Rebirth of the Church? (Book Review)

According to this WIN-Gallup international poll on religiosity, Germany is the 5th LEAST religious country in the world (following on the heels of the likes of China, Japan, and Korea). Only France has us “beat” in the Western world.

RebirthThe Rebirth of the Church: Applying Paul’s Vision for Ministry in Our Post-Christian World by Eddie Gibbs is just one of many, many books trying to help the church come to grips with and respond to this profound cultural shift.

Gibbs points out that our situation actually mirrors (in some important ways) the situation that the early church faced in the first century: bringing the Good News to a largely secular, pluralistic population that wasn’t necessarily looking for a savior. And Gibbs argues that there is a lot we could learn from Paul’s missional tactics.

Long gone are the days when churches could sit back on their heels and trust that with attractive church programs and a likable pastor, the people would flock to them. This is what Gibbs calls an “attractional” mode of engagement with surrounding culture: we’ll sit here, quietly doing our thing, hoping you stumble across us.

Gibbs calls us to move (back) to a “missional” ecclesiology: go get ’em!

So what was their strategy? How did Paul and the early church spread their belief in the Way of Jesus Christ?

I can’t review the whole book here, but these are four strategies that jumped out at me as being particularly relevant:

1. URBAN ENGAGEMENT: Gibbs calls us to focus on building community between isolated, individualistic church members, especially in urban settings, by fostering genuine koinonia – fellowship in the Spirit. In general our members lead individualistic, nuclear-family-exclusive lives and are increasingly likely to be very disconnected from the faith community during the week. But it’s a long stretch from Sunday to Sunday – even if people are in church every single week (and who is?). Here I would add (which Gibbs does not) that the internet, blogs, and social media could be powerful tools in this respect.

2. FULL PARTICIPATION: Gibbs also comes down hard on the “one pastor, 99 spiritual consumers” model of churching. As Gibbs writes of the early church members, “They were present not as consumers, but as full participants… There was no place to hide.”  This is followed up by Gibbs in a lengthier discussion of spiritual gifts and apostolic calling. Are we effectively discerning those whom God has gifted, and inviting them to develop and express their spiritual gifts in our midst, for the sake of the whole community? Or do people feel content to sit and watch, feeling that this is all that is expected of them?

3. GET CONNECTED: Gibbs highlights the way that the early church communities, spread out all across the near East, managed to communicate with letters, personal emissaries, and inventive communication strategies. And folks, that was before the printing press, never mind the internet. Gibbs writes of more recent decades: “we have seen small churches establish networks and become an inspiration to other churches that identify with their values and vision. … They do not seek to control but to provide a forum in which experiences can be exchanged. They are often linked by websites and blogs, with frequent communication taking place among the leaders.” This sounds to me like a timely call to get connected to other congregations and build strong networks among faith communities.

4. GO FORTH: The most urgent message of Gibb’s book is that we serve and preach a sending God: a God who sent Godself into the world to heal and save. God is a God of revelation who came to us by sending God’s very being into the world for our sake. Churches stuck in the “attractional” mode are not modeling this kind of love or obediently heeding the call to go forth and make disciples. Christ told us not to hide out light under a bushel  – this teaching is more urgent than ever. “Oh, let them come to us” doesn’t cut it. Are we sending? Are we going? Do we dare?

Summary: In general, I give a hearty “amen!” to the messages of this book. It is not easy reading, and frankly, for those not really interested in the history of the early church, maybe a bit dry. He also focuses more on early church context analysis than on practical, direct strategies for contemporary congregations to adopt. The reader is therefore largely left to draw her own conclusions about how to apply the insights of the book to the local church. 

Still: the message he presents are compelling, urgent, and extremely relevant. The question is: will our churches dare to adopt these strategies?

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3 thoughts on “Rebirth of the Church? (Book Review)

  1. Heartbreakingly true statistics. Your blog is so thought-provoking, and irregardless of your caution about the dryness of this book, I am encouraged to read it anyway. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Having just completed Ursula King’s magnificent biography of the mystic/Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I’ve been immersed in the works of the “evolutionary Christians” inspired by him. Just a sample:

    Integral Christianity, by Paul R Smith
    Thank God for Evolution, by Michael Dowd; and
    Christ in Evolution, by Ilia Delio

    I’ve just begun to re-engage with Jesus Christ, after closing the door for 41 years on the fundamentalist Christianity of my father.

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