is a future for our world, I’m convinced it revolves around the reality of love and relationship in shared human community.

Joshua Love is a spiritual director and social activist with ten years of experience living in new monastic community. His teachers include inmates, minorities, individuals experiencing homelessness, and the poor. It has been his life-long calling to love Jesus among the least of these. Most recently his work has included being a chaplain at the CitySquare resource center in Dallas, Texas, a group facilitator with the prison ministry Bridges to Life, and an outreach coordinator with the North Texas chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign. He holds a masters in Religous Education from Rochester and is currently in the project phase of his doctorate of ministry with Lipscomb University. For monthly prayer practices or more information about his work with spiritual direction, you can visit his website at

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Radical, Communal, Bearing Witness: The Church as God’s Mission in Bruderhof Perspective and Practice

This paper reflects on the relationship between three themes—restorationism, new monasticism, and missional ecclesiology—from the perspective of the Bruderhof, an international Christian movement of intentional communities. The author concludes that if the church today is serious about being genuinely missional as a people, if it is intent on restoring the eschatological witness and vision of the apostolic church, then all of us must consider a new way of being the church together.

Our topic is: “Missional, Monastic, Restorationist?” The conjunction of these three motifs is not only interesting but timely. Much attention has been given recently to the interrelationship between the church’s missional and formational tasks. Emphasis upon ecclesial, liturgical, and spiritual formation define the later, while strategy, messaging, and contextualization have characterized the former. In their book, Missional. Monastic. Mainline.,1 Elaine Heath and Larry Duggins creatively and thoughtfully reflect on what it means to be both missional and monastic (formational) within the Mainline tradition. Their thoughts grow out of the recent neo-monastic movement2 but also from current missional theology, which re-envisions the biblical story and the relevance of the incarnation in terms of what God is doing in the world.3 A slate of books and articles have picked up these two seminal ideas, emphasizing one or the other or both.

So how might these two notions, being missional and monastic, interface with the restorationist tradition? This is the central question, and it is here that I run into a quandary. These three motifs are linguistically and theologically problematic within the framework from which I see and experience things. The Bruderhof, an Anabaptist communal church of which I am a member, is neither strictly missional, monastic, nor restorationist, at least not in the usual understanding of those terms. Drawing more directly from the Sermon on the Mount and the early church’s eschatological orientation, we strive to proleptically “restore” a more integral and socially dynamic understanding of “church” and “mission”—one that in daily life attempts to demonstrate the impinging reality of God’s coming kingdom.

Ecclesial Context

Before proceeding further, let me describe in more detail my particular ecclesial context.4 The Bruderhof is an international Christian movement of singles and families that began in 1920 in post-war Germany. This is important. Eberhard Arnold, a theologian, publisher, and sought-after speaker, came to the conclusion, with his wife Emmy, that the German church was not only theologically compromised but complicit in the atrocities of the war—something abhorrent to the nonviolent way of the cross. The state church had not only lost its biblical and theological mooring but its spiritual vitality and social credibility. It had sold-out to nationalism, economic imperialism, and the idols of technological progress, materialism, and wanton individualism. It had to repent and begin again.

Inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, the early Christians, and the first Anabaptists, Arnold and others threw in their lot together and forged a communal settlement, sharing all things in common: possessions, work, daily life, housing, and however else they could—all in an attempt to express God’s new order of peace, justice, unity, and love. The heartbeat of their new-found venture was to bear witness to the transforming power of Christ’s life and death, in which all things could be made new. What Jesus taught and what the first Christians experienced could be lived out today.5 Poverty of spirit and the Beatitudes were real; peacemaking, forgiveness, and reconciliation are possible; sexual integrity, marital fidelity, and the childlike spirit could be celebrated and preserved; uncompromising truthfulness, love for one’s enemy, un-hypocritical, non-pious devotion in simplicity could be genuinely practiced; and finally, social and economic equality, the elimination of poverty, the experience of spiritual, social, and material unity in expectation of God’s final future were all realizable in God’s new community—the church.

