Book Review: The Art of Neighboring

I almost never purchase books when they first come out – mainly because I’m cheap, but also because I have so many other things on my shelf to read that I figure by the time I get around to actually reading a book I buy, I could have bought it cheaper anyway.

Such is the case with the 2012 book by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon titled The Art of Neighboring.  I don’t remember when exactly I discovered this book, but I finally bought it last year (used on Amazon – I’m a total cheapskate) and finished it last week.  I’m not one for hyperbole, but I think I can actually say that this is the most valuable ministry book I’ve read for several years.  Nothing the authors say is particularly novel or earth-shattering, which is part of its brilliance.  Their entire message is rooted in the very simple and fundamental question: What if Jesus meant that we should love our actual neighbors?

The problem is, the authors point out in the beginning of the book, that hardly anyone seems to even know their neighbors.  They use the simple strategy of mapping out your house and the eight houses that are closest in proximity to your house, and ask the question how well do you know the people in those eight houses?  Do you even know their names?  Their families?  Their jobs?  Based on their experiences, the vast majority of people they’ve talked to can’t name their eight closes neighbors.  Most of their message can be summed up in the simple statement: Get to know your neighbors!

The whole idea for this “neighboring” movement was born  in Denver, Colorado where several local pastors were told by their mayor that most of the social ills of their community could be addressed if people simply learned to be good neighbors.  This realization prompted this group of pastors to work together and encourage their various churches to begin to intentionally get to know their neighbors.  The whole concept sounds so obvious that it seems a shame that such a book is necessary.  But it’s true. We’ve simply lost the ability to be good neighbors.

Our family has charted a similar path over the past 5 years to get know our neighbors, and we serve as a personal testimony for exactly the point this book sets out to make.  Too many Christians are too caught up in the bubbles of their church world that they often miss what is going on right under their noses.  I grew up in the country, so this whole neighborhood thing has taken me awhile to get used to.  I remember how strange it seemed to me when we bought our first house that my bedroom was less than 100 feet from my neighbor’s bedroom.  We slept less than 100 feet away from each other, but knew almost nothing about each other!

Pathak and Runyon make a compelling case for why we should get to know our neighbors (which is the easy part!), but then they provide plenty of firsthand examples of how rewarding and fulfilling it can be.  Additionally, they talk from their firsthand experiences of some of the challenges that opening your lives up to your neighbors brings.  The book is packed with practical pieces: group discussion questions, block party kits, and even more on their website.

The book moves from making the case that anyone and everyone can master the art of neighboring to some of the more pressing issues that come up once you begin the process.  I am glad that the very first thing they address in this section has to do with motivation.  Our motives in being a good neighbor can never be to convert people.  I hate it when someone calls me on the phone and is especially nice to me, only to find that their real motive is to sell me something.  It drives me crazy.  Christians are never called to be a good neighbor so that we can sneak the Gospel in there somewhere.  We are good neighbors because we are Christians.  And if we are Christians, eventually it’s going to come out, and eventually it’s going to make an impact.  But that is not our motivation.  Unfortunately, some of the rudest sales calls I’ve had at the church office has come from Christian companies trying to sell the church things – it’s almost like it’s in our blood.

The authors are also quick to speak to the Pollyanna tendency that can come from our attempts at being a good neighbor.  Once we become more intentional in our relationships  with our neighbors, it is inevitable that conflict and challenges will arise. Pathak and Runyon share firsthand stories that help reinforce the need for boundaries and the distinction between being all things to all people and being everything to everybody.

I don’t know that I’ve done a very good job of summarizing the book itself, but would encourage you to pick it up and read it yourself.  I share in their sentiment that if churches would begin to preach this message and equip and encourage their people to root their ministry in their own particular neighborhoods, we would, indeed, change the world.  If you are looking for a ministry book to encourage you, challenge you, and give you a new way to approach your local ministry, I believe you will be hard-pressed to find a better one than The Art of Neighboring.  In some ways I wish I would have read it sooner, but better later (and cheaper!) than never.  Read this book if you are looking for a practical and meaningful way you can put your faith into action and be led on an incredible journey.

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Book Review: Occupy Spirituality

Recently I received the new book Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation by Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox for review.  It’s an interesting book written as a dialogue between, Fox, the older, on-the-fringe Dominican Catholic (kicked out of the Catholic Church by the previous pope) and the younger activist from Poland, Bucko.  In the book the seek to explore a post-religious spirituality present (and needed) within the occupy movement that has ignited over the past five years or so.

