Monday, July 12, 2010

Review - AND blog tour

Today kicks off a blog tour for a new book by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay - "AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church." I was pleased to get a free review copy, as this book discusses an issue that is important to us at Calvary Baptist Church - what are the benefits of an attractional approach (draw people into the church to hear the gospel, find fellowship and build them up as disciples) versus a missional/incarnational approach (sending our people out into the lives of others directly to witness and grow as disciples). Pastor Chuck has maintained that it's Both-And; they're both useful. Yet if you listen to sermons or read 90-99% of books and blogs, they're diametrically opposed and you can't possibly do both well. Finally, a book that tries to bridge the gap and speak from a Both-And perspective??!

The introduction and first chapter talk about what the world needs from a church, and what God is doing through His church, how He and the church are 'beautifully sent' on mission. Chapter Two was for me the most powerful chapter in the book "Starting the AND... wherever you are". They jumped right in with discussion that target readers would need to know - how can you take a church that is strongly attractional, perhaps even inward focused, and help its people better understand what it means to live missionally and to see new avenues for ministry outside the walls of the church. It had some great discussion about how you can reach the same essential core of incarnational communities coming either from a gathered perspective or from a scattered perspective. Those coming from a gathered church might well consider a pilot group of about 10% of the church (a tithe of members) to receive training and support on developing incarnational communities.

One of the tough challenges in the book is really understanding what Halter means by the term 'Incarnational Community'. Is it a small group living missionally, a community ministry team, a home cell group, or something else? Is it something we've seen in a larger church, or something altogether different? I was somewhat disappointed to see this was not covered well in the book - rather the authors referenced their previous book, Tangible Kingdom, and a resource called the TK Primer for those who want to develop such communities. It makes sense from their perspective to do this and not waste time repeating material already available. Yet it is so central to their AND thesis that skimping here didn't help their cause. (It didn't help either that the Amazon reviews on Tangible Kingdom were downright scary, almost to the point of calling it heretical?!) After reading the book I saw an online article by Halter entitled What is incarnational community? which helps answer this key question.

Chapters 3 and 4 talk about something working against the church (consumerism) and something that done well is essential for the church (spiritual formation, but something broader than traditional spiritual disciplines).

Chapter 5 is where things started to go downhill fast for me, and I never saw a hoped-for recovery. Its goal was to discuss the tremendous harmony of gathered and scattered, but the authors get caught up in two scholarly terms coined by Ralph Winter - sodalic and modalic, how there is a need both for outreaching missionary activities and groups, and nurturing and support for those on the inside. Before this the books' style had been easy to read, stressing story and clarity. It's not that material was too hard to understand, but the stark contrast in style and approach were jarring.

Chapter 6 was one I looked forward to since getting excited in chapter two. It was called "Morph: Transitioning from Gathered to Gathered AND Scattered." It implicitly spoke as if you were the senior pastor of the church, and described the need to assess your gifting, calling, along with the capacity of your congregation. This was followed by a caution to be careful about the rate of change. And then... the chapter was over. Maybe this was a bad expectation on my part, I was sorely hoping this chapter was the one referenced on page 86: "In a later chapter we will unpack a process that every church can use that will move people from consumers to contributors, from fans to faithful followers, and from adherents to apprentices." I had been so pumped when I read that quote, yet after finishing chapter six it felt like they didn't come close to delivering on that promise.

Chapter 7 found me scratching my head completely. Had I misunderstood the whole aim of the book?? It was a discussion aimed at house churches and other missional communities committed to being scattered and incarnational, and discussed the question of if it was in any way useful to even gather at all in some kind of larger church service (!?) I started to reread the back cover and press info to find out if they were truly trying to propose a harmonious blend of mega-church style incarnational approaches and house-church style incarnational approaches, or were they trying to address the latter community and persuade them that it's ok to actually meet as a larger body without becoming a dead institution. The positive quotes on the back cover are from pioneers in the area of house churches and organic community; nothing said by mega-church pastors?

Chapter 8 tried to pull things together and encourage the reader to think about leaving a legacy, living as if you're really dying. It was inspirational but did not address the concerns developed in reading the previous three chapters.

