This month in the Patheos Book Club, we’re featuring the new book Godspeed: Making Christ’s Mission Your Own, by the Rev. Britt Merrick. This post by David Swartz, and more to follow, are part of a roundtable conversation about the book and the topic of mission in general.
Many Christians of all stripes find themselves doing the polka on ice. We move to the beat we know but find that our feet don’t have the cultural traction they used to and we’re spending more and more time on our tail. To be more specific, we see a rise in secularism. A lot of people who don’t have the bad manners of Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens still agree with them and economic pressures, the ever-spreading befuddledness of political correctness and legal decisions will continue to add muscle. We also have Postmodernism. It’s overrated. Intellectually, we’ve always looked for ways to deny both absolute values and absolute truth. Postmodernism’s blanket license allowing us to change any and all definitions of everything important in life to whatever suits our feelings and glands makes it slippery but not something new. Like the gorilla in my bathtub, it won’t be there forever but I do need to deal with it now. Third, spirituality has not only moved outside the church but involves anything we want just because we say so. Our culture runs rampant with lobotomized mysticism fueled by emotion divorced from reason. The game not only has changed but is being played on a different field from what the church knows. We also have narcissism on steroids. Self (wrapped in Jesus, yoga, yogurt, organic fruits and veggies, politics, etc) stands as the real spirituality of America. “Feeling good about me” regardless of how many lies and cultural myths I embrace in the process counts above everything. Voices contradicting what I want to hear cannot be true in any final sense. And finally, the rise of the Third World church portends that the leaders of world Christianity will be African, Asian and/or Latin by the end of this century (probably sooner). Our national ecclesiastical egos don’t like this. Actually, in re-reading this paragraph, I’m a little depressed.
To the rescue comes Britt Merrick, co-author of Godspeed: Making Christ’s Mission Your Own. He meets us right on his front doorstep where, in the first sentence, he says, “Do you ever feel like the American church is missing it?” Only two or three times a week for the last forty-three years. Britt earns the right to talk to us on a couple of important counts. He pastors in a network of new churches under the name Reality; he’s doing it. Mark Twain once said that war talk by men who have been in war is infinitely more interesting than moon talk by poets who have never been to the moon. I remember an author of a book on small groups being asked a nuts-and-bolts question about groups only to respond, “Oh, I’ve never led a small group. The publisher just wanted a book on it and asked me to do it.” Britt’s doing it, so his is a voice from the trenches where the battles for souls are fought, where people’s highest hopes and deepest wounds hold hands.
The second big plus might be a turn-off to some. He spends a large chunk of the book laying down the biblical theology of what he proposes. That’s good on two counts. A brief history of renewal, reformation, revival and spiritual awakening in Christianity shows that any group or movement that goes soft on Scripture will implode and its influence will be shallow and short lived even though it does help some. The Faith At Work movement of the sixties would be a good example. Deep biblical thinking produces deep biblical living. These chapters and their notes at the back bristle with Scripture well used. He also cites authors like A.W. Tozer, Dallas Willard and others. I hope this spreads to others who write in this vein because I am struck with the shallowness evident among many who write to tell us about taking the church into the future. May his tribe increase. His insistence on leading with good theology also delivers us from one of the deficiencies of the church growth movement – the lust for the technique or quick fix. We’re going to have a new vision of the church’s mission? Great! What can I do? What programs do you know of that work? What’s the formula? Nothing stands as being more practical than good biblical theology and Britt does his homework. Readers will be wise not to hurry through even if theology is not their strong suit.
A few favorite points stand out. On page 52, Britt discusses what being “called away” might look like. Normally we think of callings as being “called to.” But in going, we must also leave behind. The idea that possessions, relationships, life direction or other hope need to be abandoned to follow Christ has fallen silent among us over the last forty or fifty years. He wisely revives it. On page 63, Britt discusses exercising judgment and strikes a good biblical mid-course between sinfully condemning someone and the gushy tolerance emanating from daytime television. On page 194, he points out that Christianity is more like “go and tell” than “come and see”. Britt probably has another book shaking round inside him and I would suggest he address this point further. Here’s some grist for that discussion. Even at Pentecost, the “go tell” was in operation. It was as if the Holy spirit was saying, “The reason I have come is out there on the street. Now everyone go out there and get them.” No one laid back to groove in the Spirit with the praise band in the upper room saying, “That isn’t my style of evangelism.” Also, our predilection to default into the “come and see” mode has a lot to do with our having buildings. It never seemed to occur to the early church that they needed buildings. Howard Snyder, a Methodist missionary and renewal writer, has thought extensively on this. He is often dismissed (in our edifice complex culture) but never refuted (especially in The Problem of Wineskins and The Community of the King).
A few words of concern, if I may, Britt? Do I ever feel like the American church is missing it? Well, yes, but all of it? That’s a pretty inclusive statement. I speak, Britt, as one who has also written on these things very much in spirit (my veins stood out more) with what you (and Hugh Halter, David Platt, Francis Chan and others whose books have appeared here on Patheos.com) say. May I suggest that all of the American church hasn’t missed it? In Surprised by Oxford, Carolyn Weber attends a Bible study in the basement of an Anglican church near the university, an Anglican church that manifests many of the problems of the deadness of the Anglican church in contemporary England. But Caroline falls in love with the vibrancy of the group and the people in it. A friend and fellow student replies that people like this, not buildings, are the real church and when the church is right, nothing is better. Flecks of the life you write about and see in the Reality churches flash in all corners of the American church. Maybe not as much as in Reality churches. Maybe more in some places. The life of Jesus sprouts up in some strange places where many thought it dead – that annoying resurrection thing Jesus is always doing. There are more than a few who haven’t bowed the knee to Baal (in addition to but also including Frances Chan, Hugh Halter, David Platt, you and me). Granted, the church can be all the things you say. I actually thought you left some of our nastiness out. Grace and kindness on your part, I’m sure. But in reacting to deadness, hypocrisy, corruption, the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby, fueling modern nuclear terrorism and anything else laid against us by those who have a pumpkin up their nose with the church, please be aware of your own soft underbelly. And it is this; using the language of transformation, listening to the yearnings of young adults under forty for transformation, preaching and teaching and striving for transformation of others – while not being transformed ourselves. Among new voices in the church and “disenchanteds” under forty, “transformation” lies in danger of being reduced to a mere buzz word whose meaning has evaporated from overuse without substance – like “born again” and “spirit filled.” Your heart isn’t bent that way but it can sneak up on one.
Should things ever get fuzzy, Britt, may I suggest reading the first five chapters or so of Godspeed? The author loves Christ and His church.