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How and in what way is the church prophetic?

By Dan Steigerwald 

The church is arguably “prophetic” in a number of ways. It calls itself, its own House, back to faithfulness to God and being a fairer demonstration in the world of His Kingdom of righteousness, peace (shalom) and joy in the Spirit (Romans 14:17). This suggests more than the call to mimic certain behaviors of Jesus or Paul or others, but the call to live out of the fullness found in God and the Body of Christ as participants in the missio Dei (God’s mission to the world). In another sense the church is prophetic; it calls all people and human systems and organizations into harmony with God’s now and not-yet Kingdom (acting as a sign and a foretaste of the coming Kingdom which has broken into this “present evil age”, as Paul labels it, and will one day be experienced in fullness). These two ways of being prophetic are of course directly linked to one another, with the first call to the church itself being of foundational importance to the church’s effectiveness in carrying out the second (to the world). And because the church is made up of imperfect people (like myself) who only see in a mirror dimly, it will continually tend to stray or capitulate to ways of being and operating that reflect the entrapments of its host culture – not to mention sin within its own ranks. Much of time these entrapments and/or sin will not be clearly seen (the proverbial fish who cannot see the water in which it swims); but some are adopted perpetrated knowingly by church leadership. Hence, the prophetic call to return will need to be regularly heard and embraced (in the latter case, repentance too). To the extent that this happens, the church’s prophetic witness to culture will be strengthened.

In this brief paper, I want to focus on the call of the church to put its own house in order. I have chosen to use a recent book by David Fitch, The Great Giveaway, as a way to illustrate this specific operation of the prophetic (the church unto itself). In his book, Fitch, with prophetic fervor, identifies eight specific ways he believes Evangelicalism has capitulated to Modernism and drifted from its multi-faceted, God-given mission in the world. What I like most about the book is that Fitch does not simply use the book to rail against the church for its many ills, but actually suggests a host of useful correctives “to help us receive back being the church”.[1]

In The Great Giveaway, Fitch argues that the Evangelical Church is guilty of accommodating various destructive “Modern maladies,” so much so that it has literally given away many of the functions (notae) that have historically qualified it to wear the title of “the Church.” Fitch relates this give-away as eight specific handoffs by Evangelicalism (devoting a chapter to each) “to modernity’s experts, techniques and sociocultural forces.”[2] I briefly touch upon these below, also offering Fitch’s suggested corrective to each alleged capitulation (with my own occasional commentary too, including some closing thoughts).

Ways the Evangelical church in America has “given away” its mission

1. The way we define success. The invasion of church growth approaches has got the church focusing on the wrong measures of success – church attendance and decisions for Christ. Evangelicalism has seriously diminished the quality of disciples in its ranks by giving undue attention to numerical growth, efficiency structuring and effectiveness decision-making. Megachurches have gone even a step further and adopted an “economies of scale” approach, insuring that the church is able to deliver the best quality religious goods and services that its best hi-performance teams can deliver to the most people. With effectiveness as the bottom line, and with a focus on business technique, numbers and Sunday morning productions to attract and hold the attention of attendees, the church succeeds in reinforcing the cultural idols of consumerism and individualism. I would add that the way we conduct our Sunday gatherings (with the stage as a focal point and a small group of staff and church members creatively designing a quality experience week after week) and the energy required to pull them off also reinforces this consumerism. It is hard for attendees to avoid getting the message that “we are spectators gathered to take in a quality religious experience provided by those who are paid to do ministry” (as opposed to those paid to equip for ministry). Remedy: According to Fitch, we need to return to faithfulness to what it means to be the church as our measure of success. Are we creating growing, faithful communal followers of Jesus? He suggests that churches adopt better measures: the number of baptisms, church-plants and quality of discipleship taking place (the latter measured by answers received from a core of communal questions getting at the outworking of love of God and serving one another). At the risk of sounding trite, I would also say that churches must hold resolutely to faithfulness to Christ as their criteria for success – are they responding to Jesus’ leading, as best they can discern that, in the context He has placed them?

