Will Change Undo The Church?
A Church for the 21st Century,by Leith Anderson (Bethany House, 246 pp.; $14.99, hardcover);Church Without Walls,by Jim Petersen (NavPress, 226 pp.; $9.99, paper);The Consumer Church,by Bruce Shelley and Marshall Shelley (InterVarsity, 232 pp.; $9.99, paper). Reviewed by Steve Rabey, religion editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph.
Imagine a traveler using an outdated map trying to book a flight to the Soviet Union. The travel agent explains that the Soviet Union is no more, having been replaced by 15 independent republics. But the would-be traveler will hear none of it. “This can’t be,” he shouts. “It’s right here on my map!”
Like it or not, this traveler resembles many leaders who are trying to plot a course for the church of Jesus Christ by using outmoded analyses and traditions. At least, that is the opinion of the authors of three new books that are trying to move the discussion of ecclesiology out of the ivory tower and into the pulpit and pew.
These new books share some similarities: discussions of staggering “paradigm shifts” for how we must view our changing world; references alternating between the New Testament and contemporary books on business and marketing; and critical re-evaluations of church history and tradition.
Yet each book also reflects the unique perspective of its author. Leith Anderson, senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, provides a hands-on manual for managing change that reveals his decades of experience as a leader and servant of local congregations. Jim Petersen, an executive with the Navigators and a former missionary to Latin America, fears that the church’s self-serving traditionalism may hinder believers from carrying out the Great Commission in the contemporary world. And church historian Bruce Shelley (who was assisted by his son, LEADERSHIP journal editor Marshall Shelley) sees the church being forced to answer a difficult question: Will we go with the flow and compromise our biblical distinctives, or will we remain true to tradition and be seen as out of touch with the real needs of modern men and women?
Although the tone of these books varies from hopeful to gloomy, all three communicate an urgent message: The church must change now or drift into cultural irrelevance. Although the challenge they describe is monumental, it is no more difficult than the challenge faced by the earliest Christians. As Petersen writes: “They were called upon to sort out Jesus from Judaism in order to become a people for all nations. We are called upon to sort out Jesus from our traditions in order to make Him available to our Nation.”
A Cheerleader For Change
If George Barna is the church’s guru of growth, Leith Anderson is the church’s cheerleader for change. In A Church for the 21st Century, he provides practical strategies for churches trying to survive and even thrive in an age of increasing social fragmentation and decreasing denominational loyalty.
Anderson wants churches to rethink their mission and tap into America’s deep spiritual thirst. Thriving local congregations will be those willing to reach out and meet people where they are instead of expecting people to invade the sanctuary: “Churches of the twenty-first century will not be those that emphasize self-preservation and isolation without risk. The survivors and thrivers will be those which exist for others.”
According to Anderson, a major transformation has occurred in how contemporary seekers enter the church. While earlier generations joined congregational life through Sunday services or Sunday-school classes, today’s seekers enter the church through a host of special-interest offerings: divorce-recovery workshops, athletic teams, or various support groups.
Transforming these isolated interest-driven sheep into members of a unified flock places new and pressing burdens on today’s shepherds. While exuding compassion for harried pastors, Anderson admits that pastors who champion change may fall victim to either stress from their critics or dismissal from anxious church boards. He gives practical counsel for how to be an effective leader and for how to avoid danger.
One thing Anderson does not provide is a sure-fire, one-size-fits-all model for the church. He compares those who blindly implement the techniques of the latest church-growth seminar to a doctor who discovers a new drug and prescribes it to all his patients, no matter what their illness. Anderson describes a variety of shapes churches may take, including megachurches, the larger metachurches, full-service, seven-days-a-week churches, and revitalized traditional churches.
Anderson believes churches can be relevant without selling their souls. But his call to re-evaluate the church’s mission will raise eyebrows among those who prefer to do church as usual.
Missionary To America
Jim Petersen left the mission fields of Brazil’s university campuses for an executive position with the Navigators in the new evangelical capital of Colorado Springs. He expected to find a thoroughly Christianized city. But looking at his own neighbors, he saw little church involvement (one neighborhood family was Mormon, another practiced Christian Science) and much pain.
By reaching out to his unchurched neighbors, Petersen began to understand why the church was having trouble being a vehicle of redemption to a hurting world. He struck up a friendship with a neighbor who liked to jog, but when the man asked Petersen to jog on Sunday morning, Petersen felt an uncomfortable tension between going to church and “being the church” to his neighbor. At the same time, a youth pastor criticized his teenage daughter for having non-Christian friends.
