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A Review of
in Post-Christian Soil:
Theology and Practice
Hardcover: Oxford UP, 2017
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
The dominant storyline says the church is decline in the global West. The “nones” are ascendant as the church loses its relevance. Then the story splits. The younger generation has no use for tradition; no, the younger generation seeks authenticity and needs a historically oriented liturgy. The church has become too inward-looking; the church has become too seeker sensitive. The church has become or not become a lot of things. It’s a bit of a mess, really.
Into this mess comes Christopher B. James to take a closer look at church planting with an approach that’s focused enough to be manageable but broad enough to be useful. He analyzes relatively new churches in the Seattle area, sorts them into types, and then analyzes the types through a theological lens. By the end of his work, he’s able to offer practical suggestions to a variety of communities, while avoiding any sort of boilerplate model. His research allows him to be specific without being dogmatic.
The strength of his work lies in his synthesis of work across different fields. He writes, “Church is a diverse, complex, and simultaneously sociocultural and theological reality. Expressing this reality can be done only by exceeding genre boundaries and integrating them as a spectrum of multidiscplinary perspectives” (11). That insight enables him to actively engage with actual church communities in a variety of ways while applying ecclesiological thinking to his data.
Much of the book is simply descriptive, and readers not comfortable with sociological writing might find the early chapters to be slow-going. James acknowledges as much in his introduction (and saves the methodology details for an appendix). While he knows some readers might want to skip to the second half of the book, the discussions there will make more sense with an understanding of his research findings and, conversely, will demonstrate the need for the detailed opening chapters.
James explains the reasoning behind studying churches in Seattle by defining elements that make it both representative and predictive of future trends in the US. He highlights its urbanization (including the isolated nature of its residents), its progressive social values (such as environmentalism and LGBTQ-friendliness), its technology-focused culture, and its post-Christian character. If these characteristics represent the direction the US and other Western countries are trending, then it makes sense to see how churches function in that environment now.
Working through the results of extensive study, James manages to break 80% of the successful Seattle church groups into four categories: Great Commission Team, Household of the Spirit, New Community, and Neighborhood Incarnation. Each of these groupings largely stem from their thinking or practices in the categories of spirituality, missions, and identity. It sounds confusing, but James writes with a clarity that allows these groups to become distinct and well-defined. It’s necessary, because for the rest of the book he discusses the methods, strengths, and weaknesses of each form (along with brief thoughts on other models).
James, wisely, doesn’t stick to just the sociological work, recognizing that “there is more to the church than meets the eye – that is, more than a survey of series of focus groups can discover” (65). As he constructs his models, he blends his backgrounds, spends time examining the work of predecessors (Avery Dulles prominent among them), and considers how the theoretical and theological work is lived out in the practices of new Seattle churches. He calls his models “footprint ecclesiologies rather than blueprint ecclesiologies” (68). The goal is to describe and aid various forms of church rather than delineating a specific patten or process to follow.
From there, James analyzes each of this four church models through the lens of missional theology, which he briefly articulates. He reiterates throughout the text that the church should manifest in a variety of forms, and he’s not arguing for one (though he has a preference for Neighborhood Incarnation), but recognizing the ways that each of these models do function, and how they can proceed in the healthiest manner. He explains, “Dismissing models – even those with serious theological weaknesses and practical flaws – would be both misguided and futile, since churches in each of these models will continue to be started” (183).
With a full understanding of each model in mind and a guiding ecclesiological perspective, James can offer suggestions for nearly any sort of church to strengthen itself, maintain its vitality, and reach its community. By seeing potential pitfalls for each model, he can provide leaders with questions to ask themselves to avoid traps. What he says of his approach to one model could apply to each of them, that the proposals “seek to maintain the character and strengths of the model but … ease characteristic weaknesses” (198). James develops an approach to aid churches in thinking through their own work without fundamental changes or doctrinal rigidity.
The book does excellent work, but it does face two limitations inherent to its project. The first is simply its cultural context. James argues convincingly for Seattle as a quintessential example of the current and coming cultural landscape. In that sense, this book should be widely useful. On the other hand, this text might have limited appeal in areas that differ significantly from Seattle, particularly rural or more conservative urban or suburban areas. Fortunately, James’s model-based approach should be useful in other context, or at least help church leaders think through local or regional issues.
The other limitation may be more significant. Missional theology has been a valuable part of ecclesial thinking for decades now, but there are other valid models. Planters or leaders who question the missional paradigm will likely be less willing to accept James’s findings and suggestions. What he does, he does very well, but it’s important to recognize that adherence to a different sort of ecclesiology might prevent an open reception to this book. That said, James makes very important arguments about the church’s mission and, maybe with personalized modifications, these topics should be useful in a variety of systems.
That flexibility may be the greatest strength of the book. James consistently shows not only answers, but a system for questioning and reconsidering established forms and practices. It allows his work to be applicable in multiple ways, and opens up an ecumenism that should be useful in the church’s more general movement as well as specific locales. Church Planting in Post-Christian Soil requires a patient read, but that approach will reap rewards, especially if both its targeted audience and broader utility are kept in mind.
Justin Cober-Lake holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing has focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music. He’s also the co-founder of OneFocus Press.