2. The way we do evangelism and present the gospel. The focus of the church too often is on proclaiming content in a monologue, rather than embodying the gospel in a lifestyle that validates the superiority of God’s Meta-narrative. Persuading individuals to finally surrender to our superior arguments and reasons-to-believe approaches no longer works among a postmodern culture that is weary/skeptical of words and propositions and sales-pitches. Taking the road of appealing to self-interest through a felt-needs oriented gospel also does not help us win followers to Jesus’ costly path (and many feel cheated when they discover that the church’s seeker-sensitivity is really a bait-and-switch strategy employed to get them in to allow our “other agenda” a hearing). The bottom line, as Fitch sees it, is that there is too much disconnect between the message we proclaim and the lifestyle we live out in community. Remedy: Fitch calls us to engage our neighborhoods through the practice of hospitality, which he sees as mostly about inviting people into our homes. He also exhorts us to be out among the pain of our neighborhoods, praying for people and actually visibly displaying Christ’s compassion and justice. Evangelism is most effective as a communal endeavor, meaning we (plural) need to be out in the Third Places of our neighborhoods and in the nucleus of social need. And church communities must release creativity and be artful in presenting the multi-faceted nature of the gospel. I would add that the church needs to see evangelism as the presentation of a layered gospel that converts us deeper into it over time; also that our “good-newsing” needs to cover the range of first decision thru initiation in baptism (which Fitch hints at too).

3. The way we lead our churches. The church has turned to the marketplace to help us get our house in order. Now we have pastors as CEO’s, who lead congregations to adopt the latest business techniques to achieve the “bottom-line” (which rarely is about quality of discipleship). Charismatic and personality-centered leaders who bring order to chaos are too often the norm in churches, rather than servant leaders who share the leadership load in facilitating the equipping and growth of the body (including a humble deflecting of attention to the body’s carrying out of ministry, as opposed to drawing attention to the leadership team’s performance). Remedy: Fitch argues for more shared leadership configurations; and getting back to leadership as a call and not simply as a profession. His own church, he notes, encourages leaders to explore their call thru bi-vocationality. Only after character and fruitfulness in ministry is observed are leaders moved to consider full-time service. At that stage, some ordination or commissioning process is involved, which invests communal sanction to the leader’s empowerment. Fitch notes the need for transformative community for leaders, and espouses communal expressions such as triads and missional Orders to effect leadership development. He also advocates seminary training that gives more attention to the leader’s spiritual formation in community. So much I might personally add here, but suffice to say that a continual immersion in Mark 10:42-45 would not harm many an Evangelical leader one bit!

4. The way we focus on producing intimacy and entertainment experiences in our gathered worship. We need to challenge the way Evangelicals’ minds and emotions are being shaped by the compelling images of America’s consumption-driven, materialistic, individualistic and hedonistic culture, Fitch argues. Churches must move away from over-valuing performance-based, feel-good worship experiences that put the worshipping self at the center of worship rather than God’s glory and goodness. The aim of worship is too narrowly viewed as helping people feel good or provoking a group of gathered individuals into personal feelings of intimacy with God. Remedy: Fitch argues for a return to liturgy, art and beauty in order to provoke appreciation of God and gratitude. He captures what the church needs to aim for in the phrase “immersive worship”, which he describes as “display[ing] the God of history with art, symbol and beauty, not just propositions. It rehearses the drama of God in Christ liturgically and invites us into this drama to participate in it, not just express ourselves cathartically.”[3] I would go even further than Fitch and say we need to get beyond Sunday morning as the locus for worship, and equip disciples for a worship that is 24/7 (Romans 12:1-2).

5. The way we preach the Word. Evangelicals concentrate on “mastering the text” through expository teaching. Fitch’s contention is that exegesis and historical-critical studies give us a false assurance that we are able to accurately interpret and hear the word. With meticulous attention to exegetical technique, the text is made to yield its one meaning to and then packaged “for rhetorical delivery to an audience” who “gather before the Word with our imaginations and character formed out of the omnipresent culture of a post-Christian narcissism and consumerism.”[4] The supposed objectivity of the expositor and the audience, in other words, is a fallacy (i.e. all expositors are interpreters who come with some agenda, either known or unrecognized, and the legion of varied interpretations for given texts using the same methodology attests to this reality). Remedy: Fitch suggests a return to communal discourse around Scripture, a greater emphasis on narrative preaching, and the creative public reading of Scripture (with emphasis on the lectionary). Fitch cites Solomon’s Porch and the way Doug Pagitt encourages communal interaction/exegesis, which I think is worth exploring further (see Pagitt’s book, Re-imagining Spiritual Formation).

6. The way we’ve farmed out social justice to parachurches. Instead of allowing our churches to be centers where social justice is demonstrated within (in the context of relationships), we send money and resources “out there” to address face-less needs. Fitch goes after the church’s propensity to be in and of Capitalism as opposed to being in but not of Capitalism. He chastises Evangelicalism for the way it circumscribes its ministry of social compassion and justice with consumer Capitalism, thereby subjecting the church to Capitalism’s rules. He argues that too often our efforts to improve the lot of the impoverished and/or disadvantaged involve pulling them into some level of stature and self-sufficiency so that they too might participate in the individualistic, narcissistic, entitlement-based consumerism (i.e. the American dream) that is corroding both our churches and culture from the inside-out. Remedy: Fitch’s call is for the church to bring the struggle, complexity and messiness of social justice within its own doors. Let church communities re-instill benevolence ministries within, where discernment committees wrestle together before God on how to best respond to specific social needs of the disadvantaged or oppressed that we allow to walk with us on the complex road of healing and relief from immediate distress. While I personally agree with Fitch, I think he needs to leave more room for the expression of some parachurch expertise, as long as it is done in sync with existing churches in a given locale (if there are in fact churches there!).

