August 1, 2007 / David Fitch

Thank You Alan Hirsch and Other Missional Friends

Since my book The Great Giveaway was published a year and a half ago I’ve been surprised by its reception. The book has been well received among missional church thinkers. The book has received a less enthusiastic yet still friendly response from emergent folk. The book is strongly influenced by Hauerwas, Yoder, the post liberal Yale theologians and Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy. It is safe to say that emergent thinkers have ambivalent feelings regarding some of these theologians and so I take no offense if I don’t always quite fit in with all my emergent friends. Nonetheless, I still try, because I believe that the emerging conversation is absolutely crucial for the future of the church in the West. (which is why I co-founded one of the very first emergent cohorts).
The book has been used in at least ten seminaries that I know of as primary course material. Canada has been very receptive to my book for which I thank them (I grew up in Canada). The Resonate group and the host of church planters bloggers from Canada have been very supportive. I think the particular mixture of Hauerwasian theology, postmodern philosophy, and evangelical history resonates (to use a pun) with Canada. This could be because Canadians feel the postmodern and post Christian contexts first hand more so than the U.S. (and the fact that I grew up in Canada doesn’t hurt).

Having said all of this, the response of the missional church crowd, its thinkers and people all around N. America/world to the book, has also been gratifying. When I first began writing, the Gospel and Our Culture network was young and mainline. The second wave of missional church was just beginning. I was finding many common things with Brian McLaren back then as well. I had co-led an intentional community of sorts in the city and felt a lot in common with all of the thinkers just mentioned. But then came Frost and Hirsch‘s book and a host of other authors and the movement jelled. Leaders such as Alan Roxburgh, Mark Priddy, Michael Frost, Alan Hirsch and many others emerged all over N.A.. And now there is no doubt, despite the complaints of “missional” becoming another label, that God is moving in this for the mission of Christ into N. America. To whatever extent, I am honored to be included in this conversation. That is why I appreciate so much Alan Roxburgh’s and Mark Priddy’s encouragement and the Allelon site featuring the book on their front page. And now comes Alan Hirsch’s review of the book with much enthusiasm. To all of these friends, thanks for including me in your conversations.

Regarding Alan Hirsch’s fine review, he gives The Great Giveaway a wonderful recommendation. He also offers two constructive thoughts that upon looking back upon the book the last year, I think he’s right. Allow me to address both of them.

1.) Alan says, “Dave aligns himself explicitly and wholly in the postmodern camp. I am no personally longer sure whether the lines between modern and postmodern culture are really that clear, and I think that a missional church deals with culture no matter what culture that might be.” This is not the first time this criticism comes my way. Jonathon Wilson said the same thing in the Christianity Today review. When I first heard this criticism in the early days of the book, I was surprised. For I have always said that I viewed the postmodern critique of modernity as the opportunity for evangelicalism to take a look at our own allegiances and weaknesses, not the opportunity to contextualize the gospel once again to another intellectual era. The postmodern critique enables us to see how married we evangelicals are to modernity and to thereby see the pratfalls via the critique offered by the Frenchmen and Anglo postmoderns. Although I do think there is an opportunity to engage postmodern culture in unique and careful ways not shaped by modernity, my main goal in The Great Giveaway was to urge the church to be the church again in all its embodied missional form. As I look back, I realize I needed to make my cultural analysis more precise along these lines. I did blur the lines a few too many times between calling for a cultural engagement of postmodernity and using the postmodern critique as a tool to uncover modern assumptions of evangelicalism. Thanks to Alan Hirsch and others for the insight.

2.)Alan also says, “The only reserves I have about the book are that the idea of ministry described in it is more decidedly pastoral (one-dimensionally traditional if you like) than I am personally comfy with. I prefer (as you might know) a more full orbed typology of leadership-APEST (Eph.4).” Here again, I think I tried in the book to make it clear I was for a multiple bi-vocational missionally engaged leadership in chapter three of the book, especially pages 92-94. But I admit that I do have a suspicion of rogue ordinations or entrepreneurial reverends, pastors who are ordained into leadership because of their entrepreneurial abilities. I see value in seminary training where the history of our faith, the interpretation of Scriptures, the testing of character, is all passed down and tested. For if we can no longer hold onto the kinds of authority indebted to modernity, we must return to the passing on of an embodied Story. McIntyre calls this a tradition. And this requires some sense of being part of history, what God has been doing in the world before we got here and where He is going after we are not here any longer. This to me is important to being missional. None of this however negates a multiple ministry leadership, sharing these five crucial giftings. Anyone who has read this blog here, here , or Out of Ur here would doubt my sincerity. At our church we have 3 pastors going on more. We have ordained 2, had 2 already ordained, sent out 2, and have 4 in the process of ordination with more to come. We share pastorate in mutual submission and have been bi-vocational from the start. If I had to write the book today I would emphasize these things more than I did when I wrote The Great Giveaway. I agree that one reading The Great Giveaway could walk away thinking I am more friendly to the traditional pastor role. And so again I am appreciative of Alan Hirsch’s insightful words.

So all I can say here is many thanks to Alan Hirsch and all of the missional thinkers, laborers, and conversation partners. You all have challenged me, and grown me in Christ. I’m actually working on a new book and this growth has made writing even more difficult. Ugh …

Notes from Two Conferences in One Week: EkklesiaProject and Emergent Midwest

Last week was a busy week for conferences (plus I officiated a wedding). The EkklesiaProject Conference was Mon-Tues-Wed and the Emergent Midwest Gathering was Fri-Sat. Here are some highlights from Ekklesia first.