From a very humble beginning, the Bruderhof now consists of thirty communities on five continents.6 Those communities vary in size and shape, existing in a variety of settings: urban, non-urban, and rural. Our life together consists of a common table, common property, common work, common education, and a variety of other common endeavors. We live together and make decisions together. Young and old are cared for, and serving one another takes priority over where we live or what kind of work we do. Our community is based on submission to Christ and to one another, manifested in our willingness to consider the needs of others before one’s own and a commitment to forgive one another in a spirit of reconciliation. In short, our life together is our worship; it is the best way we know how to honor God and further his mission on earth. This life of community is possible not because we are striving toward some utopian ideal or trying to emulate some pristine ecclesial pattern but because we have been moved by the Spirit to believe in and proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom of justice has come in Christ and is at hand today.

With this as our backdrop, I now want to consider, in reverse order, the aforementioned motifs and how they might be understood and lived out within our own communal context.

The Restorationist Impulse

Regarding the restorationist motif, with its stress upon freedom and the primitive apostolic church, I want to highlight the often-neglected eschatological dimension of restorationism. When we think of American restorationism, and its European Anabaptist counterpart known as restitutionism, what comes to mind is the attempt to overcome the extra-biblical traditions and practices that have crept into and divided the church.7 How can this be done? By appealing to the pure lines of the apostolic early church as described in the New Testament. For Anabaptists in particular, restoration (or restitution) primarily meant, in the words of Franklin Littell, “to relive in studied fashion” the life of the New Testament community in all its facets.8 For many Anabaptists this resulted in a definite ecclesial pattern or set of essential prescribed practices.

Robert Friedmann has argued, however, that for many early radical reformers it was not the exact emulation of the primitive church per se that concerned them, nor even the historic re-establishment of something that had previously been lost or abandoned.9 It was simple obedience to Christ in terms of discipleship. It was in this sense that Eberhard Arnold turned to the early church. Following Ludwig Keller’s lead, Arnold believed that the true church, or Gemeinde, was never actually lost; it has manifested itself as a perennial community of believers, albeit in a myriad of expressions, both before and after Constantine.10 It is not important that the primitive apostolic church provides some fixed, normative, timeless pattern.11 What is important is spiritual affinity, or identifying the original stream of God’s Spirit as it manifests itself in different historically situated contexts. Despite the fall of the church under Constantine and other deviations since, the true church has always existed somewhere, usually in fresh and new ways other than established structures, even if it is not always readily identifiable. Again and again, God’s church makes itself manifest.12

For Eberhard Arnold, the Radical Reformation was neither a turn backward nor “a new movement that had never previously existed.”13 Through it the freedom and power of the gospel had come alive in a new and different way, best described by the watchword imitatio Christi (the imitation of Christ)—the discipleship of Christ. These words especially, according to Arnold, are the “evangelion katexochen—the gospel at its sharpest and most definite, and in its clearest and broadest form.”14 This is what the Roman church corrupted and what the magisterial reformers failed to fully honor.

Take the issue of believer’s baptism. According to Arnold, the issue was not essentially a religious dispute but a disagreement over the nature of the church and whether the church should rely on the state. Contrary to Zwingli, the radicals rejected the notion that the state was necessary to further the cause of Christ. The true church, filled with the Spirit, did not need the power of the sword, nor did the state’s cultural task need buttressing by the church. In light of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, the real issue regarding believer’s baptism was the separation of church and state. The church’s task was not the repression of evil through force but the redemption of evil through love and costly discipleship.15

This is why, in 1523, Conrad Grebel, along with several other radicals, went on to make a sharp attack on capital, interest, and church taxes, demanding their total abolition. These were incongruent with the character and Spirit of Christ’s teachings and the life of the church as depicted in Acts. The church consists of believers who voluntarily give all they have so that no one is left in need. This body politic has nothing to do with capital, interest, or other forms of profiteering. Hence the radicals challenge to Ulrich Zwingli: “You are too slow and too lukewarm in all things concerning the true church and the kingdom of God. Don’t you realize which way the times are pointing? Don’t you see where the Spirit of God is blowing? Now is the time to act with the greatest and holiest sincerity!”16

