According to Martha Grace Reese, a former attorney and a Disciples of Christ pastor, Mainline Protestants have a very strong aversion to the word evangelism. In her Unbinding the Gospel Series, which has now reached four books, she reintroduces a fearful and trembling Christian community to the possibility of effectively sharing their faith with those both inside and outside the church. She wants to do something about that. This series is intended to transform our understandings about evangelism, about prayer, and about church. It’s intended as invitation to conversation within the church, and beyond.
The set of books that comprise this series is based on a lengthy Lilly endowed study of Mainline Protestant attitudes toward and practices of evangelism. The first book in the series is entitled Unbinding the Gospel (Chalice, 2007). It was followed a year later by two related books – Unbinding Your Heart (Chalice, 2008), a book intended to introduce congregations to the idea of evangelism and prayer through an all-church saturation-type event. A companion book, Unbinding the Church (Chalice 2008) provides guidance and resources to pastors, leaders, and musicians who are taking a congregation through Unbinding Your Heart.
For those churches that have gone through the series to this point there is a follow up book, Unbinding Your Soul (Chalice, 2009). As noted earlier, Mainline churches have an aversion toward evangelism, and in part it is due to reactions against the hard-sell evangelism they have observed and experienced. She writes of our predicament:
Hideous cartoons of evangelism lurk in our heads. I’ve led the only major, national study of evangelism in seven specific denominations called "Mainline Churches." I can tell you for a fact, after four years of intensive research, that people who don’t go to church cringe at the idea of strangers harassing them with humiliating, condescending questions about whether they’re saved. But that’s nothing compared to the horor with which members of churches hear the word "evangelism." The word hits the eardrum. Christians break out in a cold sweat and start lacing on their Adidas.™ (p. xi)
That is the feeling she seeks to counteract in her series of books, and this book helps us continue to develop our ability to share faith and to pray – with the expectation that transformation will take place in the church. Not necessarily immediately, but if we’re consistent and persistent, and stay with this great things can happen. This book is comprised of two four-week sets of "studies." One set is designed for church people, and the other is for what she calls "experiment" groups. The hope is that after working through the church-focused studies, the groups will want to invite others into the conversation. The twist to the book is its lay out. The series set for church people is found in Part Two (chapters 5-8), and the set designed for the experiment groups is found in Part One (chapters 1-4). You may, as the reader, begin to wonder why the book is laid out the way it is. After all, the set found in chapters 5-8 will likely be covered first. There is a rationale. Reese believes that it’s rude to invite people to a study that is "half-way over." The Introduction will make all of this clear.
The book is written in Reese’s lively style. It continually emphasizes the need for prayer and for consistency. The group studies have different focuses. The church study is focused on developing "faith and courage." The experiment set is designed to get people talking about faith at a fairly basic level and to gain confidence in praying together and in private.
It offers a reminder that transformation takes time and commitment, and that this book is simply one more step along the way. What is different here is that the book is designed for inviting others into a conversation about faith and about prayer. There are four chapters, each with questions for reflection and exercises for use in the group sessions. There is also a prayer journal attached to each set of sessions – actually these are set within the sets, and are designed to be part of the experience.
Part three includes information on how to use the prayer journal, a facilitator’s guide, and a pastor’s guide. The expectation here is that a number of groups will form, each led by two facilitators, who are guided by the pastor. Pastors are, as with the earlier books, encouraged to be in prayer for facilitators, and at least for the four weeks of the church study, preach alongside it.
Although a congregation can use both sets for congregational use, it is clear that intention is that the first set is best used as a way of inviting others into the conversation. Reese also allows for a congregation to begin with Unbinding Your Soul, but having been through the Unbinding Your Heart book with a congregation, my sense is that such an approach would short-circuit the effort. Leaders of churches should read Unbinding the Gospel, and congregations should go through Unbinding Your Heart. Then follow that up with Unbinding Your Soul. If you do, I do believe you will see good things happen in your church. But, remember, this isn't a quick fix. It won't solve all your problems. Don't skip aspects of the process.
My only suggestions to author and publisher is this. Consider adding separate booklets for parts 1 and 2. Utilize this as the pastors/facilitators guidebook, with the booklets to be used by groups. It would make it more cost effective for churches, and perhaps less threatening to group participants. That said, this is an excellent continuation of an important project that is pushing mainline churches into the business of faith sharing and prayer.