7. The way the church has farmed out spiritual formation to the professional shrink community. Fitch contends that modern psychotherapy has become an easy cop-out for the hard and often slow pastoral work of caring for the broken. Psychology and psychotherapy often accommodate the hyper-individualism of our culture, and too often disregard altogether the power of sin and selfishness in the counselee’s life. Therapy is also often conducted outside of any holistic formational regime, meaning there is often no bridge between the treatment plan of the professional therapist and the church’s own approaches to forming disciples in truth, wisdom and discernment, spiritual practices, etc. Remedy: The corrective to Evangelicalism’s sell-out to psychotherapy, according to Fitch, is to bring therapy back into the realm of the church, so that there is a holistic co-laboring for the person’s healing and growth. Also, greater value needs to be placed on micro-community triads and other forms of community, where a deep sharing of lives and pains and struggles can occur; and where prayer can be central. I felt this was Fitch’s weakest chapter, since authors like psychologist Larry Crabb (see his book, Connecting) have long been calling Evangelicalism away from the therapist’s office to the healing of one-another ministry in the body.

8. The way the church has outsourced the moral education/training of our children to the public school system. Fitch argues that a lowest-common-denominator approach to teaching virtues (i.e. let’s not offend any particular group), when employed against the backdrop of our American cultural ideals of Capitalism, democracy and liberalism, is not just a harmless, barebones attempt at moral education. Public schools socialize children into a way of life and thinking (including an American civil religion) that makes it all too easy for kids to dismiss any Christian signature instilled in them by their parents or churches. Home-schooling our children, starting parochial schools or challenging school systems on certain moral issues (abortion, prayer in school, evolution, etc.) are all insufficient ways of addressing the problem. Remedy: What is needed, Fitch argues, is a return to some form of communal catechesis, with practices and rites of initiation within the mainstream of smaller-church life (where kids are known and mentored and included in the communal rhythms and spirituality of the adults). I resonate with this, but wonder how the church can get back to this, given the transient nature of so many young families these days.

Closing comments

David Fitch identifies significant ways Evangelicalism is giving-away critical aspects of what it means to be the church. His call in this book is to a deeper ecclesiology – one that re-invigorates what it means to be the people of God, living as alternative communities that demonstrate the validity of the gospel they proclaim through transformational practices and lifestyles (I encourage readers to follow his blog and see his attempts to make the ideas of the book practical with his endorsing of a special missional Order, called The Order of Fiacre). I picked up a clear bias of Fitch’s in the book toward smaller churches (and the planting of smaller churches). When I consider his call to the church, I think he has a strong case that smaller churches and church plants really represent the strongest way for Evangelicalism to respond to his (and others’) prophetic correctives. But I am personally unsure of the wisdom of limiting the optimal ecclesial form for missionality to small churches, since context and discernment must determine what is best for a particular cultural subset. Also, social enterprising and other missional initiatives that may or may not form into churches are still worthy routes to direct leaders into (instead of church planting). All in all it is a great and challenging read!

[1] Fitch, David. The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 18. I have chosen this particular author and book, partly because I believe Fitch is one of the more mature and respected prophetic voices to the Church today. Consider the following traits which seem to make him a voice worth hearing: 1) he is well-acquainted with postmodernism; 2) he is a sound theologian who obviously loves Jesus; 3) he is also a church planter, which shows he can move his ideas out of the abstract into community-forming action; 4) he captures the imagination of many young leaders through his popular web-blog and his platforms as a teacher and writer and practitioner; and 5) he is careful not to berate his Evangelical heritage, and actually operates within a rather conservative denomination (CMA), which hedges his prophetic impact backwards into mainstream conservative Evangelicalism (where change is arguably most drastically needed).

[2] Fitch devises his own comprehensive list of the historic marks or notae of the Church by blending those marks developed by Luther, the Anabaptist tradition and others. The way he ties each of the book’s chapters into his list seems somewhat contrived, as if he had the chapter themes already in view and then went back to attempt a tie-in with the list to add weight to his argument of a whole-sale give-away. NOTE: My underlined captions do not represent his specific chapter titles.

[3] Fitch, p. 114.

[4]Ibid, p. 141.

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