The first Anabaptists, therefore, understood restoration in eschatological terms: radically forward. It was this eschatological impulse that inspired Eberhard Arnold to live in total community. The true and living church must be free from the powers and principalities of this world, the powers of injustice and violence. Only in this way can the fullness of the gospel, ruled and guided by the pentecostal spirit of expectation, be lived out. God’s word must not only be free from the state but be free to empower the church to embody the powers of the future. The church’s tasks, in whatever hour of history it finds itself, is to bear witness to the living word as a proleptic foretaste of things yet to come. Such certainty and faith in the “last days” is what compelled Zwingli to finally say of Grebel, “He talks as though the Messiah had already come.”17

This is the key to the church’s unity—not a timeless form or an ecclesiastical pattern statically frozen in Scripture but a common witness to the coming reign of God. For this reason, we in the Bruderhof have never been interested in copying the early church, nor the early Anabaptists. We only seek to embody the apostolic spirit manifest in both. The true church throughout the ages always lives messianically—radically in God’s future centered in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

The Monastic Impulse

What then of the monastic, or neo-monastic, impulse? As we know, this motif has received a great deal of attention lately, most notably with Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option. I won’t try to describe that option or define exactly what neo-monasticism is, but two features stand out: community and contemplative practice. These two elements rely on and reinforce one another. Elaine Heath and Larry Duggins highlight this in their book. They argue that the conventional or traditional model of church, with its buildings and programs, must be reformed or at least seriously complimented. What we need now is a greater, more deliberate effort to establish micro-churches or communities—gatherings and households that meet together in alternative spaces with the aim of connecting people with a more meaningful expression of the church. The church must become an anchor for new monastic, missional communities, which attract real followers of Jesus, not just spiritual consumers. This means building a thicker community life together with a common rule that is inclusive, nonviolent, healing, and transformative.18

In a similar vein, Alan Roxburgh, in Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, argues that the traditional, institutional church (as well as other social institutions) no longer works; it is unravelling. The good news, however, is that underneath the unravelling, God is up to something. “The Spirit is busy re-founding the church for our time.”19 It is showing us how to embody a way of life that makes space for alternative patterns of organizing life together—not more and better church programming that tries harder and harder to attract people, but a thicker sense of community that joins people together more holistically and organically.20

This emphasis upon community is coupled with contemplative, liturgical, and other monastic-type practices. David Fitch, in his book, Faithful Presence, argues that it is these very practices that shape us to be a community. God’s people must be “disciplined” around a rule of life that actually forms them into the story of God: daily disciplines of prayer, meditation, singing, listening to God’s word, along with regular practices of confession, reconciliation, Eucharist, fasting, giving, and serving. When we take these practices seriously, he argues, “it is impossible to locate the church inside four walls of a building.”21 Without disciplines that shape us into a community, the church otherwise remains an event. We fail to take shape as a cohesive social reality. As a people and as a result we tend to stay as a group, as individuals.”22 The result? God’s word, as well as his people, become disembodied and dismembered, torn apart by a fragmented and fragmenting world.

This fresh emphasis upon community and monastic practice resonates deeply with us in the Bruderhof. For the past five years I have served on the steering committee of the Nurturing Communities Network—a network that has grown out of the neo-monastic movement, which links established communities with emerging, young micro-communities. The Bruderhof has not only hosted several network gatherings, but our community members regularly visit and work alongside these communities.

But as laudable as these effort are, there is something that is lacking. For us, community isn’t something we have or do or make; it is not something we strive to build or foster, least of which within the matrix of a traditional ecclesial structure. Rather, it is something we are. Church and community are one and the same. The church, in essence, is a community of the Spirit; it is our everyday life together in Christ that encompasses all the facets of living. It short, our life together as a church is (or at least strives to be) the communal harbinger of God’s future reign of justice and peace. For us, the church is neither a place, nor an event, nor a set of discrete practices that are performed at certain set times—religious or otherwise. It is life together as God’s people. Any practices that follow only nurture and protect what we already are in Christ. These practices don’t so much form or shape us but give expression to and reinforce who we already are. Community is not a quality or some attribute of the church; it is the form in which the kingdom manifests itself in the world. It is the context from which we as the church live out Christ’s teachings, through which God’s mission is fulfilled on earth, and toward which we hasten the coming of God’s reign.