I have long had an interest in, for a lack of a better descriptor, “fringe” theological perspectives like Matthew Fox.  Bucko and Fox live on the fringes of organized religion and better identify with an anarchist, non-institutional eclectic movement that is rigorously postmodern and post-structural.  I was intrigued by the title and found the content to pique alot of my interest.

Anyone within the system of organized religion will have difficulty following Fox and Bucko.  Many times, I found myself thinking that a certain perspective or thought was interesting or provocative, but it certainly took me out of my comfort zone – which is a good thing.  This book helped me realized the small well from which I drink.  We grow so comfortable in our own bubbles of learning and exposure, that when something like this book is brought to your attention, you begin to question how blindly you follow the crowd you follow.

The book begins by each author sharing their personal story which helps inform the entirety of the book.  I found this to be helpful since I was unfamiliar with both (Fox, I knew a little bit about, but not much).  I find most non-fiction books should begin with an author’s introduction.  It’s easier to process what an author is saying knowing a little something about their person.  From the introduction, the book touches on calling, spiritual practices, the importance of inter-generational interaction, and ends by exploring some practical situations lived out in newer communities.

There is much I found helpful in this book.  I loved the ecumenical and inter-religious thrust of the dialogue.  As I said, it made me realize how limited my experience is.  It encouraged me, especially something Adam Bucko said near the end, to be proactive in finding spiritual advisers.  There is a Hindu temple and a Jain center both within a block of our suburban church.  This book has encouraged me to seek out their spiritual advisers and extend and olive branch to pursue productive relationships for the future.

I have chosen not to review a lot of the content because I am still processing a great deal of it.  It comes across to me in the unsettling way of a prophet.  Both authors reflect a great deal on the limitations of traditional Western education (particularly theological education) as it relates to spirituality.  It has convicted me here, too, as to the limitations of my own experiences.  The practices they discuss are a little out there, from time to time, but encourage me to be proactive in my experimentation.  Bucko works with homeless youth in New York City, and that drives his experience.  I wondered, sometimes, as I read how the kinds of things they are discussing relate to the “non-hippies.”  Many of the people I thought of as I read through this book would really be stretched by their perspective . . . maybe too far to be productive.  I appreciated the stretch, but I think many Christians, particularly may find them to be a little too far out of their comfort zone.

With that said, I would encourage pastors and leaders to read this book if for no other reason that to be stretched.  Consider how myopic our perspectives tend to be and just how big God is.

Josh Graves – Why I’m a Member of the Churches of Christ

Josh Graves has been generous with his time and has offered an addition to our ongoing series on “Why I’m a Member of the Church of Christ.”  I appreciate his time and perspective.

I am A Member of the Churches of Christ. I am a minister in a Church of Christ (though some Churches of Christ might not claim us). For the record, I love the Churches of Christ.

We are a tradition in the broad sweep of Christianity much like the Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian traditions are traditions: we have our own language, inside jokes, denominational gatherings, print publication, online watchdogs, schools/colleges, regional nuances, doctrinal sticking points. Most churches that claim to be non-denominational are either a) in denial or b) about to become a denomination. Churches of Christ have some beautiful, worth-copying traits. And, we have some things we’re still trying to let go of, improve, and be honest about.

We’re like any American family in that way. We have so many good things. And we have some secrets we don’t want to go public. I know some who only want to talk about the good (naiveté) and those who can only see the bad (cynics) . . . I don’t think we get to choose.  Here are my reasons I’m still in the Church of Christ.

  1. I met my wife. If you are keeping score, this is at the top of the list.
  2. I was born into the Churches of Christ. This is as close to a Calvinist as I’ll ever get. I believe God was somehow in the mix as he brought me into the world.
  3. I was raised in the Churches of Christ. I think there’s something to the notion of “bloom where you are planted.” The Church of Christ is the space and place (because of my family) in which I was introduced to the person of Jesus. I was nurtured and nourished by beautiful people who lived the love of Jesus in compelling and often dangerous ways.
  4. Almost all of my memories are healthy, positive, and life-giving. In fact, I can’t come up with one singular large “beef” I’ve had.
  5. I met hypocrisy in the Church of Christ. Hypocrisy is not failing to live up to a desired standard. That’s being human. Hypocrisy is the denial of not living up to a standard one claims to live up to. I’m thankful for this for it allowed me to recognize my own hypocrisy and inconsistency.
  6. I met deep thinkers in the Church of Christ. Sisters and brothers who introduced me to the classic Christian thinkers of the 20th century as well as the important voices in church history.
  7. I encountered my calling in the Church of Christ. God speaks primarily to me through people (in addition to scripture, music, and creation).
  8. I now appreciate other denominations and their leaders because of my time in the Church of Christ. Other denominations have just as many beautiful and toxic elements-but you have to be in one to recognize this in others.
  9. I met my future. I was introduced to the kingdom of God, the future, Jesus as the embodiment of God’s intent for humanity (what Christians call heaven).
  10. I believe in the best of the Church of Christ–autonomy, primacy of scripture’s story, Anabaptist position on government, sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper, etc.
  11. I’m aware of the worst–sectarianism, boys club tendency, racism, bad theology, isolationism, etc.

