Friday, August 29, 2008

The Radical Snyder

On one shelf in my basement office, four potent books sit side-by-side. They were written by Howard Snyder between the mid-1970s and the early 1980s. All of them were published by IVP, where I worked from 1981 to 1985. All of them liberated me from institutional Christianity. The books are:

* The Problem of Wineskins (1975)
* The Community of the King (1977)
* The Radical Wesley (1980)
* Liberating the Church (1983)

Ironically, these four sit right next to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith, which is as soft-headed and accommodating as Snyder’s books were clear-eyed and iconoclastic. Howard is a great thinker in his own right. But the contrast with Schleiermacher makes him look even better.

Tonight I was perusing phrases I had highlighted in The Community of the King. Here are a few that still jump out at me three decades later.

The genuine demonstration of Christian community is the first step toward accomplishing God’s cosmic plan. This is miracle, and miracle attracts.

The Church most transforms society when it is itself growing and being perfected in the love of Christ.

The task of the Church … and its place in God’s cosmic design is first of all genuinely to be the redeemed, messianic community, and secondly to do the works of God and carry on the works of Jesus. In truly being the community of Jesus’ disciples the Church commits itself to a pattern of corporate life and a way of relating to one another which is a rejection of, and therefore a challenge to, the social and political structures of the world. In this way the Church’s very existence becomes both prophetic and evangelistic.

Evangelism [in the book of Acts] was not merely something that individual Christians did; rather it was the natural result of the presence and influence of the Christian community in the world. The community gave credibility to the verbal proclamation.

The first task of every Christian is the edification of the community of believers. If we say that evangelism or soul winning is the first task of the believer, we do violence to the New Testament and place a burden on the backs of some believers that they are not able to bear. … [It] ignores the biblical teachings

[B]iblical evangelism must be church-based evangelism. … [T]he Church is both the agent and the goal of evangelism.

Howard’s books from that period were radical. Being intensely scriptural, they cut to the root. They liberated from false consciousness encouraged by institutional Christianity. They were--they still are--empowering.

* * *

Remember that Howard Snyder is speaking at October’s Ancient Evangelical Future conference. The theme is the church. You really ought to be there.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

David Fitch: Can the Gospel Be Too Big?

David Fitch is one of the speakers at October's Ancient-Evangelical Future Conference (you really should come hear him). David leads a double life: He is both a professor of theology who is a church planter. He is a church planter who is a professor of theology. But despite the double life, he's no Jekyll and Hyde. David brings a consistent vision to both pastoral and professorial roles.

David contributed the most recent essay to Christianity Today's Christian Vision Project series, which CT made available on its website yesterday. Here's how he begins his article:

Missional Misstep
Emphasizing the big gospel can make it hard to communicate any gospel.

Can the gospel be too big? For some of us in the missional church movement, this question borders on heresy. We regularly caution that the gospel is not only about what Jesus can do for me. It is primarily about the transformation of our very way of life into God's mission for the world. We resist any temptation to turn the gospel into anything that might be too "user friendly." The mission of God (missio Dei), so we proclaim, must be all-encompassing, and we must become participants in it.

Yet for all the good in this approach, there may be another heresy beneath the surface.For in protecting the bigness of the gospel, we risk making the Christian life inaccessible to those outside of it. As a result, amid the current swell of appreciation for missio Dei theology in American churches, and the outcries against a gospel that has become too small, I find myself concerned about the ways we may unintentionally be making the gospel too big.

Read the rest of David's article here.
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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biology Class for the Church

Howard Snyder will be speaking at October's Ancient-Evangelical Future conference. This year's topic is the church. And since Howard and his friend Daniel Runyon wrote a provocative book on the church in 2002, I thought I'd post my six-year-old review of the book. There's plenty here to chew on. But I'm confident that at the conference Howard will be giving us still more to digest.

Here's the book review, which originally appeared in the November 2002 issue of Christianity Today. The book is, unfortunately, out of print. But copies are still available at

Biology Class for the Church
Howard Snyder maps the genome of the body of Christ
By David Neff

Some radicals are unbalanced. Others help us regain our balance.

Howard Snyder—whose prior books include The Problem of Wineskins (1975) and The Radical Wesley (1980)—helps us maintain theological equilibrium by constantly testing the state of the church against the teaching of the Bible. He sounds radical because he thinks that somehow, in the power of the Spirit, we can live out that teaching.

Snyder's latest book, Decoding the Church (Baker, 208 pages, $14.99), elaborates the familiar biblical metaphor of the church as a body using contemporary concepts: DNA and ecological systems.

When the apostle Paul writes about the church as a body, his main messages are diversity of gifts and interdependence of members. He secondarily draws out the related notions of unity, growth and maturation, and reconciliation.