The Missional Impulse

This leads us to the final motif of mission. As with the monastic motif, a great deal of serious thought and creative energy is currently being spent on re-conceptualizing what the church’s missionary task is in the world. Concerns over how mission and evangelism have been hijacked to serve the exploitive interests of empire, including the marketplace, combined with the rapid decline and irrelevance of traditional church life, along with the loss of faith and spiritual vitality among those engaged in various social, political, economic, and environmental causes, have forced people to reimagine what missional ecclesiology should be like. A number of emphases have emerged.

First, there is a renewed emphasis on how God is already at work in the world, beyond the four walls of the church. According to Heath and Duggins, God’s work can be especially seen amongst the vulnerable, among society’s marginalized and oppressed.23 Gone are the days when we try to get people into the church. Our priority is to be a faithful presence amongst our neighbors in very specific, local contexts. It is not behind the pulpit or in the pew or in any other sacred religious space that God accomplishes his greatest work. Moreover, we must not conceive of mission in terms of what the church can do on behalf of God and for the world; rather, we must, in the words of Roxburgh, “frame our lives around questions about God’s actions in our neighborhoods and how to join with God in these places.”24 How? By embodying a way of life (community) in the places where ordinary life unfolds—listening to our neighbors, relying on their hospitality, travelling lightly in order to make space for alternative patterns of organizing life together.25

In other words, mission is about being incarnational—participating in existing networks of relationships, friendships, and acquaintances in neighborhoods, especially among those at risk.26 This demands “contextualizing” the gospel so that it can be encoded in such a way that it becomes meaningful to the respondent, meets people’s deepest needs, and penetrates their worldviews, thus “allowing them to follow Christ and remain in their own cultures.”27 We don’t have to divide the world between those who are “in” and those who are “outside” the church. Every sphere or area or domain of existence is “a potential arena of God’s presence.”28

To be missional, then, according to Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen, in their book, The New Parish, involves “sharing life together and living in the midst of the everyday realities of a particular place.”29 This includes having a more “profound connection to the cultural life of the area . . . with personal and group practices that knit together an embodied fabric of caring relationships.”30 In other words, we as the church must learn anew to craft “a life together in a definable place” (parish) amidst “all the relationships (including the land) where the local church lives out its faith together.”31

When this happens, neighborhoods are transformed and flourish. The church involves everyday life together in the parish and for the sake of the parish. Worship is thus not an “event” but a way of life. “The worship gathering rehearses who you are and the type of people you long to be together as you live out your faith in the parish throughout the week. . . . At the center of church practice is faithful presence in the parish.”32

What does this faithful presence entail? It means diving into the new commons, which simply means all that we as people share with others—“all the dimensions of life for which everyone in your neighborhood shares a common concern.”33 All aspects of the commons must feel the effects of the church’s faithful presence. Take economy, for example. The dominant version of how our consumer economy works is broken and unsatisfying. The church can subvert it by looking for ways to invigorate the local economy. Instead of a consumer economy, it can bolster a gift economy by investing and starting local enterprises comprised of neighbors who strive to live justly.

As with the monastic motif, there are many aspects to this approach to mission that we in the Bruderhof can relate to and affirm. The Word was not just announced; it became flesh. For us, however, a misplaced emphasis upon the commons risks undermining the community we desire and are called to be. Whatever else the church might do, it must exemplify in its life together an “otherness,” something different from a life based on the values and practices that stem from private property, personal autonomy, and other systems of power. Yes, God is at work in the least likely places but God is uniquely and most vividly at work in the church—not the four walls of a building or during certain sacred hours, but in the very warp and woof of a shared, total life dedicated to consecrating every facet of the ordinary.

The church is not just a gathering of people, whether large or small, that does mission; it is a contiguous social reality that prefigures, not just symbolically but concretely, God’s mission of transforming all things in Christ. Its very life is missional because its task is to make visible collectively what the Spirit can do when people repent and live by faith. In this way it actually has something to proclaim and invite people into—rich, poor, and anyone else oppressed under the weight of this world’s fallen systems. Being missional doesn’t just mean rubbing shoulders with neighbors and performing quiet, concrete deeds of love and service, but serving the world together as a radical, subversive alternative. That demands sacrificing the world’s patterns and priorities for the sake of manifesting the redemptive otherness of God’s kingdom.