Petersen’s tension led him to a fresh study of the New Testament and church history. What he sees in today’s church is an institution-bound organization that has forsaken its biblical mission. Comparing some church leaders to legalistic members of the Sanhedrin, who were the recipients of some of Jesus’ harshest criticism, Petersen argues that theological and ecclesiastical systems have usurped the place of the gospel: “Human beings seem to have a perverse, irresistable need to turn whatever they believe into a system that they promptly use to enslave themselves and everyone around them. We do this repeatedly with the Christian faith, endangering the easily obscured truth of grace every time.”
Petersen calls for a renewed evangelistic vision, a radically revised understanding of incarnational ministry, and a redesigned church that prepares every member for his or her part in the work of building God’s kingdom.
What Price Change?
Bruce Shelley has no problem with change. As a professor of church history at Denver Seminary, he has spent an entire career studying changes in the church. But in The Consumer Church—the most sober of these books—Shelley asks Christian leaders how far they are willing to go to accommodate modern paradigms and what they are willing to sacrifice in the process.
Looking at contemporary society, Shelley sees an ethic of expressive self-fulfillment replacing the Puritan’s ethic of humble self-denial. And he sees some churches bending over backward to pander to a society for which religion is no more than another consumer choice. “In recent years Americans have chosen churches not so much to meet God and surrender to his revealed ways as to satisfy some personal need. Unlike the rich young ruler in the Gospels, church attenders seldom ask, ‘What must I do?’ They are far more likely to ask, ‘What do I get out of this?’ ”
Like Petersen, Shelley has little patience for traditionalism. But he fears the abandonment of all traditions will leave the church a hollow shell.
Shelley’s strongest warning is for those who would so lower church entrance requirements that being a part of the church is no more demanding—or meaningful—than choosing a restaurant: “Evangelical congregations must expect people to be more than consumers of religion. They must teach believers to discipline their personal tastes and submit themselves to the standards of God’s Word. That happens only within the community of faith.”
All three of these books wrestle with the complex changes confronting the church today, but the task is hardly new. Facing change has been a challenge throughout the church’s 2,000-year history. The task grows more complicated in times such as our own, however, when even the pace of change is changing and picking up speed. We can be thankful that these three books—which provide both a crash course in contemporary cultural analysis and a fresh look at God’s biblical design for the church—provide the updated maps for our journey toward the church of the twenty-first century.
Waiting For The Antichrist
Last Days Madness: The Folly of Trying to Predict When Christ Will Return,by Gary DeMar (Wolgemuth and Hyatt, distributed by American Vision in Atlanta, 240 pp.; $9.99, paper). Reviewed by Mark A. Horne, an editorial associate with Prison Fellowship.
After Edgar C. Whisenant’s second failed attempt at prediction in The Final Shout: Rapture Report 1989, many hoped that Christian readers would learn from their mistakes. Then the Gulf Crisis hit, prompting such an outbreak of apocalyptic literature that even the secular media thought it was a trend worth reporting. Since then, of course, the rebuilt Babylon has turned out to be somewhat less than anticipated—leaving everyone disappointed but the booksellers. Nevertheless, publishers continue to pump out “end times” books claiming to contain proof of a near-future Armageddon based on a supposed link between biblical prophecy and the latest headline.
In Last Days Madness, Gary DeMar hopes the evangelical reading public will soon realize the futility of keeping track of the umpteenth revision in “the prophetic calendar.” One by one, DeMar ably refutes the claims of writers who insist the Bible contains a timetable for predicting modern events. He sheds biblical light on such topics as the number of the Beast, the identity of the Antichrist, the battle of Armageddon, and other prophetic topics. He strengthens his case against the promoters of “last days madness” by citing many other predictions of impending Armageddon that have been made through the centuries. “They all have one thing in common,” writes DeMar. “They have always been wrong!”
If there is any weakness in this much-needed book, it lies in its stress on refutation. It is one thing to explain what the Bible does not teach; it is another to explain what it does teach. While DeMar does set forth his own position—that many of the prophetic passages in the New Testament refer, not to a future tribulation, but to God’s judgment on Israel in the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70—he does not explain his perspective in any sort of detail. For most of DeMar’s readers, after all, belief that we are living in the “last days” is not merely an interpretation of various passages in Scripture, but a comprehensive commitment to the idea that history is about to come to a close. To learn suddenly that the church may be around awhile is bound to be a disorienting experience.
A likely explanation for DeMar’s negative emphasis is his past experience with “end times” advocates. Last Days Madness is the latest in a series of exchanges between a group of evangelicals, loosely identified as Christian Reconstructionists, and the dispensationalists and quasidispensationalists who believe that Christians are presently living in the “terminal generation.”
