Book Review: Envisioning the Congregation, Practicing the Gospel

John W. Stewart
Envisioning the Congregation, Practicing the Gospel: A Guide for Pastors and Lay Leaders
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.
Available at Amazon.com

By Graham Stanton (Ridley College)

Stewart is particularly addressing a commonly noted malaise in the mainstream Protestant churches in the USA as they are confronted by falling numbers, aging membership, an exodus of young people, deteriorating facilities, and leaders who are “wearied from the paralyses brought on by endless divisive conflicts” (p.10). Such malaise is not unique to North America. Many churches and church leaders are aware of similar challenges facing congregations in Australia today.

Into the mix of explanations given for the current state of the Church, Stewart offers this contention:

instrusive, potent cultural values of contemporary America have skewed Christianity’s classical beliefs and deconstructed the Church’s wisest and proven faith-forming practices (p.11).

That sentence picks up on Stewart’s three main themes: First, the values of contemporary America (which are common to a large extent to the values of contemporary Australia) are contrary to the gospel. Second, the central challenge for the church is to recover the classical beliefs of Christianity expressed in the gospel. Third, recovery of the gospel calls for local congregations to pursue intentional actions that embody and enact the gospel. Stewart’s aim is to see congregations engage in the sort of practical actions that will promote the gospel as an engaging alternative to the surrounding culture. Of course, ‘gospel’, ‘church’, and ‘practice’ are all theologically loaded terms so having some idea of Stewart’s take on each may be useful to work out whether you’re interested in reading any further. Fortunately Stewart engages with each at length in chapter (the church), chapter 3 (the gospel), and chapter 4 (practices).

It’s the incorporation of the practices paradigm that particularly delights the practical theologian in me. Stewart identifies the significance of practices to “embody the markers of a congregation’s real identity, … sustain the communities purpose… [and] manifest how, if at all or to what extent, a congregation participates in the gospel-driven mission of God” (p.58). (Stewart references the valuable discussion of practices by practical theologians Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass, “A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. by Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass (Eerdmans, 2002). If you’re wanting to get a handle on the practices paradigm that article is well worth a read).

The remainder of the book works through five key practices that Stewart looks to as the antidote to cultural intrusion: fellowship, discipleship, witness, service, and worship. Nothing particularly new there; but that’s part of the strength of the book. If the church is going to recover the centrality of the gospel, then going back to the traditional practices of the church is not a bad answer.

Rather than just repeating old answers, Stewart does a fine job of making these old answers live in a new setting. One way Stewart retains the “edge and energy” of these old ideas is by using the classical names for them and adding a more contemporary descriptor. Chapters 5 through 10 treat each set of practices in turn:

koinonia, hospitable belonging

mathētēs, informed discipling

martyria, grace-filled witnessing

diakonia, compassionate serving

leitourgia, passionate worship: the activities of worship (word, sacrament, and prayer), in chapter 9, and the venues of worship (in congregations, in families, in private) in chapter 10.

The chapter on koinonia is a good example of how the other practices are dealt with. Beginning with identifying some cultural themes of ‘homecoming’, Stewart then offers a biblical perspective on koinonia, before concluding with three “indispensable, contemporary, faith-filled practices that embody koinonia” (p.68). The three practices of belonging are hospitality (incorporating listening, interpreting, escorting, and dining), caring for others (exploring pastor-centred, laity-led, and small group structures of care), and organisation (governance, stewardship, communication). It’s an indication of the freshness of Stewart’s approach that something as mundane as organisational procedures and denominational directives is discussed as a gospel-embodying practice of fellowship and belonging.

Stewart calls his book part textbook, part testimony. It would make a good discussion starter for church leadership teams or parish councils. Whether or not you implement any of the number of practical suggestions in the book, Stewart’s book is a good resource to help you wrestle through the practical outworkings of the gospel in the day-to-day of congregational life.

 

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