In our own experience, given time and patience, opportunities naturally open up where we can relate to and serve the wider local community. Through our publishing work, which includes publishing timely books and a quarterly magazine (, and in reaching out to others—our neighbors, public officials, and those who serve in public institutions—the input we give and the contributions we make are often welcomed. Where possible, we seek to find ways to come alongside others to better the commons and make it a more livable, humanizing place. While these spheres are designed to serve the common good, we do not pretend to know how best to govern them or fundamentally improve them. That is not our goal. Besides, the epicenter of God’s mission lies elsewhere. This is why, whether through our neighborhood daycare center, prison work, nonviolence program for students, work with refugees, or other ways we try to be a neighbor, those who know us understand that our allegiance is to a different social order, one that runs counter to consumer capitalism, partisan politics, and lifestyles of leisure. But joined with this, they also know that we value friendship and cooperation despite differences. Ultimately, and hopefully, through our life together they get a glimpse into what life could be like and what God’s coming future will be like.

This may all sound very missional, yet it is different from the transformational focus that is being emphasized today. We believe that if we focus too much on transforming the commons, renewing neighborhoods, and looking for how God is at work in various “third places,” we risk undermining the most precious thing the church has to offer: itself. We can too easily forget how radical the church’s missional task really is: to incarnate concretely Jesus’s will and way and call people to it. This can only be achieved when people actually see what such a life is like. This is what it means to be missional: to prove by our life together that this world “is passing away” (1 John 2:8). Mammon has indeed been defeated on the cross; consumer capitalism and private property, with its legal and coercive apparatus, need no longer dictate or define how we live and work and care for each other. The church has something even better than a gift-economy: the giving up of everything economy! It is in living justly together as family that we as disciples make manifest the power of the good news in the ordinary and everyday realities of a particular place. Faithful presence without radical witness will invariably result in a fatigued and enculturated church—the very thing that is generating so many new models of community and mission. Without a visible, viable, social alternative, the church cannot effectively or fully further God’s mission of transforming all things in Christ. It loses its eschatological significance.


So where does this all lead? On the one hand, the current interest in monasticism, as well as in the church’s missional task, is extremely promising. The ways in which we have understood church are changing and indeed need to be changed. For us in the Bruderhof, this is exciting. Practices that form us together into a thicker life of community are vital to faith and mission. On the other hand, the changes many thinkers and practitioners are advancing are, in my estimation, not radical enough. Their vision of church community is, in the end, too thin, and their vision of mission too untethered from Christ’s ultimate mission: to become head over all things for the church (Eph 1:22).

I don’t pretend for a moment that we in the Bruderhof have gotten it right. We are not some shining example. We have to fight the tendency of becoming too focused on our communal life together, because we are prone to mistake the common practices we share, or our form of life, with the Spirit that should animate it, and we too easily forget that our community life should serve the higher purpose of God, which is the reconciliation all things. We, like everyone else, need to think in fresh ways about what it means to authentically bear witness to the gospel. But if the church today is serious about being genuinely missional as a people, if it is intent on restoring the eschatological witness and vision of the apostolic church, then all of us must consider a brand new way of being the church together. This is the most radically missional thing we can do in a world that is fast falling to pieces. The Spirit that descended at that first Pentecost after the resurrection and was testified to by the first apostles always reconciles and gathers; this Spirit ultimately gives birth to an altogether different kind of social reality. When this occurs, an ecclesial (not to mention institutional) upheaval happens—a radical reconfiguration emerges that displaces conventional ways of being God’s people. A new kind of Spirit-filled community, one that gives rise to a concrete, social, and revolutionary way of being the church is born. And whenever this happens, the imaginations and longings of those who are famished with a hunger for a genuine, relevant Christianity find themselves swept along by the Spirit.

Charles E. Moore resides with his wife and daughter in Esopus, New York, and is a member of the Bruderhof community, a movement based on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and the witness of the first Christians as described in the book of Acts. He currently teaches at the Mount Academy. He is also a pastor and an editor, author, and blogger for Plough Publishing. He is co-editor of the Blumhardt Series and his works include Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (Plough, 2002), Action in Waiting: Sermons by Christoph Blumhardt (Plough, 1998), Leo Tolstoy: Spiritual Writings (Orbis, 2006), Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship (Plough, 2016), and the award winning book, Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People (Plough, 2016). Moore oversees Acts2onCampus, an initiative to reach college students with the radical call of Jesus, and is on the steering committee of the Bearing Witness Stories Project (Goshen, IN), as well as the Nurturing Communities Network, a growing network of intentional Christian communities.