In the book, DeMar has restricted himself to proving that the texts commonly used to support the idea that we are living in the “last days” actually refer to events that took place in the first century. He points out that Jesus plainly stated that his prophecies relating to “the coming of the Son of Man” would happen to the generation to whom he was speaking (Matt. 23:36; 24:34). He is careful to make his case in such a way that historic premillenialists and amillennialists will find much to agree with. DeMar’s skill as a communicator and his ability to refrain from partisan polemics makes Last Days Madness an effective book.
As The Court Turns
Turning Right: The Making of the Rehnquist Court,by David Savage (Wiley and Sons, 473 pp.; $22.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A graduate of Stanford Law School, he is a member of the California and D.C. bars.
The judiciary is the most secretive and least understood branch of the federal government. Yet its power is immense. Less than 20 years ago the opinion of seven men overturned the laws of every state on abortion. Other decisions, often by five-to-four votes, have stripped the public square of the mere mention of religion, mandated busing and quotas, rewritten election procedures, and helped force the resignation of a sitting President. “In the end,” writes David Savage, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, “the Constitution means what these nine persons say that it means.”
In Turning Right, Savage helps make understandable recent judicial controversies and the conservative campaign to reshape American jurisprudence. Savage is not entirely pleased at the change in the Court’s direction, but his book is generally free of ideological cant.
The strength of Turning Right is its humanization of the justices and Court operations. Savage mixes historical sketches of past cases with biographies of the justices, vignettes of oral arguments before the Court, and quotes from actual opinions to advance his thesis that Ronald Reagan and George Bush have pushed the Court to the right. Contends Savage: “The transformed Court no longer sees itself as the special protector of individual liberties and civil rights for minorities. To a remarkable degree, the new Court mirrors the affable but solidly conservative man who heads it,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Savage wrote Turning Right before the last term, in which cases such as Planned Parenthood v. Casey have called into question conservative control of the Court. While there may formally be a six-member “conservative” majority, half of those justices seem willing to uphold past liberal precedents. Still, the Court is no longer regularly breaking dramatic new legal ground.
Savage covers the full range of issues, including abortion and religious issues. Typical of Savage’s approach is his coverage of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the 1989 case that upheld some state restrictions on abortion. He briefly summarizes the line of abortion cases stretching back to Roe v. Wade, allowing that “if [Justice Harry] Blackmun’s opinion made medical sense, however, it did not succeed as well in making convincing legal sense.… Certainly the states that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment did not think they were making their abortion laws unconstitutional.” Then Savage looks at the internal Court dynamic in Webster, including Rehnquist’s decision to write the opinion himself and the divisive struggle that ensued among the nominally conservative justices.
Originally, viewed as “the least dangerous” branch, the judiciary has proved to be a powerful policymaker. Savage helps strip away much of the mystery surrounding the Court in Turning Right. It is a book well worth reading by anyone interested in learning a bit more about America’s unelected superlegislature.
The Reforming Of A Novelist
Novelist Larry Woiwode thinks it is ironic that most of his readers are secular East Coast literary types. Despite a life-changing conversion 15 years ago, despite his attending a doctrinally conservative Orthodox Presbyterian church, the acclaimed novelist is largely unknown among evangelicals.
Woiwode (pronounced “why-would-he”) works and lives on a small flax and alfalfa farm in the sparsely populated prairies of western North Dakota. The nearest town, Mott, has a gas station, a beauty parlor, but no bookstore. A visitor wanting to buy the novels of the town’s most famous resident will be pointed to a Super-Valu grocery store.
In addition to writing short stories for the New Yorker, Woiwode has published a number of highly regarded novels, including What I’m Going to Do, I Think in 1969, and Beyond the Bedroom Wall in 1975. Of the latter, the late literary critic John Gardner wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “Nothing more beautiful and moving has been written in years.”
Woiwode’s latest novel, Indian Affairs, has just been released by Atheneum. Woiwode describes it as “an attempt to unravel some of the complexity of the Native American situation, without neglecting one of their first contacts, the Puritans. It contains a developed Christian apologetic,” which, interestingly, has missed the notice of most reviewers. His new book, Acts: A Writer’s Reflections on the Church, Writing and His Own Life (due in the spring from HarperCollins), develops what Woiwode talks about here: faith, fiction, and how Christians can address a culture increasingly resistant to the gospel.
What was the process leading to your becoming a Christian?