I love the Church of Christ the same way I love being an American. I love her enough that I’m going to brag about the best and confess the worst. I hope we all do this regarding our own personal lives.

I am more interested in being a part of church that is engaging the Muslim, Baha’i, Buddhist, Jew, and Agnostic persons of a community than I am “patting ourselves on the back” because the Baptists, Methodists, and Church of Christ ministers had lunch together. It’s a new day. We need courage.

People often wonder if the Church of Christ will exist in 50 years. 100 years? I have no idea. I know this; the kingdom of God will still exist. And the churches that get in line with the kingdom of God-in all of its complexity and genius and generosity–these churches will continue to flourish, and do the behind-the-scenes-work-of-God the church universal has been doing for two centuries and counting.

Josh Graves is the teaching minister for the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Nashville. He is the author of The Feast (2009) and Heaven on Earth (2012). Josh holds a doctorate degree from Columbia seminary, blogs at joshuagraves.com. You can follow him on twitter @joshgraves.

Why am I a Member of the Churches of Christ: Shawn Duncan & A New Frontier for a Church Birthed by Pioneers

My friend and former Lipscomb-mate, Shawn Duncan, put this piece together for me.  Shawn is currently a minister for the North Lake Church of Christ in Atlanta, GA and does a great job with his blog: http://evanesceemerge.blogspot.com/.  I appreciate his willingness to help out on this series, and think his perspective speaks to many of us who are trying our best to weed through our heritage.
“A New Frontier for a Church Birthed by Pioneers”
As has been well documented, we live in an era of rapid and radical change.  Some have referred to this as living in “liminal space.”  We have moved beyond the securities of Christendom and are in a vulnerable space, an uncharted space confused about who we are, where we are, and what to do.  In this space some react with fear: “Our morality is being mocked, a war is being waged against our religion, and a conspiracy is underfoot against Christianity.”  There is fear of the cultural forces that are eroding our once-prized credibility and prominence within the dominant cultural narrative.  In this liminal space we are tempted to make our position more comfortable through compromising in the name of relevance or, conversely, retreating from the world so as to remain unaffected, right, and pure.  My hope, however, is that we engage in a more redemptive third option: the careful theological interpretation of what it happening in our time so as to adapt according to what God is up to.  In a time of disruptive change and great uncertainty, the church must be agile and creative in discovering how to embody the Good News of the Kingdom in ways that confront, subvert, and challenge evil as well as connect with, redeem, and reconcile our communities to Christ.  The world needs a movement of Jesus followers capable of adapting to this new world with a courageous missional lifestyle.
   So, what does this have to do with why I am a member of the Churches of Christ?  Everything!
   Even though I have engaged in plenty of hardy critique of this movement, it is my belief, and my primary reason for being an active member, that the Churches of Christ, as well as other fellowships similarly constituted, are uniquely positioned to adapt and thrive in God’s mission in our current disruptive climate.  I say this for two reasons.
    First, the Restoration Movement sought to establish, Disciples of Christ notwithstanding, autonomous congregations.  My sense is that denominational structures hinder the type nimble flexibility local congregations need to faithfully interact with postmodern (or late modern) culture.  If a local body of Christ is one in mind and heart about God’s mission in their specific and unique context, then they are able to pursue that without having to wade through denominational structures and bureaucracy.  The radical shifts some churches may need to take to fulfill God’s call in this liminal space are more realistic when those changes are in the hands of the local church itself.  Autonomous congregations, at their courageous best, are free to incarnate the Gospel in their very unique, specific, and local context.
    The commitment that Stone-Campbell churches have to “New Testament Christianity,” though poorly applied and harshly defined in certain contexts, is another distinctive characteristic that makes me want to be a part of this movement.  It is also the second, and more important, reason why we are perfectly suited to be on the front lines of theologically interpreting our times and missionally responding to them.  This claim was intended to forge a people devoted to laity empowerment, simplicity of worship, and the unity of all Christians.  These are the very qualities necessary for the time and place in which we find ourselves today!  Having the first century as our foundational claim, we, at our courageous best, have a simplicity that rejects overburdened ecclesiocentric budgets and structures; we have a freedom to empower people for missional engagement in their neighborhoods; and we have a deep-rooted instinct for creative partnership with other local bodies of Christians.  If we can get beyond the tendency to reify contextual descriptors found in Acts, then we can embrace the robust and truly radical nature of our plea for restoration.
   I am a hopeful member of this frontier forged movement because our autonomous structure and restoration impulse allow us to be neo-pioneers able to chart new territory free from sluggish sectarianism and shameful conformity.  What is needed in our day are local congregations who are fully devoted to following God as He moves about in our local contexts. This takes great courage, great risk, great agility.  Our fundamental constitution and our foundational claim make us perfectly suited to do just that.