Adapted from a paper presented at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 6–8, 2018.

1 Elaine A. Heath and Larry Duggins, Missional. Monastic. Mainline. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).

2 See The Rutba House, ed., School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2005), and Jonathan R. Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010).

3 In terms of application see Darrell Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) and Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). For theological treatments see Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) and Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

4 For a fuller treatment dealing with the beginnings of the Bruderhof, see Marcus Baum, Against the Wind: Eberhard Arnold and the Bruderhof (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1998).

5 Arnold’s vision of the Sermon on the Mount is articulated in Salt and Light (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1998).

6 For current information about the Bruderhof and its various communities and activities, see:

7 Unlike restitutionism, restorationism grew out of the American soil of splintered denominationalism. Anabaptists were concerned more with the corruption of the church.

8 Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church: A Study in the Origins of Sectarian Protestantism, 2nd ed. (Boston: Starr King Press, 1958), chs. 3, 4. It must be added here that there also existed an apocalyptic strain among Anabaptists that focused less on some pristine past and more on preparing for the imminent return of Christ.

9 Robert Friedmann, “Recent Interpretations of Anabaptism,” Church History 24 (1955): 132–51.

10 See Eberhard Arnold, The Early Anabaptists (Rifton, NY: Plough, 1984), and Why We Live in Community (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1995).

11 For a fuller treatment of the early church see Eberhard Arnold, The Early Christians in Their Own Words (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1997), esp. the introduction.

12 Ibid., 4.

13 Ibid., 5.

14 Ibid., 20.

15 Ibid., 28.

16 Ibid., 42–43.

17 Ibid., 51.

18 Heath and Duggins, 24.

19 Alan J. Roxburgh, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time (New York: Morehouse, 2015), v.

20 Ibid., 52–53.

21 David E. Fitch, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 38–40.

22 Ibid., 199.

23 Heath and Duggins, 19–20.

24 Roxburgh, 45.

25 Ibid., 52–53.

26 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 64–65.

27 Ibid., 109.

28 Fitch, 12.

29 Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen, The New Parish (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 8.

30 Ibid., 9, 16.

31 Ibid., 23.

32 Ibid., 85.

33 Ibid., 95.

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The Essence of Renewal; The Anatomy of Decline: Ten Priority Questions for Renewal

We know that Churches of Christ are in sharp decline in North America.1 We also know that God, the source of renewal, is present in his Holy Spirit. Pursuing renewal for our churches leads us to discern answers to theological and ministry questions for church renewal from Scripture.

I praise God because I have witnessed churches being renewed over the past few years.2 But also feel sorrow—even anguish—because many more churches are struggling and wilting, and many are likely to die.

I believe that the questions we ask and the priority we give them decides the direction and ultimately the future of the church. So, I am suggesting ten priority questions for leaders to ask prayerfully and courageously if they hunger for the renewal of their churches.

Church leaders frequently make decisions to keep peace among members or to navigate competing doctrinal or practical agendas rather than to seek God’s will through prayer and discernment. These questions are not developed from surveying what people want but from discerning what God desires based on what God is calling his people to be and do through Scripture.

May God raise up leaders who seek his will!

Question 1: What is God’s divine purpose for the church?

I would like for you to imagine what God might do if you made these passages a part of your life and aligned ministry according to them.

In Matt 22:34–40, when Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” by one who considered himself an expert, he replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”3

The purpose of the church is the love of God and love of neighbor.

Praying to God in John 17:14–16 toward the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus describes his disciples in this world: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”

The church distinctively lives in the world but is not of the world.

In Matt 28:18–20, the resurrected Lord said to those worshipping him (and to some who doubted), “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. I will be with you always to the very end of the age.”

The church by divine authority is to go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them, knowing that they are led forward by his divine presence.

Question 2: How do leaders equip God’s people for works of ministry?

