Thursday, August 04, 2016

Newsworthy (Chris Altrock) -- Review

NEWSWORTHY: Nine Waysto Live the Good News Now. By Chris Altrock. St. Louis: CBP, 2016. 170 Pages.

                What is the Gospel or Good News and how should it be shared? Indeed, how is the church engaged in both sharing and embodying the Gospel in our time? These are central questions for Christians to consider, especially at a time when greater numbers of people are questioning whether the church has anything to offer them. They might be looking for God, but not in the church. They’d like good news, but they’ve not been encountering it when they encounter Christians. So how do we change the story-line?  

                One who seeks to offer an answer to these questions is Chris Altrock, a Church of Christ preaching minister from Memphis, Tennessee. He is the preaching minister at Highland Street Church of Christ and author of several previous books. He writes to a lay audience in way that reflects his calling as a preaching minster. That is, the tone of the book is sermonic in many ways. While he’s Church of Christ, the book has strong evangelical tones. I say that cautiously because at least portions of evangelicalism have become so tied to a particular form of political life that evangelicalism has developed a rather bad reputation. I don’t see that kind of vision present in this book, which may be why the book is published by an arm of a denominational publisher that has become known for its line of progressive Christian books.


                Altrock lays out the premise of the book in his first chapter: "We strive for a gospel revival in our congregations and in our own lives, so that we might participate in the gospel revival in the surrounding culture" (p. 12). His hope is that as readers engage what he’s written they can begin to live in such a way that the church/gospel can be seen and experienced as “delight rather than disease.”

                The book is designed for both personal and group use. There are guidelines and questions attached to each chapter that enable both the personal and the group conversation, with the expectation that the good news might break into personal and congregational life.

                How then do individuals and congregations embody the gospel? Altrock answers with a nine-step process that follows Jesus' life from birth through his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and final return (with Pentecost thrown into the middle). Before he gets to the nine steps, he speaks of the "downside of the good news," by which he means the gospel's implications for earth (upside is heaven).  Altrock offers this vision as a counter to an older evangelical vision that was so "heavenly minded that they're of no earthly good." In contrast, he envisions church/Christians who embody the kingdom of God for the world in which we live. In his vision Jesus is king, and the process isn’t politically linked, which is one reason why so many outside the church deem the church bad news. 

                There are, he suggests seven chapters (related to nine steps) to the gospel (though more than seven chapters in the book). While the cross is a central chapter, it's not the only chapter. Thus, these are the seven chapters: birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost. and Return. Steps one and two relate to birth -- blessing and nearness (nativity). As for the steps regarding Jesus' ministry, with step three he speaks of surrendering "someday," by which he means that the kingdom is coming now. Then he moves the "treasure of the ordinary." In this chapter he speaks of Jesus' early, unexceptional life, and suggests that God can do great things through ordinary people and congregations. When I hear or read pastors of larger churches speak of ordinary (read small) churches I'm wondering if they really believe that small congregations like mine are really harbingers of good news. From there we move on to the cross, the resurrection, ascension (here he wants to lift up Jesus ascendancy to the throne where he rules all things. In the ascension, which he rightly notes we often neglect, is the reminder that Jesus now rules everywhere. From Ascension we move to Pentecost, where the Spirit begins to move outward. He speaks here of how in Pentecost restrictions are erased. racial and national, age and gender restrictions are all removed (I'll come back to this in a moment). Finally, in step nine we wait and pray for Jesus' return. He invites us to face the future with hope, for with his return evil, injustice, violence, suffering will all end. The future he suggests will be bright.

                Having laid out his nine steps to how the Gospel spreads, he ends by speaking of how the church can become a community of many gospels. You might say that he thinks in terms of targeted gospels, where churches excel at addressing some communities better than others. He hopes that the church can do more, but knows that his congregation is doing better with middle class Americans than with other groups (isn't that true of most predominantly white suburban congregations?). 

                There is much to commend about the book. Altrock reminds us that we have a full-orbed gospel that starts with the birth of Jesus and concludes with the Parousia. The cross certainly plays a part (he explores a variety of atonement theories, and isn’t focused on penal substitution, which is good), but it's not the only key. He speaks of inclusion and breaking down barriers. He wants the church to have a this-world effect. Although the language is fairly evangelical, I think it could fit nicely with a more "mainline" congregation like mine. 

                Where I have reservations is in regards to how inclusive a vision he has. For instance, he notes that many churches place limits on women, but he’s thankful that his congregation does a pretty good job at including women in the ministry life of the church. I don’t doubt this to be true, but I’m left wondering how far this goes. For instance, he doesn't speak of women preaching or serving as elders in his congregation. This raises questions because I know that there are very few Church of Congregations that allow women to preach (I have good friends who Church of Christ so I’ve gained some insight into this reality). Another related, but different, concern emerges in the first chapter where he speaks of how the church often fails miserable at turning the good news into bad news. With this said he tells the story of a mother who shared her concern about whether the church is a safe place for her daughter who "was struggling with same-sex attraction." He doesn't say whether his church is that safe place, but I know that many evangelical churches say they are welcoming of LGBT folks, but place limits on how accepting they are. I know that churches fall short. Mine does. I as a pastor fall short. But I'm just wondering how welcoming of women and LGBT folks his congregation is. 

                With these caveats, here's my thinking about the book. It's written for a lay audience. It's very accessible. As I would expect from someone within the Churches of Christ he is concerned to bring scripture into the conversation, though his interpretive conversation partners are more likely to be evangelicals like Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, and Tim Keller, than Churches of Christ people—though he does refer to Richard Beck, whom I highly regard. The book is written in a largely conversational tone, though at times it is sermonic. Throughout the book, he tells stories rooted in his own life and ministry, which is helpful.  All in all, this book serves as a good reminder that while the church can be bad news, it needn't be. Instead, we can bring the good news to the world now, through our lives.

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