Envisioning the Congregation Practicing the Gospel (John W. Stewart) -- Review

ENVISIONING THE CONTREGATION PRACTICING THE GOSPEL: A Guide for Pastors and Lay LeadersBy John W. Stewart. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. X + 226 pages.

The word on the street is that churches are not only dying, but they are irrelevant. Many are the diagnoses as well as the fixes for our predicament. Many of the fixes proposed depend largely on marketing gimmicks, and as is so often true of marketing gimmicks they become old hat very quickly. Most of them presuppose a consumerist mentality on the part of the church shopper. The solution is to become either a  Walmart or a Starbucks. Big Boxes or coffee bars. The focus is on the customer, who is, we’re told, always right. The problem for churches is that God doesn’t always test well as a consumer product. To give but one example—worship. Although you would think that God would be the one being addressed in sacred worship, more often than not it is the consumer who is being courted. It really doesn’t matter if the style is traditional or whatever we deem contemporary. Whether it’s an organ or a guitar led service, more often than not God is sitting on the sidelines.

Among those who have attempted to steer the church away from this consumer focus is John W. Stewart, a former Presbyterian pastor and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Believing that things can be different; where consumerism isn’t the primary driver of church life, he offers pastors and lay leaders a guidebook that invites the church to practice the Gospel.  His goal is to empower church leaders so they can guide Mainline Protestant congregations toward an existence that is more firmly grounded in the Gospel. As others have, he focuses on specific practices; practices he believes are present in the New Testament.

Stewart’s book is an expression of the theological discipline of ecclesiology—doctrine of the church—(an expression of great interest to me).  Another way of putting it is that this is an expression of practical theology. In this work of ecclesiology, Stewart focuses on five practices that he believes are present in the Book of Acts. He acknowledges that he’s not the first person to discover these practices, but he does believe they need fresh explication and application if the church is to become a vital community. He also believes that it’s not enough to have embraced a couple of these practices. All are important to the life of the church.

Perhaps to make these practices more memorable, he chooses to call them by their Greek names. The first practice is koinonia (the arts of belonging). While we often translate koinonia as fellowship, he wants us to push this deeper toward bonding. It is a call to embrace the other and move beyond our penchant toward exclusivism and homogeneity. The second practice is mathētēs (arts of discipleship).  The church’s ability to develop the other practices is in many ways related to the way in which people are disciple. It’s not just education; it is to become life-longer learners of the Gospel. The practice of discipling includes the practice of discernment, which is an essential element in becoming a church that can transcend the societal trends and expectations. The third practice is martyria" (arts of witnessing). The word martyria may conjure in our minds the idea of martyrdom, but what he has in mind here is giving testimony. He addresses the tendency among Mainliners to keep the good news to themselves, encouraging the sharing of faith with the world.  Stewart recognizes that we’re pretty good a diakonia (the arts of serving). There is within many Mainline congregations a desire to reach out care for those who caught in unfortunate circumstances. But again, he wants us to go deeper, to move beyond simply giving money and going on an occasional mission trip. Finally, he speaks of leitourgia (the arts of worship). He devotes two chapters to leitourgia.  The first of the two chapters focuses on the practices of corporate worship, including word, sacrament and prayer. Worship is, he suggests the “ultimate faithful practice. As an intentional response to the gospel, worship enfolds, enables, and critiques all the other practices addressed in this book” (p. 157).  In the second chapter on leitourgia, he shows how worship is expressed in the community (congregational life), in the family, and in the personal life.  

One of his primary points is that the five "biblically-mandated, time-honoured, Spirit-infused practices," are all inter-related. If one is absent the others are diminished. Thus, for example diakonia without leitourgia, is merely social service. There are many other organizations that focus on social service and social change. What makes the church’s expression different? On the other hand, leitourgia without diakonia ends up as an expression of self-serving cheap grace. Together, worship and service enhance the other. 

Stewart’s discussion of these practices, while not unique, is well laid out and convincing. My sense is that while the book is very readable, it might be more pitched to clergy than to lay leaders who may not have the theological training to fully engage what he has to say. Of course, that may have something to do with our need to better emphasize discipleship in the church.

Where I found his book less helpful was in the early parts where he attempts to give an account of the contemporary scene in America. As others have, he makes us of demographic material and anecdotal evidence. By and large what he has to say isn’t wrong, it just seems at points to be dated. Many of his sources are a decade or more in age. But most telling is the decision to address the book to Baby Boomer and GenX leaders, whom he says are the primary leaders in the church today. While the bulk of leadership may come from persons forty to sixty-five, Millennials (those in their twenties and early-thirties) are taking their place in the leadership structures of our congregations. My sense is that Stewart retired from active teaching prior to the influx of Millenials into the seminaries. He was already an emeritus professor when he addressed the Academy of Parish Clergy at our 2007 annual meeting. That was eight years ago, and much has happened in the church and American culture over the past eight to ten years.  My sense is that Stewart began working on the book in the early 2000s and only now finished the book. Evidence for that is seen in a couple of references he makes in the book to a recent statement made in a book, and when you look up the publication date it dates to the early 2000s. This doesn’t make the book less useful, it just seems unfortunate to me that he seems to have limited his focus to the two middle generations that inhabit our churches. Recognizing the Millennial voice, especially on issues such as marriage equality would have been helpful.

It’s a good book, that offers an important message to the church, but it could have been better, had the author been able to expand his vision just a bit broader. This would have enabled him to sound less frustrated with the culture around him. Besides, the Millennials aren’t the church of the future. They are the church today. They are serving pastors and lay leaders of our congregations. Having said this, I do agree that our churches would be stronger and more vital if we were able to more fully bring these five practices together into our church life.  


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