Ephesians 4:11–16 illustrates how God’s people become leaders who “equip his people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up” and “become mature,” no longer “blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love,” they grow up into him “who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

The major task of church leaders is intentionally to “prepare (equip) God’s people for works of service.”

As we will see, this equipping is better caught than taught.

Questions 3: How are leaders chosen?

Jesus called a few disciples who had walked with him on the journey to become leaders. At the beginning, Jesus invited a chosen few to come into his life, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19) and “Come and see” (John 1:39, 46). They learned by walking with him. Out of these maturing disciples, he then selected apostles, “that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). Searchers became disciples who matured to be his apostles. The journey was personal, heart-to-heart, over a period of years. They heard Jesus teach and minister and then were sent out to imitate what he had been doing.

The Jesus process was searchers-disciples-leaders! Jesus walked with many searchers, some of whom became disciples, with some of those emerging into leaders. Leaders were called and chosen within the context of ministry.

Question 4: What was Jesus’ rhythm of ministry?

In Luke 6, Jesus first sought solitude when he “went out to a mountainside to pray and spent the night praying to God” (v. 12). Second, Christ’s communion with God led him to choose his twelve apostles, thus creating community (v. 13–15). Third, Jesus went down from the mountainside with his disciples and began to minister with divine power (vv. 17–19) by preaching the Sermon on the Plain with his new disciples (vv. 20–49, cf. Matt 5–7). The Jesus rhythm was solitude-community-ministry.

The church must likewise learn this rhythm of solitude-community-ministry, living UP—IN—OUT (UP in relationship with God; IN community; OUT on mission).4 These “three disciplines are important for us to remain faithful, so we not only become disciples, but also remain disciples.”5

Questions 5: How do Christians who live in the world but are not of the world make decisions?

An answer can be discerned from how decisions were made at the first church council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, reflecting on whether converted Gentiles follow Jewish customs. In this conference, three speeches were recorded, each focusing on the question with a different emphasis. There is, however, a common theme about decision-making embedded in each. Peter speaking from “history” declared that God had made a choice to accept the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas argued from “ministry” that God had performed miraculous signs and wonders among the Gentiles confirming his acceptance of them. James spoke from “Scripture” that “David’s fallen shelter” would be restored and that both the remnant and “the nations that bear [God’s] name” would be welcomed (Amos 9:11–12). Each speech focused on what God has been doing. It was therefore necessary for all the Christian leaders to accept James’s conclusion that “It is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).

Church leaders gathered to discern the will of God, not the desires of Jewish Christians or customs of the Jewish law.

Too frequently, elder and staff meetings have been more concerned about discussing popular methodological approaches to ministry and negotiating the competing desires of members than listening to God. How do leaders come to realize that listening to God in prayer leads the church to make transformative decisions in line with the will of God? Such upside-down thinking spiritually and radically transforms decision-making.

Question 6: What are the functions of elders?

Church leaders are called “elders” because of their maturity and “shepherds” because of their tasks. Their profile is that of mature, godly leaders (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). The functions of such spiritual leaders are to discern the cultural customs and currents that stand in opposition to the Way of Jesus and to oppose leaders who (as in the example of Acts 15) teach that one has to be circumcised in order to be saved or who (as in the example of Titus 1:5) seek some type of financial remuneration—to protect the church from imposters whose “minds and consciences are corrupt” (Titus 1:10–14).

Their task is not primarily to make the plans or set the agendas of the church but to pray for and care for the flock and discern with them God’s leading.

Question 7: How do children grow to spiritual maturity?

We know that we walk with our children in the midst of both their struggles and our own. All families live in various kinds of dysfunction. Despite our failures, we live with assurance that God in his Holy Spirit works in the midst of these human struggles.

The principle “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Prov 22:6) gives us assurance!

This training is lived out in the family rhythms of (1) turning to God in prayer; (2) reading the Bible to discern the will of God; (3) living in community with other Christians; (4) sharing the narrative of God and the Gospel within the nuclear and extended family and with those who do not yet know the way of God in Jesus Christ, and (5) hearing God’s call for sharing the Gospel on mission within the local neighborhood, city, country, and other parts of the world.

These counter-cultural rhythms help us live distinctive lives as followers of Jesus in an increasingly secular, time-fragmented culture. Healthy churches integrate their children into every aspect of the life of the church.

