Church Planting in Post-Christian Soil: Theology and Practice, written by Christopher B. James

In: Ecclesiology
Author: Martyn Percy1
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  • 1 Christ Church, Oxford, UK, dean@chch.ox.ac.uk

(New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 356 pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-067364-2 (hbk). £22.99.

Christopher B. James is an Assistant Professor of Evangelism and Missional Christianity at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. His book is warmly commended by such luminaries as Christian Scharen, Nancy Ammerman, James K. Wellman and Pete Ward – and rightly so, I think. However, these commendations offer an important clue about what to expect from the book, before even beginning to read it. Those applauding the book are themselves leading lights in the field of practical ecclesiology, and we know that we can therefore expect a study that is theologically astute, as well as empirically grounded. James’ book does not disappoint.

The thesis pays careful attention to ecclesial innovations taking place in Seattle, Washington State – a city on the cutting edge of trends that are shaping North American contemporary culture. This is the city that gave birth to Starbucks, and is full of ‘Nones’, that is those who most closely approximate to being ‘SBNR’: spiritual, but not religious. ‘Nones’ do not necessarily reject God, but neither do they necessarily identify as agnostic or as atheists. Typically they do not belong to a church. But they do see themselves as spiritual, and in the memorable phrase of Kenda Creasy Dean (Almost Christian, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) they tend to see God as a kind of ‘cosmic lifeguard’ – only to be called upon in emergencies. Otherwise, God just watches us in playing the water with everyone else, and does not tend to intervene.

James’ study of the new churches in this most postmodern and post-Christian of cities engages in ethnographic miniatures, interviews, short vignettes and empirical data. This forms the basis for theological reflection and for some practical-pastoral counsel. The core of the book is located in James’ fivefold threads of practical wisdom: (1) embracing local identity; (2) cultivating embodied, experiential, everyday spirituality; (3) engaging community life as a means of witness and formation; (4) practising hospitality as cornerstone practice; (5) discovering ecclesial vitality in a diverse and competitive ecclesial ecology.

Before outlining the book in more detail, a word about context might be helpful. Cities such as Seattle are highly adaptive, fluid, innovative – and young. The emergence of Millennials, and the rise of ‘Nones’, has produced a generation that seeks religion or spirituality in everyday life. Institutions with religious ‘monopolies’ tend not be trusted; but reliable ‘brands’ are. In age of conspicuous consumerism, the customer is king. So choice, and the freedom to blend choices, is taken for granted. For Millennials, there is no contradiction in believing but not belonging; in embracing spirituality, but with a seasoning of agnosticism and unconnected to religious faith.

At Harvard Divinity School, studies led by graduate students Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile (authors of two reports, How We Gather and Something More) have looked at secular organizations that provide an experience of community traditionally associated with religion. These groups included ‘Daybreaker’ (an early morning dance party held in seven cities on three continents around the world), and ‘Dinner Party’, which convenes young men and women (demographic: roughly 21–35 years of age) over potluck suppers. They talk about the recent loss of a loved one and the ways in which it continues to affect their lives, using the principles of respectful listening normally found at Alcoholics Anonymous. Each of these groups has some similarity to traditional religious communities, particularly new churches, or Fresh Expressions. The members of these new secular quasi-religions are quite ‘evangelical’ in recruiting friends to the group. The groups are also ritualistic, with ‘Dinner Party’, for example, in many ways offering a re-enactment of the Eucharist, with a focus on individual healing, care and spiritual accompaniment

James’ work lies within the same scope and stream of such practical ecclesiologists as Christian Scharen, Pete Ward, Nick Healy and Nancy Ammerman. The focus is on intense, anthropologically-attuned and ethnographic listening; paying careful attention to the subjects; so in effect, critically-attuned eavesdropping. The strength of this approach is apparent as James’ study progresses. James begins with a general contextual overview of Seattle’s churches, noting the standard patterns of decline in mainline denominations, and of evangelical groups attempting to remain traditionalist, whilst being innovatively missional.

After a good, general introduction, James explores the landscape of Seattle: ‘a future-trending city’, replete with intense urbanization (ironically leading to much alienation and loneliness), technological culture and progressive values. The second chapter offers important data, exploring patterns and currents in spirituality, mission and ecclesial identity. The third chapter examines theological and sociological models of the church. This is the least well-resourced part of the book, although that is a minor quibble, given the balance of the argument. It would have been good, for example, to have seen more discussion of Stefan Paas’ Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European Experience (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), Bradford E. Hinze’s Prophetic Obedience: Ecclesiology for a Dialogical Church (New York: Orbis, 2016) and Kenda Creasy Dean’s (2010) work, already mentioned.

The heart of the thesis lies in the fourth chapter, examining models of practical ecclesiology amongst the new churches in Seattle. Here, the analysis dwells on themes of hospitality, neighbourliness, community and engagement. It is pleasing to see that those new churches that root their theology and identity in the doctrine and lived theology of the Incarnation are so thoughtfully reported in James’ work. The fifth, sixth and seventh chapters effectively draw conclusions. There is ample theological assessment (chapter five). There is helpful practical-pastoral-ecclesial counsel (chapter six). There is a useful template for churches that might want to draw on James’ work in Seattle, and plant one of the many models he explores in their own context.

As James notes at the end, Christianity in North America is not dying – it is changing. Indeed, is it not always a case of semper reformanda? Every generation of Christians that has ever lived has lived in their modern times. The church simply forgets that its current modernity poses both similar and different challenges to those faced by previous generations. As the Dutch missiologist Herbert Kraemer once remarked, the fact that the church lives in difficult times is not the main problem. That it forgets it has always lived in such times is the problem.

The advent of a generation of ‘Nones’ undoubtedly poses some new issues for churches to grapple with. James’ estimable monograph shows that the church does not need to respond in panic, with the accompanying trinity of fright, fight and flight. Our age is not one to flee from – or fear and fight – but rather one to engage with closely. Through incarnation, hospitality, social action, neighbourliness, innovation and more, there is much to hope for. Postmodernity no more sounds the death knell for organised Christianity than modernity did. All we know is that as our engagement must now be different, and so our institutions must learn to adapt. Religion is not simply a set of beliefs. It is also a means of creating communities – something that the first Christians took very seriously, as they lived out the values of the Kingdom of God, preached, proclaimed and practised in the life of Jesus. As the fate of religion and of spirituality continue to unfold through the twenty-first century, James’ book can offer the reader some glimpses of hope and realism, rooted in careful, grounded case studies, also adding in some sound theological reflection on the future shape and form of the church that lies ahead of us. Such shapes and forms, it would seem, might already have been conceived in cities like Seattle.

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