The outline is fairly simple. I was raised a Roman Catholic and baptized into the faith. At about the time I was in college, I started falling away because there was no way to justify why I was doing certain things or why I held certain views. If all I could say was “that’s what the church teaches,” it didn’t present a very convincing argument to unbelieving friends. So I became disaffected with the church and essentially stopped attending.
I lived the life of the hedonistic agnostic for the next few years. At about this time, I was living in New York City and working on Beyond the Bedroom Wall. During the writing, I had to look up passages in the Bible, to see what the Lutheran and Catholic families in the story were thinking. Because I knew these families, I knew that they were thinking along biblical lines. I also realized by that point that Christianity had the power to change people’s lives.
So then I would become tom between two extremes. The Spirit would convict me of my apostasy and my sin, but I would resist and go on living the way I was. Eventually I was briefly brought so low that I had to look at what the Spirit was insisting.
One of the problems for me in reading Scripture was that it would seem to take me every direction, and I couldn’t reconcile what seemed to me differing viewpoints. Until, that is, someone pointed out to me the five points of Calvinism. Then everything fell into place. About that time, my wife and I were attending a church in Chicago—Trinity Chapel, where Francis Mahaffy was pastor. Through the preaching there, my calling and election was made sure. The more I studied Scripture, the more I came to the conviction that I was a child of God.
Themes of belief and doubt run through your writing. What is the role of faith in your fiction?
The question that fiction presents is: In the face of death, what is my stance? The answer is faith. You must have faith. That answer is implicit in the fiction itself, though not in a programmatic way. When I write, I’m aware that every sentence is moving across a blank page on faith. I’m not writing Janette Oke novels, but I’m convinced that the only answer for mankind in general is faith in Jesus Christ.
There are many deaths in your novels, especially in Beyond the Bedroom Wall. Why is mortality such a persistent theme in your work?
Death is the one event that’s inevitable, that we all have to face. Modern life has become so sanitized that people assume they’re going to live forever. Writing about death is a way of reminding people they’re going to die. Isn’t that one of the techniques used by James Kennedy in his Evangelism Explosion? “If you were to die tonight …”
Presbyterian minister and novelist Frederick Buechner says that for him, writing a novel is similar to what he does in a pulpit; he is just using a different form. Is that true for you?
I think that the best fiction is always teaching us ways to apply ourselves to life. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—the whole Russian tradition does that, often using a spiritual viewpoint. It posits a way to live (just as the atheistic existentialist Albert Camus does) and then asks what sort of way do you want to live? One of my reactions in reading Camus was: “I don’t want to live like Meursault [the protagonist in The Stranger].” I don’t want such emptiness in my life that I go out and blow somebody’s head off.
So fiction, even Christian fiction, need not present a glorious, uplifting story. It can present the opposite, so that readers say not just “I hate this book,” but “I never want to live like that.” I believe that the best Christian fiction teaches you to apply Christianity, just as the best seminaries should. In fiction, the method is different; it’s done through metaphor.
My editor at the New Yorker, William Maxwell, once told me that the only way to do a book was to write it so well that when the reader put the book down he said: “Well, my life will never be the same after that.”
What do you say to critics who claim that such an approach uses fiction to proselytize, that it makes stories preachy?
It’s no more preachy than the writer who wishes to present a humanistic point of view or a Marxist point of view. A story is an attempt to create a believable, attainable lifestyle. My view happens to be informed by the historical Christian faith.
Do you believe your fiction doesn’t get the attention it deserves because you are a self-acknowledged Christian?
I think that there is a prejudice against the Christian point of view in just about every realm. The reception to the more explicitly Christian Poppa John made clear to me how much prejudice exists in critical circles, which, let’s face it, are controlled by the humanist hegemony. As I discovered when I taught in the university, humanists do not like to be crossed in their beliefs, and one of their beliefs is that you can’t have faith in anything.
When a novel like Poppa John is literally dismissed in a sentence in Time magazine when, before, my other novels generally had good reviews, that tells you something.
What role are Christians to play in the world?
“To glorify God and to enjoy him forever”—the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. There is no simple way to put it better. Paul breaks it down to whatsoever I eat or drink or do, I should do it all to the glory of God. When I sit down to write, I hope that that’s what I’m doing. When I work in the fields, I feel the same. I’m as in touch with creation when I’m at my desk writing as when I’m running machinery all over the literal creation.
If I am indeed scrupulous to bring glory to God in all aspects of life, then when his judgment comes, as I believe it will, I will be judged—after claiming Christ’s righteousness—on how well I’ve glorified him. And so, of course, I hope to enjoy him forever.
Interview by Timothy Jones.
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