If you could write a letter to the North American church today, what would it say?
That’s the question Chris Lewis, cofounder of Epiphaneia Network, and a few of his friends studying theology at Tyndale University College in Canada, put to a gathering of thought-leaders and ministry activists in the fall of 2010. Some 25 leading Christian thinkers, including Shane Claiborne, Walter Brueggemann, Rachel Held Evans and Tim Challies responded; their letters are now collected and being published this month in a book entitled Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals.
As part of our Book Club on this new book, we spoke with Lewis to find out more about what inspired the book, the one person he hopes reads the book, and which of the letters is his personal favorite.
How did the idea for this book, Letters to a Future Church, come to be?
Four of us friends were at a restaurant in Huntsville, Ontario, brainstorming about what to do next. We’d run a few conferences and were thinking about doing something totally different than what we’d previously done. After a few hours of discussion, the idea for having people write letters to the Church emerged and then someone immediately made the connection with the book of Revelation and the seven letters to the churches and then we basically had the framework for the Eighth Letter Conference – which became Letters to a Future Church.
Was there anything that surprised you with the letters that began pouring in for the conference?
The letters that surprised me were the ones from the general public as we asked anyone to write their own letter to the church. The most surprising letters were the ones that were written from God’s perspective – we had a few letters that were written in King James prose and were pretty harsh. It seemed though that most of the letters were hopeful and that they generally presented some sort of problem or opinion that something wasn’t quite right and then they basically pleaded for a better way.
Did you notice any common themes emerging from the letters? What overarching message does the book offer the Church?
I think the predominant message of the book is one of hopefulness. It was amazing to see people really think through the one message they had for the church – and to see it come from a place of both passion and hope for the church. No one threw in the towel. No one thought that the church was done or exclaimed that God was done with her. I believe all the letters in the book came from a place of hope for what the Church can be and that theme weaves its way through the book from beginning to end.
One might expect a collection of prophetic letters to the Church to be filled with harsh criticisms. Yet while critique is present in nearly every letter, I also had the sense I was reading a collection of love letters to the Church. We’re not ready to give up on the Church yet, are we?
I should have read all the questions first! No, I don’t get the sense that anyone there was ready to give up on the Church – and it’s interesting that the only letter presented at the event to get a standing ovation was the one that seemed to come from the place of deepest pain – and yet it was also the one that might have presented the greatest amount of hope. People loved it – precisely because I think everyone in the room knew what it meant to be frustrated with the Church but none of them were ready to give up either.
What conversations do you hope this book inspires?
You know, I think that if the book can contribute to what we’ve been up to all along then I’d be satisfied – we’ve tried to foster discussion in the church and ask people to constantly consider and re-consider what Jesus was asking her to be here, today. If people read the book and then say, what is Jesus asking of me, here, today? Or of my church, here, right now? And then if those people or churches actually change their trajectory towards something beautiful… then that’s the kind of thing we’d love for the book to inspire.
Of course, it’d also be fantastic for people to take time to think of their own one message to the Church.
Do you expect this book to change anyone’s mind? About what?
I don’t think we’ve set out to change anyone’s mind. We’ve purposely tried to collect a diverse variety authors from different walks of life. Epiphaneia didn’t try to capture a particular perspective and then hope that it’s adopted by the readers.
Once the concept for Eighth Letter was in place we basically came up with a dream list of contributors that turned out to be about 50 names long. Then we just started to invite people to both write letters and present at the event. We actually had Rachel there as part of our submission contest – where we asked anyone to write their own letter and then we’d invite the top submissions to come and present at the event. As soon as we got Rachel’s letter – who at the time we’d never heard of, we knew it was going to be a winner.
There’s a letter from Len Sweet that was written for the event that didn’t get included in the book. No hard feelings.
We asked Mark Driscoll to write a letter – he declined. We asked James K.A. Smith, Phyllis Tickle and Donald Miller to contribute and all three were unable to take on more writing commitments.
Was there another book, or author, that was a model for this book?
Nothing comes to mind – we really didn’t think about turning it into a book until a few months into the planning process so it’s not like we were inspired by the concept elsewhere and then decided to try and replicate it. Unless of course you mean the Book of Revelation, in which case… yes, the Apostle John and the Book of Revelation was our model.
Name one person you hope reads this book. Why?
You know, I’d probably say my brother. I have a pretty good relationship with my brother but he gave up on the church when we were teenagers for all sorts of reasons, including that he couldn’t make sense of a lot of his experiences growing up in a fairly conservative church. I think that a lot of our contributor’s own up to the fact that the Church is flawed and they admit failures and mistakes. I think that kind of humility isn’t something that the Church is known for, and I wonder if that kind of perspective had been modeled all those years ago if things would be a bit different now.
You get to organize a book club with three people to read and discuss your book. Who do you want to be there?
You know what, I think a book club with Rachel Held Evans, Shane Claiborne and Mark Driscoll would be super entertaining. Outside of that, I’ll take two mentors of mine, John Friesen and George Sweetman along with Nathan Colquhoun, even though I know I’ll get mad at Nathan for being far too confident of his opinions.
Do you have a personal favorite letter from the book?
I think that Makoto Fujimura’s letter is probably my favorite. You could tell he took the letter writing very seriously and basically explained how in centuries past the Church understood the importance of artists but modernism essentially exiled them to the margins of the church. Today artists are generally only asked to participate as volunteers in churches or if there’s extra time in services. His exclamation that he’d leave the ninety-nine church goers to find one lost artist has stayed with me almost two years later.
What other books are you reading right now that are inspiring and challenging you in your own faith journey?
I’m kind of on a novel kick right now and have been working my way through most of Dave Eggers stuff. Before that I was into Robert Capon for a few years who is an amazing writer and theologically ambiguous enough to spark a great deal of thought and discussion. I’ve got it in my goals for 2012 to start working my way through anything of Leslie Newbigins.
So, what comes after the Eight Letter Conference for you and your friends?
The group has changed a bit as Letters to a Future Church is our last official project with the four original members. I’m going to keep Epiphaneia going as more of a hobby with another good friend and we’re planning an event in Saskatoon this May called Survival of the Weakest.
We’re all still friends though. I live in Sarnia with Nathan and his wife and two others in an old church that’s been converted into a house. Nathan and I run a media and events company with a few others called Storyboard Solutions. Darryl lives in Michigan with his wife but he works in Sarnia, so the three of us get to hang out a lot. Steve is a pastor in Niagara Falls so we don’t see him as much but him and I get together for breakfast every few months and each time the friendship just picks right up where it left off.
I’ve thought since we first came up with the idea that we could do the event again in a few years as it’d be interesting to get more perspectives, see what changes, etc. but there aren’t any real plans to do something like that…yet.
Chris Lewis is cofounder of the Epiphaneia Network, a movement in Canada to equip and inspire Jesus followers in kingdom ministry. They have organized a variety of influential gatherings of thought leaders and ministry activists, including the Evolving Church Conference and the Eighth Letter Conference.
Read more about this book and how you can join the letter-writing contest at the Patheos Book Club here.