The Tangible Kingdom
The Posture and Practices of Ancient Church Now
by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay.
A Leadership Network Publication by Jossey-Bass, 2008.
This is my third review of a book that was sent to me by the good folks at The Ooze.
I’m going to start with the good news. I think this is the most practical book about forming and living in Christian community that I’ve ever read. (Outside of maybe the Benedictine Rule.) It’s funny, engaging, and easy to read. It’s really well-organized, with helpful diagrams and reflection suggestions/queries at the end of each chapter.
The authors are leaders of Adullam, a congregational network of incarnational communities in Denver, Colorado, and of Missio, a global network of missional leaders and church planters, which is part of Church Resource Ministries.
The first half of the book has a great analysis of what's going on in Christianity today - what works and what's not working and how long it's been that way and why. The second half is about how the authors are doing and being church.
The authors explain that they see three main elements to incarnational community: Mission, Communion, and Community, and they give examples from early Christian stories and from their current lives. [I think equivalent examples could be pulled from early Quaker stories as well.] They also outline three main barriers to incarnational communities.
By Community, they mean connecting to each other: sharing friends, food and life. The main barrier to community is individualism, which looks like not having enough time for the community, and can be overcome by discipling togetherness, gentle confrontation, and not allowing people to remain invisible.
By Communion, they mean connecting to God, through sharing scripture, sabbath gatherings, and other spiritual practices. The main barrier to communion is consumerism, the sense that others should produce spiritual experiences for me to consume. This is overcome by discipling participation rather than passivity, and sharing our gifts widely.
By Mission, they mean connecting to new people, through benevolent action, spontaneous blessing, sacrificial giving, and sending of leaders. The main barrier to mission is materialism, which manifests as not having enough money to share, especially for people who have gone into debt in order to have more stuff. This can be overcome by discipling charitable giving, especially helping one another in times of extra need.
Here’s one of the basic nuggets: Whatever you give leadership to will grow. This may sound like a cliché to some of you. For most church leaders, they are pointing out that if you put all your best time and people and energy into creating more engaging worship, then it’s likely that more people will come to your worship gatherings. But that doesn’t mean that they will actually be doing the hard work of transformation the other 167 hours of the week. For a liberal, unprogrammed meeting, this might translate as, if you put your best time and people and energy into making newcomers feel welcome, then it’s likely that more people will come, and come back. But again, that doesn’t mean they will actually be having a transformative experience.
So among the lessons I learned are:
#1 Be good news [present, loving, an advocate] to your family. (People will notice.)This doesn’t sound so difficult, does it?
#2 Be good news to the people around you (neighbors, coworkers, your softball team, the Starbucks baristas, etc.)
#3 Invite people to join you in your regular life activities
#4 When people see that you are a present and loving advocate for the important things in life, they will start to talk to you about important things. Talk to them honestly.
#5 Be willing to give credit where credit is due: God and your faith community
I think the main point is that living incarnationally will show. I liked the line on p. 42: “In our Adullam Network, we specifically ask people not to try to be ‘evangelistic.’ We suggest to them that if people aren’t asking about their lives, then we haven’t postured [read: embodied] our faith well enough or long enough.”
I liked the general prescription for new church groups getting started. Once a month, just have a party together that you can invite all your friends to. Once a month, do some kind of service together. And a couple times a month, do some kind of scripture reading, prayer or something that connects you to God. Which works out to basically meeting once a week, but not necessarily every week on Sunday mornings at 11. And it offers a whole lot of different ways to connect to each other, to the community and to the Divine.
The new bee in my bonnet is this word “incarnational.” I think another way to say this is to be the change you wish to see in the world. One of the things that worked well in my workshop at FGC was the invitation to people to try on some new/old Quaker practices to see if they had Light & Power in them: to live them out. Halter and Smay are giving me theory and evidence for some things I (and others) have intuited.
In my own life, in this intersection between my leading in ministry and my family’s practical needs, I believe God is calling me to a new phase of incarnational life. To the opportunity to live my faith and leading while working full time and still homemaking. It’s not just a life for people with nothing else to do but be holy.
Among other changes, it will offer my husband and me a chance to return to a more equal distribution of labor, both in paying the bills and in housekeeping.
More to the point, I have to learn to live as my increasingly religious fanatic self in a more secular environment. Even my paid jobs over the last ten years were in religious institutions. I have to learn to talk like normal people again.
And who knows where this will lead? I have some suspicions, but they are still very fragile and weak. In any case, I am learning some lessons that may be fruitful. And maybe this is all preparation for something else that I can’t even imagine yet. That has happened before.
So that’s the good news. Back to the book.
The first negative thing I have to say about this book is not its fault. It’s one more book that assumes the reader is escaping fundamentalist evangelical Christian culture. Which I’m not. I’m still waiting for the book written for other people interested in the emerging church. I’m open to suggestions, any day now.
The second thing is to complain about the completely gratuitous swipe at Quakers and the Amish on p. 160. The authors seem to have confused their stereotypes of us with my stereotypes of fundamentalist Christians as the people who are not allowed to have fun. But as a mark of Christian charity, I forgive them.
Now for my real quandary about this book. What do reviewers usually do when they read a book that has really good content wrapped in some less relevant stuff that is mildly offensive? I’m not talking about the cussing in Oh Shit! It’s Jesus! I’m talking about a less than equally respectful and inclusive attitude towards women and LGBTQ folks. It’s not overtly, intentionally, offensive. It’s mixed in with some good language about not judging others and about treating all of God’s children with love. But it is implicit in their examples of talking to young men about how they are spiritually leading their girlfriends, fiancees, or wives without any sense that this is a mutual exchange. It’s evident in the lack of examples of female leadership. Or describing one of the trends in the folks they train as, “They think the homosexuals’ fight for sexual clarity isn’t that much different in God’s sight than the heterosexuals’ struggle against pornography.” Umm, that’s a step up from utter damnation, but, well, that’s not quite good enough for me. But does that negate all the good stuff in this book?
Everybody has a weak point. Everybody fails to live up to Jesus’s example in some ways. Does that nullify their good points? The ways in which they’ve got it right? Sometimes I suppose it makes it too hard to hear what a person has to say, even when he or she is right. But in this case, I’d say it’s worth sifting through.
And while I’m at it, I think it’s a good exercise for all of us. How can we listen beyond our disagreements that we know are in the way in order to hear the Truth coming out of our brothers’ and sisters’ mouths?
Lord, help us all.
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