RC: MOVING ON WITH RETHINKING MY THOUGHTS (Enter Root and Bertrand)
A couple months ago, I enhanced the focus of this blog when I obtained a copy of Ron Highfield’s book Rethinking Church: A Guide for the Perplexed and Disillusioned. Up until that point, my main focus, not strictly focused (for that matter) was on the church vis-a-vis the poor and homeless. My focus, to the extent I still had one, dealt with the church’s lack of faithful response to the poor and needy. I am now getting into a brand/spanking new book called When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation by Andy Root and Blair Bertrand.
Let’s talk about my previous focus (or fuzzy intentions) briefly before I get deeper into the new book. I’ve been having a church problem. But the problem I have with church is also an empire problem. “Empire.” That’s the word I first learned from N.T. Wright, but also from Richard Horsley. Yet I became somewhat radicalized with it when I read Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. So, before we get into “church” with this, let’s first say a word about America.
America has a problem with poverty. While this is the richest nation on earth and in world history, many people in our midst are poor and needy rather than rich. This is something of a paradox and a conundrum for secular America (the empire), but not for God (Deut. 15:11; Mark 14:7). There is a sense in which we Americans have done, and still are doing, something right. To enjoy such unprecedented wealth and power would seem to be a goal of humanity from ages past, and I doubt anyone could argue otherwise.
Yet clearly Jesus both deals extensively and generously with poor and needy people and speaks about them frequently too. The separation of church and state in America enhances this paradox all the more. The church need not enlist the state or partner with it at all, and yet, it appears the state has the wisdom to produce the wealth and power we enjoy, or paradoxically, it engineers itself out of the way so that its citizens can privately prosper (there are competing theories).
It seems the state provides “a level playing field” for people to privately and individually raise themselves out of poverty, and in-so-doing provides the true and ultimate remedy to poverty. Yet none of this wisdom comes from Jesus, and thus is not fit for his church. (Look at the rest of Deut. 15 for a very different view from this American agenda.) Yet the church of America is infatuated with this secular/imperial wisdom and tries to syncretize it with Jesus.
In my church’s view, the poor have a money problem. In the eyes of my brothers and sisters at church, the poor’s money problem is grounded in laziness, addiction, immorality, bad choices on the part of the poor themselves, and their dependence upon others. Thus, any aid the church would (or should) extend must acknowledge this and treat it as foundational. Otherwise, if we help too much or in some wrong way, we merely enable the laziness, addiction, immorality, and wrong choices, thus creating or extending further dependence upon the church, rather than establish independent money managers.
Yes, in my church’s view, the poor have a money problem; in my view, the poor have a church problem. Jesus does not come to establish independent money managers. He comes to establish dependence on him. Dependence on his church, then, just makes sense in this view.
Anyway, to make a long story (somewhat) short(er), I have spent so much energy on this blog pointing out this error to the church. But these matters came to a head with the publication of the book When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself, by Corbett and Fikkert. This book, and another like it by Robert Lupton called Toxic Charity, work at syncretizing the American imperial wisdom with the Bible, which of course serves Mammon rather than Lord Jesus. (You can’t serve both, Matt. 6:24.)
But I have made that case multiple times on this blog, and I need not rehash it all now. I need only reference all of that to establish the vantage from which I come, and the enhancement to the focus of this blog when I found Highfield. After two decades of ministry, mostly with the poor and needy, and almost fifteen years rebutting When Helping Hurts, all in an effort to confront (and hopefully persuade) the church about the poor’s church problem, I find Ron Highfield suggesting that possibly the problem is more a “parachurch” problem.
(I should, just to be thorough, interject here that around the same time, I found Richard Hughes discussing dying church, and thus we might be dealing with a dying (or dead) church. But I will simply lay down that marker here and not explore it further at this time.)
So, Highfield made an interesting case about church. That church problem might not be a church problem really, but a problem with fake church, in a sense. That, by the way, is NOT Highfield’s TERMINOLOGY for it, but certainly the lens through which I read him. And some parts of his case are compelling! Especially how he sharpens up analysis of the church’s purpose, it’s entanglements with politics and money, and a few other ideas.
Other than that, Highfield’s book approaches the topic of church as something like a recipe. Two cups of flour, a teaspoon of baking soda, half a stick of butter, one cup of milk, two eggs, and three fourths cup of sugar, the right amount of cocoa, at 375 degrees for half an hour, and you have chocolate cake! I’m over-simplifying his book, but to a large extent, that is the vibe he brings. Yet it remains helpful and insightful in some ways. The modern church, especially in America, is used to certain tax exemption perks which could, conceivably, be revoked along with other privileges, which might cause the collapse of many institutions we currently call “church,” but they are not.
I will end my open-minded description of his work there and focus instead on how it filters through me, in particular. Whereas Highfield distinguishes, or tries to distinguish, “church” – “real church” in my view – from parachurch, “fake church” (in my view – especially since otherwise there is this functional confusion), I find that my work attempting to confront the “church problem” as I have termed it, had by the poor and needy, has been so unsuccessful possibly because I aimed it at the wrong place!
(This is all the more convoluted when you factor in how I was kicked out, due to my efforts years ago, of a “church” which was not technically at church at all, but quite literally a 501c3 charitable organization posing as, and calling itself, a church!)
At any rate, Highfield’s thesis was enough to cause me to refocus this blog on “rethinking church.”
THAT, then brings me to the new book – almost.
One more item of interest needs to be mentioned before I dive into When Church Stops Working. As I began searching the internet for other people rethinking church and bringing different ideas to bear on the topic, I found the work of Ralph Neighbour who champions small groups and cell-based churches. I discovered he has a book dealing with this, but I’m leery of spending money I don’t have on books I may or may not find helpful, I did not obtain it (yet).
I did, though, discover a series of lectures by Neighbour on YouTube, and SOME of that seemed helpful in entirely OTHER ways. He has my interest, and yet so far I am not ready to dive into his offerings. Still, I want to lay down that marker now too, and keep in mind for later that I might well review his work also.
Whatever the case, I learned there are several churchmen and scholars dealing with the general subject matter that Highfield introduced me to. I have no doubt, NONE of them will address matters to suit my situation. There will always be a gap between my specific interests and the offerings I am finding, but I expect there will be some useful ideas out there for me to assimilate, chew on, and rethink.
As I pointed out in my previous post, at HAT’s suggestion, I looked into this new book by Root and Bertrand, and shared my findings with my dad who ran out and purchased a copy for himself and for me. Thus, I have the book! It seems my efforts at rethinking church gravitate the interests of at least a few others, and my dad is one of them.
So, if I can boil all of this down to a scum stuck at the bottom of the pan, it would be this: The poor have a church problem in that the church is not being the church somehow. This is not terribly surprising, really, but not an idea I have been dealing with in these terms for very long. While this might open all manner of new explorations (like Where will I find the real thing? or How might we fix the problem?), I still come at this hoping to find how and where the poor find the love of Jesus in the church.
Obviously, the problems being researched pose issues far broader than mine, but I never forget the angle I approach from, even if it isn’t mentioned on every page of every post.