A Little Informational Regurgitation

I’m feeling a little bit of information overload lately.  Largely thanks to my doctoral class, I’ve already knocked out 20 books this year, the wonder of RSS feeds has made looking through blogs part of my regular routine, inevitably someone is having an interesting conversation on Facebook, someone regularly shares a link or picture or something via email or message . . . and all of this is contributing to my very mushy mind.  I’ve been gorging on information lately without much time to process.  My plans to take classes in November and next May lean towards the information binge not ending soon.  Probably more than ever, I need to detox via blogposts.  Seeing the frequency of some blogposts via my RSS reader, I am amazed at the time people take to post.  For some reason, that time usually evades me. With all that said, here’s a bit of informational regurgitation from some things I’ve intaken lately:

* I’m working on a Sports and theology final project for my May class.  I recently ran across the documentary, The Other Final, which details the only FIFA-authorized match against the two bottom-ranked teams in the world in 2002.   The game took place on the same day as the 2002 World Cup between the countries of Bhutan and Montserrat.  It’s a tough one to find, but I think will be incredibly valuable for my project.

* I’ve come to believe that Gabe Lyons and the folks at Q are pointing the way to the future and are initiating some really important conversations.  It’s my favorite site – for now.

* Jurgen Moltmann’s book God for a Secular Society is probably my favorite book I’ve read so far this year.  Public theology is an “up and coming” discipline that I think probably holds the future for Western Christianity.  Moltmann’s stock is going to continue to rise as more and more people are introduced to him.

* I have no idea how I’ve missed the artwork of Banksy until last week.  His art is moving in an unsettling kind of way.  One of the highlights of my trip to L. A. last week was our class trip to the “Art in the Streets” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

* David Fitch’s blog is another favorite.  Worth checking out.

I need to spend some time processing through some things.  I’ll be posting more soon, but that’s enough vomit for now!

A view from outside the bubble of Christian subculture

I ran across this article today researching for Sunday’s sermon. It’s a bit dated (1999) and comes from a Seattle newspaper, detailing one journalist’s trip to the Christian music festival Creation in 1999. It’s pretty hard-hitting if you find yourself in the Christian circle, but I think it’s always interesting and unquestionably helpful to hear the voice of the outsider:

Christapalooza by Rick Levin

 

Red Moon Rising Quote

Friends have encouraged me to read the prayer manifesto, Red Moon Rising, the testimony of the beginning of the 24/7 Prayer movement. It’s certainly a compelling story and is convicting me of my (lack of) prayer life. I particularly enjoyed this quotation from my reading today:

“Just as Jesus 2,000 years ago spent His time at parties, engaging with the disreputable and apparently non-religious, so today He seems surprisingly comfortable among the crowds of partygoers, the non-religious pilgrims of our time. Perhaps He longs that we would vacate our buildings from time to time, that we would turn our temples into tabernacles, that we would become like Him, the friend of sinners. We are the light of the world, but no one wants to stare at the bulb. We are the salt of the earth, but a whole plate of the stuff will make you sick. The people of God are called to scatter and mix, to migle and move, to influence from a position of weakness, like a small child in a large family, like yeast in a loaf, like a mustard seed beneath a pavement.” (p. 191)

Yeah, that pretty much says it all . . .