Question 8: Why do churches disintegrate?

Paradoxically, churches often disintegrate from the inside out while appearing on the surface to be healthy.

In contemporary North America, faith disintegration frequently begins when husbands begin to live busy, secular lives disconnected from faith and eventually affecting family.6 They frequently go through the motions of “going to church” because they have not been formed spiritually as disciples. Their wives struggle largely by themselves to develop the spiritual formation for their children. Parents often focus on children’s activities and neglect their own personal spiritual formation. As a result, the church becomes a “place to go” rather than a “family of fellowship.”

Churches also disintegrate because elders and members focus on the forms and functions of church rather than on God’s eternal purposes. Purpose and passion are lost when vision is too small, too this-worldly. What if the church lived with the understanding that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the fulcrum of human history and sought to live lives shaped by the cross of Christ? What if Christians brought their sufferings to the cross as well as their sins? What if Christians took their scars to the cross so that they became testimonies to transform?

Christians too frequently forget the centrality of the gospel and live “functionally,” going through the motions. They invert Phil 2:4 by looking primarily at their own interests rather than the interests of others. They forget the purpose of their baptism! They lose their ability to articulate their faith. The church becomes secondary to other parts of life.

Question 9: What is renewal?

  • Renewal takes place when families seek first the kingdom of God.
  • Renewal takes place when families develop a rhythm of prayer and devotion.
  • Renewal takes place when churches incarnate God’s presence within their community of fellowship.
  • Renewal takes place when God’s presence is evident while the church meets both publicly and from house to house as an inviting community.
  • Renewal takes place when the church lovingly shares its own faith with searchers and skeptics, inviting them into loving community.

Question 10: Why should we expect opposition? How do we live faithfully during persecution?

We live in a world where, whether aware or not, Satan seeks to lead us astray from our devotion to Christ (2 Cor 11:3). While called to put on the “full armor of God” to withstand the temptations of Satan (Eph. 6:10-17), we are tempted by the lusts of the flesh and enticements of contemporary culture. We are, however, frequently oblivious to the source of our temptations and unprepared for such spiritual struggle!

In the midst of these temptations God calls us into a Trinitarian relationship with himself–a loving interaction with the intertwining fullness of his being: God, our Creator; Christ, our Savior; and the Holy Spirit, our Sustainer and Empower! Thus, a primary question is “Are we living within this Trinitarian relationship or largely on the boundaries of this triangle—trying to follow God while following much of the world!”

Faithful presence is this Trinitarian way of walking in with the fullness of God, basking in his love and holiness, covered by the blood of Jesus, and living by the power of his Holy Spirit. Faithful presence is like marriage in which the husband and wife faithfully care for each other (Eph. 5:25) or a family in which parents lovingly care and nurture their children who then faithfully care for their parents at a later stage of life. Faithful presence is incarnational: God comes to us in multiple forms and dwells among us. We, in turn, grow to dwell with him. May we, as the church, live within God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit rather than in the world!

Live faithfully! Redeem the time! May you live with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:14).

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen served as a church-planting missionary to East Africa for fourteen years, taught Missions and Evangelism at Abilene Christian University for seventeen and a half years, and is the founder of and facilitator of church planting with Mission Alive ( His books Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Perspectives, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, and The Changing Face of World Missions (authored with Michael Pocock and Doug McConnell) are widely used by both students and practitioners of missions. He edited Contextualization and Syncretism, a compilation of presentations of the Evangelical Missiological Society.

Adapted from a paper presented at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 6–8, 2018.

1 See Carl H. Royster, “Churches of Christ in the United States: Statistical Summary by State / Territory,” June 2018, 21st-Century Christian’s latest online numbers show 11,966 congregations (a 10 percent decline since 2000) and 1,445,856 adherents (down 12 percent).

2 Note the Mission Alive process for the spiritual renewal of older churches at

3 Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.

4 For further discussion of this model, see Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Is Missional a Fad?,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 7 (Summer-Fall 2016):

5 Henri Nouwen, “From Solitude to Community to Ministry,” Leadership (Spring 1995): 81,

6 This claim is based on my experience and developed in conversation with Don McLaughlin, senior minister at North Atlanta Church of Christ in Dunwoody, GA.