The Ekklesiaproject conference focused on Learning Christ – Congregational Formation. Stephen Fowl spoke to us out of Phillipians. He translated Phil 1:27 as “Do this one thing: order your common life in a manner worthy of the gospel.” He said this verse is the centerpiece – the punch line for the entire epistle. Fowl said this is the task Paul gives the Phillipians and it is one the primary tasks Paul leaves the church of the 21st century. The rest of the epistle is unfolding communal practices of imitation in becoming like Christ as set around the pivotal Phil 2:5-11. He put forth a wonderful insight out of Phil 3:15 “Let as many of us as are mature display this way of thinking, feeling and acting. If any of you are inclined to adopt a different pattern of thinking, feeling and acting, God will reveal to you the proper mindset to adopt.” He said that last phrase illustrates the difference between Stalinist formation and a formation where God is at work. In other words there is certainty for Paul as to what is the way of Christ, but no need to coerce it for God will work it out through faithfulness over time. I could say more but I recommend Stephen Fowl’s theological commentary on Phillipians.

Mark Lau Branson (from Fuller) presented a workshop where he talked about the work of leading transformation in congregations. It described the difference between STANDARD CHURCH PROBLEM SOLVING, i.e. go into a church, study the problems, talk solutions and then propose a plan to implement solutions – and APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY, i.e. asking questions about where God has been at work and then stoking the imagination as to how to further participate in these ways as a body. He called the latter interpretive leadership. He said the deadest churches he had been had still been places where God had been wonderfully at work, but there were no witnesses. He said every epistle of Paul (except Galations) begins with a thanksgiving prayer. Branson asked “when you begin like that, how does that shape your imagination?” He said starting out with appreciative questions about where God is working shapes the imagination totally differently than starting out by asking what’s wrong with this church, where have we failed? What are the problems in this church? Branson then went on to describe his work in a small little Methodist church dying in Oakland. The example of this one missional community is stunning. It’s impact began in the local community school, tutoring, led to changes in school lunch, class size, school funding, state wide! He said hospitality for the NT takes place in the neighbor’s home, on the neighbor’s turf. He described powerfully a community getting engaged missionally in their neighborhood. I came away stoked! I recommend his Memories, Hopes and Conversations.

My last highlight from the ekklesiaproject conference is some Hauerwasianisms … things Stanley Hauerwas said in the panel discussion that ended the afternoon on Tuesday. (I think Stanley said at least most of these). I could comment all of these, but there’s no space in this post. Stanley said:

  • Truth that is desperate is a lie
  • It is peculiar to American Christians to be able to say “Jesus is Lord and that’s my personal opinion”
  • Stanley talked about the immobilization of the church. He said pastors should quit doing everything … and then told of his pastor in South Bend who would announce from the pulpit for four straight weeks “The altar cloth is dirty and needs cleaning and ironing.” Stanley complained why doesn’t he just do it … but that would have missed the whole point.
  • Politics is the art of the possible, but the great question is who defines what is possible.(a quote from someone else)
  • Locality is crucial. Of course, I want the war in Iraq to end – but I want the janitors at Duke University to have a living wage.
  • National politics is like the Roman circus in first century Rome. It is entertainment to keep us distracted from the real issues.
  • Voting is a form of violence. You vote once, then 51% tells the 49% what to do.
  • Think about the effort it takes to come together and hear everyone – the church does not vote.

I also went to the Midwest Emergent Conference in the Burbs. I could only go Friday during the day because I officiated a wedding for a great couple at our church, Fri nite and Sat morning. I offer just a few comments. Mike and Julie Clawson are to be commended for the great work they did pulling this altogether. (And I wish I could remember the name of the woman who worked alongside Mike and made this happen to commend her as well). I learned just a little bit more about what is going on amidst the Emergent conversations. I benefited from excellent conversations with Will Samson, Tony Jones among many other friends I see from time to time.

In the first session, Tony Jones talked about the need to move beyond the polarities of liberal and conservative and not let our theology be defined by such binary ways of looking at the world. He talked about avoiding a “third way” still held captive to the rationalities of modernity because it is still defined against conservative and liberal.

Doug Pagitt then argued for a wholistic gospel that includes teaching both about Jesus and about the kingdom of God. He seemed to imply strategically that the kingdom of God should be separated from Jesus. He got a lot of hands with questions on that. He also reminded us that the kingdom is bigger than the church and that God is at work everywhere, whether urban, or suburban or rural. He rightfully emphasized that wherever God is active and working in the world, we want to join in with that.

I also showed up at the book party for Will Samson’s Justice in the Burbs. Will’s doing Ph.D. work at U of Kentucky. I enjoyed our talk. I like the ground he is covering in his Ph D work. and we will be having him at Northern in the fall.

The week was hectic. The highlight of the conferences was meeting great people. I suggest the words of Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt point to the two central questions for the future of both emergent, emerging churches, and missional communities. As I look back on the Ekklesia time from the Emergent time, I believe Hauerwas would agree with what Tony and Doug said (on at least that last statement I described by Doug). Yet I see in the Hauerwasian club a post modern suspicion towards the possibilities of true justice being forwarded through the politics of America. Sometimes Stanley is almost Foucaultian in his relinquishing of any ability of cooperative justice efforts to overcome the totalizing powers of capitalism and democracy. Personally, I’d like to see missional/emerging thinkers engage the ever ubiquitous Foucault and derivatives thereof on this issue. What about you? Does Stanley’s words about local justice, and his comments on national politics disturb the ease with which we say the missional mantra “God is already at work in the world, the church’s job is to find ways to join in.” I still believe these basic tenets, I merely suggest that our theology and ecclesiology must be robust behind these statements in order for them to mean anything substantive. I shall post more on this in the future.