In Paul's thought the body is not a simile for the church. The church is not merely like a body. The church does not merely resemble a body in its diversity, unity, and interdependence. It is the body of Christ, who is its head. Every member of the body is, in a mystical sense, a part of Christ.

For 50 years, we have known scientifically what Paul presumably didn't (though it extends his thought nicely). We know that every cell in the body shares the same genetic code. The DNA in the head is the same as the DNA in the toes and the elbows.

Snyder wants to join the DNA metaphor to Paul's body metaphor as a way of saying that the reality of the church's relation to Christ is deeper and more complex than we might think.

DNA is, as Watson and Crick announced in 1953, a double helix. Snyder asks whether our churches have been operating with only half their DNA. He takes the creed's four classic marks of the church (one, holy, universal, and apostolic) and asks whether there isn't a second scriptural strand that intertwines those attributes (diverse, charismatically gifted, locally contextualized, and prophetic).

Any careful reader of the New Testament recognizes those factors as characteristics of the church. Snyder claims, however, that the first strand of DNA tends toward the institutional and hierarchical. That may be natural, since they were historically codified during a time when the church was having to define itself in response to heresies. And since heresies tend to arise in independent, prophetic, charismatic, local contexts, arguments from universality and apostolicity came in handy. One, holy, universal, and apostolic do not need to be instruments of institutionalization, but diverse, gifted, contextualized, and prophetic are good reminders of the organic (body-like) nature of the church.

(Snyder seems to love lists of four. After devoting one chapter to diverse, gifted, contextualized, and prophetic, he spends an additional chapter on missional, alternative, covenantal, and Trinitarian. Did the church's DNA just become a triple helix?)

Snyder offers an even bigger challenge to most churches when he urges the claim of Benjamin T. Roberts (principal founder of the Free Methodist Church) that preaching the gospel to the poor is a mark of the church. Here, historically, are Wesley and Whitefield. Here, historically, are William and Catherine Booth and Francis of Assisi. Here today are Howard Snyder and Ron Sider and a host of faithful urban congregations.

So if it doesn't seem obvious that ministry to the poor is an indispensable mark of the church, think again about the church's universality. Is universality merely a geographic and ethnic concept? Or is it socioeconomic as well? If the gospel is truly for all, we must consider the geography of social class and power as well as the geography of countries and cultures.

Functional structures
Snyder is convinced that church structures either help or hinder the mission of the church. ("Structures, though purely functional, do reinforce values and worldview assumptions.") Churches may successfully carry out God's mission in spite of bad structures, but why not lay aside every weight to run with patience the race?

None of Snyder's DNA factors automatically yield better ways of structuring churches. That takes godly experimentation in community. Thus Snyder's coauthor Daniel Runyon strings a running narrative through Decoding the Church: a tale about "Heartland Church," its pastor, and key lay leaders. The storytelling is neither Salinger nor Steinbeck, but it effectively portrays the necessarily serpentine process of self-discovery. In these narratives, the pastor does not go to a megachurch conference and come back with a winning formula. Instead, the parties work their way through life crises while listening to Scripture. Ultimately, the people and their church are transformed.

Snyder lists three places not to look for helpful structures—megachurches, microchurches (house churches), and business models. He calls them "dead ends, or worse." Yet even at his most negative, Snyder is not a thundering Savanarola, but a Saint Paul showing a more excellent way. And he shows his balance by pointing to exceptions and possibilities. For example, Snyder says, large urban African American churches often do not share the typical problems of other large churches. And, Snyder admits, " 'dead' structures" have historically been "the incubators of fresh forms of renewal."

Hierarchy phobia
Snyder reserves his strongest antipathy for hierarchical thinking about the church. Hierarchy "seeped into biblical interpretation and ecclesiastical practice and overwhelmed the more radical, subversive New Testament teaching," he writes. Snyder makes Aquinas the heavy, citing Colin Gunton: "Aquinas implies … that the hierarchy of the church—[consisting of] an ontological grading of persons—is modeled on that of heaven." Then he calls hierarchy "an instrument of oppression," which supported "social inequality and privileged interest." The Bible, he says, "gives many examples of hierarchy, but it never teaches that hierarchy is normative for society or church."

Before readers can reach for their Bibles to prooftext him into a corner, Snyder makes several defensive moves. First, he defines hierarchy narrowly in ontological terms (hierarchy implies inherent degrees of value and perfection). Second, he distinguishes such hierarchies of being from the functional and relational authority proper to family, church, and other social groupings. Parents' authority over their children is a matter of responsible loving, not of higher value. Third, in discussing the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being (an "inadequate principle of coherence"), he allows that it is "attractive," primarily for its "instinct of connectedness" and because it guards the truth of "ordered relatedness."

Everything is connected
For Snyder, "ordered relatedness" finds better expression in ecological thinking, in seeing the natural world, the church, the family, and society as interdependent systems of complex organisms. The philosophical intuition that follows on the empirical observation of such systems is: "Everything is significant simply because it connects with everything else—even if we don't yet understand the connection."