I would have love to have seen more about the practical issues surrounding the tension between gathered and scattered - where does doctrinal instruction occur? is it really best for younger children and adults struggling with life issues and sin to sit together in the same group discussing the Bible? are teens hanging out with their folks at that time too? how are overseas missions to be supported? why wouldn't it be best to have a large audience being taught by a superbly gifted teacher? how does one learn how to face life-stage issues?

My conclusion after reading the book? No pun intended, but I can truly say that BOTH: I was highly disappointed with the book AND you should definitely read it if you have any kind of interest whatsoever in bridging the gap or resolving the tension between attractional/gathering and incarnational/scattering approaches to ministry, discipleship and evangelism. How can I say that? (Besides the fact that I may not be the target reader for the book?) Because I'm completely convinced, like I think Halter and Smay are, that both gathering as a large community and loving one another inside the family of God (modality), and living out our faith missionally in the lives of those around us far outside the walls of the church (sodality), are extremely important - and these together reflect the Great Commandment and the Great Commission - we cannot neglect either. The other reason it's important to read this book is because there isn't much out there that tries to bridge the gap. In addition, there is some really excellent material despite the flaws in the book. The book would still be worth getting if you only read the first two chapters. Finally, my disappointment may well be due to wrong expectations or high hopes going in to the book.

AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church is available at Amazon and other retailers.


Andrew said...

Thanks for this thorough review, Larry. (I also really appreciate your link to Hugh Halter's blog. That's helpful, too.)

How do you think your ministry at Calvary will be affected after reading this?

Larry Baxter said...

Thanks, and great question Andrew! I'm on a team at Calvary that is currently evaluating the needs of the community and will determine what might be some good opportunities to align our strengths and resources with those needs.

I hope to share the key ideas in this book with this team as well as other staff members as we seek to improve our 'scattered' component of our ministry and disciple-making.

Doug P. Baker said...

I hadn't noticed, but you are right that they never really explain what they mean by "incarnational community." I just assumed that they mean a group living as the body of Christ, caring for each other, etc. Much of the book did leave things a bit vague, but I kind of liked that because it gave me the impression that they weren't saying that their group is what we all need to be. Rather I took it as general principles toward which any group/church can move.

Larry Baxter said...

Doug, thanks for your feedback. It seems that this question is a interesting and pivotal point about the book. I do agree that there are general principles at play with your broader definition of an incarnational community which any church can benefit from. But if a group caring for each other and living in harmony loving-one-another with other Christians, were what the authors meant by incarnational community, there would hardly be the need for a book. Many huge gathered churches have a small group ministry with thousands of such groups. These fit the definition of biblical community, but are not (I think) incarnational.

I think instead what the authors mean by an IC is exactly what is described at the top of your AND-review in your Triocentric blog post today - a group of missional Christians befriending those who would never attend a church, giving up ownership of their lives to live out the gospel in their community and show them Jesus through their love. How that type of community is encouraged and grown within a traditional gathered church seems to be a major challenge.

Doug P. Baker said...

Good definition. This is much of what we've been working toward in our church. For me AND really helped clarify exactly the goal that we have been somewhat disjointedly working on. Funny how Hugh's article that you linked refuses to define IC. Rather it just gives a few indications that we are in the IC ballpark. It sounds like IC is just a community doing all the things that they talked about in AND. But your definition includes that an IC makes Christ visible to the world, while Hugh omits that in his article. This is, however, crucial to the whole point of the book.

Larry Baxter said...

I thought that was very odd as well - that his blog post 'what is an IC' never actually defines one. Actually, I was surprised that his article's description of one is very close to my small group. We do not however match my picture of an IC as a group whose very purpose is to be an incarnational witness to those outside the church (which seems to be what AND is talking about). I'm glad that's a key goal of your church and that the AND book has helped paint a clearer picture of who you are trying to be.

Andrew said...

Thanks for the review Larry, as well as the comments. I think your right on with your chapter summaries, and your overall impression.

The brief definition of an incarnational community you offer here in the comments is more helpful than the authors own descriptions (at least in this particular book; presumably not in their others. One hopes at least :)

Also, thank you for your feedback on my blog; I greatly appreciate it, especially the correction(s) (and I mean that!)

Larry Baxter said...

My pleasure Andrew! A fun part of a "book blog tour" is to visit the other review sites, as we automatically have something in common :)

I definitely want to learn more about incarnational community - what it looks like and how to foster them (especially in a mostly-gathered church).