I love that moment when the Amazon drone drops another package at my door. I hold the brown package in my hand and try and guess which book (of the many I order regularly) might be waiting inside. Recently, I tore open the package to see Christopher B. James’ excellent work Church Planting in Post-Christian Soil: Theology and Practice from Oxford University Press.
James identifies Seattle as the leading edge of secularity in North America, much like Vancouver is in Canada where I live. Seattle and Vancouver are sibling cities including in the way that James describes Seattle as being a “profoundly urban, progressive, technological, and post-Christian context.” (p.8) Through his study of church plants that have lasted since the early 2000s in Seattle, James argues that nearly 80% of them fall roughly into four different categories:
Great Commission Team: Evangelical, mission-centered churches
Household of the Spirit: Pentecostal and charismatic, worship-centered churches
New Community: Mainline and emerging, worship and community-centered churches
Neighbourhood Incarnation: Community and mission-centered neighbourhood churches
James describes the core of his work as “helping Christian communities fulfill their vocations as witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in rapidly evolving Western contexts.” (p. 13) He does so richly by profiling these different churches, naming their theological and missional strengths and weaknesses as well as providing suggestions on how they could be more effective in their Christian Witness. In a Niebuhr-like Christ & Culture move (James profiles the classic work in his book), the author does not stay neutral and after presenting the different categories of church plants above solidly lands on the Neighbourhood Incarnation model as the strongest for the post-Christian soil of Seattle. Friends in The Parish Collective who we’ve hosted at The Centre for Missional Leadership (CML) at St. Andrew’s Hall, are noted by James as a good example of this category.
A highlight of the book was James’ 5th Chapter: Missional Theological Assessment. It is a brillant, straightforward statement of the theological grounding and practical aims of missional theology. Drawing on all the key thinkers in the field including familiar names at CML Darrell Guder & Alan Roxburgh, James offers an overview of missional theology but also (later on) a solid critique of where the “missional” language has fallen short. He writes, “Missional ecclesiologies have tended to root ecclesiality exclusively in the church’s participation in the Trinitarian mission, without sufficiently considering what it might mean for the church to participate in and mirror the Trinitarian community.” (p. 223) Holding in tension the economic and the imminent Trinity is not something that surfaces often in missional circles and is an important contribution to the discussion. As one who has lived his whole life in the Reformed tradition, that opening line of the Westminster Confession about “glorifying God and enjoying Him forever,” is a helpful corrective to the usual “sending language” within the missional world. After all, in Luke 10 after Jesus sends the disciples out with training wheels on, he gathers them again unto himself. This classic pattern that Barth highlighted in the Dogmatics of the people of God gathered, upbuilt and sent needs to undergird our missional practice.
Each of the models James explores in his research comes under scrutiny but I especially appreciated his critique of the typically mainline “New Communities” who self defined themselves in surveys as being the opposite to the Great Commission Team. James observes, “The result of this negative identity construction is the rejection of Evangelical perspectives and practices without adequately considering the practical wisdom they may carry. Among the babies that NC churches ingloriously throw out with the Evangelical bathwater are intentional, proactive practices of evangelism and discipleship.” (p. 167)
An area that James touches on but I wish he had expanded was regarding the limitations of church planting in neighbourhoods of limited diversity that are more or less homogeneous. He writes, “Consider an affluent suburban community with good schools, housing prices that prohibit poorer residents, and policing policies that drive out “undesirables.” A nearsighted…church that is not intentional about raising its gaze beyond parish borders would likely fail to reflect and participate meaningfully in the Spirit’s boundary-crossing work.” Many of our Canadian suburban communities (where often post-WW2 mainline churches were built) reflect this reality and need assistance in taking the first faithful steps towards embracing their neighbours in a missional manner.
James argues that as missional communities live out the gospel practicing hospitality, eucharist, baptism, confession, healing prayer and witness they are becoming communities of holistic conversion. He writes, “The church in a post-Christian context cannot rely on predominate culture to nurture people even halfway toward a way of life constant with the Reign of God. The church in such an environment must be, and is, a conversion community.” (p. 222-223).
In the end, James research and writing is itself a witness to the on going moving of the Holy Spirit in a land where many have lowered their expectations regarding the Christian church. James is able to point clearly to examples of faithful Christian witness in Seattle that may indeed be smaller and look different than in Christendom past, but these communities of disciples turned apostles are offering us a glimpse of that eschatological future God in Christ is calling us into by grace.
Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver and Director of The Centre for Missional Leadership.