It's not hard to see where this leads. Thinking about church in an ecological way prepares us to minister to those who cannot reward us in return and to listen to those without specialized knowledge or social position.

Jesus pointed to the child as the model of faith. Paul said his message was "not in plausible words of wisdom" but "in weakness." God chose "what is weak in the world to shame the strong … what is low and despised in the world … to bring to nothing things that are." Jesus taught us to serve "the least of these, my brethren" in prison, poverty, hunger, or thirst. The poor are not always right or righteous (that is the error of some liberationists), but they are always important to God (that is the truth taught by John Wesley).

The ecological impulse helps us regard all of these as significant. It goads us to value interdependence over institutions. It leads us to treat authority as functional rather than a matter of inherent value. All of this is for the health of the church.

Nobody's perfect
So what are the book's weaknesses? First, the book's final leg is a disappointing attempt to grapple with issues of globalization. Snyder rightly insists that the church must deal with this economic, cultural, and technological phenomenon. But he stumbles, for example, when he announces that "digitization reinforces the tendency of contemporary culture to value quantity over quality." Say what? Digitization is all about quality. What every digital technology, from DVDs and HDTV to digitized facsimiles of ancient manuscripts, aims at is to ensure faithful reproduction of the original.

Second, many readers (most pastors are intuitives) will wish that Howard Snyder would just get them started on thinking about an idea and let them run with it. Snyder references the DNA idea throughout Decoding the Church, and the entire second half is an episodic reflection on ecological systems. Readers can easily become impatient, either running ahead of the authors down obvious paths, or feeling irritated at yet another application of DNA that doesn't especially illumine.

Third, for all its savvy about the church, the book lacks any reference to baptism (by which believers are incorporated into Christ) and the Lord's Supper (by which they are spiritually nourished). The themes expounded in Snyder's treatment of the church as an organic system rather than an institution potentially say much about how we profit from these sacraments/ordinances and how they strengthen our relationship to God and our fitness for his mission in the world.

Fourth, because Snyder has immersed himself in these contemporary symbols of DNA, ecology, and globalization, he occasionally lapses into jargon. It is remarkable, I suppose, that he doesn't become completely mired in jargon. Yet the following paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:31 seems stylistically almost unforgivable: "Synergize the many things you do in the one direction of the kingdom of God."

But what are those flaws next to this book's power to provoke discussion and action? Buy this book, and give it to your pastor. If you are the pastor, give it to your lay leadership—or to the officers of your denominational judicatory.

Make them all stop promoting programs or seeking quick fixes and start thinking organically and ecologically. This is the truest sentence in the book: "Think of the church organically, and it focuses on what makes for healthy life."

Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today

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Friday, August 8, 2008

Clippings Ecclesiological #1: For the Sake of Sinners, Not the Smug

The topic of this year's Ancient Evangelical Future conference (October 9-11) is "the church [as] the continuation of God's narrative." So I'm collecting clippings ecclesiological as I run across them.

Here are a few memorable lines on the church from American Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor, borrowed from Martin Marty's Context, which in turn borrowed them from an article by San Francisco archbishop George Niederauer in America. (Don't tell me you've never borrowed anything from Martin Marty.)

You have to suffer as much from the church as for it. The only thing that makes the church endurable is that somehow it is the Body of Christ, and on this we are fed.

And then ...

The operation of the church is entirely set up for the sake of the sinner, which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.

Archbishop Niederauer also offered this insight from T. S. Eliot, which he thought dovetailed with O'Connor's view of the church: Eliot said that "modern people do not like the church because

she is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ancient-Future Books on the Digital Trail

Today a reader named o1mnikent tipped us off to the fact that Logos Bible Software is planning to produce an electronic version of Bob Webber's Ancient-Future books: Ancient-Future Faith (1999), Ancient-Future Evangelism (2003), Ancient-Future Time (2004), and Ancient-Future Worship (2008). Read my review of the most recent volume here.

Logos is currently taking preorders at a special price of $44.95. When enough people have preordered, the set will go into production (available either on CD-ROM or as a download). The progress bar on their website looks like they have about 1/4 to 1/3 of the orders they need to proceed.

Note 1: o1mnikent is one of the bloggers who maintains the delightful "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks (which documents exactly what it says) and earlier blogged briefly on the annoying phrase "a whole nother."

Note 2: The planned Logos set comprises the four volumes that actually have Ancient-Future in their titles, but Bob originally intended The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (2006) as part of the series. The book's copyright page lists The Divine Embrace as part of the Ancient-Future series, but I'm told the publisher thought a book titled The Divine Embrace would sell more copies than something called Ancient-Future Spirituality. If you missed that book, you should read Patricia Raybon's review for Christianity Today.
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